We’re really glad there was nobody on board.
The submarine lines up its target and fires the torpedo. First there are only the faint sounds of waves, lapping against the sides of the old destroyer. Then comes the detonation. The ship seems to briefly leap out of the water, then settle, before the explosion sends a billowing column of fragments and water shooting into the air. Soon, though, the ocean is calm again, with only the floating debris of the bow section to suggest there was a warship there in the first place. And before long, this too will sink to the bottom of the ocean.
This ship is about to have a very bad day.
The ship in question is the HMAS Torrens, a 351-foot (107m) long River class destroyer escort weighing 2,700 tons. Commissioned for service by the Royal Australian Navy in 1971, the escort was used for a number of purposes, including bringing troops back to Australia from the Vietnam War. Then, on June 14, 1999, it performed one final duty: helping to test the combat system of Collins-class submarine HMAS Farncomb.
It’s a hit!
Here we see the destroyer only moments after the torpedo’s impact. A plume of black smoke rises from the boiler, contrasting with the white water beginning to surge upwards on either side of the ship in what is known as a “spray dome”. The Mark 48 Mod Torpedo that caused the damage had a warhead packed with 650 pounds (295 kg) of high explosives. More than enough, it seems. Fortunately for those aboard the HMAS Farncomb, the torpedo was fired from a safe distance, beyond the horizon where the sub was submerged.
Steel begins to fly.
The Torrens begins to explode in the blast inflicted by the torpedo, whose power is equivalent to 1,200 pounds of TNT. Surprisingly, the underwater missile does not touch the ship directly. It detonates just below the keel, causing a pressure wave that slams into the bottom of the craft, lifting it up and out of the water. Then the explosion proper hits, ripping its way through the metal hull of the destroyer.
The water surging up around the battleship reaches a height of almost 500 feet (150m), and the ship is enveloped in a cloud of spray and debris as the mid-section of the ship is blown apart. Over 25 years of development and improvements to the Mark 48 torpedo had clearly paid off.
The warship is well and truly broken.
As the smoke clears, the ship can clearly be seen to have split in two. The torpedo obviously hit its target precisely. Initially, Mark 48 torpedoes are guided by a thin wire linking them to the submarine. An operator in the sub is able to guide the torpedo via this link, counteracting any decoys or jamming technology that its target might initialize.
The bow and stern part company.
The stern section of the ship has broken off completely and begins to sink, many tons of metal headed for the ocean floor. You can see the wreckage from the explosion strewn around the ship in the water. The torpedo – once it had broken off from the submarine’s connecting wire – was directed by advanced sonar guides to reach its target – in this case with spectacular results.
Here’s a close-up of that sinking stern. It reminds us of James Cameron’s Titanic. Incidentally, if these images seem familiar, that may be because video footage of the HMAS Torrens’s demise was made to look like old black and white news footage and used in the film Pearl Harbor in 2001. Islamic militant group Hezbollah also used the video, which it claimed showed their missiles sinking an Israeli warship.
The HMAS Torrens was originally intended to replicate the design of the British River class ships, but design modifications in 1965 integrated significant tweaks made to the British Leander class frigates. Laid down in 1965, the Torrens was launched in 1968. And when operational, it was capable of carrying a crew of 250.
A final splash, and all that’s left of the rear is flotsam. Yet there are those who would like to see an end to using decommissioned warships for target practice, claiming the practice is environmentally unsound. They argue that sinking the ships releases toxic matter into the ocean, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which is a hazard to marine life and thus those who consume it.
The bow will go on… for a while.
The bow of the ship stayed afloat for some time after the stern sank, but eventually the entire ship disappeared beneath the water. And as far as the Australian Navy was concerned, this test was a success. The HMAS Farncomb, the first submarine built entirely in Australia, had destroyed the HMAS Torrens completely. In 2012, the Farncomb went on to sink the USNS Kilauea in a multinational exercise, again using a Mark 48 torpedo.
Environmentalists continue to campaign against sinking decommissioned ships, claiming that, as well as PCBs, toxic metals are being introduced into the ocean. Instead, environmental groups urge recycling of ships. But the US Navy hit back in their defense, saying that these exercises “enhance combat readiness by providing realistic training that cannot be duplicated in simulators.”