Submarine Collisions in Fiction—Do They Occur in Reality?

Submarines have been known to collide in fiction, but do they occur in reality?

The short answer—yes. I’ll have to credit Wikipedia with a list of the more well-known submarine collisions since 2000:

2001 – USS Greeneville collision with Ehime Maru
2002 – USS Oklahoma City collision with Norwegian tanker Norman Lady
2005 – USS Philadelphia collision with MV Yasa Aysen
2007 – USS Newport News collision with Japanese tanker Mogamigawa
2009 – HMS Vanguard and Triomphant collision
2009 – USS Hartford collision with USS New Orleans
2012 – USS Montpelier collision with USS San Jacinto
2013 – USS Jacksonville collision with “unknown” vessel

This is an interesting topic for both writers and readers because a cornerstone of most military thrillers is that the plot be plausible. But therein lies the problem—submarine collisions are highly improbable.

When collisions have occurred, the things that went wrong are often so bizarre and unbelievable, that if they were included in a novel, most readers would accuse the writer of concocting an implausible scenario. The safeguards incorporated into submarine operating procedures are numerous, so that a single mistake cannot lead to a catastrophic event. Think of the safeguards as the cables of a suspension bridge—for a submarine collision to occur, one cable doesn’t have to break, they all have to break at the same time.

However, while submarine collisions are very unlikely, they do occur. The fundamental issue, while submerged, is the difficulty in understanding the surrounding environment using only passive sonar. Submarines go active only on rare occasions, as those transmissions can give away a submarine’s presence and its most important attribute—stealth.

With passive sonar, a submarine’s crew knows only the bearing to a contact, but the most crucial parameters—range, course, and speed—are not easily determined. By maneuvering the submarine and using complex algorithms, a submarine crew can estimate those parameters, but it takes time and course changes. In a restricted geographic location, such as a narrow strait, maneuvers are not possible and the estimated “solution” for the contact can be significantly incorrect.

Submarine collisions occur even in open ocean, when the crew has the flexibility to maneuver to better determine the contact solution. One of the reasons these collisions occur is that evaluating a contact using sonar is much more complex than with radar. Sound waves bend as they travel through the water, influenced primarily by water temperature, but also salinity and pressure. As a result, a submarine directly ahead may remain undetected until it is close enough for this “bending effect” to not matter.

There are also surface and bottom bounce reflections, which produce inaccurate bearings to the contact. When detecting a contact underwater, a submarine crew must determine whether the sound is arriving via a direct path, or is a bottom bounce or surface reflection, then compensate the bearings to the contact accordingly.

The crews are trained for this assessment and have sophisticated combat control systems to assist, but this doesn’t diminish the difficulty of what would be a simple task for a surface ship engaging an air contact. Two radar pulses and the crew knows the course, speed, and range of a missile or aircraft in seconds. Yet, it can take an hour or more for a submarine crew to determine the solution to a submerged contact.

So, how does an author concoct a plausible submarine collision scenario? This was my challenge in Ice Station Nautilus, where a collision between the newest U.S. fast attack submarine and the newest Russian ballistic missile submarine sets off a fateful chain of events.

I couldn’t just have the two submarines collide without detecting each other—most readers would have complained about the implausible scenario. Yet, that is what occurred in 1992 in the same location as the setting for Ice Station Nautilus. USS Baton Rouge, a Los Angeles class submarine, collided with a Russian Sierra class submarine off the coast of the Kola Peninsula. An assessment published in the Naval Submarine League’s Submarine Review concluded the two submarines simply did not detect each other. Again, most readers would find this unbelievable.

To give you an idea of how difficult it was to write a scenario that even the most critical reader would find plausible, I had to walk through multiple maneuvers by both submarines, the thought processes by characters aboard both vessels, and break all the cables in the suspension bridge I mentioned above.

Consequently, in my first draft, the collision occurred on page 180. Although submarine enthusiasts might have enjoyed the detailed cat and mouse game that led to the collision, the plot didn’t start rolling until the collision occurred, and my editor’s head would likely have exploded if I didn’t kick things off until page 180.

So, wanting to keep my editor healthy and not create a mess in his office, I had to take some shortcuts, pulling the collision in to page 80, cutting out lots of details and several events. That’s the tradeoff when writing thrillers—include lots of detail and the story bogs down; don’t include enough and readers will conclude you either don’t know what you’re talking about or the plot is implausible. Finding the right balance is tough, particularly because you’re dealing with a Goldilocks scenario. What is a perfect level of detail for some readers is too much or too little for others.

If you enjoy submarine novels and military thrillers, I recommend you check out my series, starting with The Trident Deception, followed by Empire Rising. Both books were Barnes and Noble Top-20 bestsellers, and are among the highest rated submarine thrillers on Amazon. Also, if you’d like to check out the submarine collision scenario I came up with—and would like to read a (hopefully) exciting submarine and military thriller at the same time—check out Ice Station Nautilus, releasing at bookstores everywhere on June 28th.


  1. John Quiring

    Sounds interesting. Love to give it a read.

  2. Thomas Walker

    Exciting. I would love to win the book.

  3. Carol Kubala

    Just attended book group to discuss Dead Wake by Erik Larson. There was some discussion about subs, always an interesting topic.
    I’d love to win your book. Count me in.

  4. Todd Henson

    I haven’t read a novel with submarines in ages. I’m in.

  5. Arthur Glover

    Very good article Rick! Submarine collisions also occur when there is a break down in the chain of command and the command has a toxic environment. This proved evident in several reviews of submarine collisions. During the cold war, there were many submarines that returned to port in New London with thier sails covered over with tarp because of bent periscopes. The closest this JOOD came to a collision was when the surface ships we were training with used variable pitched propellers to change speed and you could hardly hear them when they changed speed. Upon arriving at PD and initally seeing no close contacts I swung the scope around again and my immediate reaction was “oh sh*t!” Thanks to a more senior officer on the conn we executed a right full rudder and the surface ship passed down our port side 1,000 yds away. Of course I was later instructed that “oh sh*t” was not the right call to make!

  6. Alex Duran

    I loved The Trident Deception and Empire Rising and I am really looking forward to Ice Station Nautilus.

  7. Bill Meader

    Hey Rick! Hate to say but I was on Houston when we sunk the tug in ’89. A catastrophic chain of events where we heard the tug but needed to get a NAVSAT fix to reduce fix expansion so we came up and putting him on the left drawing left. Unfortunately, we were so close we caught the catenary of the tow and pulled the tug under killing the engineer. You know the rest of the story. Read lots of mission reports as did you of collisions that occurred in other parts of the world. Never on a boat that hit another submarine though! Looking forward to your third novel!

    CDR. Bill Meader, USN (Ret) Class of ’79.

  8. Kevin Young

    Can’t wait for your next book

  9. USS Joseph Strauss

    Sounds exciting Rick! In the end I am sure that a DDG will rescue the Boat.

  10. Mark Henderson

    Your books are great! Technically accurate and entertaining.

  11. Richard Derus

    Sounds very exciting!

  12. Laurent Latulippe

    Submarines are fascinating. I can’t wait to read this.

  13. bill norris

    sounds like a good one….

  14. Susan Meek

    Wow! Who knew that submarine collisions happened so often. This sounds facinating.

  15. Mark Williams

    sounds thrilling – can’t wait to read

  16. Ruth F

    One of my favorite books and movie is “The Hunt for Red October”. I once worked for the museum that now has the USS Blueback on display. Would like to find a new submarine book to love.


    OK we know accidents happen but what about if it’s intentional like sabotage or terrorism?

  18. Caren Luckie

    Going to check this series out. Sounds really intriguing!

  19. David Shaner

    The Trident Deception was really good, I picked it up as an impulse buy. It has been one of the best books I read last year. This one I am sure will be just as good.

  20. Deanna Stillings

    It wasn’t a collision but I remember the Thresher in 1963!

  21. Richard Brandt

    Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains…better still be plausible, dammit.

  22. Clydia DeFreese

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about subs colliding….fiction or nonfiction. Should be an interesting read. Thanks for writing it.

  23. Janice

    Sounds like an interesting read. Would like to learn more about this subject.

  24. Patrick Murphy

    Not my typical read

  25. Michael Barten

    Sounds like an awesome read.

  26. Karen Mikusak

    This looks interesting. Would love to win.

  27. Joanne Mielczarski

    This is an interesting story that I definitely want to read.

  28. Louis Burklow

    Great place for a thriller. Looking forward to reading it.

  29. Don McClure

    Thanks for the giveaway.

  30. Karl Stenger

    I would love to read the book.

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  32. David Siegel

    Love submarine stories.

  33. Barbara Bibel

    Great locked room variation!

  34. Barbara Lima

    I have only read about WWI submarines, in the past. This sounds interesting.

  35. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    Put me in a submarine and I will talk! Yes!

  36. Russ Cross

    Sounds exciting! I’d love to read this!

  37. Joseph Skidmore

    Sounds great and is now on my list to read.

  38. Beth Talmage

    Having heard many stories about submarine life from someone who served, the idea of being so far underwater both intrigues me and–I have to admit–freaks me out a bit. So I’m looking forward to reading this, because those are elements of a good book, right?

  39. Sallyw

    I would love to win a copy since this is a setting few people will experience, with a mystery to enjoy also.

  40. Sally Schmidt

    Sounds like an exciting read.

  41. William Cox

    I would love to read it

  42. Anna Mills

    Added to the list: Things that I am scared of!!


    Sounds like my kind of book. Putting it on my must readlist.

  44. Keith Montgomery

    Heard a theory about the USS Scorpion (lost in 68) while I was aboard Ethan Allen SSBN608 during the 70’s. It concerned the possibility that they and another sub (Russian?) were following each other (hiding in the lead subs prop cavitation) when the lead sub did a 180 degree turn and collided head on with the second sub. I heard a rumor that two “sails” were found on the ocean bottom. Mid 70’s we went into drydock and had towed sonar arrays installed so we could finally “see” behind us.

  45. David Olson

    Would LOVE to win a copy. Really enjoy your books.

  46. Dan Carr


  47. Kyle Johnicker

    Interesting idea. Lots of possibilities. Should be a good read!

  48. Saundra K. Warren

    Sounds interesting

  49. Tad Ottman

    Looks really interesting. I’d love to give it a read.

  50. Linda Fast

    I would really like to read this. I have never read a novel with a submarine in it.

  51. Marisa Young

    Definitely sounds like a book I want to read!

  52. Cesario Guerrero

    Then why not put windows on the sub.

  53. Brian Gibb

    They have happened many times, in the past, even before you started mentioning them. Sometimes due to a bow null, where the two contacts are pointed directly at each other.

    Book sounds interesting.

  54. Robert Pallazolla

    Almost done reading The Trident Deception and based on how good it is, I expect Ice Station Nautilus to be just as entertaining! Bravo Zulu to Mr. Campbell!

  55. Denise Sachs

    This would be great, thanks.

  56. Sandy Klocinski

    Sounds like an interesting read. I would love to win! Count me in!

  57. Barbara Lima

    Dead Wake gave me some WWI insight, I hope this gives me some insight also.

  58. Vicki Andrew

    sounds like a great read fro the coming summer

  59. Vicky Boackle

    sounds very interesting.

  60. JULES M.

    would love to read!

  61. kathy pease

    Thanks for the chance 🙂


    WOW! What a great read. I want it.
    My turn to WIN????????????

  63. John OBrien

    Liked his previous books, and am looking forward to reading this one.

  64. Richard Hicks

    I love thrillers like this!

  65. Daniel Morrell

    sounds interesting

  66. Lori Walker


  67. Susan Pertierra

    I enjoy books where the research is done properly and the books are believable.

  68. Jaime Cummings

    I wanna win!

  69. Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read the work of Rick Campbell.

  70. Penny Snyder

    Would love to read this – sounds awesome!!!~

  71. Jerry Marquardt

    Thank you for featuring this great writing. I would like to thank you for giving us all the chance to win this giveaway.

  72. Brian Eason

    Would love to read this one on the beach this summer !

  73. Kim Keithline

    sign me up

  74. Philip Lawrence

    Looking forward to reading them.

  75. Lily

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  76. Tim Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  77. Carol Gowett

    I didn’t know anybody had a question about whether such collisions occurred–they have been documented several times,and I am certain that there are others that have not been made public–in several countries! Aside from that, good story possibilities!

  78. Daniel Vice

    I would like this

  79. Chelsey L.

    Thank you for the chance! My grandfather was in the Navy and would love to read this!!!

  80. cindy tsou

    Thank you so much for this sweeptake! It looks so fascinating and interesting! I would looooove to give it a read!! Thank you 🙂

  81. Roy Lenza

    I’m looking forward to Ice Station Nautilus – and hoping it’s as good as its predecessors. As an old sub sailor, it’s a refreshing change to read a book with a submarine setting that gets it right.

Comments are closed.