A secret collision between British and Soviet submarines could’ve turned out much worse

Soviet Delta III-class ballistic-missile submarine
A Soviet Delta III-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, seen in August 1982.

  • On May 23, 1981 a Soviet submarine and a British submarine collided in the Arctic.
  • The accident heavily damaged both submarines, but it could’ve been fatal.
  • Except for a few accounts by sailors involved, the incident has been kept quiet for 40 years.
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On May 23, 1981 the Soviet submarine K-211 Petropavlovsk cruised quietly at 9 knots, 150 feet below the surface of the Arctic Barents Sea.

The huge 155-meter-long Delta III (or Kalmar)-class submarine was distinguished by the large boxy compartment on its spine which accommodated the towering launch tubes for 16 R-29R ballistic missiles, each carrying three independent nuclear warheads.

K-211’s mission was hair-raisingly straightforward: to cruise undetected for weeks or months at a time, awaiting only the signal that a nuclear war had broken out to unleash its apocalyptic payload from underwater on Western cities and military bases up to four thousand miles away.

British and American nuclear-power attack submarines (SSNs), or “hunter-killers,” were routinely dispatched to detect Soviet ballistic missiles subs (SSBNs) leaving from base to discreetly stalk them.

The quieter SSNs also awaited only a signal of war, an event in which they would attempt to torpedo the Soviet subs before they could unleash their city-destroying weapons.

Mindful of this threat, at half past seven that evening K-211’s commander halted his sub and pivoted it around so that its MGK-400 Rubikon bow sonar array could attempt to pick up any submarines sneaking behind it in the ‘blind spot’ of its wake – a maneuver known as “clearing the baffles.” However, the SSBN’s hydrophones did not report any contact.

In his book “Hunter Killers: The Dramatic Untold Story of the Royal Navy’s Most Secret Service,” Iain Ballentyne described what happened shortly afterwards:

“… at 19.51, the Soviet SSBN juddered as she sustained three short glancing impacts astern and from below, each lasting only a few seconds.

Immediately ordering the boat to periscope depth, the Delta III’s sonar team detect propeller noise on a bearing 127 degrees. The contact was judged to be a submarine.

Soviet Delta III-class submarine firing missiles
A rendering of a Soviet Delta III-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine firing SS-N-18 missiles, 1987.

Having ascended to achieve separation, K-211 also turned to starboard, but the contact was lost within a couple of minutes.”

The Soviet submarine surfaced and found that something had scraped off the rubber sound-dampening anechoic tiles lining the submarine’s stern and damaged its rear hydroplane. Furthermore, fragments of metal – undoubtedly from a Western submarine – were embedded in its right screw and even had punctured its rear ballast tank. K-211’s right screw had to be replaced and its rear stabilizing fin repaired.

A Soviet investigation subsequently concluded the metal had likely come from a US Navy Sturgeon-class attack submarine ascending from below and to the rear.

The Soviet commission might have been highly interested in British press reports later that year that the Royal Navy’s hunter-killer submarine Sceptre had returned to base in Devonport with damage from a collision from a “detached glacier.”

Only a decade later in September 1991, the Sceptre’s former weapons officer David Forghan described very different circumstances for the accident when interviewed on the television program This Week.

Sceptre, or SS-104, was the fourth of six Swiftsure-class nuclear-powered attack submarines launched by Vickers in the 1970s.

The Swiftsures were shorter at 83 meters and broader than the UK’s first-generation Churchill-class SSNs, and boasted retractable diving fins on their bows instead of on their conning towers. All but the lead ship used a shrouded pump-jet propulsor instead of a conventional propeller for quieter running and had their internal mechanisms isolated with rubber to further decrease acoustic signature.

That May, the Sceptre had been trailing K-211 for some time using her Type 2001 sonar, which had an underwater detection range 25 to 30 miles or 6 to 17 miles while moving fast, when it abruptly lost its sonar contact – around when K-211 shifted its position to clear its baffles. The British submarine continued cruising ahead when its bow smashed into K-211’s tail from below.

One of the Soviet submarine’s five-bladed propellers chewed into the front hull casing of the Sceptre, tearing a 23-foot long chunk off its bow and ripping off the front of its conning tower.

In “The Silent Deep,” by James Jinks and Peter Hennesy, one officer recalled:

“It started very far forward, sort of at the tip of the submarine, and it trailed back. It sounded like a scrawling. We were hitting something. That noise lasted for what seemed like a lifetime. It was probably on a couple of seconds or so. Everybody went white.”

Normally, such damage would have triggered an automatic shutdown of the submarine’s reactor, but Sceptre’s captain engaged a “battle short” – a manual override of the safety system for emergencies – to keep his 5,500-ton submarine under control. Emergency bulkheads were sealed as the wounded submarine fled the scene, believing itself to be pursued by a Soviet submarine for two days.

British submarine HMS Superb
HMS Superb, a Swiftsure-class submarine, on the Clyde in Scotland, May 20, 1993.

Chief Petty Officer Michael Cundell recounted in “The Silent Deep,” “We just made a sharp exit and escaped under the ice without a trace.”

Upon finally surfacing, the British submariners discovered the horrifying extent of the damage, as Cundell described:

“That tear started about three inches from the forward escape hatch [Cundell]. If that hatch had been hit or damaged – it’s about 2’6″ in diameter – if that had been ruptured, then the fore ends would have shipped water which would have made the boat very heavy. We would have probably sunk.”

Sceptre limped back to its home base of Devonport at night to conceal the damage, its scars camouflaged with a fabric shroud and black paint applied by the crew.

In port, fragments from the Russian propeller that had partially penetrated the pressure hull had to be removed. The Royal Navy meanwhile peddled the glacier-collision story to the media.

After months of repairs, Sceptre finally returned to the sea that fall, now under Capt. Doug Littlejohns. In the wake of the terrifying accident, he recalled, “The submarine was broken and so was the crew.” To build back crew confidence, he took them out on a white-knuckle practice run performing deep dives and fast maneuvers.

Both K-211 and Sceptre served roughly three more decades after the accident. K-211 remained part of Russia’s smaller SSBN fleet until she was decommissioned in 2013, when the first new pump-jet propelled Borei­-class began to replace the older Deltas. K-211’s nuclear fuel was finally removed in December 2018, and she was moved to Bolshoy Kamen for scrapping in 2019.

Sceptre was involved in several notorious accidents, suffering an onboard fire, snagging Swedish fishermens’ nets and leaping out of her cradle in port during an engine test. Her pump-jet propulsor reportedly had ingested debris from K-211 that left it noisier than usual during certain performance regimes.

She was the oldest operational vessel in the Royal Navy when she was finally decommissioned in 2010. Currently, Sceptre is in long-term storage, as the Royal Navy has been unable to pay for the defueling of a single decommissioned submarine since 2004.

According to Ballentyne, “To this day the Ministry of Defence will not admit the truth.” Questioned by an MP, a minister “skillfully evaded confirming or denying there had been a collision involving the Sceptre, or for that matter, any other British submarine.”

In fact, such collisions are far from isolated incidents. Aside from numerous collisions with commercial traffic, there have been other scarier run-ins between nuclear-powered submarines, such as two incidents involving Russian and US Navy submarines in the early 1990s, and the collision of French Triomphant and British HMS Vanguard in 2009.

Today, submariners continue to stalk each other deep in the oceanic depths, tracking and studying potential foes, thereby practicing the skills they would use in times of war. It’s a dangerous mission – and most navies prefer to keep any of the mishaps that inevitably occur as far as the public eye as possible.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the US. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

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With close military encounters on opposite sides of the world, Russia is sending a message to the West

The British Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender arrives in the Black Sea port of Batumi on June 26, 2021.
British destroyer HMS Defender in the Black Sea port of Batumi, June 26, 2021.

  • Russia’s military had close encounters with its US and European rivals in the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean in June.
  • The incidents and exercises were messages about Russia’s military capabilities, experts told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Close encounters between Russia’s military and US and European forces in June were signals from Moscow to its rivals about its capabilities and how it was willing to use them, experts said this month.

On June 23, Russian combat aircraft flew over the British destroyer HMS Defender as it conducted an “innocent passage” near Crimea.

Russia claimed it fired warning shots and dropped bombs near the warship, which the UK denied, though the British defense minister said Russian jets performed maneuvers that were “neither safe nor professional.”

In the same area a day later, Russian jets repeatedly flew close to Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten while conducting mock attacks, creating what the Dutch Defense Ministry called “a dangerous situation.”

Eversten’s commander said it was in international waters and that the Russian actions were “irresponsible and unsafe.”

Those incidents have “a larger message,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

A Russian fighter jet flying past the HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea
A Russian fighter jet flying past the Dutch frigate HNLMS Eversten in the Black Sea, June 24, 2021.

“Moscow is increasingly willing and able to enforce what it sees as territorial and operational red lines, and Crimea and the Black Sea are a major focus of attention,” Rojansky told Insider.

Tensions remain high after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, and Moscow has sought to “set the precedent” that it controls its territorial claims there, Rojansky said, citing the 2018 Kerch Strait incident.

“All this traces back to Putin’s words in March 2014, when he justified the Russian seizure of Crimea as being about keeping NATO out,” Rojansky added.

Russia’s military drilled around Crimea throughout the end of June and early July, focusing on attacking the ships of “a notional enemy.” The US- and Ukrainian-led exercise Sea Breeze also kicked off in late June and was the largest iteration in its 21-year history, with 32 countries participating.

Moscow described Sea Breeze as “openly anti-Russian,” but US and NATO officials stressed that it was defensive in nature and done in accordance with international law.

“It’s one of the most robust Sea Breeze exercises we’ve conducted to date, and we’re proud of that,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said July 6.

F-35 fighter jet over HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier
Aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth during an exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, June 2021.

The Black Sea incidents also overlapped with Russian and British-led exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailing with US F-35B fighter jets aboard, conducted exercises and combat operations against ISIS during the final days of June.

US and British jets found themselves in a “cat-and-mouse” game with Russia, which angled to keep an eye on them as Russian warships and aircraft conducted reconnaissance and air-defense drills.

Their proximity was not a coincidence, according to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA.

Russia has deployed more forces to its improved military facilities in Syria, while the UK is putting HMS Queen Elizabeth, its newest carrier, through real-world testing during its maiden deployment.

“A force-on-force interaction that’s not planned is probably one the best ways to generate these kind of lessons and experience for the Royal Navy,” Kofman said on a recent podcast, adding that Russia used “the British deployment as an opportunity to essentially … train strike missions against NATO ships.”

‘Ready and present’

The Russian navy Varyag missile cruiser ensuring air defence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Russian guided-missile cruiser Varyag.

Mid-June also saw a major Russian exercise in the central Pacific Ocean, with warships and aircraft conducting what Russian officials called their largest exercise there since the Cold War.

Much of their activity was several hundred miles from Hawaii, but US officials said some Russian ships came within 30 nautical miles of the islands.

Russian long-range-bomber operations during the exercise twice prompted US F-22 fighters to scramble for potential intercepts, though US officials said Russian aircraft never came close to Hawaii. (US and Russian aircraft regularly intercept each other over the Pacific.)

The exercise was “unprecedented” in its size and its distance from Russia, according to Carl Shuster, a retired US Navy captain who was director of operations at US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in the 1990s.

“The Soviet Navy never conducted exercises this close to the Hawaiian Islands,” Shuster told Insider.

“The Russian political statement was ‘we’ve returned as a Pacific maritime power and can reach your territory just as you are reaching ours in the Black Sea,'” Shuster added. “The target audience of course was the Russian people and the American leadership.”

US Navy cruiser USS Chosin and Russian Navy destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov
Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, foreground, with US guided-missile cruiser USS Chosin in the Yellow Sea, March 31, 2006.

The Pacific exercise – which took place around the Biden-Putin summit in Switzerland – was also a demonstration of military capability, featuring what Moscow called “the tasks of detecting, countering and delivering missile strikes against an aircraft carrier strike group.”

The ships involved included guided-missile cruiser Varyag, Russia’s Pacific Fleet flagship, and destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, which carries Kalibr missiles, a weapon that worries US commanders and “presented the potential military threat that gave the message credibility,” Shuster said.

US military forces “remain ready and present in the Indo-Pacific,” Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, told Insider, calling it the US’s “priority theater.”

The Russian warships that conducted the Pacific exercise returned to port earlier this month, but encounters between Russian and NATO forces in the Black Sea and the Pacific have continued. Russian officials continue to call the HMS Defender incident a “provocation” and warn about future run-ins.

“Russia will continue to foil such actions using the harshest methods, regardless of the nationality of the violator,” Mikhail Popov, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said this week.

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