Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Peek-a-Boo, I Failed To See You

France’s Le Triomphant, a nuclear missile submarine, is seen in this undated photo released by the French Navy on Monday.

On the night of February 3, 2009, in what is being labeled as a freak accident, two submarines carrying nuclear missiles collided while submerged in the Atlantic Ocean. The two submarines, one French (Le Triomphant) and one British (H.M.S. Vanguard) were on operational patrols when the collision occurred. The exact location has yet to be disclosed.

Both vessels, though damaged, managed to return to their home ports with 250 crew members aboard uninjured. In terse statements that appeared to have been a collaboration between the two nations, the defense ministries said that there was “no compromise to nuclear safety”.

The Vanguard, which is 492’ (150 m) long, was towed back to its home port, at Faslane on the Firth of Clyde, near Glasgow, Scotland, with “very visible dents and scrapes,” according to the BBC. The similarly sized French submarine took three days to get back to its home port, at L’Île Longue near Brest, according to French news reports.

The reference to “no compromise to nuclear safety” was taken to mean there was no breach either to the security of the nuclear reactors that power the subs or the 16 ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads that both nations routinely carry on patrols.

While I am still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that two nuclear-equipped submarines have just collided in the Atlantic and somehow we have managed to escape disaster; then I read the following.

Military experts feel this episode has raised troubling questions about the safety of nuclear submarines patrolling the oceans without having to tell anyone – including NATO – where they are. Apparently, the agreements on “waterspace management” requiring NATO nations to advise each other of the exact locations of submerged submarines does not include those carrying ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. The locations of the mostly deadly submarines are the most jealously guarded of all.

So, no one but the crew members of these submerged nuclear subs knows their whereabouts and two of them have just had a fender bender. Am I right in thinking that raising these “troubling questions about safety” now is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has fled the property?

The collision “could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabeds,” said Kate Hudson, the chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a long-established protest group in Britain. Besides Britain and France, the United States, Russia and China have the same vessels.

Military experts point to the number of collisions between western and Soviet submarines during the cold war. One incident in particular occurred in 1992 when the American nuclear submarine (the Baton Rouge) was struck by a surfacing Russian sub in the Barents Sea.

Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, a much-respected publication among naval experts, said that an investigation would need to cover a variety of technical issues to rule out mechanical malfunctions and the like. However, he said, the problem appeared to be procedural. In other words, so much importance is attached to remaining undetected that they got within striking distance each without knowing the other was there.

Lee Willett of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the NATO allies would be very reluctant to share information on the whereabouts of their nuclear submarines.

“These are the strategic crown jewels of the nation,” he told Agence France-Presse. “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.”


Lily-Wren said...

Hi Pippa.
A really interesting blog here! I shall sertainly keep reading. I noticed this story today in the news and just shook my head. I always wonder when such news items are released, what is really being covered up? I often think we are only given as much information as 'they' want us to know. I wonder what lies beneath!?

Thanks for the great blog :)

Lily-Wren said...

I meant 'certainly', this keyboard! Or is it my fingers slipping!

kathi said...

Oh Boy! Just what the oceans need - guess it would blow the garbage islands out of the water. Just joking, no good news here. A catastrophe like this would probably be the end of the oceans and sea life even if it did not trigger a nuclear winter that was the end of all of us.