Archive for February, 2011

Soviet Submarine K-19

February 19, 2011



 Tales from the Nuclear Age
Copyright 2011 by Charles Glassmire

Feb. 19, 2011


Soviet Submarine K-19


          On 17 January 1955, the United States launched a revolution in the history of nuclear sea warfare. It was called the Nautilus, SSN-571. Until this point, submarines were constrained to limited times underwater, having to surface often to recharge their electric batteries. Thanks to a tough minded revolutionary Admiral, by the name of Rickover (“father of the nuclear navy”), SSN-571 was powered instead by nuclear reactors built under deep secrecy at Westinghouse’s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory near Pittsburgh. These power units did not need air and could run underwater on a load of nuclear fuel for months at a time. A new generation of nuclear missiles, named Regulus, was emerging small enough to be launched from shipboard. This meant a sub could tiptoe up close to an enemy coastline before launch; shortening the warning time from 30 minutes to under 10 minutes. When Nautilus put to sea on this date, her captain sent the historic message “under way on nuclear power”.

           The Soviets were terrified. Once again the American Devils had come up with a frightening new weapon to act against them. So the keel for a Soviet nuclear powered sub was laid on October 17, 1958. Work began at a feverish pace but it was to become a two year long effort. Soviet leaders, determined to catch up, applied heavy pressure to complete the work. Soon things began to go wrong.

          In early 1959, a fire breaks out while one of the ballast tanks is being assembled. Three workers are killed. Later that year, six women workers are applying insulation to the insides of a closed tank. Undetected fumes are generated during the work, and all six women are asphyxiated. The sub is to carry three ballistic missiles with nuclear 1.4 megaton warheads. These are to be fired after the boat surfaces and the missile-hatches are opened. While an electrician is installing a cover on one of the missile-tubes, it accidentally closes and crushes him to death. An engineer slips while inspecting the compartment divisions and falls to his death between two  compartments.

          In the fall of 1959 the hull is completed and ready for christening. Instead of the traditional woman, a man is chosen to smash the champagne bottle against the hull in an age old ceremony during launching. The bottle does not break. It bounces off the hull intact. The men of the sea are a superstitious lot, and this is taken as a very bad omen. The boat acquires the unofficial nickname of “Hiroshima”.

          In July of 1960 K-19 is ordered to sea to begin shakedown trials. One of the most critical tests is a dive to maximum design depth (about 1000 feet). This dive will place all submarine systems under maximum water pressure due to the extreme depth. This will be a crucial stress of the design seals.  The submarine commander is Captain Nikolai Zateyev. As the sub approaches maximum depth he receives a frenzied call from the reactor crew. There is rapid flooding in the reactor compartment.  He blows emergency ballast to surface the sub immediately. On the ascent, the boat loses stability and broaches the surface lying on its port side, and barely misses colliding with one of the surface support vessels. Later the cause of the flooding was determined to be a poorly manufactured gasket which should have been replaced during earlier trials.

           During the fall of 1960 the boat continues sea trials, and covers some 10,700 miles. On one full power submerged run the rubber coating on the exterior of the submarine is observed to peel off in large chunks. She returns to port for a complete repainting.

          In Winter 1960, during a change of the watch, the incoming crew causes an unstable reactor condition which results in actual bending of a reactor control rod. Return to port for partial disassembly of the reactor.

          Next, the crew disposes of wooden planks through the galley waste disposal system. The system clogs and causes the galley to be 1/3rd flooded.

          In November of 1960 K-19 is officially commissioned into the Soviet navy, and Captain, 2nd Rank  Zateyev assumes formal command of the vessel.

          One of its first operational orders is to participate in a war game exercise. K-19 is to enter the Atlantic without detection by NATO forces and proceed northward to await a signal from navel command. Upon order, she is to proceed under the Polar ice cap to the Berents Sea, and wage a mock clandestine missile attack against the Soviet forces there.

          Successfully proceeding on the mission, she loiters south of Greenland awaiting orders. The captains’ birthday has been celebrated with a double ration of home made ice cream and wine and the crew is in high spirits. Word arrives from Naval Command to proceed with the attack.

          Underway on July 4, 1961 the crew is jolted alert by a screaming alarm. On the bridge Captain Zateyev receives a terrified report that cooling water pressure in the starboard reactor had dropped to zero! Every nuclear core is designed to flow coolant continuously over the Uranium fuel rods which removes the heat generated by fission. This heat is then transferred to a turbine which turns the screws which give the ship propulsion. There are two reactors on K-19, one for each of the two ships screws. If coolant does not circulate through the core, it will quickly overheat from fissioning Uranium, and if allowed to continue, the reactor core will either accumulate enough heat to melt, releasing large amounts of radiation, or else explode, scattering highly radioactive materials throughout the crew quarters and into the surrounding waters. Either event could sink the K-19.…

(to be continued …)

Russian Football (Part 3)

February 3, 2011

Tales from the Nuclear Age

Copyright © 2011 by Charles Glassmire


 Feb. 2, 2011

Russian  Football (part 3)

          Russia plays the game with three footballs, not just one. They are suitcases, code named Cheget. The ball carrier accompanies the President, Dimitri Medvedev twenty-four hours of every day. The other two are assigned to the Minister of Defense and the military Chief of the General Staff. The briefcases seem to not contain the nuclear war button, but rather to house an emergency communications link to keep the three officials in contact during an imminent attack. Any of these three may deem to issue the launch codes to start a nuclear onslaught against the United States without permission from anyone. So it has been from the days of the Soviet Union, when the military ruled all decisions about nuclear warfare.

          A prominent Russian intellectual and scholar, Alexei Arbatov, has recently raised serious questions about the launch protocols and command and control issues in the Russian government*. Arbatov points out that, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the new Russia chose to adopt a democratic form of government. The new Russian Constitution, adopted in 1993, appointed the President (now Medvedev) as the Commander in Chief of the military. It also states that should the President be disabled or incapable of command, all duties shall fall to the Russian Prime Minister (currently V. Putin). This would presumably include the duties in command of the military, and all military responsibilities and decisions to be made in the event of nuclear war. However, Arbatov points out, should the President be unavailable the Prime Minister does not have a Cheget suitcase to allow participation in nuclear war decisions. This, he observes, is a major flaw in the new system, and in addition, is a violation of the responsibilities outlined in the Russian Constitution.

          The American Missile Force can be mobilized into a launch condition within a time frame of four minutes. The Russian policy for a response to nuclear attack specifies a counter-launch on warning, within ten minutes, presumably before an enemy incoming missile can detonate.  In this incredibly short time frame, while the world hangs in the balance, it seems there could be a tug-of-war between high level officials over who has the authority to launch a nuclear war!  Need it be pointed out this is not the time for large egos to be engaged in a contest of wills.

          Our system was not without similar problems. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets were determined to install intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba (actually had already done so.) Eventually the situation deteriorated into a confrontation at sea, where a Soviet transport force, carrying nuclear warheads bound for Cuba was interdicted by United States warships which were enforcing a blockade of the island.

          The prestigious civilian aviation journal Aviation Week later described what happened next. President Kennedy had raised the United States Military to the highest state of DEFCON alert as the two lead ships approached each other. Witnesses described how the U.S. ICBM force had actually opened the silos, and the missiles were elevated above ground, fueled and ready to launch. At the Pentagon war room, Robert MacNamara was standing with the naval Admiral in command of all US naval forces in theater. 

          The Admiral was in direct radio communication with the Captain of the U.S. ship heading towards the Russian transports, and was speaking to him via a microphone in real time. At the final moments when the two ships closed, MacNamara and the Admiral disagreed on the orders to be issued to the ship captain. The two men then actually engaged in a pushing and shoving match for control of the microphone, in order to issue commands and gain control of the American fleet actions! (Aviation Week  reported that the Admiral won the battle!)

Russian Topol on Carrier


          To make the situation even a little more complex, unknown to United States commanders, a Soviet submarine was lurking in the area below the surface, with the mission of supporting the naval transport fleet as the fleet approached Cuba. Unknown to all at that moment, was the fact that the Boat was armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes. When it became obvious the two ships were nearing collision, the Soviet Submarine Captain issued orders to load nuclear torpedoes into the tubes and make ready to shoot. Luckily, there was a high level Naval Commander also present on the submarine bridge, and he immediately countermanded the Captains order. The sub did not then participate further in the battle. As we all know, Premiere Kruschev, within the next few minutes, ordered the transport fleet forces to disengage from the action, come about, and set sail for home. The missiles already in place were later removed back to the Soviet Union.

          Arbatov points out the three officials with briefcases are not all equal. While the President is the commander in chief, the Minister of Defense reports to him, and the Chief of the General Staff reports to the Minister of Defense. Arbatov argues that in a democracy, the civilian authority should have final command over the military, and should control the decision to go to nuclear war (as is clearly done in the United States order of secession.) While a member of the Duma, Arbatov proposed legislation to remedy this problem, and give one of the briefcases to the Prime Minister. His proposal was ignored. He says, if the President of Russia were destroyed by a nuclear attack, there is no Russian law on the books to define a line of responsibility and secession, except for the Constitutional provision stating that the Prime Minister shall assume all duties of the incapacitated President …

 (to be continued …)


*His new book, published (in Russian) and released in Moscow in 2010, is entitled”The Security Equation”. Arbatov heads the Center for International Security of the Russian Academy of Sciences of (IMEMO) in Moscow, and served in the State Duma of the Russian Parliament as chairman of its Committee on Defense. His list of publications is long in the areas of security issues, international relations and nuclear terrorism.