Indonesian Submarine Disaster: Geostrategic Significance and Implications for Indo-Pacific

The wreck of the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggal has been found on the seabed at a depth of about 830 meters, off Bali. This 40 year old German-designed Type 209/1300 boat sank in the early hours of April 24, 2021. Although the cause of the accident remains elusive and is a matter of investigation by experts, the Indonesian Navy will surely put in place necessary material, procedural and operational safeguards.

The accident flags a geostrategic reality of the emerging under sea battle space in the Indo-Pacific, in which there has been an unprecedented growth in submarines in the inventories of the regional navies.According to Military Balance-2021, an annual publication of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), during the last two decades the number of submarines operating in the Indo-Pacific have increased from 154 to 222, i.e. a 33 % increase. Today there are 13 navies operating submarines in this region, and among these, four are recent entrants. Such aggressive submarine acquisitions trends in the region in the coming years will only lead to heightened risk of submarine accidents and sinking.

The PLA Navy’s current force structure does not permit credible force projection outside of the South China Sea and North China Sea (SCS and NCS). To ‘counter US hegemony and desire to influence the Indo-Pacific region’, Beijing has focussed on establishing Anti Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) zones in SCS and NCS. This is clearly apparent in its force structure and deployments within the SCS and NCS.

Submarines are highly mobile, inherently stealthy and possess awesome fire power. It is therefore no surprise that they remain the ‘platform of choice’ of the PLAN, not only to augment and implement their A2/AD campaign within the NCS and SCS, but also for belligerent posturing external to the China Sea. However, submarines are equally effective and potent to counter A2/AD. Therefore, in response to the PLAN’s A2/AD campaign, the Indo-Pacific/ASEAN navies too have acquired and deployed submarines.

Submarines operated by most Indo-Pacific /ASEAN navies are of different origin, vintage design and well beyond their intended operational life span. Limited budget, inadequate technological upgrades/refit expertise, rapid training imperatives and inability to consistently maintain strict operational and maintenance protocols, have forced the smaller regional navies to either acquire vintage platforms, or push existing platforms to their absolute limit, and beyond. Unfortunately KRI Nanggala had most of these lacunae; it was a 40 year hull, overcrowded crew on board (53 against a designed strength of 36), last major upgrade undertaken in 2012 and crucial safety equipment was not available (underwater telephone known to be not operational). Further, unconfirmed reports and anecdotal evidence indicate that a torpedo explosion, probably due to malfunction of an under-trial torpedo battery, is high on the list of probable causes.

While the above is an issue of investigation that may take several months, the accident of KRI Nanggala necessitates a region-wide efforts to collaborate and enhance submarine safety awareness and put in place robust Search and Rescue (SAR) protocols, tools and techniques. In 2003, after the Russian submarine Kursk disaster, the NATO set up ‘International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMRLO), with its Headquarter in Northwood, UK.

A similar satellite organisation should be established within the Indo-Pacific region too. It could be christened ISMRLO (Indo-Pacific) and should be the nodal agency to promulgate a “Submiss/Subsunk” or other submarine related incident at sea, rally all ‘Indo-Pacific SmSAR’ equipment/ resources, and thereafter ensure rapid response, multinational cooperation and optimal deployment of these search and rescue resources.It can also be mandated to promulgate procedures and standards for submarine escape and rescue among the navies of the region. Besides, it should provide advice on standardisation of equipment and systems, training, inspection and monitoring of all escape and rescue related equipment and systems on board. The location of its headquarters should be within the region and can be hosted by any regional country that operates submarines and has the necessary infrastructure for conducting training etc.

At this juncture, it is useful to highlight the subtle difference between ‘Submarine Escape’ and ‘Submarine Rescue’. Submarine Escape entails the crew or ‘escapees’ ascending from a disabled submarine (DisSub), using systems and survival means available on board. Submarine Rescue, on the other hand, implies deploying ‘rescuers’ and external resources, to firstly help the crew survive within the DisSub and thereafter bring them safely to surface and render necessary medical assistance including decompression.

Since submarines have limited organic escape and survivability potential, rescue effort should be made available to the DisSub within 72 hours. Given these stringent timelines, a Submarine Rescue System (SRS) could consist of manned and unmannedrescue vessels, their launch and recovery systems and other sub-systems to fulfil various survival needs and support escape. This SRS infrastructure would need to be positioned and maintained at multiple locations so as to effectively cover most likely ‘submarine deployment areas’, within the region.

Navies with larger submarine inventories and a mature technological/ industrial base could provide the resources and establish these regional SRS’. India, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea are important candidates for the SRS. Also, frequent multilateral submarine SAR exercises by regional navies is the only way to establish interoperability, refine processes/procedures and instil confidence in the rescuers. Non-regional partners may also be invited to witness such exercises.

Finally, it goes without saying that submarine SAR is now a multi-national responsibility, with pooled resources and no navy or nation should need to undertake it alone. To conclude, the time has come for submariners to change their popular maxim to –‘Run Silent, Run Deep and Run Safe’.

Cmde CP Srivastava (Retd), is a submariner and is currently Managing Partner of Intellectual Resource and Consulting.

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