Tag Archives: submarines

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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Too Much Splashing Around In The South China Sea

Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut seen in the Puget Sound in a 2016  US Navy file photo.

BEIJING IS AT risk of over-egging the pudding in its response to the recent incident in the South China Sea in which a US Navy submarine collided with an unidentified underwater object.

Defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei was highly critical of the United States yesterday, accusing it of covering up the October 2 incident involving the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut (seen above in a 2016 US Navy file photo) by issuing only a ‘short and unclear’ statement.

He then called on Washington to end freedom of navigation operations and withdraw its forces from airspace and waters adjacent to the South China Sea that China claims, implying that Southeast Asian nations object to or feel threatened by them. Tan added that the recent AUKUS agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia risked nuclear proliferation.

To this Bystander, even allowing for some wolf-warrior hyperbole, neither of the last two accusations hold much water. US naval forces are generally welcomed, if not necessarily openly, by the maritime states in the region except for China.

Nor will the conflation of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines — the ones proposed for the Australian navy under AUKUS will be the former, not the latter — be convincing to nations observing the PLA-Navy’s build-up of nuclear-powered subs

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AUKUS Subs Will Stir Waters Already Ruffled

WHEN US OFFICIALS say that a particular policy move is not aimed at countering China’s growing influence, it is a good rule of thumb to assume that it is. Thus, with the security pact newly announced between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the awkwardly named AUKUS.

AUKUS seeks to provide Australia’s navy with the technology and advice to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, which will make it the seventh navy to deploy them. They will replace a dozen conventionally powered subs ordered from France but never delivered because of unresolved disagreements over local sourcing, among other issues.

That $90 billion order has been cancelled, to Paris’s displeasure. To add to European annoyance, the AUKUS agreement was announced the day before the EU was due to outline its Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU is increasingly being pushed into an uncomfortable no man’s land between Beijing and Washington.

It is unimaginable that Australia will deploy the subs anywhere but under the waters of the region. Equally, it is inconceivable to regard the announcement as anything other than a tighter drawing together of the three countries in a common ‘Indo-Pacific’ security alliance, which has China as its threat nation.

While the subs are the headline-catching element, the agreement also involves the trio sharing information and technology on intelligence and quantum technology. This will complement, not replace, existing arrangements such as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership between New Zealand, Canada and the AUKUS countries.

As such, it adds another layer to a growing set of overlapping security cooperation initiatives being advanced in response to China’s growing military power.

Australia will also buy cruise missiles from the United States for the Royal Australian Air Force as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles for its navy, which presumably the subs will carry.

Cruise missiles are the weapon of choice to attack, or at the least deter, naval aircraft carrier battle groups at sea. They also give Australia, and by proxy the West, the capability to strike targets inside China such as airfields and command and control facilities for the PLA’s integrated air and missile defence systems.

Beijing’s criticism of the deal has been swift, if somewhat pro-forma, perhaps because the military threat is some years out; the subs are unlikely to be deployed until 2040. By then, the PLA-Navy will have more of its own nuclear-powered subs in the water.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said:

The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts. The export of highly sensitive nuclear submarine technology to Australia by the US and the UK proves once again that they are using nuclear exports as a tool for geopolitical game and adopting double standards.

He added that:

Seeking closed and exclusive clique runs counter to the trend of the times and the aspirations of countries in the region, which finds no support and leads nowhere. Relevant countries should abandon the outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception, respect the will of the people of regional countries and do more to contribute to regional peace, stability and development. Otherwise, they will only end up shooting themselves in the foot.

The time frame for building Australia’s subs will be lengthy. According to US President Joe Biden, the first 18 months of the agreement will be spent working out how to build the subs under these conditions without violating non-proliferation commitments.

Australia is a party to two regional non-proliferation agreements. Its prime minister, Scott Morrison, says that his country seeks to become neither a military nor civil nuclear power.

That the United States and the United Kingdom are ready to take the rare step of exporting sensitive nuclear technology to a non-nuclear nation underlines the serious intent of AUKUS. It may also spur Beijing to accelerate the build-out of its blue-water navy.

Australia’s nuclear submarines, when they do eventually launch, will provide another means of deterrence.

The AUKUS agreement has been welcomed in Tokyo and Taipei, and will be, if not so openly, in countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and India, also concerned about China’s growing demonstrations of military power in the region.

However, other ASEAN members will be warier in pubic and private. Indonesia has expressed its concern ‘over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region’.

If the agreement does not worsen Australia-China relations, it will only be because they are already at such a low ebb. Canberra is arguably now the Western government that is most openly confrontational towards China save for Washington.

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China Rules (Beneath) The Waves

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=submarine%2c+china&iid=4618828″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/4618828/china-marks-years-the/china-marks-years-the.jpg?size=500&imageId=4618828″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

What catches this Bystander’s eye in the U.S. Defense Dept’s newly published assessment of China’s military capabilities is the expansion of the navy, particularly its submarine fleet. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy can now deploy the world’s largest number of conventionally powered submarines, the result of a decade-and-a-half long program of building and modernizing the fleet which has been putting three new boats a year into the water.

China’s newest Song-class submarines, of which it has at least 13, are capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of 100 nautical miles while beneath the waves. It also has a dozen Russian Kilo-class subs with similar capabilities. The PLA-N has also being developing its newer Yang subs, capable of staying submerged for up to a fortnight, more than three times longer than its older subs.

It is also building a new generation of nuclear powered subs, including the new Jin-class, some of which will carry ballistic missiles with a range of 4,000 nautical miles, sufficient to reach western U.S. states, though the program is not going altogether smoothly by all accounts (more detail — and a more sanguine view of all this — a the FAS Strategic Security Blog) . If the problems can be ironed out, the Jin-class subs, which will be based at Hainan Island facing the strategically sensitive South China Sea, will give China a sea-going nuclear deterrent for the first time.

This all amounts to a clear challenge to America’s traditional naval dominance of the Western Pacific, and most immediately Washington’s ability to go to the aid of Taipei in the event of an armed conflict. But the capability of the navy being built by Beijing could support the conduct of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan. It potentially changes the regional security balance significantly. America’s Defense Dept. policymakers are rightly concerned by China’s military build-up, of which the submarine fleet is a leading edge.

It is conventionally held that to be considered a superpower, a nation needs to have economic, diplomatic and military power and the ability and appetite to project it around the world. Piece by piece, sub by sub, China is getting there.

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