In 1982, fresh off a combat patrol in the Falkland Islands, a British submarine committed a brazen act of theft—it stole a secret sonar array right out from under the nose of a Soviet Navy ship. The role of HMS Conqueror in Operation Barmaid points to a larger world of no-holds-barred undersea cloak and dagger warfare during the Cold War.
was a Churchill-class nuclear-powered attack submarine and one of the most powerful ships in the Royal Navy in the 1980s. During the Falklands War u sank the Argentine Navy light cruiser when it was determined the ship posed a threat to the Royal Navy task force steaming south to retake the Falkland Islands. The sinking was only the second sinking by submarine torpedo since the Second World War.
Just two months later, the nuclear-powered Conqueror was nine thousand miles away, in the Barents Sea. She had been outfitted with an unusual set of tools: a pair of remote-controlled heavy steel cutting blades and television cameras. All in the interest of stealing a top secret Russian towed sonar array.
There are two types of sonar: active and passive. Active sonar broadcasts short bursts of sound, known as pings, that travel through the ocean before bouncing back towards the ship that made them. Passive sonar, on the other hand, simply listens for noise in the ocean, listening for suspicious sounds such as active sonar pings and machinery noise.
Passive sonar can be difficult to use effectively, since the ship doing the listening often has to contend with its own noise, particularly the noise its propellers make churning through the water. As a result, passive sonars are often towed a mile or more behind a ship.
This, , is what the Soviet Union started doing in the 1980s. And because the device emitted no noise itself, virtually nothing could be learned about the array without actually sitting in front of one and taking it apart. So the United States and United Kingdom decided to steal one. The plan was to come up from behind the ship towing the array, a Polish-flagged intelligence vessel, and use the pincers to cut the array loose.
The plan was complicated for several reasons. One, Conqueror had to intercept the Soviet intelligence trip—an event may or may not have taken place in international waters. Detection would have meant immediate, and possibly lethal reprisal. Second, the Royal Navy sub had to conduct the operation while both ships were moving. Third, the sub had to avoid being detected itself by the passive sonar array.
According to , Conqueror did it, and absconded trailing the stolen device. Divers later went out to retrieve the object and stow it within the sub. Back at the submarine's home base at Faslane, Scotland the sonar array was put on a plane and sent to the U.S. for analysis.
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