British Frigate HMS Northumberland Hit A Russian Submarine With Its Towed Sonar In 2020

The U.K. Ministry of Defense has confirmed that a towed sonar array trailing behind the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate HMS Northumberland collided with a Russian Navy submarine in the North Atlantic Ocean two years ago. Both vessels were reportedly damaged in the incident, which appears to be the first of its kind, at least that we know about, since the end of the Cold War.

The 2020 collision was first revealed in a recent episode of the television show Warship: Life At Sea, which is now in its third season on Channel 5 in the United Kingdom. The show, in general, offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day operations of an actual Royal Navy warship.

The show is not readily available to viewers outside of the United Kingdom, but the second episode is said to include a segment where 5,400-ton-displacement Northumberland is described by British media outlets as a ‘playing a cat-and-mouse game’ with an unspecified Russian submarine. 

“Television footage captures the moment crew onboard HMS Northumberland sound the alarm, shouting ‘what the hell was that,’ ‘shit,’ ‘what the f*** have I just hit’ as the boat crashes into its towed array sonar,” according to a report from The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom. 

“It is believed to be the first time such an incident has been documented and made public,” that same story adds. This would appear, however, to only refer to incidents since the collapse of the Soviet Union. British and Soviet naval vessels, including submarines, are known to have hit each other during the Cold War.

“In late 2020 a Russian submarine being tracked by HMS Northumberland came into contact with her towed array sonar,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a statement given to multiple outlets. “The Royal Navy regularly tracks foreign ships and submarines in order to ensure the defense of the United Kingdom.”

Northumberland is one of a number of Type 23 frigates that were retrofitted some years ago with the improved Type 2087 towed sonar array, which is a low-frequency active (LFAS) type, but which can be operated in active and passive modes. You can read more about how modern warships use towed and other types of sonar arrays to hunt for enemy submarines here.

The exact circumstances of this incident are unknown. However, collisions involving submarines, even modern types with advanced sonars and other sensors, are hardly underhead of and can occur for a variety of reasons.

The extent of the damage to either vessel is unclear. There are unconfirmed reports that Northumberland‘s towed sonar array was rendered inoperable in the incident, forcing it to head to an unspecified port for repairs. 

An official Royal Navy press release regarding the frigate’s activities between September and December of 2020, at which time it was part of HMS Queen Elizabeth‘s carrier strike group, also known as Carrier Strike Group 21, makes no mention of the collision, nor the need to fix any damage. It does say the ship “stopped in Dundee, Lerwick and Faslane during her latest missions.” All of these locations are in Scotland.

The Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 21, with the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at center., Crown Copyright

At the time of writing, there does not appear to be any official statement from the Russian government regarding this incident.

It seems very plausible that the Russian submarine in question was shadowing CSG21 and Queen Elizabeth, which is the Royal Navy’s current flagship. The first episode of season three of Warship: Life At Sea, which can be found online, as seen below, also involves a segment where Northumberland positions itself between a Russian intelligence-gathering ship and the carrier. 

The disclosure of this incident follows years of U.K. military officials, as well as their counterparts in the United States, sounding the alarm about significant increases in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic. In recent years, the Russian Navy has fielded a number of new, more modern, and quieter submarines that are much harder to spot and track. 

Russia’s deployment of new Project 885 Yasen and Project 885M Yasen-M nuclear guided-missile submarines have drawn particular attention from western military officials. U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who is head of U.S. Northern Command and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, told members of Congress last year that these boats were “on par with ours.”

Cdr. Thom Hobbs, Northumberland‘s commander officer, can be heard echoing similar sentiments in the first episode of season three of Warship: Life At Sea, as he tells his crew that they’ve been ordered to intercept a group of Russian surface vessels that appear to be heading toward CSG21. “The Russians who are deploying against us are as good as or better than us,” he says.

The disclosure of this collision last year certainly underscores how real the tension, as well the potential danger, can be at the moment between British and Russian naval vessels operating in the region.

We will update this story as more information becomes available.

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