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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flagship Cursed By Death

ST. PETERSBURG -- Three more Russian sailors have died of burns suffered in an accident on a new Russian nuclear missile cruiser, bringing the death toll to four and casting a deep pall over the maiden voyage of what was to be the Navy's pride and joy.

The accident on the Peter the Great, or Pyotr Veliky, occurred during sea trials Sunday on the Baltic Sea when a high-pressure steam line ruptured, killing one crew member immediately and severely burning several others, the Baltic Fleet press service said, according to The Associated Press.

Three of the wounded later died, and two others remain hospitalized in grave condition, Interfax reported.

A commission looking into the accident's cause blamed "technological officials said. The Peter the Great is now anchored off the Russian Baltic port of Kaliningrad.

But after a decade under construction at a cost of roughly $1 billion, this has been a sad start to life for one of the world's largest and most heavily armed nuclear cruisers.

The Peter the Great is something of a phenomenon. If not for the needs of the 700-man crew, it could sail the seas for 50 years without ever docking, driven by its two nuclear reactors. The ship also ranks among the largest in the world, stretching more than the length of two American football fields from bow to stern and displacing 28,000 tons of water.

So when the Peter the Great slipped quietly out of the Gulf of Finland for its maiden voyage two weeks ago, it immediately attracted the curiosity of NATO forces. A Swedish fighter jet tried to photograph the Russian Navy's newest addition but crashed into the sea just 200 meters from the ship. The pilot died, bringing the accidental death toll of the ship's first voyage to five.

Military analysts, however, say there was nothing of great interest to photograph and that the Peter the Great, outmoded even before it was launched, has sailed out of the past into a present that has no real use for it.

Russia's naval behemoth, they argue, was designed decades ago for the Cold War, and with the Cold War over it has little function or purpose. Other navies, they say, are now cultivating smaller, more versatile ships.

The original schedule for the Peter the Great was to execute maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and then sail around the world to Vladivostok, home port of the Pacific Fleet. A spokesman for the fleet, Viktor Ryzhkov, said in a telephone interview from Vladivostok that the Peter the Great is expected to arrive in mid-July 1997.

The Peter the Great "is a unique ship with no analogies in the world in regards to offensive and defensive armament," said Vice Admiral Valery Chirkov, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet. "It will significantly raise the authority of the Pacific Fleet."

It could also break the bank.

Keeping such a ship in operation should run anywhere from $50 million to $100 million per year, according to Joris Janssen Lok, naval editor for Jane's Defense Weekly, in a telephone interview from Delft, in Holland.

That is huge money: Russia's 1997 national budget is still being debated in parliament, but would allocate just 100.8 trillion rubles (about $20 billion) to the military next year, up from 80.2 trillion rubles in 1996.

Moreover, according to Vasily Osinin of the State Duma's defense committee, the military has seen little more than half of that money -- only a relatively small portion of which goes to the Navy.

Whether the Russian Navy will be able to afford to operate the Peter the Great for its 30-year life span is unclear.

Earlier this year, the Russian Navy sold off two of the nation's four Kiev-class battleships, the Minsk and the Novorossiisk, to a South Korean scrap-metal company. Neither had served half of their expected life times, and the sale enraged Vladivostok residents.

The Peter the Great is also, paradoxically, something of an old ship. The structure was built to blueprints drawn up in 1973 for the Admiral Nakhimov, which also was constructed at the Baltiisky Shipyards and is now serving in Russia's Murmansk-based Northern Fleet.

"That means that the basic design of these ships is more than 25 years old," said Janssen Lok.

Moreover, during the decade the Peter the Great was under construction at St. Petersburg's Baltiisky Shipyard, it sat and literally rusted for years at a time while workers idled, waiting for funds from Moscow.

Experts said the ship is formidably armed with 20 Granit rocket launchers, whose missiles can be used to devastating effect against shore rockets and other battleships. But they said that in terms of the electronics, navigation and computer equipment on board, the Peter the Great is second rate.

Janssen Lok said most navies are moving toward smaller ships that "do not put so many eggs in one basket," because monster ships like the Peter the Great are designed for a total-war scenario between two superpowers.

"It is a Cold War design, and the Cold War is over," he said.

"The only way you can really use [ships like the Peter the Great] is when there is a major war going on and you have to sink a complete enemy fleet. That is a very unlikely scenario in the present day world," Janssen Lok said.

"If you want to have a ship with enormous fire power, then Peter the Great meets your requirement," Janssen Lok said.