The Hunt for SUBMISS - By Cdr Dr Muhamad Azwandi bin Azlan RMN and Ahmad Tajuddin

30th April 2021

‘O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small’. The sentence is the opening of an old Brenton fisherman's prayer. The prayer reminds us that although there are many advances in naval technology, particularly for submarines, to wrestle with nature is still beyond our capabilities. A missing submarine is a nightmare beyond imagination for any Naval fleet and the families of the crews. The moment a submarine crew discovers a possible major incident in the making, each second that follows is a life and death moment.

The KRI Nanggala 402 incident is another sad event in maritime history. The diesel/electric attack submarine was reported to have lost contact at 4:25 AM on 21 March 2021 in Bali waters. Nanggala was conducting a torpedo exercise together with 21 navy ships and another submarine. On 25 April 2021, TNI-Al announced that KRI Naggala was found at a depth of 838 meters, and all onboard the submarine had fallen. The cause of the incident is still uncertain. The German-designed Type 209/1300 submarine was already 40 years old and went through a refit in 2012. The swift action by Indonesian authorities could not save the crew of KRI Nanggala. It is a grim reminder that time is key in any submarine rescue operation. Australia, India, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States provided assistance in the rescue mission.

Submarine Incidents
It is estimated that more than 40 navies around the world conduct submarine operations, and approximately more than 400 submarines are in active duty, including nuclear and diesel-powered submarines. Interestingly, the figures are almost 50 per cent lesser than in the mid-90s, indicating that the number of active submarines is lesser than in previous years. However, the number of countries owning submarine has increased steadily over the years. It shows more countries prefer to have submarines in their naval fleet than previously.

There are several interesting facts related to submarine incidents occurring from 1945-2021:-
There have been 60 submarine incidents which resulted in sunken submarine.
The deadliest submarine incident with the highest number of death, was the USS Thresher in 1963, with 129 deaths;
Countries with submarines sunk due to incidents include Argentina, France, Indonesia, Israel, North Korea, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, USSR (then Russia), United States and Ukraine;
These incidents were attributed to poor quality control, material failure, flood, fire and explosions;
Submarine incidents have declined over the last 20 years due to improvement in submarine design; and
KRI Nanggala was the first submarine incident in Southeast Asia.

Submarines in ASEAN
In the ASEAN region, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Vietnam have submarine capabilities. Thailand is still negotiating with China to acquire three subs, while the Philippines is also planning to have its own submarine squadron in the future. Reports also show that Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore plan to have additional submarines in their fleet. Kindly refer to the Table below for the total number of active and future acquisition of submarines in ASEAN.

ASEAN Countries Number of Submarines in Operation Future Submarine Acquisition

ASEAN Countries No. of Submarines in Operation Future Submarine Acquisition 
 Brunei 0 0
 Cambodia 0 0
 Indonesia 4 3
 Lao PDR (landlocked) 0 0
 Malaysia 2 2
 Myanmar 1 2
 Philipines 0 In negotiations
 Singapore 4 4
 Thailand 0 3
 Vietnam 6 0
 Total 18 17

Presently, there are 18 submarines in active duty in the region, and the number is likely to grow soon. It is expected that there will be around 30 submarines operating in the future. Nevertheless, considerations must be made on several existing submarines that may be decommissioned. It is important to note that not only submarines from this region operate in Southeast Asia's waters, it cannot be denied that submarines from other countries may be operating in the same water space.

The KRI Nanggala incident must be seen as a wake-up call for ASEAN navies to improve further the Search and Rescue operations for missing submarine (SUBSAR). The preferred option is that every navy with submarine capability must have its own Deep-Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) and for the region to have a periodically Submarine SAR joint exercise. It is best for the region to develop its own Submarine Search and Rescue procedure similar to the one practiced by NATO.

Foreseeable challenges for such an endeavour include:-
Are these countries willing to share operational and maintenance cost?;
Are these countries willing to share the specifications of their submarines?; and
Are these countries willing to partake in a joint SUBSAR exercise?

After MH370 and now KRI Naggala, underwater rescue would be the new challenge for ASEAN Cooperation in Search and Rescue of Persons and Vessels in Distress at Sea. Further training, new technology and joint exercise are needed to be organised. In parallel, submarine search and rescue should be taken seriously at the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) Plus Expert Working Group on Maritime Security. The time has come for the region to initiate the effort.
A SUBMISS (initiation of a full scale coordinated search that will continue until the submarine and survivors are located) task should not be taken lightly, as time is of the essence in any search and rescue, particularly involving a submarine.

MiDAS wishes to convey its deepest condolences to the families of the KRI Nanggala 402. May the Captain and crew be at peace in their eternal patrol. Al-Fatihah.


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