MIAMI — The U.S. Navy successfully launched a Trident 2 missile from a submarine submerged off the coast of Florida on Monday, but not before ramming a hole in the side of a Greenpeace vessel and towing away protesters who sought to stop the test.
Navy spokesmen say the launch of the $26.5-million missile from the submarine Tennessee put the troubled Trident program back on track after its last two test shots blew up seconds after they broke water. Monday's test firing could mean the Navy will meet a March deadline to load the first missile armed with a nuclear warhead on the Tennessee.
The actual firing of the missile, which rocketed skyward at 10:20 a.m., was almost anticlimactic, however, following a two-hour battle at sea which began just after dawn in choppy waters about 50 miles east of Cape Canaveral. After a Navy submarine support ship put a 3-foot gash in the side of the environmental activists' 190-foot ocean-going tugboat and knocked out its engines by pouring water down its smokestacks, Navy commandos boarded two Greenpeace inflatable rafts, punctured the boats' pontoons and slashed fuel lines.
The confrontation was the most serious yet between the Navy and Greenpeace, which has vowed to scuttle the $160-billion Trident missile program by preventing test launches. In July, the environmentalists did stop one launch by following the Tennessee out to sea in its tugboat, called Greenpeace, and sending out two inflatable rafts to positions above the submerged submarine.
But on Monday, the Navy was ready. "We expected them to expect us, and it was clear from the start they were prepared," said Steve Shallhorn, coordinator for Greenpeace USA's Nuclear Free Seas campaign, who was aboard the tug.
About 7 a.m., after Greenpeace Capt. Richard Whibley refused a Navy warning to leave the area, Shallhorn said the Grasp approached the Greenpeace's port side and "repeatedly rammed us, eight or ten times." When the tug began to take on water, a hole just above the waterline was plugged with mattresses, Greenpeace reported.
Along with the Grasp, a second Navy vessel, the submarine rescue ship Kittiwake, rammed the tug on the starboard side, Shallhorn said. "They sandwiched us. They were there to disable the ship," he charged.
At the same time, Shallhorn added, Navy crewmen used fire hoses to drench many of the 32 people aboard the Greenpeace, and also poured water down the ship's smokestacks. For a while, Shallhorn said, the Greenpeace was dead in the water. One engine was later started.
For the next 90 minutes, Shallhorn said, the Greenpeace circled the area, evading the Navy vessels while launching two inflatable boats called Zodiacs, each with a two-man crew. When the Zodiacs hovered over the spot where the Tennessee had submerged--marked by its antenna--the Navy countered by sending out two boatloads of commandos dressed in camouflage and wearing visored helmets. After disabling the Zodiacs, the commandos towed the rafts back to the Greenpeace.
Navy Vice Adm. Roger Bacon, commander of the Atlantic submarine fleet, told pool reporters aboard the amphibious transport dock Nashville, that the activists ignored "at least 50 and maybe more" warnings to leave the area. "We used the minimum force necessary to clear the area," he said.
Bacon told Reuters news service that the Dutch-registered Greenpeace was "bumped and damaged" by the Grasp, which mistakenly rammed the Greenpeace while it sprayed the protest ship with water from fire hoses.
There were no injuries in the encounter. Once the protesters' vessels were muscled outside the 5,000-yard diameter safety circle, the Tennessee fired the 44-foot missile out of a tube in the deck. It broke the Atlantic surface, ignited and propelled a dummy warhead package to an ocean target several thousand miles away.
Peter Bahouth, executive director of Greenpeace USA, called the Navy's action "a terrible outrage."
"This is an unbridled act of aggression against a peaceful protest in international waters. The Navy's assertion that it was acting within international law is absolute nonsense.
"Had our vessel belonged to a foreign government it would have been an act of war."
The Greenpeace vessel limped toward port at Jacksonville on one engine Monday evening. But Shallhorn, evacuated from the ship by helicopter and interviewed by telephone from Cape Canaveral, said the environmentalists would not quit the fight. "The Navy may have won that tactical situation," he said. "But we'll see if this missile system ever gets put into production."