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    Cold War Encounter Below the Surface: USS Baton Rouge and Russian Sub B-276 Kostroma Collide in February 1992

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    030729-N-5465P-004 Pacific Ocean (Jul. 29, 2003) — Crewmen aboard the Los Angeles-class nuclear powered attack submarine USS Asheville (SSN 758), man the topside navigation watch as the submarine operates at high speed near San Diego. U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Thomas C. Peterson. (RELEASED)

    In the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the world found itself navigating the murky waters of a new geopolitical era. Amidst this uncertainty, on February 11, 1992, an underwater clash underscored the lingering mutual suspicions between the world’s former Cold War adversaries. The USS Baton Rouge, a nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class attack submarine, collided with Russia’s Sierra-class B-276 Kostroma near the Russian naval base at Severomorsk, in a region teeming with strategic significance and naval activity.

    Despite the official cessation of Cold War hostilities, U.S. naval operations continued to track Russian military maneuvers with a keen eye, engaging in intelligence-gathering missions that included tapping into Russian communication cables, part of an initiative codenamed “Operation Holy Stone.” The Baton Rouge was trailing the Russian sub when an unfortunate game of underwater cat-and-mouse turned literal as both vessels, previously blind to each other’s presence, collided approximately 12 miles offshore—an area the U.S. recognized as international waters but Russia considered its own.

    The magnitude of the impact reflected the enormity of the machines involved—a 9,000-ton Russian nuclear sub making contact at 8 mph with the American vessel. The Baton Rouge, sporting a single hull, sustained significant damage, including heavy scratches and a torn ballast tank, prompting serious concern as any further breach could have been catastrophic. Conversely, the Kostroma emerged with a battered conning tower, evidence of the collision’s force.

    Submarine ship approaching underwater damaged pipeline leaking in the deep dark ocean like the nord stream illustration

    Initially, the U.S. Defense Department’s acknowledgment of the incident broke from traditional silence on such matters, highlighting the event’s gravity. It further prompted a high-level discussion between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, leading to an eventual curtailing of certain U.S. naval activities near Russian bases.

    Repair and refit outcomes diverged significantly for the two submarines following the collision. The Kostroma returned to service by June 1992, later receiving a major upgrade in 2005, and eventually joined the reserve fleet. Its sailors even inscribed a “kill” marking on the conning tower to commemorate their perceived victory over the Baton Rouge. The American sub, however, faced a different fate. Already due for refueling, it was deemed uneconomical to repair and consequently decommissioned, becoming the first Los Angeles-class submarine to be stricken from the Naval Vessel Register.

    The collision and its aftermath served not only as a stark reminder of the persistent tensions between the U.S. and Russia but also highlighted the challenges of stealth operations in the acoustically challenging shallow waters near naval bases. Analysts have pointed out that, in such environments, detection ranges for passive sonar can be drastically limited, reducing the efficacy of one of the submariners’ primary tools for avoiding such underwater encounters.

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