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U.S. Navy, Don S. Montgomery
Undated photo of the USS Hartford.

US Naval Vessels Collide in Strait of Hormuz

March 20, 2009 01:45 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
A U.S. Navy submarine and an amphibious ship collided in the Strait of Hormuz on March 20, 2009, causing a fuel spill.

Nuclear Submarine Involved

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Bloomberg reported that 15 sailors from the submarine "were slightly injured" in the incident, but have returned to duty.

An official from the Defense Department told FOX News, "it appears the two vessels were not in communication before they collided." The Hartford, a nuclear submarine, was fully submerged at the time.

In a statement, the Navy indicated that the propulsion plant on the Hartford was not compromised, Bloomberg wrote. However, a fuel tank ruptured on the USS New Orleans, dumping 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel in the Persian Gulf.

Both vessels are going to port under their own power for repairs.

According to Bloomberg, approximately 20 percent of the world's oil is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. FOX News stated that oil prices rose after the collision occurred.

Background: Collision in the Atlantic

In February 2009, French and British nuclear submarines collided in the Atlantic Ocean, causing many to debate the event’s significance and question how it could happen.

British and French officials have said the HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant were “conducting routine patrols” when they collided in the North Atlantic earlier in February, FOX News reported. Both submarines are equipped with nuclear missiles.

Officials are now assessing how the accident could have happened.

It’s possible that the two vessels were not aware of each other’s presence. John Pike, who directs GlobalSecurity.org, told FOX News that two types of sonar submarines could be used underwater: passive and active.

Submarines carrying nuclear weapons frequently use passive sonar to be as quiet as possible. Both the French and British navies said their ships were “running silently.”

The British military said the submarines hit at “very low speeds,” Bloomberg noted, and the vessels were still safe. A statement by the French military echoed that message: “Neither their missions nor their nuclear safety were affected.”

“Both the reactors and the missiles are built in such a way that they can withstand extreme shock,” Bruno Tertrais, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, said. “I’d class this one as a fender bender.”

But Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, characterized the situation more seriously. “This is a nuclear nightmare of the highest order,” she said. “The collision of two submarines, both with nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons on board, could have released vast amounts of radiation and scattered scores of nuclear warheads across the seabed.”

A former British submarine commander said that a lack of communication between France and NATO nations may have contributed to the problem, Time magazine reported. A French navy official has “partially corroborated” that claim.
 
To help avoid collisions like this one, NATO maintains a traffic control system to inform allied countries of the presence of “friendly submarines.” France is not currently part of NATO’s military command, and does not offer information about “the location of its mobile nuclear arms.”

Time noted that the country is set to rejoin the military structure in April, but “the French say they will not budge” on matters of nuclear arms secrecy.

Historical Context: The first nuclear submarine

Construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine was authorized by the United States Congress in 1951. By 1955, the USS Nautilus was ready to launch, and spent the next several years breaking “all submerged speed and distance records,” according to the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum. After logging more than 500,000 miles, the Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980. The Nautilus was eventually declared a National Historic Landmark, and was placed on display at the Submarine Force Museum in 1986.

Reference: Nuclear submarines

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