Two nuclear submarines collide in the Atlantic Ocean

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A port bow view of the British nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS Vanguard (SSBN-50) approaching the harbor entrance. The vessel is accompanied by two civilian tug boats. Port Canaveral, Florida, USA

The Nuclear ballistic missile submarines Triomphant, from France, and HMS Vanguard, of the British Royal Navy, collided deep under the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night between February 3 and 4, despite both vessels being equipped with sonar. The collision caused damage to both vessels but it did not release any radioactive material, a Ministry of Defence (MOD) official confirmed Monday.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said nuclear security had not been breached. "It is MOD policy not to comment on submarine operational matters, but we can confirm that the U.K.’s deterrent capability was unaffected at all times and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety. Triomphant had struck 'a submerged object (probably a container)' during a return from a patrol, damaging the sonar dome on the front of the submarine," he said.

A French navy spokesman said that "the collision did not result in injuries among the crew and did not jeopardise nuclear security at any moment." Lack of communication between France and other members of NATO over the location of their SLBM deterrents is believed to be another reason for the crash.

According to Daily Mail, the vessels collided 1,000ft underwater in the Bay of Biscay (Golfe de Gascogne; Golfo de Vizcaya and Mar Cantábrico), a gulf of the North Atlantic Ocean. It lies along the western coast of France from Brest south to the Spanish border, and the northern coast of Spain west to Punta de Estaca de Bares, and is named for the Spanish province of Biscay, with average depth of 5,723 feet (1,744 m) and maximum depth is 9,151 feet (2,789 m).

Each submarine is laden with missiles powerful enough for 1,248 Hiroshima bombings, The Independent said.

It is unlikely either vessel was operating its active sonar at the time of the collision, because the submarines are designed to "hide" while on patrol and the use of active sonar would immediately reveal the boat's location. Both submarines' hulls are covered with anechoic tile to reduce detection by sonar, so the boats' navigational passive sonar would not have detected the presence of the other.

Lee Willett of London's Royal United Services Institute said "the NATO allies would be very reluctant to share information on nuclear submarines. These are the strategic crown jewels of the nation. The whole purpose of a sea-based nuclear deterrent is to hide somewhere far out of sight. They are the ultimate tools of national survival in the event of war. Therefore, it's the very last thing you would share with anybody."

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band GCB, ADC of the United Kingdom, the most senior serving officer in the Royal Navy, said that "...the submarines came into contact at very low speed. Both submarines remained safe. No injuries occurred. We can confirm the capability remains unaffected and there was no compromise to nuclear safety."

"Both navies want quiet areas, deep areas, roughly the same distance from their home ports. So you find these station grounds have got quite a few submarines, not only French and Royal Navy but also from Russia and the United States. Navies often used the same nesting grounds," said John H. Large, an independent nuclear engineer and analyst primarily known for his work in assessing and reporting upon nuclear safety and nuclear related accidents and incidents.

Map of the Côte d'Argent, Aquitaine, France (French for the Silver Coast, a touristic name given to a section of the French Atlantic coast).

President of the Royal Naval Association John McAnally said that the incident was a "one in a million chance". "It would be very unusual on deterrent patrol to use active sonar because that would expose the submarine to detection. They are, of course, designed to be very difficult to detect and one of the priorities for both the captain and the deterrent patrol is to avoid detection by anything," he said.

The development of stealth technology, making the submarines less visible to other vessels has properly explained that a submarine does not seem to have been able to pick out another submarine nearly the length of two football pitches and the height of a three-story building.

"The modus operandi of most submarines, particularly ballistic-missile submarines, is to operate stealthily and to proceed undetected. This means operating passively, by not transmitting on sonar, and making as little noise as possible. A great deal of technical effort has gone into making submarines quiet by reduction of machinery noise. And much effort has gone into improving the capability of sonars to detect other submarines; detection was clearly made too late or not at all in this case," explained Stephen Saunders, the editor of Jane's Fighting Ships, an annual reference book (also published online, on CD and microfiche) of information on all the world's warships arranged by nation, including information on ship's names, dimensions, armaments, silhouettes and photographs, etc.

According to Bob Ayres, a former CIA and US army officer, and former associate fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, however, the submarines were not undetectable, despite their "stealth" technology. "When such submarines came across similar vessels from other navies, they sought to get as close as possible without being detected, as part of routine training. They were playing games with each other – stalking each other under the sea. They were practising being able to kill the other guy's submarine before he could launch a missile.Because of the sound of their nuclear reactors' water pumps, they were still noisier than old diesel-electric craft, which ran on batteries while submerged. The greatest danger in a collision was the hull being punctured and the vessel sinking, rather than a nuclear explosion," Ayres explained.

Submarine collisions are uncommon, but not unheard of: in 1992, the USS Baton Rouge, a submarine belonging to the United States, under command of Gordon Kremer, collided with the Russian Sierra-class attack submarine K-276 that was surfacing in the Barents Sea.

In 2001, the US submarine USS Greeneville surfaced and collided with Japanese fishing training ship Ehime Maru (えひめ丸), off the coast of Hawaii. The Navy determined the commanding officer of Greeneville to be in "dereliction of duty."

The tenth HMS Vanguard (S28) of the British Royal Navy is the lead boat of her class of Trident ballistic missile-capable submarines and is based at HMNB Clyde, Faslane. The 150m long, V-class submarine under the Trident programme, has a crew of 135, weighs nearly 16,000 tonnes and is armed with 16 Trident 2 D5 ballistic missiles carrying three warheads each.

It is now believed to have been towed Monday to its naval base Faslane in the Firth of Clyde, with dents and scrapes to its hull. Faslane lies on the eastern shore of Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, to the north of the Firth of Clyde and 25 miles west of the city of Glasgow.

Vanguard is one of the deadliest vessels on the planet. It was built at Barrow-in-Furness by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd (now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions), was launched on 4 March, 1992, and commissioned on 14 August, 1993. The submarine's first captain was Captain David Russell. In February 2002, Vanguard began a two-year refit at HMNB Devonport. The refit was completed in June 2004 and in October 2005 Vanguard completed her return to service trials (Demonstration and Shakedown Operations) with the firing of an unarmed Trident missile.

"The Vanguard has two periscopes, a CK51 search model and a CH91 attack model, both of which have a TV camera and thermal imager as well as conventional optics," said John E. Pike, director and a national security analyst for http://www.globalsecurity.org/, an easily accessible pundit, and active in opposing the SDI, and ITAR, and consulting on NEO's.

Scale model of the Triomphant (S 616), on display at the Musée de la Marine in Paris
(Image missing from commons: image; log)


"But the periscopes are useless at that depth. It's pitch black after a couple of hundred feet. In the movies like 'Hunt for Red October,' you can see the subs in the water, but in reality it's blindman's bluff down there. The crash could have been a coincidence — some people win the lottery — but it's much more possible that one vessel was chasing the other, trying to figure out what it was," Pike explained.

Captain of HMS Vanguard, Commander Richard Lindsey said his men would not be there if they couldn't go through with it. “I'm sure that if somebody was on board who did not want to be here, they would have followed a process of leaving the submarine service or finding something else to do in the Navy,” he noted.

The Triomphant is a strategic nuclear submarine, lead ship of her class (SNLE-NG). It was laid down on June 9, 1989, launched on March 26, 1994 and commissioned on March 21, 1997 with homeport at Île Longue. Equipped with 16 M45 ballistic missiles with six warheads each, it has 130 crew on board. It was completing a 70-day tour of duty at the time of the underwater crash. Its fibreglass sonar dome was damaged requiring three or four months in Drydock repair. "It has returned to its base on L'Ile Longue in Brittany on Saturday under its own power, escorted as usual by a frigate," the ministry said.

A Ballistic missile submarine is a submarine equipped to launch ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Ballistic missile submarines are larger than any other type of submarine, in order to accommodate SLBMs such as the Russian R-29 or the American Trident.

The Triomphant class of strategic missile submarines of the French Navy are currently being introduced into service to provide the sea based component (the Force Océanique Stratégique) of the French nuclear deterrent or Force de frappe, with the M45 SLBM. They are replacing the Redoutable-class boats. In French, they are called Sous-Marin Nucléaire Lanceur d'Engins de Nouvelle Génération ("SNLE-NG, literally "Device-launching nuclear submarine of the new generation").

They are roughly one thousand times quieter than the Redoutable-class vessels, and ten times more sensitive in detecting other submarines [1]. They are designed to carry the M51 nuclear missile, which should enter active service around 2010.

Repairs for both heavily scraped and dented, missile-laden vessels were "conservatively" estimated to cost as much as 55m, with intricate missile guidance systems and navigation controls having to be replaced, and would be met by the French and British taxpayer, the Irish Independent reported.

Many observers are shocked by the deep sea disaster, as well as the amount of time it took for the news to reach the public. ”Two US and five Soviet submarine accidents in the past prove that the reactor protection system makes an explosion avoidable. But if the collision had been more powerful the submarines could have sunk very quickly and the fate of the 250 crew members would have been very serious indeed,” said Andrey Frolov, from Moscow's Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

“I think this accident will force countries that possess nuclear submarines to sit down at the negotiating table and devise safety precautions that might avert such accidents in the future… But because submarines must be concealed and invisible, safety and navigation laws are hard to define,” Frolov said, noting further that there are no safety standards for submarines.

Map showing the location of the Bay of Biscay in the North Atlantic Ocean bordered on France and Spain.

The unthinkable disaster – in the Atlantic's 41 million square miles – has raised concern among nuclear activists. "This is a nuclear nightmare of the highest order. The collision of two submarines, both with nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons onboard, could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed," said Kate Hudson, chair of Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

"This is the most severe incident involving a nuclear submarine since the Russian submarine RFS Kursk K-141 explosion and sinking in 2000 and the first time since the Cold War that two nuclear-armed subs are known to have collided. Gordon Brown should seize this opportunity to end continuous patrols," Hudson added. Despite a rescue attempt by British and Norwegian teams, all 118 sailors and officers aboard Kursk died.

"This reminds us that we could have a new catastrophe with a nuclear submarine at any moment. It is a risk that exists during missions but also in port. These are mobile nuclear reactors," said Stephane Lhomme, a spokesman for the French anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucleaire.

Nicholas Barton "Nick" Harvey, British Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for North Devon has called for an immediate internal probe. "While the British nuclear fleet has a good safety record, if there were ever to be a bang it would be a mighty big one. Now that this incident is public knowledge, the people of Britain, France and the rest of the world need to be reassured this can never happen again and that lessons are being learned," he said.

SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP for Moray has demanded for a government statement. "The Ministry of Defence needs to explain how it is possible for a submarine carrying weapons of mass destruction to collide with another submarine carrying weapons of mass destruction in the middle of the world's second-largest ocean," he said.

Michael Thomas Hancock, CBE, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South and a City councillor for Fratton ward, and who sits on the Commons defence committee, has called on the Ministry of Defence Secretary of State John Hutton to make a statement when parliament sits next week.

"While I appreciate there are sensitive issues involved here, it is important that this is subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It's fairly unbelievable that this has happened in the first place but we now need to know that lessons have been learnt. We need to know for everyone's sakes that everything possible is now done to ensure that there is not a repeat of the incident. There are serious issues as to how some of the most sophisticated naval vessels in the seas today can collide in this way," Mr. Hancock said.

Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox, a British Conservative politician, currently Shadow Defence Secretary and Member of Parliament for Woodspring, said: “For two submarines to collide while apparently unaware of each other’s presence is extremely worrying.”

Meanwhile, Hervé Morin, the French Minister of Defence, has denied allegations the nuclear submarines, which are hard to detect, had been shadowing each other deliberately when they collided, saying their mission was to sit at the bottom of the sea and act as a nuclear deterrent.

"There's no story to this -- the British aren't hunting French submarines, and the French submarines don't hunt British submarines. We face an extremely simple technological problem, which is that these submarines are not detectable. They make less noise than a shrimp. Between France and Britain, there are things we can do together....one of the solutions would be to think about the patrol zones," Morin noted, and further denying any attempt at a cover-up.

France's Atlantic coast is known as a submarine graveyard because of the number of German U-boats and underwater craft sunk there during the Second World War.


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