France and UK Cover-up as Nuclear Subs Collide in Mid-Atlantic

February 16th, 2009 - by admin

BBC News & The Sun & The Independent – 2009-02-16 21:35:23

Nuclear Subs Collide in Atlantic
BBC News

(February 16, 2009) — A Royal Navy nuclear submarine was involved in a collision with a French nuclear sub in the middle of the Atlantic, the MoD has confirmed. HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant were badly damaged in the crash in heavy seas earlier this month.

First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band said the submarines came into contact at low speed and no injuries were reported. Both the UK and France insisted nuclear security had not been compromised. BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt said the incident was “incredibly embarrassing” for the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

HMS Vanguard returned to its home base Faslane on the Firth of Clyde under her own power on 14 February. “Very visible dents and scrapes” could be seen as tugs towed her in to the port on the final stage of the journey, our correspondent said.

The submarines are equipped with sonar to detect other vessels nearby but our correspondent said it might be the case that the anti-sonar devices, meant to hide the submarines from enemies, were “too effective.” “This is clearly a one-in-a-million chance when you think about how big the Atlantic is,” she said.

The two submarines are key parts of each nation’s nuclear deterrent, and would have been carrying missiles, though both the UK and France have insisted there was no danger of a nuclear incident. They were carrying around 240 sailors between them. A French naval spokesman said the collision did not result in any injuries to the crew.

Le Triomphant is based at L’Ile Longue near Brest, northwest France. HMS Vanguard arrived back in Faslane on Saturday.

On 6 February, France’s defence ministry had said that Le Triomphant “collided with an immersed object (probably a container)” when coming back from patrolling, and that the vessel’s sonar dome was damaged. But in a subsequent statement, it admitted that the collision between the two submarines took place.

“They briefly came into contact at a very low speed while submerged,” the statement added.

‘Large Ocean’
Retired Commodore Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, said the cause of the collision appeared to be procedural rather than technical. “These submarines should not have been in the same place at the same time,” he added.

Nuclear engineer John Large told the BBC that navies often used the same “nesting grounds. 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.”

In 1992, the US nuclear submarine USS Baton Rouge was struck by a surfacing Russian nuclear sub in the Barents Sea.

When the nuclear submarine HMS Trafalgar ran aground during a training exercise off the coast of Skye in 2002, the damage was estimated at £5m ($7m).

HMS Vanguard completed a two-year refit completed in 2007 as part of a £5bn contract, and is not due to be replaced until 2024.

Politicians have demanded more information on the latest incident. Lib Dem defence spokesman Nick Harvey has called for an immediate internal inquiry with some of the conclusions made public.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Meanwhile, SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson has called 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.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament described the collision as “a nuclear nightmare of the highest order.” CND chair Kate Hudson said: “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.”

• Launched in 1992
• One of four British submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles
• Displacement (submerged) 16,000 tonnes, 150m (492ft) long
• Can carry 48 nuclear warheads on a maximum of 16 Lockheed Trident 2 D5 missiles
• Full crew is 145, including 14 officers
• Submerged speed of 25 knots

• Launched in 1994
• One of four French ballistic missile nuclear-powered subs
• Displacement (submerged) 14,000 tonnes, 138m (452ft) long
• Can carry 16 Aerospatiale ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads
• Full crew is 110, including 15 officers
• Submerged speed over 25 knots


Two Navies’ Cover-up Nuke Sub Crash
Tom Newton Dunn, Defence Editor & Peter Allen / The Sun

LONDON (February 16, 2009) — BRITAIN and France tried to cover up the nuke subs crash that could have sparked a massive disaster, it emerged last night.

The navies of both nations were forced to come clean about the incident yesterday after The Sun’s exclusive revelation swept the world. For almost two weeks the Royal Navy had REFUSED to discuss anything about the collision which damaged ballistic missile carrier HMS Vanguard.

And the French had PRETENDED their sub Le Triomphant hit a container that fell off a ship. But yesterday Navy boss Admiral Sir Jonathon Band confirmed the vessels “came into contact.”

Sir Jonathon, the First Sea Lord, was forced to deny fears that Britain lost its nuclear strike capability during the incident. He was speaking at a London press conference, arranged to mark 100 years of naval aviation but which was hijacked by questions over the crash.

The Admiral, who at one point sat with his head in his hands, said: “Both submarines remained safe and no injuries occurred. We can confirm that the capability remained unaffected and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety.” He added that HMS Vanguard had returned to the submarine base at Faslane, on the Clyde in Scotland, under her own power.

The boats were carrying as many as 32 nuclear missiles at the time of the mid-Atlantic smash earlier this month. Each of their multiple warheads has a blast yield of up to 3.8 megatons — eight times as powerful as the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Both subs were on top-secret “silent” patrols and when in stealth mode they move as slowly as 1mph to make them impossible to detect.

Last night MPs from all parties demanded answers with Angus Robertson, Westminster leader of the Scottish Nationalists, saying: “The MoD needs to explain how it is possible for a submarine to collide with another in the middle of the world’s second-largest ocean.”

Lib Dem defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: “The people of Britain, France and the rest of the world need to be reassured this can never happen again.”

The MoD was still refusing to say how much damage the 1.25billion Vanguard had suffered. In contrast, French officials admitted the final bill for repairing Le Triomphant could top 50million, with intricate missile guidance systems and navigation controls having to be replaced.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament called the crash “a nightmare of the highest order,” the worst incident since Russian sub Kursk sank with 118 crew in 2000.

So, Admiral, What Have You Got
To Say about the Nuclear Submarine Crash?

Cahal Milmo, Chief Reporter / The Independent

LONDON (17 February 2009) — Defence chiefs are facing an inquiry into the safety of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent after British and French submarines, each laden with missiles powerful enough for 1,248 Hiroshima bombings, collided while submerged in the mid-Atlantic.

HMS Vanguard, the lead boat of Britain’s fleet of four V-class submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles, limped back into its home port of Faslane in Scotland on Saturday showing significant damage. Witnesses said the hull was scarred with dents and scrapes.

The weather was rough in the middle of the night of 3 and 4 February when the British submarine, which was carrying 135 crew, struck Le Triomphant, the flagship of the French nuclear strike force, destroying the French vessel’s fibreglass sonar dome, which juts out from the bow and, among other tasks, is supposed to detect other submarines.

In London, the Ministry of Defence tried to maintain its policy of total secrecy about the movements of Briain’s nuclear fleet, but it was forced to confirm the embarrassing collision between strategic allies after the French Navy posted details of the accident on its website. Both countries insisted that neither the missile-launching capacity nor the nuclear safety of the submarines, carrying 265 crew and 32 intercontinental ballistic missiles, were affected.

Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, said: “Recently, the two submarines came into contact at very low speed. Both submarines remained safe and no injuries occurred. We can confirm that the capability remained unaffected and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety.”

Defence sources said the accident was the result of the “infinitesimal” coincidence that both submarines were operating at the same depth and location in the Atlantic. Such a claim is undermined because Nato allies routinely share information at a top-secret level about the deployment of submarines to ensure they do not occupy the same area of ocean, an arrangement in which the French, whose nuclear deterrent remains independent, are understood to participate.

But nuclear-armed submarines often gravitate towards the same “nesting grounds” – deep, quiet sectors of ocean – to allow them to fulfil their mission by sailing continuously with minimal noise and remaining within range of potential targets.

For many years, Britain and France have maintained their nuclear deterrent by ensuring they have at least one of their missile-carrying submarines at sea 365 days a year with the ability to launch within seconds’ notice. Vanguard and Triomphant, which was at the end of a 70-day tour, each carry 16 intercontinental missiles, armed with between six and eight warheads in each.

Politicians said the incident raised serious questions about the precautions to protect the V-class nuclear vessels, which, at nearly 16,000 tonnes and 150m long, are among the largest submarines ever built. Similar questions were being asked in France, where the 14,335-tonne Triomphant returned to its base at L’Ile Longue, near Brest. The boat will spend up to four months in dry-dock undergoing repair. The French Navy intially claimed the submarine had been in a collision “apparently with a container”.

Angus Robertson, the leader of the SNP in Westminster, said: “The MoD 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.”

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: “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. The public entrust this equipment to the Government confident that all possible precautions are being taken.”

Naval experts, who underlined that the two nuclear submarines were built with hulls designed to withstand huge pressures, expressed surprise that the sonar arrays of both had failed to detect either vessel. Sonar technology is now so sophisticated manufacturers boast it can recognise a small fish.

That it does not seem to have been able to pick out a submarine nearly the length of two football pitches and the height of a three-storey building could be explained by the development of stealth technology, making the submarines less visible to other vessels.

Stephen Saunders, the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, said: “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.”

Anti-nuclear campaigners said the two vessels had been moments from a potentially catastrophic accident which could have resulted in the widespread release of radioactive material.

Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said: “This is a nuclear nightmare of the highest order. It is the most severe incident involving a nuclear submarine since the sinking of the Kursk in 2000 and the first time since the Cold War that two nuclear-armed subs are known to have collided. Vanguard is likely to be confined to port for months with a multimillion-pound repair bill. Gordon Brown should seize this opportunity to end continuous patrols.”

Several serious accidents have befallen the UK’s submarine fleet. In 2002, HMS Trafalgar suffered considerable damage when it ran aground on rocks off Skye in a training exercise. Last week, an inquest heard how two sailors on the Trafalgar’s sister vessel, HMS Tireless, died in an explosion caused by a faulty oxygen generator. Crewmates battled for 40 minutes to reach the two men after the force of the blast closed and buckled hatch doors.

Navy’s Crash Course in Changing the Subject
Kim Sengupta / The Independent

LONDON (17 February 2009) — It was a grand event, held to celebrate the Royal Navy, the centenary of the Fleet Air Arm, and looking forward to the launch of two aircraft-carriers – a triumph of the Senior Service in the scramble for resources with other branches of the armed forces.

But the first question Admiral Sir Jonathon Band faced from the media was a torpedo from the deep: Would he like to explain how a British and French submarine managed to crash into each other in the middle of the Atlantic?

The normally urbane and assured First Sea Lord looked momentarily flustered. “Look,” he said with a sigh, “the two submarines recently came into contact at very low speed. Both submarines remained safe and no injuries occurred. We can confirm that the capability remained unaffected, and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety. Now I would like to go back to what we are here for – the celebration of Fly Navy 100.” There were to be no more questions from the floor on submarines. Later, over the buffet lunch, the Navy personnel were on the receiving end of some gentle teasing from the reporters: “Your sonar working all right is it?” and “Ran into anyone French recently?”

They took it in good part, insisting all the while that the crash was nothing much to get excited about. It was left to Captain Eric Brown, 80, a veteran pilot who had landed aircraft on to all kinds of vessels since the Second World War. He had never flown on to a submarine, he mused, but the way things were going he might get a chance soon.

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