Indonesian military leaders declared earlier this week that the wreckage of KRI Nanggala (402), a missing Indonesian Navy submarine, had been found on the sea floor and all 53 crew and passengers aboard were confirmed dead. Parts of the submerged submarine were found off Bali, at a depth of 850 meters, well beyond crush depth of the submarine, a forty-year-old German-designed Type 209/1300 boat.
No cause has been determined, but, as the investigation unfolds, the KRI Nanggala disaster will echo throughout Asia. But a trend may be emerging: Aggravated geopolitical tensions, accelerated training imperatives and new technologies may tempt several regional navies to push their older undersea platforms to the absolute limit—and beyond. Without change, the region must expect more KRI Nanggala-like disasters.
Torpedoes In A Tube:
The KRI Nanggala story began more than forty years ago, when Indonesia, a strategic archipelago, discarded an aging Russian-supplied submarine fleet and procured two modern German-designed submarines. Perfect for controlling maritime chokepoints, the small Type 209/1300 boats, called the Cakra class, served as a disproportionate deterrence, making neighbors think twice before confronting the sprawling island nation at sea.
Few navies learned this lesson as well as Indonesia. Twenty years ago, during the 1999 East Timor crisis, Indonesia’s Cakra class submarines were, by submarine standards, already ancient. But the threat posed by the two diminutive submarines forced the International Force East Timor (INTERFET) to supplement their defensive posture by deploying maritime patrol aircraft, expanding their amphibious fleet to thirteen surface combatants and positioning other high-value anti-submarine assets.
For the majority of sub users, simple submarines remain enormously useful. The only problem is that few submarine exporters are interested in producing simple undersea craft. For many submarine proliferators, their general mission is to try and offset their own expenses by enticing buyers to obtain the highest-tech submarine possible. That’s all well and good, but prospective sub buyers, intoxicated by the prestige of it all, often get far more sub than they can handle. Rather than procure a robust and simple set of “torpedoes in a can”, far aspiring small navies end up struggling to operate persnickety, high tech marvels that have a price tag to match.
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The market trends drive smaller navies to keep old submarines in service for far longer than most larger navies. While Japan, a top-tier submarine producer, retires submarines after twenty years of service, the four Type 209/1300s operated by Ecuador and Venezuela are still soldiering on well into their fourth decade. That’s not a problem. Aged subs are fine if they are used sparingly, provided immaculate refits and kept within progressively restrictive operating parameters when needed.
Old submarines suffer when the operator is unable to maintain strict operational and maintenance protocols. Aged subs do not respond well to the pressures of enhanced maritime competition, and they are best suited to standard, routine deployments and a relatively quiet operational career. Put another way, to secure the busy Indonesian archipelago, the two Cakras have likely been asked to do far more over their service lives than Ecuador and Venezuela’s tiny submarine fleets ever have.
Too Many People On The Sub:
It is no surprise that the two worst submarine accidents in the Pacific involved old submarines carrying more people than planned. In 2003, an accident aboard an aged Ming class submarine, China’s Navy Submarine No. 361, killed all 70 aboard. Normally a Ming class boat supports a crew of 57. The KRI Nanggala—cramped in the best of circumstances— was supporting an enhanced crew, well over the standard Type 209/1300 contingent of about 35. In both accidents, observers suspect that the crew was bulked up by extra trainees, technicians or observers. That can have tragic consequences. When seconds count, the last thing any submariner needs are panicked joyriders getting in the way.
But extra passengers are a fact of life aboard older submarines. With the Pacific militarizing, undersea fleets are growing, and legacy submarines are being asked to absorb more and more training duties. Complicating things, many of the Pacific’s aspiring submarine forces are developing their own undersea technologies, and older subs are being asked to keep the front-line submarines free for duty by testing an ever-expanding array of new technologies.
Training and testing can fill already-cramped older active-duty submarines with visitors that are, at best, unfamiliar with the submarine’s contingency plans—and even then military leaders may also ask the operationally-constrained submarines to accommodate an unfamiliar maneuver or take on new gear—gear that is, like the trainees, often experiencing the harsh demands of undersea service for the first time.
It is a recipe for disaster. And then, if disaster strikes and a troubled submarine somehow survives an initial catastrophe, a bulked-up crew reduces the already slim margins for rescue. More bodies put more demands on life support equipment and critical consumables that submariners depend upon when all else fails.
The Path Forward
Enacting a full “SUBSAFE” quality assurance program may be too much for small navies, but there are ways for other submarine operators to help mitigate the challenge posed by a growing fleet of over-tasked and aging submarines. The first step is to encourage users to be realistic and impose strict operational restrictions on older submarines when required. A hard used, forty-year-old submarine with no operational restrictions endangers everyone. And when past operational records are somewhat less than accurate, old subs are deathtraps.
Training and testing protocols merit improvement throughout the Pacific. It is far too easy for expanding navies, in the rush towards new technology, to overlook the mundane work of training and testing. When training opportunities hard to find and simulators and shore-based trainers and other training infrastructure absent, old operational subs become ersatz schoolhouses.
While training aboard an older sub is fine, marching a bolus of conscripted trainees into an already-cramped submarine is a recipe for disaster. In the Pacific, only Japan operates two full-fledged training submarines. More constrained operators might benefit from a different approach, purchasing submarines with extra space and sufficient “hotel” services to bring aboard and train four or five aspiring submariners at a time.
The submarine market can also try to put greater value in simplicity. Undersea warfare is a high-tech endeavor, but, as Indonesia demonstrated in 1999, basic submarines force even the highest-tech adversaries to enact pricey and complicated mitigation measures. Advanced submarine exporters and prestige-minded buyers may not like the idea, but if simpler submarines were on the market and priced accordingly, it might be easier for smaller navies to retire their oldest undersea craft.
The final option is to bolster submarine rescue resources throughout the region.
There is no good answer here. It is human nature to push advanced technological and military endeavors beyond all engineering limitations, and catastrophes always happen as safety margins are shaved ever closer to the bone. In time, militaries learn avoidable accidents carry enormous national security costs. But these are hard lessons each Nation can only learn—and often must re-learn—for themselves.