There is simply nothing more fun than a mystery sub. Some of the voltage seeps off when the original report is months old, but the spark is still there. When the report comes from non-experts, and involves a submarine sighting in an area where submarines have not been routinely confirmed to be, a healthy skepticism is always in order. But skepticism or no, it’s still just so darn much… fun.
The Toronto Globe and Mail revealed yesterday that Canadian military reconnaissance assets had been deployed, in August 2008, following a 9 August report from hunters, on the northern tip of Baffin Island, that they had seen a submarine offshore. The activities, not reported at the time, were recorded in military documents obtained by the Globe and Mail under Canadian “access to information law.” Authorities had taken the sub-sighting report seriously, and dispatched Canadian Rangers to investigate it, but provided no information on their findings, to questions this week from the media.
G&M, in its report, ties the submarine sighting from 9 August 2008 to a large explosion reported in the same vicinity 10 days before, in the early morning hours of 31 July 2008. However, G&M acknowledges that Canadian authorities determined there was no connection between the two events. What may, however, have been connected to the submarine sighting – as implied in the G&M story – was Prime Minister Harper’s announcement, three weeks later, that Ottawa would begin requiring foreign ships entering Canadian waters for transit passage to report their presence to Canada.
We may begin at the beginning, in deciphering this event, with where the submarine sighting occurred. It was reportedly from the northern tip of the Borden Peninsula, on the northernmost coast of Baffin Island, which would have put the submarine in Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance to the “Northwest Passage,” or the Parry Channel, which runs from Baffin Bay in the east to the McClure Strait, opening to the Beaufort Sea, in the west. The Northwest Passage has been used by shipping for decades, and was first traversed by a submarine when USS Seadragon transited it from east to west (Lancaster Sound to McClure Strait) in August 1960. It would be neither routine, nor unprecedented, for a submarine to operate there.
A submarine would be unlikely to have business there that would keep it in one place long. We do not know from the public information what exactly was seen by the observers (a group of hunters, number unknown). If it was only a communication mast, the submarine may have been at the shallow depth known as “comm depth,” shallow enough for the antenna to work, but not so shallow as to expose the sail. This seems most likely, but again, there is not enough information to hazard any conclusion. If the submarine had its sail exposed, that would, however, be more unusual, particularly so close to land, in an area where there is sunlight most of the day in August.
Either way, however, the report is far from incredible. If it was valid, the submarine was probably sighted in transit, although we do not know if it was east- or westbound. August, when Arctic ice has receded the most each year, would be the most likely time to see a submarine in the Northwest Passage. The nations that would be most likely to deploy a submarine there (other than Canada herself) are the US and Russia. (For those who may notice the proximity of Greenland, the Danish navy retired the last of its submarines this decade, and no longer operates a submarine force.)
If the implication of the Canadian defense documents is correct, however – that Canadian authorities reacted with surprise about this sighting, and did not know a submarine might be there – the likelihood of it being an American submarine is low. There is no purpose for putting a US submarine through the Northwest Passage that would preclude informing Canada – both a NATO and a bilateral (state-to-state) ally — of the transit.
There is, equally, no basis on which to discount it as a Russian submarine– without comprehensive knowledge of the status of the Russian submarine force last August. A Russian submarine in Lancaster Sound would, I believe, be a first. Russia put a November-class SSN at the North Pole in 1962, and transferred several submarines from the Northern Fleet (on the Barents Sea) to the Pacific Fleet, via under-ice transit across the Arctic, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Russia has had long experience operating submarines in ice-infested waters due to the geography of her coastline, and proximity to the Arctic. But I am not aware of any previous operation by a Russian submarine in Canada’s northern archipelagos.
If the submarine (assuming it was there) did come from Russia, the Northern Fleet (rather than the Pacific Fleet) is its most likely source. Russia still keeps that fleet the most modernized and best maintained; moreover, the Pacific approach through the Bering and Chukchi Seas is typically less amenable to submarine operations prior to early August than the approaches from the Barents Sea. On 9 August, a Russian submarine in Lancaster Sound is likely to have come by the southern route, from the Barents Sea through the Norwegian Sea, North Atlantic, and into Baffin Bay through the Davis Strait. Going the northern route – across the Arctic to the McClure Strait, and eastward through the Parry Channel – is probably feasible, even as early in the year as the submarine would have had to approach the ice pack from the Barents, but it is less likely. (A route that looks possible on the map – through the Nares Strait between Greenland and Canada’s Ellesmere Island, is very improbable: the relatively shallow Nares Strait is one of the most ice-encrusted in the world. Even in late August and early September, when Arctic ice has receded the furthest, the Nares Strait’s local ice is not fully broken up, and the strait is clogged with dangerous drifting ice carried into it from the surrounding coastlines by the local currents.)
Russia has not been to any trouble to avert suspicion about her Arctic activities, of course. In addition to the announcement cited by the Globe and Mail, of Russia’s intention to increase the “operational radius” of her northern sub fleet, Russian ships in early August 2007 deployed undersea submersibles to plant the Russian flag at the North Pole. (This expedition, in support of Russia’s 2001 claim with the UN of substantial Arctic real estate, produced its humorous moments. A Finnish teenager notified news agencies, after watching the footage of submersible operations aired by the Russian TV company Rossiya in conjunction with the story, that the footage was actually from the movie Titanic. The reality of the North Pole expedition was not in question – but the integrity of the Russian media took another hit.) Both the US and Canada have intercepted Russian bombers approaching their airspace from the Arctic in the last two years, and Russia incorporated significant Arctic-oriented elements in her major joint forces exercise “Stability 2008” last fall.
Russia’s claims – along with those advanced by the other nations with Arctic frontage – are of particular importance because of oil and gas deposits in the Arctic, which US geologists think may represent as much as 25% of the world’s total resources. We may note, however, that operating a submarine in the Parry Channel has no direct relation to either the existence or particular location of oil and gas fields. If there was a Russian submarine there last August, the most probable mission was simply a rough-and-ready form of exploration. Submarines can map sea bottoms, and chart currents and temperature gradients, if not as comprehensively as specially-equipped maritime research ships, at least much more stealthily (most of the time). No one has such comprehensive oceanographic information on the Parry Channel that fresh observations would not be worthwhile. The explanation that fits the best, if there was a valid submarine sighting in Lancaster Sound on 9 August 2008, is that the Russian navy wants to be able to operate submarines there, and sent one to make the first run, and bring back data.
The report of an explosion in the same area on 31 July 2008 does not appear to have any probable connection to the submarine sighting. The hunters who reported the explosion stated that they saw a plume of black smoke rising from the water after hearing it, and then feeling their camping hut rattle from the shock. One hunter reported seeing several dead whales on the beach following the explosion. (The casual implication of this, that the whales might have been thrown up on the beach by the explosion itself, is extremely improbable unless the explosion, and the whales, were very close to the beach. In that case, any connection of it with a foreign submarine can almost certainly be discounted. Even though the undersea shelf drops off quickly into deeper water from the northern end of Baffin Island, it would be by only the rarest accident that a nuclear-powered submarine was operating close enough to an unfamiliar beach to throw whales up onto it with an explosion. Interpreting the presence of the whales as the washing up of an unusual number of dead ones, after an explosion, could leave the door open for some kind of connection with a submarine, but it is still unlikely.)
What a nuclear-powered submarine might have done, to produce an explosion that sent a plume of black smoke up from the water, is not clear. Nothing a nuclear-powered submarine would do in the course of normal operations would produce this effect. An explosion-producing accident, with carbon emissions, would be very unlikely to have gone unnoticed (e.g., by families or the media back in Russia) – and could hardly have been irrelevant to the submarine’s safe transit back to home port.
Officially, the 31 July 2008 explosion off Baffin Island appears to remain unexplained. Oddly enough, there was another major, still unexplained explosion in Canada that day, some hours later. A series of four explosions shook Canadians in the vicinity of Kincardine, Ontario – on Lake Huron’s shores across from central Michigan – shortly after 11:00 PM. Seismological equipment registered shocks, but it is unclear if Canadian seismologists were ever able to tie them to underground events. It looks far-fetched to postulate a common explanation for these two explosive events, hundreds of miles apart; we may simply observe, before leaving them, that Baffin Island – geologically part of the Arctic Cordillera – has not seen active volcanic activity for millions of years, and Canadian authorities have not offered either seismic or volcanic activity as an explanation for the explosion of 9 August.
A final note on the possible identity of the submarine. Canadians naturally are speculating that it could have simply been one of their own four Victoria-class, diesel-electric submarines, with the theory being batted about that a diesel-fueled sub would be more susceptible to black-smoke-emitting explosive accidents. However, the chain of documentation unearthed by the Globe and Mail indicates convincingly that Canadian defense officials reacted last August as if they did not know if there was really a submarine there, or whose it might have been. If a Canadian submarine was known to have been there, maintaining an elaborate deception about it within official channels in the defense forces would have been most unlikely. Moreover, a large explosion caused by a Canadian submarine – one that was thought by members of the public to have killed whales – would have been reported by Canadian officials as quickly as it would be by their US counterparts, if they found themselves in a similar situation.
At bottom, there is not enough public information to confirm that a submarine was actually sighted on 9 August 2008 north of Baffin Island. Veterans of intelligence centers will understand my skepticism about the original report: we remember too well the “submarine walls of fame” on which spurious, never-proven sightings were tallied up, from the Baltic coast of Sweden to the Panama Canal Zone to the Tsushima Strait at the southern end of the Sea of Japan, and the Ten Degree Channel in the Indian Ocean. The submarine sightings of non-experts do not have a good track record. If this was a submarine, however, Russia had sufficient reasons, and the capability, to be there. The missing piece is an accounting of Russian submarines, over the period of weeks in which a nuclear-powered attack sub would have had to be deployed, to make a date with the Lancaster Sound on 9 August. That, the general public will not have access to.