Italy furious after US Navy tried to cover up sub accident

Publish date: November 13, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

The US Navy covered up for nearly a month an incident during which a 7,000 tonne nuclear powered submarine from the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet in Italy ran violently aground in the Mediterranean Sea north of Sardinia last month, a US Naval official confirmed Thursday.

The US Navy—by its own admission in an interview with Bellona Web—sought to cover up the accident until relatives of the vessel’s crew, who spoke to US papers about the sailors’ early return after the accident, made the incident impossible to conceal.

The Los Angeles class submarine, the USS Hartford, hit the rocky sea-bed of the Mediterranean with such force that rudders, sonar and other electronic equipment were severely damaged, the US naval official said. The 114-metre long USS Hartford had left its Sardinian base at La Maddelena carrying Tomahawk missiles, possibly loaded with nuclear warheads, the British Independent reported. The US Navy official, who requested anonymity, however, would not confirm this.

A near miss
The USS Hartford was sailing east past the island of Capera where, soon after midnight on October 25th, it ran aground. The US Navy, said the naval source in a telephone interview from Washington, had “admittedly tried to keep a lid on the accident.” But US naval brass were apparently trumped when relatives of the submarines crew found out that the submarine’s scheduled six-month tour of duty was being cut short a month after it began and leaked the story to local media outlets, the US Naval source said.

The naval source added that after “temporary repairs in Italy that will make it seaworthy,” the USS Harford will cross the Atlantic to the Norfolk, Virginia dockyard for full repairs. The naval source said he had not idea how long the repairs would take.

The naval source said that the Hartford’s reactor had suffered no damage and the crew had suffered no injuries. But the Sixth Fleet’s image, in the eyes of its Italian hosts, sustained a heavy blow. Reaction in Italy—both to the discovery of the cover-up and the incident itself—has been rage.

Rage in Italy
"It’s the umpteenth demonstration not only of the grave risks to which the civilian population is exposed but also of the culture of silence that invariably covers military activities in Sardinia," Italian Green Party MP, Mauro Bulgarelli said in Parliament, according to the Independent. "Our country was denuclearised nearly 20 years ago, due to the wish of the overwhelming majority of the Italian population. It is unacceptable that, thanks to American troops based in our territory, the nuclear risk should be reintroduced. In another age, that would be called colonisation."

Italy’s Minister of the Environment, Altero Matteoli, said that the USS Hartford incident was “a serious incident" and said an official had been sent to investigate, the Independent reported. But, Matteoli said that "first reports from the site of the incident did not mention environmental problems."

Immediate firings
In spite of what appears to be a lucky near miss, the incident’s gravity was underscored by the fact the both the USS Hartford’s captain, Commander Christopher Van Metre, and his squadron commander, Captain Greg Parker—who was also on board at the time the sub ran aground—were immediately fired, said the US navy official. When the USS Oklahoma, another US submarine, hit a Norwegian Merchant ship east of the Straits of Gibraltar last year, that subs captain was only fired two weeks after the incident, the US navy source said.

A spokeswoman for the US Sixth Fleet, which is based in Gaeta, near Naples, told the Independent Wednesday that the two officers were immediately removed from their posts because their commander, Rear Admiral Stephen Stanley "no longer had confidence in their ability to command." Six other crewmembers, including two officers, have also been disciplined.

The US Navy’s Los Angeles class submarine
The United States Navy has 51 nuclear powered Los Angeles Class attack submarines. It is equipped for anti-submarine warfare, intelligence gathering, show-of-force missions, insertion of special forces, strike missions, mining and search and rescue.

Nine Los Angeles class submarines were deployed in the Gulf War in 1991, during which Tomahawk missiles were launched from two of the submarines. It is unknown how many are currenly deployed in the ongoing US-Iraqi crisis, but the Sixth Fleet provided significant sea support during the latest Guld War.