A Russian spy ship lingering off the US coast has been in the news recently. Within the last day or so, the spy ship Viktor Leonov was hanging out off the US Navy submarine base at New London. (The ship has apparently now shifted to Norfolk.) The Navy has dismissed the importance of the spy ship. More threatening, however, may be submarines waiting underwater to follow US submarines from their bases. In some cases, high-stakes games of underwater “chicken” have been reported. A recent release of documents by the CIA has confirmed a previously top-secret report of a collision between a US and a Soviet nuclear submarine off Scotland 43 years ago.
In November of 1974, the USS James Madison, carrying 16 Poseidon nuclear missiles, was heading out of the US naval base at Holy Loch, 30 miles north-west of Glasgow, Scotland. It was being shadowed by an an unidentified Soviet Victor Class nuclear attack submarine. Not long after the US submarine left the naval base, the two submarines collided. Neither submarine appeared to be critically damaged. Both submarines surfaced. The Soviet submarine subsequently submerged and left the area.
The collision happened so far inside UK territorial waters that it was considered to be an embarrassment, so the event was kept a secret. General Brent Scowcroft sent a “Secret–Eyes Only” cable to Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State to President Gerald Ford, which began: “Have just received word from the Pentagon that one of our Poseidon submarines has just collided with a Soviet submarine….”
There was, however, a leak, although, not necessarily in the submarine. On January 1, 1975, investigative reporter Jack Anderson writing in the Washington Post reported an unconfirmed collision between two submarines. Anderson wrote: “Two prowling nuclear submarines, one American, the other Soviet, sideswiped one another under the North Sea on Nov.3. The bizarre undersea collision, which came within inches of sinking both subs, has never been revealed. But we have obtained the details from on-the spot sources.”
That Anderson got his story right was confirmed in mid-January, 2017 when the CIA released more than 13 million pages of previously classified reports in 930,000 documents.
While the collision in 1974 involved a US ballistic missile submarine and a Soviet attack submarine, in 1992 and 1993, the circumstances were reversed. In less that one year, two US attack submarines collided with Russian submarines.
On February 11, 1992, the attack submarine USS Baton Rouge collided with the Russian Navy nuclear submarine B-276 Kostroma off Severomorsk. The damage to the Baton Rouge may have been severe enough to result in the submarine being the first of her class to be decommissioned in 1995.
On March 20, 1993, the nuclear attack submarine USS Grayling collided with the Russian Navy nuclear ballistic missile submarine K-407 Novomoskovsk 150 km (90 mi) north of the Russian naval base of Severomorsk. Neither ship was reported to be badly damaged.