Key Point: “The history of nuclear weapons is a history of near misses, accidents, potential catastrophes and cover-ups.”
It was common throughout the Cold War for NATO and Soviet submarines to stalk surface ships and other submarines in order to gather intelligence and work out tactics for sinking the vessels in the event the conflict escalated into a shooting war.
More than once, these undersea stalkings went awry. Collisions damaged ships and subs on both sides. In 1984, the Soviet Victor-class attack submarine Petropavlovsk struck the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.
The New York Times covered the March 21, 1984 collision. “Naval officers said the Kitty Hawk, which carries 85 planes, was in the Sea of Japan about 150 miles east of South Korea in joint naval exercises with South Korean forces,” the Times reported.
From the Times:
They said the carrier, which was steaming at 15 knots with its navigation lights on, knew that a submarine had been shadowing the ship.
''They play cat and mouse with us all the time,'' said one officer. Others said that Soviet submarines appear to test American antisubmarine devices.
Reports from the Kitty Kawk said sailors had felt a shudder, apparently as the submarine rose to the surface and struck a glancing blow.
Initial reports said the submarine was not running with navigation lights, as required by international rules. A submarine must give way to a surface vessel when surfacing and is obliged to follow those rules when on the surface.
Wire-service UPI explained that the carrier, accompanied by eight escorts, “apparently ran over the stern of the submarine as it was surfacing.”
“A submarine's sonar is blind at its stern because of the sound of its own engines, and Pentagon officials indicated the Soviet boat's skipper was unaware of the presence of the carrier when he attempted to surface.”
Capt. David Rogers, Kitty Hawk’s skipper, was on the bridge at the time of the collision and felt a “noticeable shudder, a fairly violent shudder,” according to the U.S. Navy’s official website.
As the Navy described it:
He and the starboard lookout saw the outline of the sub’s sail moving away from Kitty Hawk, the sub failing to display navigation lights. Aircraft Nos. 615 and 616, SH-3Hs [from squadron HS-2] inspected the unlit submarine via AN/PVS-5A night-vision goggles and sonobuoys without noting serious damage.
Kitty Hawk and her screen stood by to render assistance–the carrier stopping–attempting to contact cruiser Petropavlovsk, the Soviet task force flagship, by flashing light. Petropavlovsk did not respond, however, and the sub remained (apparently) seaworthy.
Rear Adm. Richard M. Dunleavy, Director, Carrier and Air Stations Program, later noted that during the previous three days, the sub was detected by helos launched from Battle Group Bravo “and killed more than 15 times,” the Victor I initially being sighted on the surface 50 nautical miles ahead of the carrier’s intended course before submerging, on [May 19, 1984].
Responsibility for the collision lay with the Russians, who placed themselves “in a very hazardous position.” “The reason behind the Soviet submarine captain’s slip in judgment is the only mystery here,” reflected Rear Adm. James D. Watkins, [chief of naval operations]. “He showed uncharacteristically poor seamanship in not staying clear of Kitty Hawk. That should cause concern in Moscow.”
“The naval officers said there was no evidence of nuclear leakage from the submarine,” the Times continued. “Naval officers said the Kitty Hawk had received only a superficial dent and had resumed maneuvers.”
“The Sea of Japan has long been the scene of near-collisions and collisions,” the newspaper added. “In the late 1960s, Soviet destroyers frequently sailed close to American ships and occasionally collided.”
The Kitty Hawk scrape wasn’t the most serious collision involving a submarine during the Cold War. Ten years earlier in 1974 a Soviet attack submarine struck the U.S. Navy ballistic-missile sub James Madison while both nuclear-powered vessels were submerged off the Scotland coast.
Kate Hudson from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament told The Guardian that the 1974 incident, which became public only in 2017, exposed the “enormous risks” of nuclear weapons. “The history of nuclear weapons is a history of near misses, accidents, potential catastrophes and cover-ups.”
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix,War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This article first appeared in September 2019 and is reprinted due to reader interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons