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K-219: Russia Lost a Submarine Armed with 16 Nuclear Missiles

K-219. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia has had its share of submarine accidents over the years. The K-219 might just be the worst ever for many reasons: When it comes to figuring out what is the worst submarine of all time, it is difficult to blame the sub itself or the bad actions of the crew. Such is the case with the sinking of the Soviet submarine K-219. K-219 was a Yankee-class boomer, or ballistic missile submarine, that carried nuclear weapons. On October 3, 1986, the K-219, with 16 R-27 nuclear missiles, sunk within 700 miles off the coast of Bermuda.

One of the missile tubes sprung a leak and seawater rushed in and blended with the missile fuel. This volatile combination made for a deadly mix that created dangerous levels of heat and gas. This is where the crew reacted slowly without the sailors exhibiting teamwork and conducting damage control. Only one crew member moved to do something by venting the tube. A short circuit cropped up in the main power line that created a spark. Then a blast in the silo occurred that sent the missile and the warheads into the water. That’s when the sailors finally sprang into action. They battled the fire on board, eventually putting it out. They had to shut down the nuclear reactors by hand because the control mechanisms were damaged. Three sailors died.

K-219: Then the Tragedy Got Worse

The K-219 started to sink. A Soviet ship tried to rescue the sub by pulling it to safety. But that did not work because the tow cord broke. The captain of the sub, Igor Britanov, decided to abandon ship. The sub sunk to the bottom of the ocean and the missiles were lost. The whole encounter lasted three days.

The Reagan administration even offered to help the Soviets and American officials appreciated that the Soviets informed them of the tragedy the day it happened. Fortunately, no radioactivity or nuclear explosion happened. The surviving sailors made it out and Captain Britanov was the last to leave the sub alive, in accordance with naval customs.

Could the United States Have Stolen Secrets from the K-219 Wreckage?

The Soviets were worried that the Americans would somehow salvage the wreckage and obtain secrets about the submarine’s design. But this didn’t happen. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was anxious. He was still stung over the Chernobyl incident that happened six months earlier and he did not want to be accused of a cover-up for the sinking of the nuclear-powered sub. Gorbachev and Reagan had an upcoming summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Gorbachev did not want to endanger relations with the United States before the negotiations over arms control commenced.

Gorbachev Is Livid and Blames the K-219 Crew

Gorbachev was skeptical that the sinking of K-219 was an avoidable accident. He blamed the captain and the crew for their incompetence and even wondered if they exhibited cowardice and panicked. He mused that the Americans may have conducted sabotage in some way.

Chief of the Navy Does Damage Control

Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, commander-in-chief of the USSR Navy, had to face the music and answer directly to Gorbachev about what happened to K-219. Chernavin said in a lengthy de-brief to the Politburo that some parts of the submarine were in acceptable shape aside from the damaged tube that was belching reddish-brown smoke. But the hull was not showing heat build-up. So, a recon team was sent to inspect the submarine as it was slowly sinking, which was a dangerous ploy, but the Soviets had to find out the problems before it was too late. This was, after all, a boat that carried nuclear missiles.

The recon team found out that three of the compartments were dry and not taking on water. One of the compartments had gas contamination and another had a gas leak from the ventilation system.

Could the Fire Have Been Avoided?

It appeared to Chernavin that the crew made a mistake by not checking the power of the sub before there was a short circuit that caused the fire. They should not have turned on the water pump in the leaking tube before knowing the status of the electrical system, the admiral concluded.

Gorbachev was still furious and peppered Chernavin with questions about the tow cable that broke. The Soviet leader was also concerned that the Americans could gain secrets from the sub. Chernavin replied that the sub was a second-generation boat that went into service in 1971, not one of the Soviet’s advanced subs.

The K-219 was clearly faulty and the crew did not react well to the emergency. It should be considered one of the worst submarines of all time because it carried nuclear missiles and there was a fire on board. This made it one of the most dangerous submarines to ever float. Gorbachev feared the worst and he was correct to blame the crew. They reacted slowly to the original leak and did not check the power system before engaging the water pump. They should have known that gas was present and that employing electrical power would be dangerous. This was one of the most hazardous maritime situations in the Cold War. The Soviets and the Americans were lucky it was not worse.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.