According to media reports on happenings in the new Channel 5 TV documentary series on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Northumberland a Russian submarine was in collision with the Duke Class warship.

Though it seems that it was the towed array sonar cable of the Northumberland that scraped along the dived boat’s casing in late 2020, not a crunch between vessels. Here’s a recent image of the frigate by WARSHIPS IFR contributor and editorial team member Stephen Jagger.

HMS Northumberland Image: Steve Jagger

The Daily Mail’s strap for its HMS Northumberland yarn suggests it was the ‘first collision of British & Russian ships since the Cold War.’ Yet one of its own past stories hinted at possible crunch in 2015, as commented on here in one of my web site blogs.  So, was  Northumberland’s encounter actually the first such ‘confirmed’?

A more serious similar episode happened during the Cold War – on Christmas Eve 1986 – when the towed array of the Royal Navy submarine (SSN) HMS Splendid was ripped away by a Russian Typhoon Class SSBN it was trailing.

Questions were asked in Parliament back then. There were suggestions that the tempo of operations on surveillance missions – in waters close to the Soviet Union’s main submarine bases and weapons testing ranges in the Arctic – was putting an undue strain on the UK’s submariners and their vessels.

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HMS Splendid, late 1990s. Image: Royal Navy.

During the next annual Royal Navy debate, Labour MP Tam Dalyell suggested to the incumbent Armed Forces Minister, John Stanley, that “it would be helpful to the House if the hon. Gentleman’s speech could include some reference to what allegedly happened in the Barents sea with the towed array sonar, so that we can discuss the matter on the basis of information rather than newspaper reports?”

The minister dodged the issue and replied: “We follow the practice of all previous Governments and there is no way that we could be drawn into commenting on submarine operations.”

However, the Opposition spokesman for Defence and Disarmament and Arms Control, Martin J. O’Neill, was not content to let the matter rest and demanded more information.  He suggested the lost towed array sonar  “may or may not be significant, and it may or may not be in the Soviet Union’s possession – but it is important that we hear today what HMS Splendid was doing in the Barents Sea.”

The Govt of 1986 persisted in drawing a veil over the submarine operations, as today’s does now. However, today, with HMS Northumberland a surface vessel – and the inconvenience of a Channel 5 documentary crew aboard at the time of the episode – the chances of stonewalling all questions and refusing to confirm it at all were zero. We now await 2022’s questions in Parliament.

At least it appears during the late 2020 incident the Northumberland did not actually lose her towed array sonar – a long cable trailed along astern of the frigate (or submarine) with hydrophones attached. The idea is that the ‘ears’ of the vessel engaged in hunting a dived submarine are put far enough away from the hunter’s own noise to make it easier to hear any tell-tale noise the opposition generates. It enables Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) platforms to pick up contact at very long ranges.

Seafarers UK

The exact facts of  the case may never be known. Yet it is quite extraordinary that the Russian submarine in this case managed to run so silent that it was able to actually come into contact with the towed array cable of the British warship.

  • The HMS Splendid episode and much more about the Cold War confrontation under the sea is told in Iain Ballantyne’s ‘Hunter Killers’

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