The loss of the boat KRI Nanggala 402 during a real torpedo launch drill

24/04/21

Submarines are mistakenly associated with ships. Nothing could be more wrong, as a submarine is much more like an airplane, moving in a three-dimensional even if more dense medium. And like on airplanes, any emergency must be dealt with quickly, to avoid fatal consequences. 

For some days we have been witnessing - unfortunately - a new tragedy that hits another submarine. This time it was the Indonesian Navy that announced the loss of contact with the boat KRI Nanggala 402 (photo) of the class Cakra, carrying a crew of 53, during a real torpedo launch exercise.

Many will remember the Russian submarine accident Kursk in 2000 and the death of its 118 crew members, following the explosion inside it of a torpedo during a drill in the Barents Sea. It is considered the most serious submarine accident in peacetime.

In April 2003, it was the turn of the Chinese submarine Changcheng 361 - built following a 70s project - where an accident caused by a mechanical problem had resulted in the death of all 70 crew members.

More recently and still very much alive the memory of the disappearance in 2017 of the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan during a transfer. The incident kept Argentine families and public opinion (and the international submariners community) in suspense for weeks, until it was officially reported that there were no survivors. The boat was located only a year later, lying on the seabed at 800 meters.

Not everyone knows that submersible submarines, for safety, must always move following predetermined routes and remain within geographical areas that can move (Moving Heaven) or be fixed (Submarine Patrol Areas). And given the characteristics and intrinsic risks of the underwater vehicle, it is necessary to periodically communicate (subcheck) to the command that operationally controls the vehicle and to give one's position.

If this does not happen at the pre-established time, there are procedures (comcheck, sublook, submiss, subsunk) that increasingly increase the verification activities, eventually activating the actual search and rescue procedures, with the use of all means. available in the area (airplanes, helicopters, military units, merchant ships ...) often also in cooperation with other navies in the area.

From the information available At this time, traces of the boat (oil and other materials) indicate that it could be on a depth of about 700 meters. Unfortunately, this fact is already significant of the few, if not null, chance to find someone alive. The structural strength of a submarine of that type is theoretically guaranteed up to about 500 meters (250x2, safety coefficient). 

But assuming that the hull, and the passages to the hull have resisted, the survival of a crew is conditioned by the rapid decay of the air quality on board, together with the problem of the temperature inside which drops quickly causing hypothermia. It should be added that locating a submarine on the seabed is neither an easy nor a simple undertaking. At the moment the causes of the accident are only conceivable - fire, short circuit, torpedo problems, leak ... - and having the certainty of what happened - if ever feasible - will be a very long, complex and even expensive path. As a former submariner (photo) I pray for a miracle, but the hopes are objectively very low.

However, this new tragedy must make us reflect and I would like to share some considerations, which may perhaps contribute to the debate of these days and to avoid the repetition of similar events in the future.

Given that the training and professionalism of submariners is among the highest in any marina - I am an elite - the first consideration I would like to make concerns the age of the submarine: the Indonesian boat was built in Germany in 1977. and delivered in 1981, more than 40 years ago. And the modernization work was done in South Korea from 2009 to 2012. Indeed, the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan was also built in the early 80s.

The exorbitant costs of conventional submarines (400/500 million euros at least) prevent many "green water" marinas from implementing programs for the acquisition of new boats, and the result is often that of using them far beyond the technical limits - and good sense - in order to maintain the important deterrent effect and strategic superiority in a given area, which derives from the underwater component.

The second concerns on-board equipment and components (eg valves, passages or hull penetrators) up to torpedoes, which are often old, not guaranteeing the performance, safety and reliability of modern equipment and systems. The combination of modern systems and correct maintenance is essential to guarantee the safety of the boats.
The third concerns training, and the need for every Navy to have modern means in service to quickly rescue a damaged submarine, if possible.

It is essential that national and international exercises are periodically carried out, simulating the escape and recovery of the crew from a sunken submarine through systems such as the bells McCann, or the most modern wire-guided ROVs (remote operated vehicles). In these sectors, the Italian diving industries are at the forefront.

Caio Mussolini (former MM submarine officer)

Photo: US Navy / web / author / Navy