The sub languishing at the bottom of the Barents sea is not an anomaly. Nuclear submarines are plagued with trouble.

The Russians have lost subs before, though not with so many men on board as on the Kursk. According to Greenpeace, there have been around 120 incidents involving Soviet nuclear submarines in the 40 years since the fleet began.

Back in 1961, a ruptured pipe on Russia's first nuclear powered sub killed the captain and seven men. In 68, a diesel powered submarine sank, along with its three nuclear weapons. In 1970, a nuclear sub went down off the Atlantic coast of Spain. There was a bad accident at a repair dock in 1985, leaving many with radiation sickness, and in 86 a nuclear armed sub caught fire and sank. (one Russian scientist claimed that the warheads burst open, sending plutonium-239 into the ocean, 600 miles off Bermuda where the boat went down).

Things haven't got better since the U.S.S.R. was broken up: there's less money to service and maintain the fleet. There have been several incidents and accidents during exercises, with misfired torpedoes and near-misses at sea. A submarine being repaired off the North Russian coast in 92 suffered an explosion that killed four. In 93 a Russian submarine and a US one collided. The list goes on and on.

But the US and NATO have problems too.

In April 1963, the USS Thresher went down in 8,500 feet of water, 220 miles east of Boston. Five years later the USS Scorpion sank when a torpedo malfunctioned and all its crew were killed. The USS Nathaniel Greene ran aground in the Irish sea and was retired from service in March 1986,

HMS Tireless, a sadly misnamed British nuclear submarine broke down back in May 2000. With radioactive coolant leaking from the reactor when on patrol in the Mediterranean, the sub headed for Gibraltar, hoping for the chance to explore the problem and fix it. Gibraltar was not so keen on having a glowing boat hanging around in a populated area. (It was tied up just 400 metres from the shoreline).

A local opinion poll suggested that around 80 per cent of the population didn't wan't the submarine opened up and fixed locally.

The Ministry of Defence, back in London, looked into towing it back to the submarine docks in Scotland. Not a simple task: it would have had to come back, on the surface, at a maximum speed of 6 knots, with a heavy duty escort of warships. the risk of leaking radioactive material, though, all the way back to Britain was finally seen to be a bigger risk, and the work is taking place back in Gibraltar.

My brother-in-law is one of the crew of Tireless. And, whether or not the rumour that he glows in the dark is true, it's an interesting little quirk that of all the many many babies born in two (or was it three) years on the base, only 2 of them were girls.

Ah, go and watch Das Boot now, and get a glimpse of scary cramped submarine life.
Submarines are complex devices. Nuclear submarines are even more complex. heyoka is correct in noting that they do break. But I hardly think the nuclear or conventional variety unreliable.

What makes submarines special is their ability to submerge. In order to accomplish this they have a pressure hull inside which no water is admitted, an outer hull which defines the boat's hydrodynamic shape, and which contains the ships ballast tanks.

In order for a sub to submerge, all that is required is to let air out of the ballast tanks, and admit water. In a World War II Gato class sub, the tanks were open at the bottom. All a sub had to do to submerge was to vent the air above the water, letting in sea water. To surface they pump compressed air into the tank, forcing the water out of the bottom, lightening the ship.

All these mechanisms for submergence involve a large and complex amount of plumbing that must be inside the ship. Valves may be inside the pressure hull, and those hull penetrations are potential weak spots. Everything breaks, and the more complex it is the more likely it is to break. So the more stuff you pack inside the small hull, the more maintenance problems the crew will face.

Ships float because they maintain positive bouyancy. The air that is contained inside their hull displaces an area where the sea water that would be there is heavier than the ship. Surface ships maintain a large reserve of positive bouyancy. This permits them to absorb damage and remain afloat.

A submerging sub is at a negative bouyancy. It weighs more than the surrounding seawater. When at the chosen depth its bouyancy is neutral. Any leak, however small, upsets that balance. The deeper the sub, the more serious is any hull penetration. If a sub is at, or near, its crush depth sea pressure makes the smallest breach a crisis.

In order to gain the ability to submerge, submarines give up the ability to endure damage. Even a surfaced sub only retains a small bouyancy margin compared to surface ships. Subs can be nicked, light bulbs popped, etc, but no sub will survive anything like the exocet missile hit that damaged the USS Stark.

The submarine's environment magnifies the problems further. A surface ship is always on the surface, so the crew doesn't have to worry about breathing, unless they are fighting a shipboard fire. That danger is localized. A fire on a submarine can quickly consume all available air, which puts out the fire, but suffocates the crew. Because a surface ship is on the surface, its crew has more time to sort things out. They can easily examine the outer hull, while working outside the ship is impossible for a submerged submarine. Also submarines ride much lower in the water, making them more prone to take on water when surfaced.

Submarines are incredibly useful to any navy. But we need to remember that they are both complex and fragile compared to other warships. Submarine accidents are in no way confined to nuclear subs, who differ only in their powerplant. Danger is a part of any submarine's life. Really, I think they do very well when you consider the additional problems posed by submergence.

Subs do have one advantage. If they are operating properly, they can go deep and ride out storms. Bad weather tends to be confined to the surface, so the ride can be very smooth at 200 meters or so below.

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