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    Wednesday, February 18, 2009

    FW: Comment on Comment By Jane's On UK / France Submarine Collision


    Editor Jane’s Fighting Ships, Commodore Stephen Saunders, (retired), explained, “The reported collision between HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant in early February is a very serious incident.  As far as I am aware, it is the first time that the submarines of two friendly nations have been involved in such an accident. In this case, both submarines appear to have been on ‘deterrent patrol’ or on passage to or from patrol areas. Both UK and France have operated a Continuous at Sea Deterrence posture for many years.”


    Saunders continued, “There seem to be three main issues, firstly, procedurally there is a NATO waterspace management organisation, a sort of air-traffic control underwater, which enables national submarine operators to ‘deconflict’ their submarine operations. Submarine operations tend to be sensitive with the whereabouts of ballistic-missile submarines the most sensitive of all, but I would have thought it possible to at least arrange to be in different parts of the ocean without compromising operational security. I am unsure to what extent France participates in this scheme. France has not been a member of the NATO military structure since the 1960s but I was under the impression that a there is some liaison on these matters.”


    My comment: "waterspace management" is the wrong term, but, why deal with semantics here. I don't know how the Brits and French operate, but, for us, patrol areas for BN's are typically not shared with anyone, except the ship itself, and STRATCOM back in my day knew what patrol areas you had assigned (they assigned them), but they didn't know where the CO chose to operate within those areas.  The SSBN would receive every other non-deterrent patrolling submarine's subnote and it was the SSBN's responsibility to stay clear of those. However, we wouldn't have had any info on even a US SSBN's patrol areas, much less a French or Brit SSBN.  In the case of the US SSBN's, it was STRATCOM's responsibility to deconflict when they issued the water.  We may have shared some of this info at the STRATCOM level with the Brits, but I seriously doubt we ever did with the French, and I doubt the Brits and French shared it, either (well, obviously, they don't even today).


    “Secondly, why didn’t the submarines detect each other? The modus-operandi of most submarines, particularly ballistic-missile submarines, is to operate stealthily and to proceed undetected. This means operating passively and therefore not transmitting on sonar and making as little noise as possible. A great deal of technical effort has gone into making submarines very quiet by reduction of machinery noise for example. While in parallel 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.”


    My Comment: Pretty clearly a modern SSBN going 3-5 knots is hard to detect.


    “And finally bad luck, even if two submarines do find themselves in the same area, it is still bad luck to end up in the same place at the same depth and run into each other.”


    My Comment: No kidding. My guess is both these guys use a trailing wire to stay in comms, and that likely puts them at basically the same depth.  Thus, all they need is to be in the same geo position.  Still, big ocean, little submarine didn't work this time.


    It is worth noting that submarines are robustly built. USS San Francisco ran into an underwater seamount at high speed in 2005 and survived. In today’s case, two large submarines hit each other, probably at low speed, and the damage, whilst embarrassing, can be repaired.


    Saunders concluded, “No doubt there are a number of technical issues to be investigated, but the root of the problem appears to be procedural. These submarines should not have been in the same place at the same time.”


    My comment: My guess is the problem here is the French.




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