Image: Weapons being offloaded from HMS Ambush in Gibraltar following the collision. Credit: Gibraltar Chronicle
One of the Royal Navy's newest nuclear-powered submarines has been damaged following a collision with a merchant ship during a training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea.
Astute class submarine HMS Ambush was forced to return to Gibraltar following the collision on 20 July 2016. Following damage assessment, preliminary repairs, and offloading of weapons the submarine set sail for Devonport on 29 July for repair. Ambush is expected to be out of service until later this year, adding pressure to a Submarine Service which is already pressed in delivering operations.
The submarine is reported to have been involved in a “glancing collision” with a tanker at approximately 13.30 local time while submerged off the coast of Gibraltar. Photographs of the submarine arriving in Gibraltar after the crash showed significant damage to the submarine's conning tower, which was crushed at the top part of the forward area.
A Ministry of Defence statement said that the submarine had sustained "some external damage" but there was “absolutely no damage to her nuclear plant”. No member of the ship's company was injured in the incident and the merchant vessel is not believed to have sustained significant damage.
The statement said :"We are not prepared to give specific details, but the submarine is absolutely safe. Comprehensive checks of HMS Ambush have shown that her reactor remains completely safe and there hasn't been any increase in radiation as a result of this incident."
The cause of the collision is not yet known, but the Royal Navy has announced that an investigation into the incident is underway, and that the Defence Safety Authority will be conducting an independent service inquiry into the incident.
The programme to construct seven Astute class submarines has been beset by delays and cost overruns. To date only two of the submarines are operational, with a third, HMS Artful, currently undergoing commissioning.
Difficulties with the Astute programme have placed the Submarine Service under considerable strain, and have required the Royal Navy to extend the life of the ageing Trafalgar class submarines which remain in service. Any extended delay before Ambush is able to return to service will only increase these strains.
The Royal Navy's nuclear powered submarines are regular visitors to Gibraltar en voyage to operations and training in the Mediterranean sea and the Middle East, and Ambush is reported to have berthed at the territory previously this year in June and March. However, visits are a matter of local controversy following an incident in 2000 when HMS Tireless docked for repairs in Gibraltar after a crack was found in a cooling pipe near its nuclear reactor. Repairs took almost a year to complete, with concerns that nuclear engineering work should not have been conducted at the dockyard.