For many years, we in the West have worried about Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz to oil tanker traffic. An abrupt closure would instantly spike oil prices well into three-digits, and immediately change the energy equation of the world. Indeed, many geostrategic scholars believe that closing the Straits of Hormuz would be tantamount to an act of war.
But what if it was the US that closed the Straits of Hormuz? What would the world think if the US directly precipitated the end of ship traffic in the Straits, or at least severe restrictions on transit and passage?
Closing Hormuz? We Almost Found Out…
Well, we almost found out last Friday, March 20. That was when two US Navy ships collided during an otherwise routine transit through the Straits of Hormuz. And one of the vessels was a nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Hartford (SSN-768). Hartford is a Los Angeles-Class attack submarine.
In those dark hours of collision and confusion — and as is often his custom and courtesy — the god of the sea Poseidon favored the US Navy. That is, we did not experience the catastrophe of a nuclear submarine sinking in the Straits of Hormuz. Now THAT would have altered the shipping and energy patterns of the world.
But one cannot but wonder “what if” in situations like this? “What if” worse things had happened? “What if” the worst occurred? Remember the Russian submarine Kursk, which tragically sank in 2000 in the icy waters off northern Russia.
Here Is What We Know…
Early in the morning of March 20, submarine Hartford was transiting into the Persian Gulf through the Hormuz Straits. Hartford was accompanying an amphibious surface ship, the USS New Orleans (LPD-18) which was making her first extended deployment. Hartford was “submerged but near the surface” at the time of the collision, according to Navy officials.
For reasons not yet known, the two ships collided. According to one report, submarine Hartford rolled 85-degrees to starboard. The impact and rolling caused injuries to 15 Sailors onboard. The bow planes and sail of the submerged Hartford ripped into the hull of New Orleans.
According to a Navy statement, the collision punched a 16-by-18 foot hole in the fuel tanks of New Orleans. Two interior ballast tanks were also damaged, the statement said. USS New Orleans lost about 25,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which rapidly dissipated in the ocean and could not be tracked after a few days. There were no injuries to New Orleans crew of 360 or the embarked unit of 700 US Marines.
Nuclear-powered submarine Hartford was severely damaged. Indeed, the submarine’s sail was torn from its mountings to the vessel’s pressure hull. (See photos below, courtesy of US 5th Fleet.) The submarine’s sail is clearly bent by several degrees to starboard. It’s not part of the builder’s specs, that’s for sure. Apparently, the submarine’s communication masts and periscope are warped and inoperable. The watertight integrity of the pressure hull is suspect. After the collision, Hartford transited on the surface to Bahrain, where the vessel tied up to a military pier.
“It’s important to point out that Hartford’s [nuclear] power plant was not affected in this at all,” said a Navy spokesperson. Also, according to the Navy, “Despite the roll, engineering investigations have confirmed the propulsion plant of the submarine was unaffected by this collision. … However, Hartford sustained damage to its sail and periscope, as well as the port bow plane.”
Deployment Ending, Now for the Long Trek Home
According to a report in the latest issue of Navy Times, this is a “deployment ending” event for the USS Hartford. The submarine cannot fulfill its combat mission. The vessel must move to a nuclear-capable shipyard to undergo extensive repairs, costing “in the tens of millions of dollars” according to one source. Coincidentally, USS Hartford ran aground in 2003 near La Maddalena, Italy, damaging its bottom and rudder. Repairs then cost near $10 million and involved installing equipment that had to be cannibalized from another, decommissioned submarine.
In all likelihood, in its current state Hartford will be restricted from submerging. So the question is how to bring the damaged vessel on a long, transoceanic trek back to the US for repairs.
The submarine may be able to transit back to a nuclear-capable shipyard in the US under her own power. A voyage like that would have to be made entirely on the surface, due to the risks of submerging the damaged pressure hull. Nothing is easy, however. A surface transit would require extensive preparations and effort, to include armed Navy escort.
Sailing a damaged nuclear submarine from the Middle East to the US would likely require avoiding many of the busy sea-lanes of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Just the fact of a damaged nuclear submarine re-transiting the Straits of Hormuz, on the surface and within sight of Iranian spotters, must give chills to US Navy planners.
Suez? Or the Cape of Good Hope?
The shortest route home would involve transiting the Red Sea, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea. But this is problematic, considering the public relations nightmare of a damaged US nuclear-powered vessel moving through busy seas adjacent to densely populated regions that are critical to world commerce.
Or Hartford could transit south around Africa, and sail around the Cape of Good Hope.
Doubtless, the South African Navy would take an interest in any southerly transit by USS Hartford. South Africa has a fine, modern navy that includes three brand-new, German-built Type-209 diesel-electric submarines. Indeed, the South African Navy Base at Simons Town — home-port to its Type-209s, relatively remote and very secure — might be a suitable locale for the US Navy to consider for logistic and/or emergency support. However the South African government might also be concerned at the presence of a damaged nuclear vessel in or near its waters. Last fall, the South African nuclear regulatory authorities waited until almost the last minute to give approval for a port call at Cape Town by the (undamaged) nuclear powered aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).
If Hartford does not sail home on her own, the US Navy would have to arrange a “lift” for Hartford. This would entail placing and securing the 2,800-ton submarine on the flat deck of a large transport vessel, such as occurred with the USS Cole in 2000 after that ship was bombed while at anchor in port in Yemen. But removing Hartford’s hull from the sea would also require jury-rigging a continuous means to pump seawater and cool the ship’s nuclear reactor. Nothing like this has ever been done before.
Money, Assets, Favors, Political Capital – and Luck
Whatever happens, the damage to the USS Hartford is going to take much money, many Navy assets, and a lot of favors and political capital to fix. We in the US are certainly not finished hearing about the USS Hartford, let alone paying for it. Then again, we were very lucky. For both our Navy and our country, it could have been much, much worse.
As a long-time student of both Naval history and disaster, I commend Poseidon that, once again, he has favored the US Navy — even in adversity — and that the Straits of Hormuz are still open. Going forward, we had better absorb the lessons and not press our luck.
Until we meet again,
Byron W. King
April 2, 2009
Prior to joining Whiskey and Gunpowder, Byron received his Juris Doctor from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, was a cum laude graduate of Harvard University, served on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations and as a field historian with the Navy. Our resident energy and oil expert, Byron is the editor of Outstanding Investments and Energy and Scarcity Investor.