80,000-Ton US Aircraft Carrier Collides With Russian Submarine – Recalling ‘Scary Accident’ Between Two Nuclear Warships

Late on March 21, 1984, amid heightened Cold War tensions, a dramatic collision rocked the Sea of Japan as the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier of the US Navy, collided with a Soviet Victor-class attack submarine K-314.   

Chinese JF-17 “Shot Down” By 2nd-Hand F-16 Fighter Jet; US Establishes ‘Air Supremacy’ In Argentina

The USS Kitty Hawk, a massive 80,000-ton vessel carrying 85 planes, was participating in joint naval exercises with South Korean forces approximately 150 miles east of South Korea.

As the carrier sailed through the Sea of Japan at 15 knots with its navigation lights illuminated, it was aware of being shadowed by a Soviet submarine, a common occurrence during such maneuvers during the Cold War era.

The nature of naval operations during the Cold War often involved a delicate game of cat and mouse, with submarines from both NATO and Soviet fleets engaging in clandestine surveillance and intelligence-gathering missions.

Such encounters carried inherent risks. At 22:05 on March 21, 1984, the USSR submarine K-314 suddenly emerged right in front of Kitty Hawk. It was too dark and the proximity was too close for Kitty Hawk to notice and prevent the ensuing collision.

Sailors aboard the USS Kitty Hawk were jolted awake by a sudden impact as their massive 80,000-ton vessel collided with the 5,200-ton Soviet submarine.

According to the US Navy’s official website, Captain David Rogers, the skipper of the Kitty Hawk, was on the bridge at the time of the collision and experienced a “noticeable shudder, a fairly violent shudder.”

Navy helicopters were quickly dispatched to assess the situation following the collision. According to reports from The New York Times at the time, the collision resulted in only a minor superficial dent on the Kitty Hawk. At the same time, the Soviet submarine K-314 seemed to encounter more significant damage. The submarine was unresponsive and unable to move on its power.

The Kitty Hawk and its accompanying vessels remained on standby to assist with the carrier’s coming to a halt. Using flashing lights, attempts were made to communicate with the Soviet missile cruiser Petropavlovsk, the flagship of the Soviet task force accompanying the submarine. However, Petropavlovsk did not respond, and the submarine appeared to remain seaworthy.

US officials stated that a Soviet missile cruiser later declined American offers of assistance. As a result, the aircraft carrier resumed operations.

Unraveling The Incident

During the Cold War era, Soviet submarines frequently shadowed US vessels to gather intelligence, and the USSR’s submarine K-314 had been tailing the carrier for several days before the collision.

Post-collision image

US military officials were perplexed as to how the Victor I-class submarine failed to detect the carrier before the collision. “Quite honestly, I have to question the seamanship of the Soviet captain involved,” a Navy officer remarked to The Washington Post in the aftermath of the incident.

At the time of the maritime mishap, the K-314 submarine, typically manned by about 90 crew members, was trailing a Soviet guided-missile cruiser heading north.

Captain Vladimir Evseenko, the submarine’s commander, recounted in an excerpt from Nikolay Cherkashin’s 2011 book Disturbers of the Depths that they thought the conning tower had been obliterated and the submarine’s hull had been severely damaged.

Evseenko initially believed that the American carrier had “rammed” into his submarine that night, alleging that the carrier struck the propeller and bent the stabilizer. However, subsequent investigation revealed that the collision was due to certain misjudgments on their part.

Following the incident, Evseenko was relieved of his command and reassigned to land duties. “For me, this was a greater setback than damage to the propellers,” he remarked.

At the time of the accident, it was estimated that the Kitty Hawk carried several dozen nuclear weapons, while the K-314 likely carried two nuclear torpedoes.

Subsequently, the Kitty Hawk was designated as the Navy’s first anti-submarine carrier weapon, and a red submarine was painted on her island near the bridge. However, this marking was ordered to be removed upon the carrier’s return to its home port at North Island, San Diego, CA.

The Kitty Hawk underwent repairs at the US Naval Base in Subic Bay, Philippines. Embedded in its bow was a fragment of one of K-314’s propellers, along with some sections of the Soviet anechoic coating scraped off during the collision.

This incident inadvertently provided the US Navy with valuable intelligence. The ship returned to San Diego on August 1, 1984.

Yokosuka, Japan (May 17, 2005) – The conventionally powered aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) sails past a small group of Japanese fishing vessels and heads toward Sagami Bay to conduct precision anchor checks during her post-upkeep underway period in the western Pacific Ocean. Kitty Hawk demonstrated power projection and sea control as a forward-deployed aircraft carrier operating from Yokosuka, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class William H. Ramsey (RELEASED)

Was The Incident An Isolated Case?

This collision marked the second instance of a Soviet warship colliding with a US military vessel within six months. Before this incident, in October 1983, a Soviet submarine had to be towed to Cuba after it disrupted a US frigate’s sonar device and became disabled.

In 1972, the Soviets and the US signed an agreement pledging not to interfere with each other’s naval operations. The aim was to reduce collisions at sea, which were frequent during the Cold War as American and Russian vessels often operated nearby.

Despite this agreement, accidents persisted. A major collision took place in November 1974 when American and Soviet nuclear submarines collided near Scotland, narrowly avoiding sinking each other. This incident was disclosed in a declassified CIA memo in 2017.

Even today, incidents at sea continue to occur. The most recent collisions involving American military vessels and foreign ships or submarines happened in 2017 when the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain, both US Navy destroyers, collided with the container ship ACX Crystal and the tanker Alnic MC, respectively.

On January 18, 2024,  two British Royal Navy vessels, the HMS Chiddingfold and HMS Bangor, collided while docking at port off the coast of Bahrain. These incidents serve as poignant reminders of the potential for collisions to occur amidst the vast expanse of the sea.

They underscore maritime operations’ complex dynamics and navigational challenges, highlighting the importance of vigilance and adherence to safety protocols to mitigate such risks.

The fate of submarine K-314 remains unclear, but the Kitty Hawk continued its service with the Navy for another 25 years before being decommissioned in 2009.

In 2021, the Navy entered a controversial one-cent recycling deal with a shipbreaking company to dispose of the conventionally powered aircraft carrier.

The following year, after nearly 50 years of service, the large warship embarked on its final voyage, spanning over 16,000 miles to a facility in Brownsville, Texas, where it is currently being scrapped.