British Warship Tangles With Russian Sub In The Arctic

A close encounter between a Royal Navy warship and a Russian submarine culminated with the sub colliding with he ship’s towed sonar array.

The H.M.S. Northumberland was on routine patrol in the Arctic and stalking the Russian submarine with the aid of its sonar. Type 23 frigates like the Northumberland carry the Sonar 2087 which incorporates low-frequency transmitters and microphones . Such arrays can be more than a kilometer long; their size allows them to pinpoint the exact range and distance of submarines. Type 2087 is said to be able to detect subs before they can get close enough to attack.

The incident occurred when a British television crew was on board filming a documentary series Warship: Life at Sea. During the incident, which occurred in late 2020, the submarine’s periscope was spotted on the surface by the Northumberland’s Merlin helicopter. The submarine, a nuclear-powered hunter-killer type, then dived.

During the encounter Commander Thom Hobbs, Northumberland’s captain comments on the soundtrack that: “We are very close to the submarine. We are probably parallel. If they were on the surface, we would definitely see faces.”

Shortly afterwards the submarine collides with the sonar array and a crewman can be heard saying “What the hell was that?”

H.M.S. Northumberland was forced to cut its mission short and return to Scotland for repairs to the damaged sonar. It is not known whether the Russian sub sustained any damage, but Russian submarines carry an array of sensitive instruments on their tower which might have suffered.

Because they cannot be seen, there is always a danger of collision with submarines, especially with sub-on-sub encounters. During the Cold War, when U.S. and allied subs frequently closely trailed Soviet ballistic missile submarines, the Russians would sometimes execute a maneuver known as a ‘Crazy Ivan,’ a sudden U-turn to shake off anyone following in their blind spot. This could result in collisions, for example a Russian sub ran into the U.S.S. Tautog in 1970 while doing a Crazy Ivan.

The collision was unlikely to have been deliberate or reckless. In this case, it was only made public because of the presence of the film crew. There may be many more cat-and-mouse encounters between NATO warships and Russian submarines which do not come to the attention of the media.

“This is unremarkable,” HI Sutton, a submarine expert who runs the Covert Shores site told Forbes. “Except for novelty for the general public.”

When the U.S. nuclear submarine U.S.S. Connecticut recently returned with damage from an underwater collision in South China Sea, the official story was that it had struck an underwater mountain or seamount. Two senior offers were fired as a result.

In the past, many have cast doubt on whether Russia’s submarine force is battle-ready due to a large proportion of boats from the 80’s and 90’s in doubtful condition, and whether the once-mighty fleet had fallen into disrepair. Recent investments may have changed that and produced a force to be reckoned with again, a view that Sutton believes is supported by the evidence of this latest encounter.

“The Royal Navy is increasingly taking Russian Navy submarines seriously again,” says Sutton. “The Royal Navy perspective is that Russian Navy subs are extremely capable and competently operated.”