Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Last Friday there was a collision between two US warships in the Strait of Hormuz. The strait is the narrowest choke-point between the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The submarine USS Hartford and The Amphibious troop ship USS New Orleans were both entering the Gulf early in the morning. More pictures at this location.

Apparently, Hartford was running submerged at periscope depth--on a Los Angeles class sub, that means the keel was about 65 feet below the surface, making the top of the sail just beneath the surface--Hartford could have been at, ascending to, or diving from, periscope depth at the time. There is some question as to whether the search periscope was raised to watch surface traffic or not at the time of the collision. This would have been normal and expected given the depth of the sub. However, given the condition of the Sail after the collision, and the fact that neither of the periscopes can now be moved, it is probable the sub was traveling down-scope at the time.

A look at a chart of the Strait of Hormuz shows that it is not only narrow but curving. Based on the photos and the submarine's depth it seems that the sub and ship crossed paths at a shallow angle during the turn through the Strait. New Orleans' bulbous sonar dome, located at the bottom of the bow, seems to have struck the port side of Hartford's sail, crushing the hardened steel and ripping the structure from its weld points on the hull of the submarine. Remember, those sails are hardened, designed to smash through several feet of arctic ice. Unconfirmed reports say the blow caused the submarine to roll over an incredible 80+ degrees--for the geometrically challenged, that is almost flat on her side.

There is a whole boatload of speculation as to HOW and WHY this could have happened. Lots of armchair quarterbacking and finger-pointing, too. I am not qualified to comment on that. The facts are, the Strait is an extremely narrow, shallow and dangerous passage. It is only 150 feet deep and Los Angeles class boats are some 360 feet long. 150 feet may sound deep but that is tight for such a submarine. Submarines do not normally dive on leaving port until there is somewhere above a thousand feet of ocean beneath the keel. The older boats were designed for the deeps, not the shallows,

Hartford was most likely running submerged because the Navy prefers submarines to remain covert throughout deployment. That way no one knows if a sub is present in the area of operations or not. This operational necessity has proven costly before. But it simply may be a continuing fact of life aboard subs. I have read comments by submariners indicating that the strait is a vile place to travel. Since it appears New Orleans was coming up on the Hartford from astern, this presents another problem. Submarines are acoustically blind from the rear. Since the periscopes were apparently down at the time, the ship-control team might not have known the other ship was closing their position at all.

Fifteen crewmen aboard the sub received injuries--thank God none of them are reported as life-threatening, and the sub made it to safe harbor in Bahrain. No one on New Orleans was injured though a fuel tank was ruptured. It should be stressed that the nuclear reactor was undamaged and even rode out the shock and roll without scramming. Sadly, heads will roll over this. Captains and navigators rarely survive such collisions with their careers intact. Even sailors having nothing to do with the collision will have to deal with the political fallout over the next several months. It will be interesting to see if the sail can be repaired in the Middle East or if the Navy will have to ship Hartford Home like they did USS Cole, a decade ago.

The good news is that both crews survived, attesting to the hardiness of our warship construction. The sobering news is that life in the military is inherently dangerous. We owe our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines a great, unpaid debt. Please pray for the continued safety of these crews and all our warriors around the world.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I know subs can't hear much astern, but ships are so loud I find it surprising they didn't notice something. Whatever, that's gotta sting.