"Ren-Faire" Number Two: Afghanistan: The Ground War
"Ren Faire" Three: Afghanistan: The Air War

Submarine Collisions

The news started out like this, and the hype went downhill thereafter:

Nuclear-armed submarines from Britain and France collided in the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month, authorities acknowledged Monday — touching off new concerns about the safety of the world's deep sea missile fleets.

The HMS Vanguard, the oldest of Britain's current nuclear-armed submarine fleet, and the French Le Triomphant submarine, which was also carrying nuclear missiles, both suffered minor damage in the collision. No crew members were reported injured.

Before we get all breathless about these things, let's remember a couple of things here. The article says it was a low speed collision, which although never a good thing, is better than a high speed collision. Lots less of a chance at slow speeds to do real damage. The article says no injuries. That's good. If there been real damage to anything (remember we are talking about steel hulls and steel pipes, which have some flexibility in them), there would have been significant injuries.

Without video or photos of the return of the ships, it is a little hard to determine real damage based on words alone. So it looks pretty harmless so far.

The British press, like the American press, is blowing the anti-nuke horn pretty hard with the quotes they use. Please. Stop making fools of yourselves. The Russians have lost several (more than 3 and less than 20) nuclear submarines in the ocean over many years, and, in fact, buried their old reactors at sea sometimes in the past. And there aren't any 4 headed Godzilla fish roaming the White Sea or Barents Sea, so the effects of radiation on the environment, while a concern, is not so much a concern that you need worry about getting killed by radiation released during a collision of two submarines at sea, under several hundred feet of water, moving at 4 knots each (4mph each), especially when no one got hurt.

So what is really serious about this collision story? The fact that one ship had to be towed home (really bad form, that. Embarrassing in the extreme when your ride throws a shoe and you can't get home at all.), and the fact that 32 nuclear missiles were involved. How can this happen you ask? The French really don't share their routing information with the rest of the Free World. Something about a desire to be master of their own destinies, and an "I fart in your general direction" mentality when they are told of the benefits of cooperation with the US/UK system of submarine routing, I've heard. So it is possible to find oneself in the same general vicinity as a neutral, or at least not presently hostile, submarine utilizing the same waters and same depth stratum as one might find oneself in.

Additionally, Ballistic Missile submarines tend to be quiet and avoid (run away from) any contacts they hear. So when you are making only 4 knots, it becomes difficult to run away in an expeditious manner. Additionally, that speed is when you are your quietest, so both ships are making almost no noise to hear the other one. Detection of other MODERN submarines at those speeds is hugely problematic. In fact, many years ago, the greatest danger to US submarines was running into other US submarines who may have permission to be in those waters. Kind of like the blind running into the blind on the sidewalk.

So, given the short detection ranges (say 2 miles max), the time needed to figure out which way the other guy is going (a couple of minutes at least, more likely 4mins), and the need to move in a direction away from someone who may be walking straight at you and you don't know which way he is going to turn, and the slow speeds, you can't maneuver well enough to avoid what you only detect a mile away when you are making five miles per hr and it takes you up to a quarter of a mile (turning radius at slow speeds) to turn 90 degrees away from danger. These collisions are more frequent than you may suppose. After all, when leaving or entering port the "Big Ocean" theory of avoidance becomes much smaller and the probability of collision becomes much greater in smaller areas of operation.

Bottom line: Some damage, maybe serious to fix, but no one died and no radioactivity was released. Nothing to see here. Move along.