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U.S. Analysts Suspect That Submarine Sank as the Result of an Explosion

By Roberto Suro
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

An analysis of intelligence information gathered by U.S. Navy ships indicates that the Russian submarine Kursk was sunk by a single catastrophic event that probably involved the accidental explosion of a torpedo warhead, senior Pentagon officials said Tuesday.

While no final conclusions have been drawn about the cause of the explosion, analysts have largely discounted the possibility that the Kursk went to the bottom of the Barents Sea because of maintenance problems or sloppy seamanship, the officials said.

“More and more evidence is piling up that a torpedo or an anti-submarine rocket malfunctioned, but there is no evidence that the crew performed badly,” said a senior U.S. naval official.

The Kursk, with 118 men aboard, sank Aug. 12 during a major exercise by Russia’s Northern Fleet. Nine days later, Norwegian rescue divers found that the entire submarine was flooded and that there was massive damage to the forward area of the vessel, where the torpedo room is located.

Some Russian officials claim that a collision, possibly with an American submarine, sank the 500-foot-long Kursk. The Pentagon insists that no U.S. ships were involved in the catastrophe.

Analysts at the National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Md., are now examining a variety of data gathered by two U.S. submarines and a surface vessel that monitored the Russian exercises, U.S. officials said. In addition, there is information from a Norwegian surveillance ship and seismic sensors that recorded the Kursk’s sinking.

The sonar recordings and seismic data indicate that there were two explosions aboard the Kursk, one of moderate size followed some two minutes later by a much larger one that could have involved as much as two tons of high explosives. Detailed analysis of the data eventually could provide information on the precise chain of events that led to the sinking, but for the moment Pentagon officials insist that they can only hypothesize.

“I could suppose 100 different ways it happened, and all of them could be wrong,” said a senior Navy officer. “We absolutely do not know how this happened.”

The most commonly cited scenario among U.S. analysts is that the first blast involved fuel from a torpedo and that the second involved one or more warheads. Russian torpedoes used against surface ships are fueled by hydrogen peroxide, which can be highly volatile if it leaks, especially when it is in a torpedo tube being pressurized prior to firing, said A.D. Baker III.

“The Russians have been trying to sell hydrogen peroxide torpedos on the world market recently, and maybe they were testing a new model,” Baker said.