Tue. May 17th, 2022

A nuclear-powered submarine colliding with an unknown “object” during one of the world’s busiest sailing routes is rarely good news — but is the incident cause for concern?

Submarine incidents are usually shrouded in secrecy, given how critical these sophisticated (and expensive) equipment is in military operations.

We have talked to defense and security experts to help clarify what we know, what we do not know, and what we may never know.

What could the unknown object possibly be?

Vipin Narang, professor of nuclear safety and political science at MIT, says we should not hold our breath when it comes to the USS Connecticut.

“It’s completely unclear what hit it,” he said.

When asked about the possibility of hitting a enemy submarine, he said he doubts we will ever know.

“Not sure why we heard about this – sometimes the damage is extensive enough that it’s hard to hide,” said Dr. Narang.

But what have submarines collided with in the past, and can it give us clues?

Submarine with United States flag is half submerged in water
The submarine collided with an unknown “object” in the South China Sea.(

US Indo-Pacific Command

)

Peter Dean, director of the University of Western Australia’s Defense and Security Institute, told ABC there were a few options.

Euan Graham, a senior candidate in Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute of Security Studies, broadly agrees.

“They usually have a good topographical knowledge of the areas they are patrolling, but there is always the risk of hitting a loose shipping container or other submerged object,” he said.

The South China Sea, with its busy shipping lanes and fishing areas, is particularly risky for this, he added, especially when operating at shallow depths.

The number of shipping containers falling off ships and sinking to the bottom is staggering, Professor Dean said.

How rare are submarine collisions?

Experts say such incidents are unusual, but not unheard of.

There have been a number of such clashes in recent years, says Professor Dean.

In 2009, the British submarine HMS Vanguard collided with the French submarine Le Triomphant in the Atlantic while carrying nuclear missiles, in what the New York Times described as a “freak accident”.

In 2005, the BBC reported that a US sailor had died after his nuclear submarine – the USS San Francisco – ran aground near Guam.

Dr. Graham said the fact that the USS Connecticut went to Guam suggests it suffered damage.

The United States has said the submarine’s nuclear propulsion system was unaffected by the collision and was fully operational.

How does surveillance equipment miss objects that are large enough to cause damage?

Submarines use sonar rather than radar to detect objects around them when underwater.

But they do not use it constantly.

Some of the 220 Chinese vessels are seen moored in the distance at the Pentecostal reef, South China Sea.
Experts say the South China Sea is noisy, so acoustic detection is challenging.(

AP: Philippine Coast Guard / National Task Force-West Philippine Sea

)

“They use sonar in passive mode or listening mode, they have sensors around the sub-legs and an acoustic tail with sensors all over it. They have active sonar that sends pings out, giving your position away so they tend not to that Sometimes, even with the best equipment, it is very difficult to hear things, “said Professor Dean.

Dr. Graham said the South China Sea in particular did not help listen.

What is the worst case scenario?

The USS Connecticut is both a nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon-based submarine, and with a nuclear reactor on board, the danger of explosion is “a concern,” Professor Dean said.

“We saw the Indonesian submarine that sank not so long ago, we do not know the reason for that because no one survived. In the 2000s, the Russians lost a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea, which triggered a nuclear explosion,” he said.

Does this incident matter in the South China Sea?

A fighter against a blue sky.
China has intensified its incursion into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.(

AP: Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense

)

The submarine collision occurred at a time of rising tensions in Asia-Pacific, where relations between China and the United States are deteriorating and tensions between China and Taiwan are heating up.

China has significantly increased the number of warplanes it sends to Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, in a row considered provocative by both Taiwan and the United States.

But the South China Sea is, as previously mentioned, home to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes and is now also a geopolitical hotspot as China and the United States fight for precedence.

Professor Dean said it was “very, very surprising” that this incident took place in this region.

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