May 11, 2020
In early July 2000, President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s naval brass paced nervously in front of ocean maps and war plans. An armada of unprecedented size had left port and was now headed toward the Barents Sea in preparation for the largest naval exercise since the end of the Cold War. Putin had been in office only a few months, and these war games represented more than just random tests of the latest technology and platforms. With the nation still suffering from a severe economic decline, success was paramount. Failure could tarnish Putin’s reputation and his ability to push agendas forward.
Thousands of miles away, the nuclear fast-attack submarines USS Memphis and USS Toledo sped toward the Russian armada amassing in the Barents. As America’s premier espionage platforms, the commanding officers on both subs had orders to inch in close to the Russian submarine Kursk and collect sonar acoustic and periscope photographic intelligence. The National Security Agency had determined that the Kursk was planning to test fire a new rocket torpedo called the Shkval. This new underwater weapon was reportedly four times faster than a U.S. MK 48 torpedo, and previous efforts to gain intel on its capabilities had failed.
On Aug. 12, 2000, the Kursk received orders from its command ship, the Peter the Great, to test fire the Shkval torpedo. Several thousand yards away, aboard the Toledo, Cmdr. James Nault studied the naval chart atop the quartermaster’s table in the control room. Nault knew the USS Memphis and HMS Splendid were also on station nearby, but the Toledo had been given the most important assignment: to capture critical intel on the Kursk’s firing of the new Shkval.