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THE Ministry of Defence has put Royal Navy divers at risk of drowning by making them use dangerous US equipment that has a history of fatal accidents, an investigation by the Morning Star has found.
Britain’s elite Special Boat Service (SBS) has a fleet of US-made miniature submarines for covertly infiltrating foreign waters and deploying divers behind enemy lines.
Although the ultra-secret unit is exempt from Britain’s Freedom of Information Act, which has a loophole for special forces, the same equipment is used by US navy Seals who are more transparent than their British counterparts.
Under US law, this newspaper has obtained 17 years of crash data from the Pentagon, exposing dozens of training accidents with the mini-subs.
It reveals that four Seals perished while training with the equipment.
Another frogman was left with a permanent partial disability and there were two other “near drownings.”
The most recent deaths were in 2013 — one during a “planned open ocean swim evolution,” and another when a Seal parachuted into the sea to board the vessel.
There was a third death in 2009, when the navigator of a mini-sub died in a training accident, and a fourth fatality in 2008.
Although these accidents affected US personnel, they will have sent a shock wave through the Royal Navy.
The commander of the SBS, Lieutenant Colonel Richard van der Horst OBE, drowned while training with the mini-subs in 2005.
The circumstances of his death came to light during an inquest, which found that problems with his air supply killed him.
The Star’s trove of US accident data reveals that a Seal suffered from similar problems with breathing apparatus that same year.
Even more disturbing is that for over a decade after that death, the US has continued to be plagued by near-misses and tragic accidents.
The data shows that US divers have frequently needed decompression treatment after using the equipment.
This is to remove bubbles of air that have built up in their blood after spending too long under water or surfacing too fast.
As recently as 2017, a diver passed out because of problems with his air supply.
The mini-subs are also prone to underwater crashes. Examples include collisions with fishing vessels, a barge and submerged objects.
Between 2001 and 2017, the US navy recorded 381 “lost days” due to training accidents with the kit.
It also said that over 1,000 days were spent on “limited/light duty” because of mishaps.
Despite this catalogue of errors, last September the US Pentagon announced that Britain had spent almost £70 million purchasing three new mini-subs.
Although the sale is public knowledge, the SBS is so secretive that a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson bizarrely told us: “We will neither confirm nor deny that the UK has purchased this equipment.”
While there is no suggestion that US manufacturers are at fault, the data shows that operating mini-submarines is fraught with risk — and that the British public will not know when its own divers are injured.
Reacting to our investigation, Maurice Frankel, director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “If this information is available under the US Act it should be possible to obtain similar information under the UK’s freedom of information law.
“Unfortunately the blanket secrecy about the special forces under our legislation prevents disclosure, even where it would not cause harm and could highlight problems needing attention.”
Former solider Joe Glenton echoed his concern. “The habit of secrecy around UK Special Forces operations is well past its sell-by date,” he said.
“New legislation must be added which allows proper scrutiny of special forces through the freedom of information mechanism.
“There are no excuses for not doing so in any mature democracy. Most, if not all, of our allies and partners, including the US, allow for it.”
Campaign group Stop the War vice-chairman Chris Nineham warned that the secrecy around special forces has severe consequences for British foreign policy, as well as the welfare of troops, and called for “an end to such secret deployments.”
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