February 16, 2009

Nuclear Submarines Collide

Earlier this month, two nuclear-armed submarines from Britain and France collided in the Atlantic Ocean, causing new concerns about the safety of the world's deep sea missile fleets, according to authorities.

The oldest vessel in Britain's nuclear-armed submarine fleet, the HMS Vanguard, and the French Le Triomphant submarine both suffered minor damage in the collision.  There were no crew members reported to be injured.

First Sea Lord Adm. Jonathon Band, Britain's most senior sailor, said the underwater collision showed no risk to the safety of the submarines' nuclear weapons and nuclear missiles.  He also had no explanation of how the rare incident occurred.

"The two submarines came into contact at very low speed," Band said in a statement. "Both submarines remained safe."

The ballistic missile submarines had been carrying out routine patrols when they collided, according to France's defense ministry.

"They briefly came into contact at a very low speed while submerged. There were no injuries. Neither their nuclear deterrence missions nor their safety were affected," France's defense ministry said Monday in a statement.

The BBC reported that the HMS Vanguard was towed back to a submarine base in Scotland with visible dents and scrapes.

France said that the Le Triomphant suffered damage to a sonar dome but returned under its own power to its base on L'lle Longue on France's western tip.

Both France and Britain have yet to confirm the exact date of the collision, but said it took place earlier this month.

A statement was issued on February 6 by the French military that one of its submarines had struck a submerged object, "probably a container," but did not say the Le Triomphant had collided with another vessel.

There was no comment on the incident by Britain until Monday.  Their defense ministry said the government's usual policy is not to comment on submarine deployments.

Naval experts said that they were amazed by the collision.

"This really shouldn't have happened at all," said Stephen Saunders, a retired British Royal Navy commodore and the editor of Jane's Fighting Ships. "It's a very serious incident, and I find it quite extraordinary."

NATO countries let each other know what general area of the Atlantic they are operating in, neither submarines would have had a precise position for the other, he said.

Submarines do not always use their radar systems, or make their presence obvious to other ships, according to Saunders.

"The whole point is to go and hide in a big chunk of ocean and not be found. They tend to go around very slowly and not make much noise," he said.

British lawmakers demanded an explanation from Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government.

"(The government) 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," lawmaker Angus Robertson of the opposition Scottish National Party said.

The British submarine came into service in 1993 and has about 140 crew members, and typically carries 16 Lockheed Trident D5 missiles.  British nuclear submarines carry a maximum of 48 warheads, under government policy.  There is always at least one of the four British submarines on patrol and ready to fire at any given time.

In 2007, British lawmakers approved a $30 billion program to replace the fleet with new nuclear-armed submarines.

The Le Triomphant carries 111 crew members and 15 nuclear missiles, according to defense analyst group Jane's.

Anti-nuclear groups say that the crash should remind the world just how dangerous nuclear submarines really are.

"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," said Stephane Lhomme, a spokesman for the French anti-nuclear group Sortir du Nucleaire, "These are mobile nuclear reactors."

Brown was called on by Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to end his country's nuclear submarine patrols of the Atlantic.

"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," the group said.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia