Learning from the Kursk Submarine Rescue Failure: The Case for Pluralistic Risk Management

by Anette Mikes & Amram Migdal

Overview — During a military exercise in August 2000, a state-of-the-art Russian nuclear submarine, the Kursk, sank in the Barents Sea, triggering global media attention and an international rescue effort. In addition to Russia's Northern Fleet, two other organizations got involved in the rescue operation: the UK Submarine Rescue Service and a Norwegian offshore-diving company. Between them, these three parties seemingly had all that was needed to rescue the trapped sailors, yet the entire crew was lost. How did this happen? In this paper, focusing on the multiparty "virtual organization" formed by Russian, British, and Norwegian forces during the Kursk rescue mission, the authors explore the organizational, cultural, and structural origins of coordination failure. Then, reflecting on the limited ability of traditional, diagnostic risk management controls to address the demands of situations such as this, they call for the inclusion of pluralistic control principles into the risk-management practices of complex, multiparty organizations. Key concepts include:

  • Today's complex firms, joint ventures, and other organizational networks deal with significant dispersion in objectives, value systems, evaluative principles, and risk-assessments - as was apparent in the Kursk rescue mission as well.
  • Organizations consisting of multiple parties with competing and often conflicting values and expertise can better manage coordinated action.
  • Technical solutions are not enough. Participants in such situations often disagree on the guiding principles, so there is also a need for leadership to reconcile conflicting values and objectives.
  • A pluralistic control process can resolve conflicting objectives, and can arbitrate between different value systems and competing groups of expertise.

Author Abstract

The Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine, sank in the relatively shallow waters of the Barents Sea in August 2000 during a naval exercise. Numerous survivors were reported to be awaiting rescue, and within a week, an international rescue party gathered at the scene, which had seemingly possessed all that was needed for a successful rescue. Yet they failed to save anybody. Drawing on the recollections and daily situational reports of Commodore David Russell, who headed the Royal Navy's rescue mission, and on Robert Moore's (2002) award-winning book A Time to Die: The Kursk Disaster, the paper explores how and why this failure-a multiparty coordination failure-occurred. The Kursk rescue mission also illustrates a key issue in multiparty risk and disaster management, namely that the organizational challenge is to enable multiple actors and subunits with competing and often conflicting values and expertise to establish a virtual, well‐aligned organization. Organizational structures that can resolve evaluative dissonance, and processes that enable such a resolution, have been proposed in various literatures. Attempting to synthesize relevant works on pluralistic control and collaborative heterarchies, this paper proposes the foundations of what might be called pluralistic risk management, and it examines its conditions of possibility, in light of the lessons of the Kursk submarine rescue failure.

Paper Information