The Perilous Mountains Beneath The South China Sea

Image of Pao Pao Seamount in the South Pacific. Photocredit NOAA. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

THE UNDERWATER OBJECT that a US Navy submarine collided with in the South China Sea on October 2, much to Beijing’s subsequent consternation, was reportedly an uncharted underwater mountain.

According to a report by the US Naval Institute (USNI), a non-profit agency independent of the US Navy but close to it, US Navy investigators have determined that the collision grounded the USS Connecticut. Such accidents are rare but not unknown: the USS San Francisco hit a seamount in 2005 at full speed, leaving its bow looking like ‘a crushed soda can’.

Seamounts, an example of which in the South Pacific is shown above, can rise several thousand metres above the ocean floor. Tens of thousands have been charted, but far from all.

The Connecticut reportedly suffered damage to its bow and may have lost its sonar dome. Eleven submariners were injured, suggesting the submarine was travelling at speed at the time of the collision.

The vessel is one of the US Navy’s three Seawolf-class submarines, advanced subs used for intelligence gathering. 

The findings have been passed to the commander of the US 7th Fleet to determine if there will be any additional action over the incident, according to the USNI report.

The submarine is now being patched up in Guam. The USNI report implies it will likely need further repairs to the damage it sustained to its forward section, probably in a dry dock in the United States. Guam lacks a dry dock; Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would be the nearest.

The US Navy has said that the sub’s nuclear reactor and propulsion system were undamaged. However, Beijing has expressed concern about the risk of a radiation leak and accused Washington of covering up the cause of the incident.

It is likely to look somewhat incredulously at this latest explanation. At the very least, it will squeeze as much criticism of the competence of the United States military out of it as it can and call for all foreign naval vessels to leave the increasingly crowded waters of the South China Sea.

Update: Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin responding on November 2 to a question about the USNI report:

We once again urge the US to give a detailed description of the incident and fully address regional countries’ concern and doubt. The key is to stop deploying military aircraft and warships to harass and provoke others and flex muscles, and to stop harming other countries’ sovereign security, otherwise it will be inviting more, not fewer, similar incidents.

Update: The three top officers of the USS Connecticut have been relieved of their posts, the US Navy announced on November 4, while not providing further explanaton of how the collisison occured.

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Filed under China-U.S., Defence, Military

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