December 21, 2011: The captain of an American SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile sub) was relieved of command because his boat, while surfacing, almost collided with an approaching merchant ship. The captain was accused of not adequately training and supervising his crew for surfacing operations. What happened here was that one of the crew misread an instrument and thought the merchant ship was moving away from the sub, when it was actually moving towards them. Such collisions are not all that rare. In fact, the one thing subs have to constantly be trained to avoid is collisions while under water. Thus dismissing captains for being sloppy in the department is meant to encourage other captains to avoid making the same mistake.
Such collisions are not uncommon and they don't always involve a surface ship. For example, last year three British submarine officers, including the captain, were court martialed for negligence. The three pled guilty and admitted that they screwed up and allowed their boat, the HMS Superb, to collide, on May 26, 2006, with underwater rocks that were clearly marked on charts. The sub suffered damage to the bow and sonar and was not repaired, because the boat was scheduled to be decommissioned shortly afterward anyway, after 32 years of service.
The officers admitted that the error was made because they misread the charts (maps of the underwater terrain). Thus when the sub dived the captain ordered it to submerge to 250 meters (where the sub could move faster in the cooler water). But there was a sea mount (underwater mountain) in the way that was only 132 meters beneath the surface. However, the officers had misread the chart, seeing 732 meters instead of 132. Thus the sub ran right into the sea mount. While convicted the three officers continue on active duty. Their promotion prospects are, however, much diminished. Any one of the three could have noted the misreading of 732, but none did.
The Superb collision was one of many recently that have occurred because the crew was not paying enough attention. Two years ago, for example, a Chinese sub collided with a sonar array being towed behind a U.S. destroyer. Around the same time, a U.S. sub collided with an American amphibious ship in the Persian Gulf (where American subs have suffered two other such incidents in the previous five years). Three years ago, an Indian sub, while surfacing near Mumbai, collided with a merchant ship. Six years ago, an American sub, travelling at high speed in the Pacific, collided with an underwater seamount. In one of the most unusual incidents, two years ago, British and French SSBNs (missile carrying subs) collided with each other while travelling slowly, and submerged, in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
Subs underwater are running blind, as most depend on passive sensors the majority of the time. You have to turn on your active sensor (broadcasting sonar, which makes a noise that reveals your position to anyone listening). Constant attention must be paid to charts and electronic location devices. Crews are intensively trained to stay sharp and be careful when travelling submerged. But it's difficult to keep everyone sharp all the time, and that's what leads to many of these collisions.
The Golden Age of submarine collisions was during the Cold War (1948-91). Once Russia began building nuclear subs in the 1960s and putting them to sea often and for long periods, there were lots of collisions. Well, about one every two years. Most involved at least one Russian boat. The problem was that the Russians had pretty poor sonar so they were the equivalent of half blind under water. From the 1970s on, the U.S. has increasingly superior sonar compared to the Russians. This led to the more collisions involving Russian and U.S. boats. It also saw the invention, by the Russians, of the "Crazy Ivan" maneuver. This occurred when an American sub was stalking a Russian one (often an American SSN keeping tabs on a Russian SSBN). The U.S. boat would stay in the Russian sub's "blind spot" (behind its propeller). But sometimes the Russians would suspect they were being stalked, or just wanted to make sure they were not, and would perform the "Crazy Ivan" maneuver, which involved upping speed and making a sharp turn. The U.S. sub would have to quickly get out of the way or there would be, and sometimes was, a collision.
Most of the collisions during this period involved Russian subs bumping into other Russian subs, or inanimate objects (icebergs, oil rigs). Western boats had far fewer collisions because they had better sonar, and better trained and more experienced crews. There are few Russians subs at sea these days, so most of the collisions are by Western subs which now dominate the ocean depths.