NBC Weapons: Navigation Error, Training Failure

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

November 23, 2021: Since the 1960s the U.S. Air Force has acquired eleven WC-135 aircraft for collecting air samples in areas where there have been nuclear weapons tests or nuclear power accidents. Only one remains in service and it is stationed in the Pacific where it is mainly used to monitor North Korean nuclear tests and nuclear weapons development in general.

In late October 2021 that WC-135 was sent to collect air samples off the southern Chinese coast. No reason for this mission was given and speculation turned to monitoring Chinese nuclear power plants near the coast. This was because China had recently raised the permissible levels of radiation near one of these nuclear plants. There was some additional radiation as China did not want to shut down the entire nuclear power complex because one of the reactors had a minor radiation leak. China is suffering a nationwide energy shortage because there is not enough coal for non-nuclear power plants. The WC-135 air samples did not disclose any major problems.

Then it was revealed in late October that there might be another potential leak in the area from an American submarine accident earlier in October. This involved an American Seawolf class SSN (nuclear attack sub), the USS Connecticut, which hit something while cruising submerged near China. Until late October all that was revealed was that the damage was not serious but the sub did surface and slowly (SSNs move faster submerged than on the surface) took a two-week cruise back to Guam for inspection and possible repairs, depending on the extent of the damage.

The damage turned out to be more extensive and serious than first reported. The Connecticut became the second American SSN to collide with an underwater seamount. The damage to the Connecticut was so severe that it had to surface immediately. The ballast tanks were damaged so the sub could not remain underwater. It was also feared that there might have been a radiation leak but none of the radiation monitoring sensors on the sub detected any, and apparently the more sensitive radiation capabilities of the WC-135 could not find any either. The navy has since revealed that the captain of the sub, his executive officer, and the COB (Chief of the Boat, the senior NCO on the sub) were all relieved. It was later revealed that these key personnel were relieved for poor navigation procedures and failure to train the crew to do it right.

The first such collision occurred in 2006 and the reason was a lack of updated charts (nautical maps showing underwater obstacles) on all SSNs in 2006. That was remedied after the 2006 collision and all ships are supposed to have the electronic charts that are part of the new VMS (Voyage Management System) that not only uses electronic copies of charts, but quickly updates charts when new underwater obstacles are detected. This is done via space satellites or various seagoing data collection systems. Crews are given initial training on these new systems before they depart on a cruise, where the two senior officers, and especially the COB, are responsible for ensuring that all sailors involved with navigation are properly trained to handle the VMS and the new charts. The navy has not yet released all the details it has on how the recent seamount collision occurred and whether the sea mount the Connecticut ran into was in current VMS charts. It is also unclear how extensive the damage to the Connecticut is and whether the navy can afford to repair the sub or will have to retire it.

Two nuclear subs colliding with an underwater mountain can do serious damage to the nuclear propulsion system and possibly cause the sub to sink. Navies are prepared to rescue crews of subs that sink, but less ready to deal with a major radiation leak from a heavily damaged sub that tried to move through a sea mount.

 


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