February 18th, 2009
10:33 AM ET

Big boomers go boom: how two nuclear subs could collide

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/02/16/british.french.submarine.incident/art.uksub.jpg caption="The British Royal Navy submarine HMS Vanguard."]

David Gewirtz | BIO
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

How exactly do two super-secret stealthy submarines, hiding out in 77.6 million cubic miles of Atlantic Ocean, somehow manage to occupy the exact same space at the exact same time, and have a nuclear-powered fender-bender?

It was a dark and stormy night on February 3, 2009, when the British ballistic missile submarine HMS Vanguard and the French boomer Le Triomphant bashed into each other somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Each submarine carries 16 nuclear, intercontinental ballistic missiles and, together, a total of 265 crew members and soon-to-be lower-ranking officers.

These are not tiny boats. At 149.9 meters in length, the HMS Vanguard is almost two football fields in length (and almost as wide as a typical school bus is long). Le Triomphant is slightly smaller (but only by a car-length or so). And while we're comparing the size of these subs to school buses, Vanguard alone weighs the equivalent of 2,240 school buses (complete with students). Like I said: big.

They're also pretty nasty. These two boats (subs are often called boats, even if they're ginormous) are designed to hide in the ocean and wait for something very, very bad to happen, at which time they unleash their weapons of mass destruction. Although official data is a little hard to come by here, The Independent, a British newspaper, claims that each boat has missiles powerful enough for 1,248 Hiroshima bombings.

That's a lot of nuke to get shaken (but not stirred) in the middle of the night.

How could this sort of thing happen?

Like any kind of vehicle, there are a lot of different varieties of submarines, but there are really two types that concern us for this discussion. The first is the ballistic missile submarine, also called a "boomer". Both - and the fact that it's both is relevant here - both Vanguard and Triomphant are boomers.

The role of the boomer is to hide. Boomers are really Armageddon machines, designed primarily to wait until the world goes to hell after a nuclear exchange, and then respond by obliterating everything left standing. They are the living embodiment of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and are considered nuclear deterrents. The idea, for example, is that if you know France has a nuclear sub that will hit you if you hit France, you won't hit France.

Another kind of sub is an attack sub. Attack subs hunt boomers. In peacetime, attack subs still hunt boomers, but they don't attack them. They do, however, often play games of cat and mouse, testing their hunting skill, training their crews, and sometimes freaking out the other side.

Had one of the subs in the crash been an attack sub, the accident would have made a lot more sense. Attack subs are sometimes aggressive and even though it's very rare, an attack sub could get a little too close in the hunt.

But boomers are supposed to hide. Their job is to stay away from all other ships and boats, remain completely undetectable, and complete their patrols in total stealth mode. Because hiding is the primary strategic role of both these ships, it's relatively unlikely one was hunting the other and got a little carried away.

Triomphant's sonar dome (located on the lower, front of the sub, like a bumper) was crushed and Vanguard is reported to have scratches and dents all along its side. It doesn't take an insurance adjuster to put two-and-two together and realize that Triomphant probably smashed head-first into Vanguard's side.

Think about it. One was floating along in the big blue ocean going in one direction. The other was floating along, on a path crossing that of the first boat. And, amazingly, they were not only in the same place, they were floating along at roughly the same depth.

Because it's just not what they do, it's unlikely one boat was being aggressive to the other. But could the two just simply have experienced extremely low-odds bad luck and accidentally run into each other, in an ocean as big as the Atlantic?

It is possible. Theoretically, it shouldn't happen because England and France are NATO members and the patrol zones of NATO members are reputed to be shared amongst the countries' navies. But hiding underwater is a skill known to boomer captains and there are often areas of the ocean that make particularly good hiding spots.

Ballistic missile submarines hide by making themselves silent. You don't see a submarine a few hundred feet underwater, you hear her. If you're a sub captain and you don't want to be found, you want the quietest boat in the water. Today's boomers are exceptionally quiet, but there are tricks, like hiding under a thermocline, that can make you even harder to find. A thermocline is a layer of water that's a measurably different temperature than other layers of water - and it's particularly hard to hear things through water layers of different temperatures.

In fact, some subs are reputed to be so good at being silent that they make a hole in the water - an area where there is no sound, not even the sound of ambient sea life. It's reputed (this stuff is higly classified, so all we can go on is hearsay) that modern subs generate the sounds of sea life to mask the hole of absolute silence they create in the ocean.

Although the odds are astronomical, it is possible that the captains of both boats found themselves the same nice, juicy, quiet layer of ocean at the very same time. It's also possible that both boats were so quiet, they couldn't hear each other - even with their exceptionally sensitive underwater passive sonar gear. If so, it was really bad luck.

How dangerous was this?
Going down in a nuclear sub is not a good way to die. First and foremost, we need to be grateful that the crew members of both ships made it home safely. Living in a tin can, nearly a thousand feet underwater, is a job for a very special and very brave sailor. But once we take a moment to be thankful the crews are safe, we need to consider the boats' payloads.

Let's first add up the scary. We have two nuclear-powered submarines, so we have nuclear reactors and the associated reactor fuel. Then we have 32 nuclear missiles, with a possible total 96 warheads. Had the crash been worse, these all would have been spilled onto the ocean floor.

There are three risk factors: explosion, contamination, and salvage.

The scariest possibility is nuclear explosion, but, fortunately, it's virtually impossible that a crash or sinking at sea could result in a nuclear detonation. Creating nuclear explosions is hard and it requires a very specific, very controlled confluence of events. A disaster at sea couldn't cause those events to happen and so it's pretty nearly impossible for a detonation to happen in these circumstances.

Contamination is another matter. While all the containment vessels for nuclear material are engineered to be extremely strong, it is possible something could have gotten ripped open and let nuclear contaminants into the ocean. Because nuclear material is kept in very robust containers, it is relatively unlikely (but possible) that such an accident could cause contamination.

And that leads us to the question of salvage. Could terrorists or other interested parties salvage a Broken Arrow (a missing nuke) for their own use? The answer is yes, but not likely.

Nuclear weapons have been lost in the past. The Brookings Institution reports that 11 U.S. nuclear bombs have been lost in accidents and never recovered (and other countries have likely lost some as well).

There is one known incident where a U.S. nuclear bomb was lost and later recovered and this could prove instructive. In January, 1966, a U.S. B-52G bomber and a KC-135 refueling tanker collided over Palomares, Spain, dropping a hydrogen bomb into the ocean. The bomb was recovered in 2,850 feet of water, but it cost $182 million dollars to do so - in 1966 dollars. In today's dollars, based on the nominal GDP per capita, that recovery would have cost more than $2 billion dollars.

Without advanced equipment and a navy, it's unlikely a terrorist organization could mount the effort to salvage a lost nuke - especially when the nuclear power who lost it was also looking for it.

So where does that leave the HMS Vanguard and the Le Triomphant? The ships are both back in port, headed for a an expensive repair process. There will be a lot of inquiries, and a lot of folks in both the UK and France will advocate the elimination of their countries' boomer force. Officers on the Vanguard and Triomphant will have to explain their incredibly bad luck, and it's possible that the communication and coordination protocols between these two NATO members will be examined for flaws.

In the end, the two countries will repair and relaunch their two boomers. After all, MAD or not, there are still crazy people out there and nuclear deterrence, as unpalatable as it might be, is still a cornerstone strategy of wealthier members of the exclusive nuclear club.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

Filed under: 360° Radar • David Gewirtz
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Lewis Clark

    As the author wrote in his article, Boomers do not play cat and mouse games while on patrol. I speak from direct experience (8 deterrent patrols). I agree with Mr. Maloney that this is a very rational and factual article. No Tom Clancy maneuvering here.

    February 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm |
  2. Robert Maloney

    A well informed thoughtful article on this thankfully minor incident. The author has done his homework. It's refreshing to see an article on this subject based on rational & factual Data.

    February 18, 2009 at 3:04 pm |
  3. Mike, Syracuse NY

    As a former submariner I can say that there are several likely scenarios for a cause. Just like commercial aircraft are assigned different altitudes (verticle separation) or kept apart geographically (horizontal separation) the same is true of subs; it's called prevention of mutual interference. Each area of the world has an authority that assigns waterspace to each allied sub. Two subs should not be assigned the same depth zone in the same geographic area at the same time. That leaves several possibilities:
    a) The French, who are notoriously uncooperative, failed to notify NATO where their sub was, probably on purpose.
    b) Someone screwed up and DID assign 2 subs to the same place at the same time. I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty. Usually nothing happens, other than someone getting their butt chewed off.
    c) One of the subs screwed up and was out of their assigned area. Infrequent, but possible. I'd bet on the French here again, as the British are much more squared away.

    February 18, 2009 at 1:59 pm |
  4. CAP

    Earle should reread the article. As a former ballistic missile submariner, I can vouch for the fact ballistic submarines are not in the business of hunting each other, any more than you would expect a doe (female deer) to hunt another. That would be 100% inconsistent with the mission of these boats. Their job is to hide and not be found, so that they can be assured of being free to fire their missiles should the dreaded order to do so ever come, that being the sole reason they are there in the first place. Between submarines, they are prey, not predators. The only time they do anything else – barring the aftermath of full-scale nuclear war, when anything might happen – is strictly for training purposes, and there has been no report that these boats were engaged in any such operations a the time of this occurence, as would be expected if thaey had been. It's too bad that the public is unlikely ever to learn exactly why this happened, owing to the tight security that surrounds the operations of these boats.

    February 18, 2009 at 1:19 pm |
  5. sharique makani from tx

    remember to tell your son that you will arive late for dinner and his wedding

    February 18, 2009 at 12:09 pm |
  6. earle,florida

    There is a unwritten law if you read between the lines in "Jane",that the world's nuclear sub arsenals are constantly having cat-n-mouse games, testing each other technology (cunning) since their inception! They cruise through our ports ,and harbors through-out our coast line undetected at a kilometers distance. This happens with-in all countries,and is just an unfortunate embarrassment for the aforementioned countries,...

    February 18, 2009 at 12:07 pm |
  7. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    To the responsible person: Grab your ears firmly and pull with all your might.

    February 18, 2009 at 11:53 am |