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French, UK nuclear submarines in Atlantic collision

4 min

The Royal Navy has confirmed that Britain's HMS Vanguard and France's Le Triomphant nuclear-powered submarines, which were both carrying nuclear weapons, collided earlier this month in the Atlantic Ocean.


AFP - British and French nuclear submarines collided in the middle of the Atlantic earlier this month, officials admitted Monday, while insisting the embarrassing accident had not posed an atomic risk.

In what experts called an unprecedented incident, Britain's HMS Vanguard and France's Le Triomphant hit each other deep underwater in the middle of the ocean on February 4, according to British press reports.

The crash caused damage but no leaks from the vessels. Each is some 150 metres (490 feet) long and can carry up to 48 nuclear warheads on a maximum of 16 missiles. A total of 250 sailors were onboard at the time.

Confirming the reports, Britain's First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathan Band said the submarines "were conducting routine ... patrols in the Atlantic Ocean.

"Recently, the two submarines came into contact at very low speed. Both submarines remained safe and no injuries occurred," he told reporters.

"We can confirm that the capability remained unaffected and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety."

The British sub returned to its Faslane base in western Scotland under its own power on Saturday, he said, where it is reportedly undergoing repairs.

France's defence ministry said on February 6 that Le Triomphant was damaged when it hit an object, possibly a sinking cargo container, while submerging. It returned to base at Ile-Longue, near Brest in northwest France.

The sonar dome on the front of the vessel was damaged, the navy said at the time, adding the incident had not resulted in injuries among the crew and did not jeopardise nuclear security at any time.

On Monday, the French navy confirmed a British submarine was involved.

"This is the first incident of its kind in more than 400 patrols that we have carried out," navy spokesman Captain Jerome Erulin told AFP.

Stephen Saunders of military information group Jane's said there were three possible causes.

The first was a possible procedural error: the submarines should have been subject to "NATO waterspace management" which "deconflicts" such incidents, even if France is not part of NATO's military command structure, he said.

Secondly the two vessels may not have been able to hear each other because of high-tech engineering designed to make them undetectable to enemies.

Thirdly was simple bad luck. "Even if two submarines do find themselves in the same area, it is still bad luck to have run into each other -- i.e. to be in the same place at the same depth," Saunders said.

France and Britain are two of the world's five declared nuclear powers, along with the United States, China and Russia.

France has maintained a sea-based nuclear deterrent force since 1971 and currently has three nuclear-armed submarines in operation. A fourth will come into service next year.

HMS Vanguard, launched in 1992, is one of four British nuclear submarines, one of which is always on deterrent patrol.

Britain is planning to renew the system, named Trident, at a cost of about 20 billion pounds (now 30 billion dollars, 22 billion euros).

A French anti-nuclear group meanwhile attacked military authorities for taking so long to admit the collision.

"It appears obvious that once again the first reflex of the nuclear lobby is to hide the truth," said Sortir du Nucleaire (Get Out of Nuclear).

"Nothing therefore has changed since the state lies about the Chernobyl cloud" in 1986, when the nuclear reactor in Ukraine melted down and sent a cloud of radioactive pollution into the atmosphere, it added.

Saunders said the collision highlighted a serious management issue. "The damage, while embarrassing, can be repaired. No doubt there are a number of technical issues to be investigated," he said.

"But the root of the problem appears to be procedural. These submarines should not have been in the same place at the same time."

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