British and French newspapers reported early this week that two of their submarines collided two weeks ago:
The Ministry of Defence was under intense pressure last night to explain how the [HMS] Vanguard, which can carry 48 nuclear warheads on 16 missiles, had managed to crash into Le Triomphant - payload 16 missiles - in an incident which some experts say could have caused a nuclear catastrophe.
The underwater collision happened earlier this month and was at low speed, and no injuries were reported among the total of 240 sailors on the two boats. However some damage was done to both, though officials stressed that none of their nuclear equipment had been damaged.
Three things occurred to me reading about this incident, which the news organizations I consulted don't appear to have grasped:
Ballistic missile submarines patrol at speeds under 4 knots. They're exponentially more detectable at higher speeds. So it follows that the damage they did to each other was very light, because if they'd been moving fast enough to cause more damage, they'd have heard each other.
You can't detonate a nuclear weapon by hitting it, so any environmental risk comes from the reactors powering the boats. However, I think it's important to weigh those risks against (a) the (very small) risk of a nuclear attack on France and the UK that these boats deter, and (b) the routine punishing damage that the merchant fleets of the world do to the oceans every minute. Remember the Exxon Valdez disater, the Amoco Cadiz disaster, and the ongoing disaster of 1.1 million liters of wastewater a typical cruise ship discharges every day.
Notice how neither France nor the UK will say where or exactly when the collision occurred? If they won't even tell each other where their subs patrol, of course they won't tell anyone else. My question: what are they targeting? Typically you put submarines just a few hundred kilometers from their targets. Right now, for example, I would bet money that there are U.S. subs inside the Sea of Japan and Russian subs closer to Los Angeles than L.A. is to Fresno. Everyone knows who the U.S. and Russia are pointing missiles at. Who's France pointing at? Britain? (Read that either "At Britain?" or "And Britain?", your choice.)
Curious. Very curious.