Royal Navy Warship: Russian submarine captured colliding with HMS Northumberland - what happened?

In the footage which captured the event, crew can be heard asking ‘what the hell was that?’

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that a Russian submarine collided with a Royal Navy warship’s sonar on patrol in the North Atlantic in late 2020.

The incident was captured whilst filming an episode of the documentary series Warship: Life at Sea, which is currently in its third season on Channel 5.

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What happened?

In late 2020, the HMS Northumberland, the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigate, collided with a Russian submarine. The HMS Northumberland had been tracking the submarine in the Arctic Circle when the incident occurred.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson confirmed the event, stating: “In late 2020 a Russian submarine being tracked by HMS Northumberland came into contact with her towed array sonar.

“The Royal Navy regularly tracks foreign ships and submarines in order to ensure defence of the United Kingdom.”

The Ministry of Defence does not usually give comments on its operations, however it has done so on this occasion as the event was captured on camera.

Footage from Warship: Life at Sea shows the moment that the crew spotted the Russian submarine appearing above the surface of the water. A periscope was identified by the HMS Northumberland’s Merlin helicopter before the Russian submarine went back under the water.

The crew were filmed shouting: “What the hell was that?”

Britain’s Ministry of Defence confirmed that a Russian submarine collided with an array sonar being towed by HMS Northumberland while on a patrol in the North Atlantic (Photo: GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images)

At one point, Commander Thom Hobbs, the captain of the warship, says: “We are very close to the submarine - we are probably parallel.

“If they were on the surface we would definitely see faces.”

In what is described as an “aggressive move”, the Russian submarine appears to sharply turn and in doing so, collides with the towed array sonar.

A Navy source speaking to The Times compared finding the towed array sonar in the sea to finding “a needle in a haystack” and added that the collision must have been accidental.

It’s unclear whether the Russian submarine suffered any damage in the crash, but the HMS Northumberland was forced to return to Scotland to replace its damaged sonar. It’s believed that the towed array sonar costs around £20 million.

What has been said about the collision?

Commander Ryan Ramsey, former naval officer and captain of HMS Turbulent, said that the incident “shows the complexity and risk involved with the art of anti-submarine warfare”.

Ramsey added: “What can start as in control can rapidly escalate, particularly against a capable adversary such as the Russian submarine force.”

It’s believed that the collision was accidental (Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Former Royal Navy Commander of the anti-submarine warfare frigate HMS St Albans, Tom Sharpe, also said: “The Russian threat to our undersea communications is real, on our doorstep and ever increasing.

“It’s hard to overstate the effect a major disruption of it would cause.

“Detecting and deterring Russian submarines that are doing this is a team effort that involves allies, aircraft, ships, submarines and sensors.”

Sharpe explained that ship and submarine detection “is not the exact science depicted in the movies”.

Where can I watch Warship: Life at Sea?

The incident with the Russian submarine was captured in episode two of the current season of Warship: Life at Sea.

The episode in question will air at 9pm on Channel 5 on Monday 10 January.

You can watch previous seasons of the documentary series on the Channel 5 website. 

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