04 September 2013
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been forced by the UK Information Commissioner to release a few more details about one of the most serious crashes in the history of nuclear-armed submarines. There is much, however, that the ministry is still keeping secret.
Sometime in the night between 3 and 4 February 2009, somewhere in Atlantic Ocean, the Royal Navy’s HMS Vanguard collided with the French navy’s FNS Le Triomphant. Both boats usually carry nuclear weapons.
Ministers were privately briefed on the crash investigation by MoD officials on 23 March 2009. “The shock received and logged by the strategic weapons system in this incident were within normal tolerable limits,” they were told.
“As a department, we should be consistent and robust that this was an unfortunate and highly unlikely accident involving two vessels operating totally independently as they conducted national deterrent patrols.”
The tone of the briefing was reassuring. It said: “Nuclear propulsion and weapons safety was not compromised during this incident. The nuclear system is robust and designed to withstand shock and has considerable redundancy, as would be expected in a war fighting vessel.”
The MoD has never fully explained why the collision occurred, or what damage it caused. The three pages newly released under freedom of information law don’t shed any light on either question.
An internal report on the collision on 27 February 2009 revealed that evidence was taken from the submarine’s crew and commanding officer. Investigators also reviewed signal logs, records of the incident, and 'black box' type computer data from the submarine.
Before the accident, Vanguard had undertaken “a standard package of pre-patrol training”, the report said. The sonar team on board were said to be “the strongest of operators” and to have “performed well at sea”.
Despite apparently finding no problems, the MoD investigators did make made a number of high-level strategic and operational recommendations “associated with this incident”. None of the recommendations, however, have been released.
Another briefing for ministers on 17 February 2009, the day after the story had broken in the media, confirmed that Vanguard’s crew was safe and that the submarine’s reactor and nuclear warheads had not been damaged in the collision.
The MoD’s policy of keeping at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol at all times, known as continuous at sea deterrence, had not be broken, the briefing said. It also reported that “a press line has been agreed with ministers and shared with the French.”
The agreed line was that the two submerged submarines had come “into contact at very low speed” during “routine national patrols in the Atlantic Ocean”. There had been “no compromise to nuclear safety” and Vanguard had returned to the Faslane naval base on the Clyde “under her own power”.
The statement ended: “As you would expect, the MoD takes this incident very seriously and a thorough review is underway. We will act on any lessons that might be identified.”
The MoD documents were obtained by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), which monitors military nuclear activities. It suggested that the accident had been reviewed by the Franco-British Joint Nuclear Commission.
There had also been speculation, NIS said, that “efforts have been made to include the French navy in 'water space management' arrangements between the Royal Navy and the US Navy which are aimed at preventing submarine collisions.”