The United Kingdom and France have been close allies for more than 100 years. But in the modern era, even close allies can suffer unfortunate accidents.
Such was the case in February 2009, when two submarines, each carrying nuclear missiles, collided while submerged on operational patrols in the Atlantic Ocean. Both the Royal Navy’s HMS Vanguard and Marine Nationale’s Le Triomphant were able to return to port under their own power following the collision.
There was also “no compromise to nuclear safety,” the defense ministries of the two nations said in statements. Each boat was reportedly carrying 16 ballistic missiles at the time of the incident, which was described as a “one-in-a-million occurrence” given the expanse of the oceans and the low number of submarines that carry ballistic missiles at any given time.
Poor Communication Among Allies
The collision occurred sometime on Feb. 3 or 4. It was apparently the result of a lack of communication between Paris and other NATO nations. Neither submarine was aware of the other’s location, even though NATO operates a traffic-control system that alerts allied nations of the deployment zones of friendly submarines.
The system was developed to avoid collisions just such as this one. But France was not part of NATO’s military command structure, and as a result, it did not provide information on the location of its mobile nuclear arms to the system. Both of the submarines were equipped with stealth anti-sonar technology, which apparently proved quite effective.
Though no one was injured and both subs returned to their respective nations for repairs, nuclear disarmament proponents still noted that it was the most significant incident involving a nuclear submarine since the sinking of the Russian Navy’s Kursk in 2000, which resulted in the loss of the vessel’s entire 118-man crew.
Experts at the time of the incident suggested the potential consequences were grave. A nuclear explosion was unlikely. But the collision could have resulted in a radioactive leak, as well as the complete loss of the crews and warheads.
Tale of Two Submarines
The HMS Vanguard was launched in 1992 and remains one of four submarines contributing to the UK’s nuclear deterrent. The sub’s firepower includes sixteen Trident II D5 missiles capable of delivering multiple warheads to targets up to a range of 4,000 nautical miles. She has a crew of 141.
Le Triomphant, which was launched in 1994, entered service in 1997 with a crew of 111. The French boat’s weapons include sixteen M45 missiles capable of launching multiple nuclear warheads.
The British boat returned to the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine base, Faslane, in Scotland, while the French vessel was taken to Brest in northwestern France with extensive damage to its sonar dome. Bth submarines were quickly repaired, and each is still in service.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.