UK nuclear sub collision raises concerns

HMS Superb, which hit underwater rocks in the Red Sea, has become the fourth British submarine to be involved in an accident in only the last six years. The nuclear-powered vessel was forced to surface in the Suez Canal.

Last year two Royal Navy sailors were killed in an explosion on HMS Tireless. In 2002, HMS Nottingham hit rocks off the Australian coast in an accident that almost sank the vessel. Later that year, HMS Trafalgar hit the seabed off the Isle of Skye, injuring 3 crewmen.

This time it was HMS Superb, which was forced to surface after its sonar system was damaged.

“In this case it seems the submarine hit an uncharted pinnacle and that’s what happens. Unfortunately, all these sorts of operations do carry risks and on this occasion the sonar didn’t pick it up,” said Jason Aldrewick, Maritime Analyst from the Defence Analysis Department, IISS.

Luckily all 112 crew members are safe. The vessel is said to be watertight and remains in international waters of the Red Sea while the Royal Navy works out how to return the vessel to port. The Ministry of Defence hasn't confirmed what type of mission the Superb was on.

As Dr Lee Willett, the Head of the Maritime Studies Programme, RUSI, says, it appears the submarine was on transit through the Suez Canal “perhaps to an operational area supporting operations near Iraq or Afghanistan.” He says submarines are out there operating every day.

“And when you have fewer submarines, as the British have, and you have more and more operations, it’s likely that these things will occur with greater frequency,” he said.

HMS Superb is a nuclear-powered hunter killer submarine and usually carries a standard weapons outfit – Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish torpedoes. Although it is nuclear powered rather than nuclear armed, some members of the British public are concerned.

“We know there have been a number of accidents with these subs over the past few years. And we know there are dangers associated with nuclear power – radiation, pollution. People have a right to be concerned – whether it’s nuclear power on land or at sea,” said Kate Hudson from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence says the submarine’s nuclear reactor is completely unaffected and there is no environmental impact.

“No other vessel, military or civil, was involved in the incident. An investigation into how the grounding occurred is underway and a full board of inquiry will be conducted in due course,” it stated.