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At the time of writing this, the Indonesian Cakra class submarine KRI Nanggala has been reported missing off Bali and a search is underway.  This incident highlights the risks involved in submarine operations. While submarine accidents are rare, by their specialised and complex nature, there is always the risk of an incident occurring, no matter how well trained the crew and how well maintained the submarines. The KRI Nanggala was on its way to a firing exercise when contact was lost. Such firing exercises are routine training and this highlights that even routine operations for submarines carry an element of risk. The incident brings forth the issue of submarine safety in the region.

Essentially the issue falls into two aspects, one being the matter of ensuring adequate capabilities to respond to any submarine accidents and rescue operations and the other being that of ensuring accidents, particularly collisions do not occur.

Rescue Operations

The matter of ensuring adequate capabilities to respond to submarine accidents and to conduct rescue operations has been by and large addressed. Nations operating submarines have either their own naval or contracted to navy submarine rescue ships and services. There is largely a preference by navies to have the submarine rescue service on a contracted basis given the specialised nature of the task and the need to keep experienced personnel together for a long period, which can be incompatible with naval personnel rotations and promotion processes. Singapore and Malaysia are examples of countries in the region that operate submarine rescue ships on a public private partnership basis.

The limitations though are where the submarines are operating at a distance from the rescue ship and the time taken for the rescue ship to arrive on the scene. As such, a number of countries have signed bilateral submarine rescue arrangements to allow each nation to immediately offer assistance from its submarine rescue ships and capabilities to the other nation. Singapore is one such example, having submarine rescue agreements with a number of countries including Australia, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Vietnam. At the same time, various multinational initiatives globally and regionally are carried out to promote cooperation between nations in submarine rescue such as the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office and the Asia-Pacific Submarine Conference. The Asia Pacific Submarine Conference also sponsors the triennial, multi-lateral submarine rescue exercise Pacific Reach, which is alternately hosted by one of the participating nations in the exercise.

Even so, such arrangements do not completely solve the problem of a submarine rescue ship not being close enough to respond. In the current incident, Indonesia has called upon its agreement with Singapore. Singapore has already despatched its submarine rescue ship MV Swift Rescue but the ship will take time to reach the waters off Bali where the KRI Nanggala is reported missing though search efforts are already ongoing with Indonesian Navy ships on the scene. The incident does indicate the need for countries to have their own submarine rescue capabilities so that they can respond on the scene. While in-house navy rescue and diving capabilities may provide some relief, some situations will require specialized submarine rescue ships particularly if the submarine is in deep waters.

While ensuring cooperation on submarine rescue and response has been progressing, ensuring the problem of avoiding accidents is more difficult. As the KRI Nanggala situation has shown, even well maintained submarines and well trained crews can still face problems due to the unforgiving nature of submarine operations where even a small mistake can have consequences. The Indonesian Navy routinely practices submarine escape and rescue exercises and nothing has indicated that the submarine was facing any deficiencies in maintenance.

 Submarine Collisions

Along with the inherent risk present in submarine operations, there are also the dangers of collisions at sea owing to the submarine’s main characteristic being its ability to operate undetected. This leads to the problem of a submarine either colliding while surfacing with a surface ship, as was the case with the recent collision in February of the JMSDF submarine Soryu with a commercial ship; or a collision underwater between two submarines, as was what happened between the UK submarine HMS Vanguard and the French submarine Le Triomphant in 2009.

With the first situation, much has been stressed on adequate situational awareness in submarine crews when operating at a shallow depth or heavily transited waters and also when surfacing to ensure no collision occurs.  Mitigating alternatives such as conducting training in waters where the presence of surface ships are minimal or in remote areas or announcing certain bodies of waters to be off-limits temporarily due to submarine activity are possible though they have their own limitations and drawbacks.

For safety reasons, such as allowing a rapid response to any incident or training accident, submarine training particularly when involving a new or inexperienced crew, a new submarine or one recently just out of maintenance or repair, are conducted close to either the submarine base or close to the coastline. This in turn means the presence of surface commercial or private ships in the area is likely to be higher, while conducting training in a remote area is only viable when both the crew and submarine are judged to be at a level where the risk of any accident is deemed very minimal.

The fact also remains that given the scope of global maritime activities, there are often fewer areas that are actually devoid of any commercial or private surface ships particularly fishing vessels which are now ranging further away.  Announcing areas to be restricted or off-limits due to submarine training activity brings about the problems of attracting attention and surveillance of the submarine, allowing operational practices, electronic transmissions and acoustic signals to be gleaned via such. Moreover, neither of potential solutions applies to submarines conducting operational deployments and patrols where the concealment of the submarine’s presence is the priority.

 This brings up the matter of submarines colliding with each other. While there were said to be several such incidents during the Cold War though these incidents, while never publicly disclosed or admitted to, these did not cause the loss of any submarine. With technology further improving the capabilities of submarines to remain undetected, the potential for a collision between submarines is likely to increase given it is becoming more difficult for submarines to detect one another.

This was the case in the 2009 collision in the Atlantic Ocean between the UK submarine HMS Vanguard and the French submarine Le Triomphant, both being ballistic missile submarines conducting routine operations. The collision at low speed caused damage to both submarines due to both submarines being unaware of each other. It also appeared that at that time neither France or the United Kingdom shared information on submarine operations being conducted in specific areas which highlighted the difficulties involved between countries in sharing reciprocal information on submarine presence even when both countries are allies. This is more so in South-East Asia. Countries operating there are not at a partnership or alliance status where such sensitive information is readily shared, particularly for non-regional submarine operating countries such as Australia, China, France, Japan and the United States, which also deploy submarines to these waters.

Realistic Risks

Statistically, the likelihood of a collision between submarines is likely to be low given the vastness of the ocean, though such a probability increases with the number of submarines operating in the region and the type of mission undertaken and their frequency, such as stalking opposing submarines or conducting covert surveillance of other countries naval forces or ongoing naval exercises. With countries all viewing their submarines as crucial strategic and tactical assets, any move towards requiring transparency in submarine operations and their presence is unlikely to gain much support. Many countries are confident in the ability of their submarine crews to be able to detect opposing submarines and avoid situations such as a collision with another submarine or a surface ship and the disclosure of submarine presence or operations to avoid such incidents are not enough to outweigh the strategic and tactical advantages of an undetected submarine particularly when the balance of probabilities on such an accident is low. Disclosing a submarine’s presence pretty much takes away the reason for having a submarine in the first place.

As such the status quo of submarines largely operating covertly with no disclosure of their presence in specific areas is likely to remain even if a collision incident occurs. However positively for the region, most of the countries operating submarines are enhancing their cooperation in regard to submarine rescue.