TWO civilian experts from a Russian military plant were conducting secret munitions tests aboard the Kursk submarine that sank after the hull was ripped apart in an accident, it emerged at the weekend.
The final moments of the doomed craft have been pieced together by Western military experts, who believe a test firing went horribly wrong, igniting highly inflammable propellant and detonating missile and torpedo warheads. The resulting explosions blew a huge hole in the right-hand side of the Kursk's nose, where the torpedo room is located. Water flooded in, causing the pride of the Russian submarine fleet to sink in seconds.
US military experts said they believed the crew of the Kursk were testing one of two weapons systems: an anti-submarine missile or an upgraded version of a fast and silent torpedo called the Squall. Accidental ignition of the propulsion system of either weapon before launch would have had devastating consequences.
Rustam Usmanov, the chief of the Dagdizel military plant on the Caspian Sea, told Britain's Sunday Times his chief engineer had been on the Kursk to monitor weapons tests. Mamed Gadzhiyev, a veteran weapons designer with Dagdizel, and Arnold Borisov, another employee of the plant, were among the 118 men who died. But Mr Usmanov denied the two men were working on a secret weapon for the Russian navy.
Western experts say they believe the Russian navy was upgrading the Squall, a torpedo that can reach speeds of 200 knots.
Further support for the secret weapon theory came last week from Alexander Rutskoi, the governor of the region where many of the Kursk's crew were recruited. Mr Rutskoi said he had been told by two high-ranking officers that civilian experts were aboard the Kursk to test new torpedoes, but declined to give details.
Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev still insists the most likely cause was a collision with a foreign submarine. But the Russians have produced no evidence to back the claim.
Further evidence of exploding munitions was the fact the Kursk's periscope was extended, indicating it was at periscope depth when the accident happened - the correct depth for launching a torpedo.
Without doubt, the Russians are hiding a terrible secret. Norwegian officials said last week their divers had been refused permission to go anywhere near the front of the vessel.