SSN 711 Addendum
By Philip N. Ledoux
January 31, 2005
How could a submarine run into an undersea mountain?
In the mid or late 1980ies we had a sub crash into a submarine mount off the Azores, with all hands lost. It was superb "PR" covering up the potential start of WW III. The Ruskies had fired an atomic tipped torpedo and took it down. Someone didn't calculate well because the Ruskie sub that fired the torpedo went down too.
And in the 1960 or thereabouts, I was assigned to the Squalus being overhauled in the Portsmouth Navy Yards. I never got there because someone else snarfed my assignment. Was I ever grateful to that snarffer when the Russians torpedoed it while on sea trials. The "PR" said: major sea valve gave way. Ha, I met 3 sonarmen (one of my specialties) who would all bet the farm that they heard the torpedo take her out. All tapes (civilian and navy) were confiscated upon their entry to port; any trace chance to hear and record the event were obliterated for posterity.
In the case of SSN 711, she made it home, so this is a horse of a different color. As explained in a prior analysis of working crew vs. officer crew on the big atomic subs, it is the transplantation of "politics" of the surface Navy into submarines that is the fatal flaw in the operation of the atomic submarine fleet.
Fathometers look down and only tell how far above the ocean bottom a ship or cruising submarine actually is. As on land, the approach to a submerged mountain is a gradual rise and hardly noticeable on the fathometer trace, especially if it is around "watch change" time (I take over your job for four hours). Occasionally there is no "slope" for warning, just as some mountains rise abruptly on land. This is a good probability.
I have no idea how deep the waters are around and South of Guam. In general, the Pacific waters are quite deep by most standards. Surface ships "play the game" of odds often. What are the odds of meeting another ship in the middle of the Pacific? One in many thousands. Tramp vessels play these odds once they are out of the main shipping lanes. I was second in charge of the CIC (Combat Information Center) on a submarine tender affectionately called "The Great Grey Goose"; and yes, those floating machine shops do manage to pull themselves off a mountain of coffee grinds and float out to sea and exercise (only after a month of practice before casting lines several times). The Chief in charge of CIC quietly informed me that he had never been in a CIC in his life.
In submarines we purposefully set up a collision course and on the see-through chart board I recognized a "collision course" in the makings. My crew were well polished so I could spend time giving the Chief a quick liberal education. Finally he reported it on the provision that if it were false, I would loose a rank! (Surface craft thinking.) And then the Chief in turn had one hell of a time convincing the Duty Officer on the command deck to take evasive action. I was expecting a "karunch" but the old goose slowly responded to full rudder to port. It was a miss by a hundred yards; but that is about an inch to spare in a potential fender-bender on the local streets. Blinking light signals, radio, everything was tried to contact the freighter to no avail. On she chugged on a course straight as an arrow from the time CIC radar picked her up until she was out of range again. Everyone was probably sound asleep!
Well, you don't fall asleep on watch in the Navy! But the odds are played often. Minimal observers on decks, lax routines in the radar rooms when there is no activity around. What chance is there of an uncharted island popping up in deep waters? Full speed ahead if there is R & R in the offing. And so, it really isn't foolhardy chance taking, it is calculated odds. Is it done in submarines? Not in the old fleet boats I road. Nothing was left to chance. And nothing was assumed. But, as I pointed out previously, Surface craft thinking has been transplanted onto the atomics long ago. The SSN 711 was hauling ass at 30 knots, but not "flank" and most likely there was plenty of water below her riding at 500 feet. The undersea earthquake and resultant tsunami had occurred a short time before the disaster. It is not impossible for other rippling to have occurred along the Pacific Rim Of Fire and buckled the ocean floor, creating a one in a million (or billion) chance of a submarine meeting a newly created uncharted sea-mount. Surface "sailors" play the odds with some certitude of safety. Transfer that to submarines, and you have the disaster of the SSN 711.
Philip N. Ledoux
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