Much ink is flowing concerning the collision on the night of Feb. 3 between French and British submarines, each of which was carrying 16 ballistic missiles, with commentators stressing that the incident underlines the need for the three NATO nations with submarines of this type – Britain, France and the United States – to seek new accords on the secrecy that made the collision possible.
Le Triomphant, photo credit: French Navy
But these nations are likely to be very reluctant to share information on the whereabouts of thier subs, according to Lee Willett of the Royal United Services Institute in London who is quoted by AFP. “These are the strategic crown jewels of the nation. The whole purpose of a sea-based nuclear deterrent is to hide somewhere far out of sight. They are the ultimate tools of national survival in the event of war. Therefore, it’s the very last thing you would share with anybody.”
Commentators all agree that Britain's HMS Vanguard and France's Le Triomphant, both about the same size and age, more than just brushed past each other because neither knew the other was there. “The Triomphant makes no more noise than a shrimp,” commented France's Defense Miniser Hervé Morin, while a senior French naval officer commented that the Triomphant generation of subs is 1,000 times quieter than the previous generation and cannot be heard above the ambient sound of the sea.
The Triomphant's fibreglass sonar dome was shattered in the collision while the Vanguard returned to its home base in Scotland with “very visible dents and scrapes,” according to British press reports.
Both British and French navies say the vessels were moving at “very low speed”, at just four-and-a-half miles an hour, with active sonars off and passive ones on, when they collided, probably somewhere in the Bay of Biscay.
Arrangements between France and Britain for closer cooperation between their navies and a possible carving up of deployment zones for their nuclear-armed submarines patrols were formalised in September 2000 in the UK-French Bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement which called for port visits by the subs and regular exchanges on nuclear policy. But experts say the agreement probably did not include revealing the precise location of the subs. Hans Kristensen is quoted by Time Magazine as saying that “the fact that the collision occurred at all indicates that the two allies need to talk more.” And indeed, Morin said on February 17 that “one of the solutions is to talk with the British about patrol zones.”
And the situation is unlikely to change even when France rejoins NATO's military command structure at the NATO summit in April. NATO operates a traffic-control system that alerts allied nations to the deployment zones of friendly submarines, specifically to avoid such collisions. But NATO's nuclear-armed submarines do not adhere to this system. “France uses the same procedure with regard to its submarine fleet as all other allies,” according to a NATO statement. Which means France, Britain and the United States – and logically absolutely nobody else either – ever know where each other's nuclear-deterrent subs are.
And although one might wonder how two relatively small vessels could bump into each other in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, most navies use the same quiet, deep areas of the Ocean to hide in.
HMS Vanguard. Photo credit: Royal Navy