Soviet submarine K-278 Komsomolets

Mike class SSN.svg
K-278 Komsomolets profile
K-278 underway in 1986
K-278 upon deployment on 1 January in 1986.
Soviet naval pennantSoviet Union
  • K-278 (1983–1988)
  • K-278 Komsomolets (1988–1989)
Builder: Sevmash
Yard number: 510
Laid down: 22 April 1978
Launched: 9 May 1983 (3 June 1983)
Commissioned: 28 December 1983
Decommissioned: 6 June 1990
Homeport: Bolshaya Lopatka at Zapadnaya Litsa
Fate: Sank due to fire on 7 April 1989, killing 42
Status: Located in the Barents Sea in 1,700 m (5,600 ft) of water
General characteristics
Class and type: NATO reporting name "Mike"-class submarine
Displacement: 4,400–5,750 tons surfaced, 6,400–8,000 tons submerged
Length: 117.5 m (385 ft)
Beam: 10.7 m (35 ft)
Draft: 8 to 9 m (26 to 30 ft)
Propulsion: One 190 MW OK-650 b-3 pressurised water reactor, two 45000 shp steam turbines, one shaft
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) surfaced, 26 to 30 knots (48 to 56 km/h; 30 to 35 mph) submerged
Test depth: 1,000 m safe, 1,250 m design, 1,500 m crush
Complement: 30 officers, 22 warrant officers, 12 petty officers and enlisted

The K-278 Komsomolets was the Project-685 Plavnik (Russian: проект-685 плавник, meaning "fin", also known by its NATO reporting name of "Mike"-class), nuclear-powered attack submarine of the Soviet Navy— the only submarine of her design class.

In the inventory of the Soviet military, K-278 was unique for her design and the technological feat, having reached a record depth of 1,020 metres (3,350 feet) in the Norwegian Sea on 4 August 1984.[1] Although K-278 was commissioned in the Soviet Navy to evaluate the technology for the fourth-generation of the Russian nuclear submarines, she was fully capable of combat maneuvering and deployment. During her third operational patrol in Arctic ocean in 1989, a serious fire accident in aft compartments led her to sinking in the sea off the coast of Norway.[2]

Despite the fire in the engineering compartment, K-278 was able to surface and remained afloat for approximately five hours before sinking.[3] However many of the crew perished before rescue, leading to 42 total dead.

The wrecked submarine is on the floor of the Barents Sea, about 1.7 km (1 mile) deep, with its nuclear reactor and two nuclear warhead-armed torpedoes still on board.


The Project 685 was designed by the Rubin Design Bureau in response to a challenge to develop an advanced submarine that could carry a mix of torpedoes and cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The order to design the submarine was issued in 1966 and design was completed in 1974. The keel was laid down on 22 April 1978 at Severodvinsk. K-278 was launched on 3 June 1983 and commissioned on 28 December 1983.

K-278 had a double hull, the inner one being composed of titanium, which gave her an operating depth far greater than that of the best American submarines.[4] The pressure hull was composed of seven compartments with the second and third protected by stronger forward and aft bulkheads creating a "safety zone" in case of an emergency. An escape capsule was fitted in the sail above these compartments to enable the crew to abandon ship in the event of an underwater emergency. Initial Western intelligence estimates of K-278's speed were based on the assumption that it was powered by a pair of liquid-metal lead-bismuth reactors. When the Soviet Union revealed that the submarine used a single OK-650b-3 conventional pressurized-water reactor, these speed estimates were lowered.[Note 1]


According to Norman Polmar and Kenneth J. Moore, two Western experts on Soviet submarine design and operations, the Project 685's advanced design included many automated systems which, in turn, allowed for fewer crew members than would be expected for a submarine of its size. The manning table approved by the Soviet Ministry of Defense in 1982 called for a crew of just 57 men. This was later increased to 64: 30 officers, 22 warrant officers, and 12 petty officers and seamen.[5] At the time of its sinking 69 were aboard.


In October 1988, K-278 was honored by becoming one of the few Soviet submarines to be given an actual name: Komsomolets (Комсомолец, meaning "a member of the Komsomol"), and her commanding officer, Captain 1st rank Yuriy Zelenskiy was honored for diving to a depth of 1,020 meters (3,350 feet).


On 7 April 1989, while under the command of Captain 1st Rank Evgeny Vanin and running submerged at a depth of 335 metres (1,099 ft) about 180 kilometres (100 nmi) southwest of Bear Island (Norway),[6] fire broke out in an engineering compartment[2] due to a short circuit,[7] and even though watertight doors were shut, the resulting fire spread through bulkhead cable penetrations. The reactor scrammed and propulsion was lost. Electrical problems spread as cables burned through, and control of the boat was threatened. An emergency ballast tank blow was performed and the submarine surfaced eleven minutes after the fire began. Distress calls were made, and most of the crew abandoned ship.

The fire continued to burn, fed by the compressed air system. At 15:15,[8] several hours after the boat surfaced, it sank in 1,680 metres (5,510 ft) of water, about 250 kilometres (135 nmi) SSW off Bear Island.[8] The commanding officer and four others who were still on board entered the escape capsule and ejected it. Only one of the five to reach the surface was able to leave the capsule and survive before it sank again in the rough seas. Captain Vanin was among the dead.

Rescue aircraft arrived quickly and dropped small rafts, but winds and sea conditions precluded their use. Many men had already died from hypothermia in the 2 °C (36 °F) water of the Barents Sea. The floating fish factory B-64/10 Aleksey Khlobystov (Алексей Хлобыстов)[9] arrived 81 minutes after K-278 sank, and took aboard survivors.[10]

Of the 69 crewmen, 27 survived the incident while the remaining 42 died: 9 during the accident and the subsequent sinking itself, 30 in the water of hypothermia or injuries, and three aboard the rescue boat. The crew were awarded the Order of the Red Banner after the incident.[11]


In addition to her eight standard torpedoes K-278 was carrying two torpedoes armed with nuclear warheads. Under pressure from Norway, the Soviet Union used deep sea submersibles operated from the oceanographic research ship Keldysh to search for K-278. In June 1989, two months after the sinking, the wreck was located. Soviet officials stated that any possible leaks were insignificant and posed no threat to the environment.

In 1993, Vice Admiral Chernov, commander of the submarine group of which the Komsomolets was part, founded the Komsomolets Nuclear Submarine Memorial Society, a charity to support the widows and orphans of his former command. Since then, the Society's charter has expanded to provide assistance to the families of all Soviet and Russian submariners lost at sea and 7 April has become a day of commemoration for all submariners lost at sea.

An expedition in mid-1994 revealed some plutonium leakage from one of the two nuclear-armed torpedoes. On 24 June 1995, Keldysh set out again from Saint Petersburg to the Komsomolets to seal the hull fractures in Compartment 1 and cover the nuclear warheads, and declared success at the end of a subsequent expedition in July 1996. Furfurol, the jelly-like sealant, was projected to make the wreck radiation safe for 20 to 30 years, that is, until 2015 or 2025.[12]

Norwegian authorities from the Marine Environmental Agency and Radiation Agency are taking water and ground samples from the vicinity of the wreck on a yearly basis.[13]

In July 2019, a joint Norwegian-Russian expedition found "clouds" emitted from a ventilation pipe and a nearby grille. They took water samples from the pipe and from several meters above, and analyzed them for caesium-137. That pipe had been identified as a leak in several Mir missions up to 1998 and 2007. The activity levels in the six samples out of the pipe were up to 800 Bq/l (9 July). No activity could be detected in the free-water samples. Due to dilution, there is no threat to the environment. The Norwegian limit on caesium-137 in food products is 600 Bq/kg. The background activity of caesium-137 in the water body is as low as 0.001 Bq/l. More sensitive measurements of the samples are underway.[14]

See also