RogerBW's Blog

The Loss of K-219 02 December 2014

The Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-219 suffered an accident in the Atlantic, and later sank, in October 1986.

K-219 was of the class known in the west as Yankee I, to the Soviets as Project 667a Navaga, arguably the first "true" Soviet SSBN (the earlier Hotel/Project 658 class having only had the ability to carry three missiles, something like the American Regulus-carriers). The class was introduced in 1968, and K-219 had been commissioned in 1971.

The principal warload of this class was sixteen R-27 Zyb missiles (SS-N-6 Serb to NATO), each with a range of some 1,300 nautical miles, fuelled by a hypergolic combination of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) with nitrogen tetroxide as oxidiser (some sources claim red fuming nitric acid instead). The alert student will notice that each these chemicals is fairly vicious in isolation, as well as the combination being explosive. Indeed, K-219 had already suffered an explosion in a missile tube on a previous occasion, and the tube had been welded shut given the impossibility of repair.

On 3 October 1986, K-219 was on a routine deterrence patrol in the North Atlantic, some 680 miles north-east of Bermuda. At around 0514 (Moscow time, as kept on board), water was observed to be dripping from under the plug of missile tube number six; this soon turned into a stream. The captain ordered an ascent to safe depth, and a pump was started to try to dry out the tube. At 0532, brown clouds of nitric acid were observed escaping from the tube (likely to have been a result of seawater mixing with nitrogen tetroxide). There may have been an attempt to open the missile hatch and flood the tube; in any case, by 0538, an explosion had occurred.

Two sailors were killed at once, and a third died from nitric acid poisoning soon thereafter. The submarine took on water and sank rapidly, though with all compartments sealed and sea-water pumps going at full speed he stabilised at 300 metres. The reactor had not automatically shut down, and enlisted seaman Sergei Preminin volunteered to do it manually, under instruction from the chief engineer, while wearing a full-face gas mask. He did so, but a fire in the reactor compartment had raised the pressure there, and he was unable to open the hatch to get back out before his air supply was exhausted.

Captain Second Rank Igor Britanov was able to surface the submarine on battery power, and call for help. A Soviet freighter lent assistance, and a tow-line was attached, with the aim of bringing K-219 back to his home port of Gadzhiyevo/Skalistiy/Murmansk-130. However, towing attempts were unsuccessful, and vaporised nitric acid (much of it also radioactive) continued to spread through the boat; Britanov ordered his crew to evacuate onto the towing ship, but remained aboard himself.

Military command in Moscow ordered the political officer, Valery Pshenichny, to assume command, take the crew back aboard, make repairs, and continue the patrol. Before this could be done, K-219 took on water and sank, Britanov only just escaping. There is apparently some evidence that Britanov may have deliberately scuttled the boat, rather than allow his crew back into a situation certain to be deadly.

On return to the USSR, Britanov was charged with negligence, sabotage and treason; however, after the Defence Minister Sergei Sokolov was dismissed the next year because of the Mathias Rust incident, his replacement Dmitriy Yazov dropped the charges.

The Soviets claimed that the damage had not been an explosion, but the result of a collision with the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Augusta, which was in the area; both the US Navy and Britanov denied that a collision had taken place.

It is asserted that when the Soviets sent a hydrographic survey vessel to examine the wreck two years later (some 18,000 feet down on the Hatteras Abyssal Plain), several missile silo hatches had been forced open and the missiles removed. (Glomar Explorer was built to recover the earlier lost submarine K-129, at some 16,000 feet below the surface. Maximum depth figures are, unsurprisingly, not available.)

Igor Kurdin, the executive officer at the time of the incident, contributed to Hostile Waters with Peter Huchthausen and Alan White, a narrative-style account of the incident published in 1997; the same year, it was made into a film of the same name, with Rutger Hauer playing the part of Britanov, though the film changed the story to include a collision with a fictionalised version of Augusta. Britanov felt that the film was inaccurate and made him look incompetent, and won the eventual lawsuit.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:26pm on 02 December 2014

    This is almost a case study in everything that was wrong with the Soviet military in the 1980s. Political Officers being told to take charge and continue the mission under insane conditions, sensible Captain possibly deliberately scuttling the boat to prevent this etc.

    Not to mention the insanity of having liquid fuelled missiles on a submarine in the first place. Did the Soviets never develop solid rockets or could they just not afford to re-equip with them?

    The radioactive gaseous nitric acid in the air is just the icing on the cake.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:15am on 03 December 2014

    The R-27 was a relatively early SLBM, entering service in 1968. The Delta boats (from 1973) used the R-29 family, also UDMH/N2O4 but rather better designed (no accidents that I'm aware of, certainly no hull losses); the Typhoon boats (from 1981) used the R-39, which was solid-fuelled (mostly). I think that storability was the problem with early solid-fuelled designs.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 02:32pm on 03 December 2014

    The latest R-29 derivative entered service in 2008 and will serve on the Delta boats until about 2030. They're still having trouble with their solid-propellant SLBMs.

    The liquid-fuelled missiles have higher specific impulse and are easier to control in flight, making them simpler and cheaper. "Clearly the safety problem has been overcome."

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