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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sunk Sub Raises Questions

The sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2001 was a serious blow to the morale of the Russian navy. The Kursk was one of the newest and most powerful nuclear attack subs, officially listed as "unsinkable" and designed to withstand a direct hit by a U.S. conventional torpedo. Its sinking, as a result of the crew being unable to deal effectively with a faulty unarmed training torpedo during a firing drill, was not taken lightly by the military or the nation.

The K-159 nuclear attack sub that went down last week (also in the Barents Sea, as with the Kursk) was a rusty old shell of a submarine built in the early 1960s and decommissioned in the 1980s. During its years of service, the K-159 had a reputation as a poorly built "experimental" boat that was not fully seaworthy. Since the 1980s the K-159 had been moored at a Soviet submarine base, Gremikha, on the Kola Peninsula. Throughout those years, compressed air was constantly pumped into the sub's hull to keep it from sinking inside port.

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The fact that the K-159 went down as it was towed from Gremikha to the Murmansk area to be finally scrapped is not as embarrassing an event for the navy as the loss of the Kursk. It was also clear from the start that no U.S. or British subs could possibly have been involved in the K-159 accident. Maybe this explains why this time the disaster was reported the day it happened.

But the Russian tradition of misreporting unpleasant facts has not been fully abandoned, and what exactly happened with the K-159 is still not clear.

At first, the supreme naval command in Moscow told journalists that the K-159 went down at 4 a.m. on Aug. 30 and was lying at a depth of 170 meters. A day later, the Northern Fleet command reported that at 2:20 a.m. the crew of 10 on board was ordered to abandon ship and that it went down at 3 a.m.

There were further reports that the K-159 may have sunk at 2 a.m. or even earlier. The wreck was actually found on the seabed at a depth of 238 meters.

Chief of the naval press service Igor Dygalo told reporters that the K-159 went down in a storm that severed the cables of the four large pontoons that helped keep the sub buoyant. But weather records show that there was no "storm" in the area that night.

Another old sub was reportedly towed from Gremikha at the same time as the K-159 and made the journey without mishaps. The crew of the ship that was towing the K-159 and the one that was towing the other sub apparently did nothing to save the men from the K-159. Or at least the authorities do not report that they did anything.

Sources in the navy told reporters that rescue helicopters were immediately sent to save the seamen, but did not find them. This story sounds unlikely, since Russian naval helicopters do not fly or perform rescue operations during nighttime.

The crew of the K-159 included four captains and other officers. It's a mystery why a rusty hulk of a ship that had no power or working mechanisms needed such a high-ranking crew.

The men on the K-159 worked at the Gremikha nuclear sub graveyard. They were skilled at keeping old subs afloat inside port. Their open sea experience, however, may have been inadequate.

Only three men apparently managed to go overboard before the K-159 went under. Two of them died of exposure because help came late. (The men seem to have spent several hours at sea, but the navy does not say precisely how long.)

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has blamed the disaster on "lightheartedness" and the national bravado of naval officers.

Bad discipline, low morale and the increasingly inadequate professional training of military personnel are indeed a grave problem that has led to a number of accidents with heavy loss of life in recent years.

Ivanov's favored method of dealing with this kind of trouble is -- in line with Russian tradition -- to pile public insults on his subordinates and to arbitrarily dismiss low and middle-ranking officials. This in turn makes morale drop even further without addressing the root cause -- low pay and the low prestige of service.

Tens of thousands of officers resign from military service each year. Those that stay in the ranks are totally disgruntled due to insufficient pay and miserable service conditions. Most officers do not give a damn whether they are dismissed from service with honor or not at the end of the day: It does not affect one's employment prospects or social status.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.