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Putin inaugurates new nuclear sub after navy purge
By Andrei Shukshin

MOSCOW, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a new super-quiet nuclear submarine on Tuesday, seen as bridging the gap left by the loss of the Kursk and capable of foiling prospective U.S. missile defences.

The Gepard is the first new vessel to join Russia's creaking submarine fleet in three years, but the ceremony was overshadowed by Putin's weekend sacking for mismanagement of the top commanders who would have overseen the craft.

"The sea punishes cruelly every mistake," Putin told the shipbuilders in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency. "We need high professionalism, a sense of responsibility and strict discipline bordering on the excessive."

Earlier, television showed the crew standing to attention as the Kremlin leader boarded the Gepard, originally commissioned by the Soviet Union in 1991, at a shipyard in the closed northern town of Severodvinsk.

The Gepard has been a pet project for Putin who, as prime minister in 1999, ordered officials to find the money to complete the nuclear vessel, which had languished in the shipyard for several years because of a lack of finance.

The Gepard was due for inauguration in July but the ceremony was postponed so as not to clash with the raising of the Kursk, which sank last year with the loss of all 118 crew.

After reading a preliminary report on the causes of the disaster, which was a blow to the Kremlin leader's prestige just months into office, Putin on Saturday purged the command of the Northern Fleet to which both vessels belong.

The Kursk is believed to have been sunk by an onboard torpedo explosion but what triggered the blast remains a mystery. The Gepard designers have said however that the Kursk tragedy had helped them improve the new craft.


The navy gave out precious few details about the Gepard, which means cheetah in Russian and falls under the Akula-2 NATO classification, except to say that the craft is a multi-purpose attack submarine designed primarily to strike enemy fleets with its nuclear cruise missiles.

The definition implies that the Gepard is a full substitute for the Kursk, an aircraft carrier buster. But television and newspapers have also quoted experts as saying the submarine was also capable of launching nuclear strikes against land targets.

Reports published while the craft underwent months of gruelling tests said the Gepard's ability to fire nuclear missiles at enemy territory appealed to Moscow as it looked for a response to U.S. missile shield plans.

Unlike ordinary ballistic missiles which enter the stratosphere before swooping down on their targets, rockets fired from the Gepard follow a flat trajectory.

The Gepard is the most sophisticated, fastest and quietest of the 14 Akula-class submarines currently in service. It is also believed to possess enhanced firepower, though few details are available on its exact performance.

The official Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily said the new submarine was 113 metres (370 feet) long and 13.8 metres (45 feet) wide. It has a submerged displacement of 13,800 tonnes and is equipped with 28 nuclear-capable cruise missiles.

The nuclear-powered Gepard can dive to 600 metres (nearly 2,000 feet) and travel at speeds in excess of 30 knots (60 km) an hour when submerged. Its crew of 63 can stay off base for 100 days.

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