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France and UK may coordinate submarine routes

PARIS (Reuters) - France and Britain may consider coordinating underwater patrols following a collision between two of their nuclear-armed submarines, France’s defence minister said on Tuesday.

France's Defence Minister Herve Morin attends a news conference in Paris, July 24, 2008. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Herve Morin denied the submarines had been shadowing each other when they collided in the Atlantic in what he called a freak accident between vessels which “make less noise than a shrimp.”

“There’s no story to this -- the British aren’t hunting French submarines, and the French submarines don’t hunt British submarines,” Morin told Canal+ radio.

“We face an extremely simple technological problem, which is that these submarines are not detectable. They make less noise than a shrimp.”

He said the submarines’ mission was to sit at the bottom of the sea and act as a nuclear deterrent.

“Between France and Britain, there are things we can do of the solutions would be to think about the patrol zones,” Morin said.

Defence analysts have said the accident could have caused a disaster if the hulls had been ruptured.

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Commodore Stephen Saunders, a retired navy officer and expert on submarines, described the incident as “very serious” and said it was time for France and Britain to coordinate their underwater activities more actively.

“I would have thought it possible to at least arrange to be in different parts of the ocean without compromising operational security,” Saunders, the editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, wrote in an email.

“No doubt there are a number of technical issues to be investigated, but the root of the problem appears to be procedural. These submarines should not have been in the same place at the same time.”

The French navy initially said its submarine, Le Triomphant, had suffered light damage after hitting a submerged object, which it said was probably a shipping container.

But both countries confirmed on Monday the French submarine had collided with HMS Vanguard, which carries the Trident nuclear missile.

Morin denied any attempt at a cover-up. He said Britain and France had been able to exchange information on the incident only after the Vanguard returned to base.

Le Triomphant is armed with 16 nuclear missiles. France and Britain each have four nuclear-armed submarines.

More than 240 people would have been on the submarines at the time of the collision, according to military experts.

France, which left NATO’s command structure in 1966, is expected to rejoin the alliance fully this year but will keep its nuclear forces independent.

As one of the main contributors to NATO’s missions, France hopes that holding top posts will help it strengthen European defence and influence reforms to prepare the alliance for new security threats.

Reporting by Laure Bretton in Paris and Luke Baker in London; editing by Timothy Heritage and Robert Woodward