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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lessons of the Kursk

Russian political and military authorities continue to speculate that the Kursk nuclear submarine was sunk by a collision with a foreign counterpart sent to observe Russian naval exercises in the Barents Sea, despite the fact that no concrete evidence of this has yet emerged and over the strenuous denials of American and NATO officials. Just last week, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov stated, "I am 80 percent sure that the Kursk collided with another submarine."

Regardless of how the Kursk investigation ends, however, the tragedy once again demonstrates the need for immediate international action designed to reduce the likelihood of submarine collisions at sea. Moreover, measures need to be adopted that would facilitate international cooperation in searching for and rescuing missing submarines and their crews. Measures of this type have long been in effect with regard to surface vessels and aircraft operating from them, and it is inexcusable that the much more dangerous sphere of submarine operations remains virtually entirely unregulated.

According to the Defense Ministry, Soviet and Russian submarines have been involved in 11 documented collisions with foreign submarines since 1967. Two of the most recent documented cases occurred in the Barents Sea not far from where the Kursk now lies. In February 1992, the U.S. Los Angeles-class submarine Baton Rouge collided with a Russian counterpart. Likewise, in March 1993, there was a similar incident involving the American submarine Sturgeon and a Russian Delta-3 class strategic submarine. Fortunately, neither of these incidents resulted in loss of life or in any significant release of radiation into the environment, although either of them easily could have.

Submarine collisions occur for the simple reason that their movement is completely unregulated, and as a result they fairly frequently find themselves operating in extremely close quarters. In such instances, they enter one another’s "blind spots," meaning that they are so close together that their normal ranging and detection equipment is unable to function properly. At such ranges, submarines are simply unable to "hear" or "see" one another.

Despite the fact that no substantial agreements regulating submarine maneuvers exist, there have been significant efforts to begin a dialogue on these matters and, to its credit, Russia has played a leading role. In 1993, Moscow initiated talks with Washington concerning measures to ensure the safety of submarines operating under the sea. The Russian delegation developed and presented a draft agreement that would have forbidden submarines of either country to approach vessels of the other, based on existing agreements concerning surface ships and aircraft that have been in force since 1972.

Unfortunately, this Russian initiative was not supported by the U.S. Navy, which felt that it would result in the division of the world’s oceans into "open" and "closed" zones.

It would seem high time that the world’s naval powers — especially those that possess nuclear submarines — returned to this crucial question. They should set themselves the goal of reaching an agreement that would regulate the ranges patrolled by each nation’s submarines. In addition, such an agreement should also include mutual obligations not to send submarines into areas where other fleets are conducting training exercises.

In the interests of maritime safety, the Russian-American talks on these questions should be immediately resumed, and delegations from Britain, France, Japan and other nations should be invited to participate as well. Existing agreements designed to prevent incidents at sea that Russia has already signed with 12 leading naval powers (mostly NATO members) but which are presently limited to regulating surface ships should serve as the basis for these talks.

Moreover, the tragedy of the Kursk has once again focused global attention on the numerous problems associated with the location of missing submarines and with providing assistance to their crews.

For Russia, this means that efforts must be made immediately to negotiate agreements with all neighboring countries with access to the sea. The goal of such agreements should be the establishment of direct lines of communication between all the naval authorities that might become involved. Further, formal bilateral and multilateral agreements regarding mutual assistance in search and rescue efforts should be concluded as soon as possible. Ideally, these agreements would also include provisions for joint exercises and maneuvers involving a range of search and rescue scenarios.

Most people do not realize that international cooperation in this area remains on the most primitive level. It remains for future agreements even to establish an agreed-upon international system of emergency signals for the use of submarines in distress and of ships trying to assist them. Russia and NATO have yet to even begin the work of standardizing rescue equipment, especially the equipment necessary for deep-sea operations. Anyone following the Kursk incident will vividly recall how Norwegian divers had to construct a special tool on site in order to turn the handle on the Kursk’s hatch.

In order to overcome the language barriers that will be encountered during international rescue operations, it will be necessary to develop and publish specialized Russian-English/English-Russian dictionaries of technical terms relating to submarines and marine-rescue procedures.

Such practical measures as these, and many more that no doubt will arise during the negotiating process, can do much to significantly reduce the chances of collisions between submarines during routine patrols and training exercises. Moreover, they can also dramatically increase the effectiveness of international rescue efforts if, God forbid, another submarine disaster occurs.

Vladimir Kozin is a senior counselor for the Russian Foreign Ministry. He contributed this comment, which reflects his personal views, to The Moscow Times.