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Sub-prang panic: Calm down, it happens all the time

Love the oceans? Pick on fishermen, not submariners

By Lewis Page, 17 Feb 2009

Analysis There's widespread media panic at moment over the news that French and British nuclear-missile submarines collided beneath the Atlantic earlier this month. But in fact atomic-powered and -armed submarines have been bumping into each other - and sometimes sinking - for decades with no significant effects.

No, seriously. They have. All through the Cold War, the NATO powers - particularly Britain and America - played a high-stakes game of cat and mouse with the Soviet navy's Red Banner Northern Fleet submarines in the north Atlantic.

The aim of the game was to try and keep track of the Soviet ballistic-missile subs - to have a US or British boat shadowing every communist one. That way, if the balloon went up and the Soviet boat began preparing to launch its missiles, it could be torpedoed and sunk by its unseen follower.

In the palmy days of the 1970s and early 1980s, the West enjoyed a significant edge in sonar technology and in the art of making submarines quiet. This meant that US and British forces could often locate and track Russian subs as they left their Arctic bases using "passive" sonar, simply listening for the noises they made.

Sometimes the passive sonar would be towed by a frigate on the surface, sometimes it would be part of a seabed array, sometimes it was on a US or UK submarine. But, often, a Western sub skipper would be able to get onto a Soviet boat's tail and follow it. This would be relatively simple while the commie skipper was moving at speed, making a lot of noise.

But once the Soviet sub got to his patrol area, he might very well slow right down and become quieter, meaning that the shadower boat would need to close right up to stay in contact. US subs are said to have often got so close to Soviet ones that they could actually see their quarry through the water, in movie style - some even took photographs.

When multi-thousand-ton* ships manoeuvre in this sort of proximity, especially with one of them unaware of the other, collisions are going to happen - and they did. Bumps and grinds were fairly frequent events. This was made worse by the fact that the Soviets became aware that they were often being shadowed, and would sometimes swing round suddenly so as to get a sonar "look" at the obscured area behind their own props, where the US and British skippers liked to lurk. This was known as a "Crazy Ivan" by the US Navy, and often meant the shadowing captain having to swerve sharply just to avoid a collision, let alone remain undetected. This wasn't always successful.

Then, apart from Western and Soviet boats bumping each other, subs would sometimes crash into especially deep bits of the Arctic ice cap, or into unexpected bits of seabed. This last is still fairly routine, actually - in part because a fully submerged sub never has as good an idea where it is as a surface ship does, because it can't use satnav.

Following the end of the Cold War there are many fewer Russian subs at sea. The US and British fleets deconflict their operations, the two navies trusting one another enough to reveal where all their submarines are. This is a good thing, as modern Western boats are now so quiet that they often can't detect each other at all on passive sonar - especially when moving very slowly and stealthily, as deterrent missile boats do when on patrol.

It would seem that France doesn't trust the Anglosphere enough to routinely disclose the location of its sole deterrent sub, however - perhaps reasonably enough. The whole purpose of putting the missiles on subs, after all, is to keep their location secret.

Hence this most recent bump, just another in a sequence numbering in the scores over the years.

But my god! How can one be so blase? These things have nuclear reactors - and often enough warheads too - on them! Surely the oceans will eventually be wiped clean of life by sunken subs spewing frightful radioactive debris, or even melting down or (gasp) exploding?

Well, no actually. The Soviets and then Russians are thought to have lost eight subs with warheads and/or reactors aboard at sea: the US, two. These losses began more than fifty years ago. And yet the world has not come to an end.

If you're concerned about marine life and ecosystems, about possible oceanic disasters which could affect humanity, there are in all truth many things to worry about: overfishing, pollution, killer jellyfish (though those last are more of a symptom than a cause). Overfishing is probably the biggy; but there are also many other maritime villains more serious than the nuclear sub community. The whole list of sunken subs hasn't done even a medium-size tanker spill's worth of damage to marine ecosystems. This issue isn't even visible in the modern context of ocean eco-problems.

Don't waste your time panicking about nuclear submarine accidents. The current media frenzy is a product of two things: the vociferous anti-nuclear-weapons movement and the fact that the world's media has the institutional collective memory of a goldfish. ®


*The Soviet Akula-class missile boat - known to NATO as "Typhoon" - displaces 26,000 tons. Annoyingly, NATO tagged a different and smaller vessel as "Akula", leading to some confusion.

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