Picture this. Deep down in the murky depths of the Atlantic Ocean two nuclear powered submarines, one British and the other French, are on patrol. These huge, yet nimble giants (roughly the length of one and a half football fields), with some of the most advanced technology available, are bristling with nuclear armed missiles (each one with enough megatonage to incinerate an entire, large continent). Their crews monitor the waters around them as they cruise silently (really, really silently), deep beneath the surface.
Wham!!! The next you know, it's general quarters with klaxons clanging and sailors frantically securing hatches, determining the extent of damage, and generally trying to figure what the hell just happened. Crew members have lots of things on their minds, not the least of which are the condition of the nuclear reactor as well as the 16 nuclear armed missiles nestled in their launch tubes, not to mention whether they will ever see sunlight again.
When the dust settles everybody takes a deep breath, while somebody asks about their insurance carrier. They have just had the most expensive fender bender in history. On February 3, 2009 the British submarine, HMS Vanguard, collided with the French submarine, Le Triomphant in the Bay of Biscay. The damage to Le Triomphant's front end (the sonar dome to be precise) has been estimated at roughly $73 million; good thing it was a "low speed" collision (according to France's defense ministry); thank God for five mile-an-hour bumpers.
And that's not all. They didn't know they had hit each other. The French sub commander immediately surfaced and radioed that "I have hit something. I think it was a [shipping]container, so I am heading back to Brest." I am sure the British would get a little huffy having the French refer to one of their Trident subs as a shipping container; after all, they are "shipping"the same Trident missiles as American Trident submarines. So much for international relations.
Although the French sub was able to limp back home, the British sub had to call for a tow; how humiliating. Fortunately for both crews, there were evidently no injuries, and neither the pressure hulls, the reactors, nor the nuclear weapons were compromised. But what if??? What if the submarines had been cruising at a higher rate of speed, and what if one had impacted the other amidships rather than "clipping" the sonar dome. One expert quoted said that, "It's like two blindfolded men creeping around a room. Eventually they are going to bump into each other." Isn't it more like blind people driving two big diesel trucks containing high explosives around a parking lot?
What ended up being an embarrassing and expensive accident might have been a catastrophe. As for the probability of this event, the MailOnline quoted "naval sources" as saying "it was a million to one unlucky chance both subs were in the same patch of sea." That, in itself, is a very important statement. Everything carries some risk. There is no such thing as absolute safety. In terms of the potential for a collision between two nuclear submarines, or even an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon, there is always some risk, whether due to a problem with the weapon or human error. And even when that risk is infinitesimal, as in the case of one chance in a million, there is still (always) that minute probability of failure or accident. In the case of an accident involving the detonation of a nuclear weapon (or perhaps an accidental launch), is that a risk that we can consider acceptable???
These two subs were cruising around on what the French defence ministry called their "nuclear deterrence missions". One has to wonder what these behemoths (loaded with the most destructive force the world has ever known) present - a deterrent or a liability. In a post Cold War world, big submarines loaded with nuclear armed missiles are, indeed, an impressive (and expensive) show of force. But what is their practicality? How much of a deterrent are they in the new world order? Are these denizens of the deep perhaps dinosaurs destined for extinction?
The submarine pictured above is the Le Triomphant, photo by the French Navy, via Reuters.
References: You can read various news reports of the accident at the links below:
Mail Online, February 16, 2009, Worldpress.org, February 17, 2009, New York Times, February 16, 2009, Global Security Newswire, February 17, 2009