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Serious Submarine Accidents 2000 to 2021

The Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala (402) is now believed to have sunk. While we hold out hope for survivors. Evidence found by the rescue effort confirms that it is sunk in 838 meters of water. Realistically there is now no expectation that any of the 53 persons aboard survived.
Submarine accident - KRI Nanggala submarine
KRI Nanggala

This comes so soon after other major submarine accidents at sea. The tragic loss of the Argentinean boat ARA San Juan which claimed the lives of 44 submariners seems like only yesterday. It was in 2017. And the fire aboard the Russian deep-ding submarine Losharik, which cost 14 'hydronauts' their lives. That was in 2019.

The fate of a missing submarine plays on the minds of those in any way connected to submarine operations. Even as an analyst, far from physical contact with subs, it is an emotional time.

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The world media coverage is fleeting and predictable. It reported the initial 'SUBMISS'. And revisited the topic when the 'last hope of survivors' hour passed. And when wreckage is found. Yet while it is only occasional news to the average person, it is front and foremost in many of our minds. So it is not with any excitement or sensationalism that I am writing this.

There are several logical categories of submarine accidents. The KRI Nanggala falls intro the rarest when a submarine is lost at sea, with no apparent involvement of any other vessel. The last of these was the ARA San Juan in 2017.

Other distinct categories of accident are those which occur in port, or during maintenance. Most recently there was a serious fire aboard the French submarine Perle in 2020. This was caused by lighting equipment and effectively wrote off the submarine. Except that the French Navy had one of its sister boats recently decommissioned and will be able to marry the two halves of submarine to remake her. Quite a unique circumstance.

Submarines can quite easily (it seems) collide with surface ships when at periscope depth. Most recently the Japanese submarine JS Sōryū (SS-501) was hit by a bulk freighter on February 8, 2021. The masts and sail were heavily bent and the submarine was lucky not to be more seriously damaged. But periscope collisions are a different category of incident in my mind. They are serious and worth discussion, but their cause is very different from whatever happened to the KRI Nanggala. And non-penetrating masts are making these collisions less dangerous because they are less likely to cause a leak.
Submarine accident - Japan Soryu class submarine
JS Sōryū

The Age factor: old submarines

It is too soon to say what happened to the KRI Nanggala. And every incident has its specific circumstances. However there is one aspect that I feel deserves discussion, and is highlighted by this incident.

Submarines around the world are being kept in service for much longer than they used to be. KRI Nanggala is 40 years old, and she is far from unusual. There have always been some submarines which are in service for a long time, it is becoming the norm. Partly this is because of the pause in submarine construction in the 1990s. The 'peace dividend' defense cuts now mean that many navies are stuck with old submarines still in service. And smaller navies too are struggling to afford replacements.

I am not saying that age was a primary cause in the KRI Nanggala loss. We don't know that. But it does seem straightforward that older boats increase the risks. As boats age they need more maintainance and their pressure hulls become worn out. Just like a rifle where every round fired is depleting its service live, each deep dive aboard the submarine (an 'excursion') counts against it.

ARA San Juan was 32 years old (and Argentinean Navy had well known funding challenges keeping boats operational). I haven't had the chance to do a full survey, but I would bet that the average and median service life of submarines is longer now than in the past. If anyone has a reliable figure let me know.

Navies and governments ought to speed up their submarine replacement programs. Whenever there is an incident there will be specific causes. "Age" won't be written in the reports. But politicians everywhere ought to think long on this as they delay yet another submarine purchase.

List of significant submarine accidents since 2000

This is not exhaustive, but hopefully useful.

Date Navy Submarine Category Loss of Life Comments
2000 Aug-12 Russia Kursk (K-141) At Sea 118 Torpedo room explosion
2002 May US USS Dolphin In port 0 Fire and flooding
2002 Nov-6 UK HMS Trafalgar (S107) At Sea 0 Run aground
2002 Nov-13 US USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723) At Sea 0 Periscope collision
2003 May China Ming 361 At Sea 70 Carbon monoxide while snorkelling
2003 Oct-25 US USS Hartford (SSN-768) At Sea 0 Run aground
2004 Oct-5 Canada HMCS Chicoutimi (SSK-879) At Sea 1 Fire
2005 Jan-8 US USS San Francisco (SSN-711) At Sea 1 Run aground
2005 Aug-5 Russia AS-28 At Sea 0 Stuck on sea floor, rescued
2005 Sep-5 US USS Philadelphia (SSN-690) At Sea 0 Surface collision
2005 Jun-5 Spain Mistral (S-73) At Sea 0 Fire
2006 Sep-6 Russia Daniil Moskovsky (B-414) At Sea 2 Fire
2007 Jan-8 US USS Newport News (SSN-750) At Sea 0 Submerged collision
2008 May-26 UK HMS Superb (S109) At Sea 0 Run aground
2008 Nov-8 Russia Nerpa (K-152) At Sea 20 Gas leak
2008 Dec-13 Spain Tramontana (S-74) At Sea 0 Flooding
2009 Feb UK / France HMS Vanguard and Triomphant At Sea 0 Submerged collision
2009 Mar-20 US USS Hartford and USS New Orleans At Sea 0 Submerged collision
2010 Feb India INS Sindhurakshak (S63) At Sea 1 Battery fire
2010 Oct-10 UK HMS Astute (S119) At Sea 0 Run aground
2011 Jun-4 Canada HMCS Corner Brook (SSK-878) At Sea 0 Run aground
2011 Dec-29 Russia Ekaterinburg (K-84) Dry Dock 0 Fire
2012 Oct-3 US USS Montpelier (SSN-765) At Sea 0 Submerged collision
2013 Jan-10 US USS Jacksonville (SSN-699) At Sea 0 Periscope collision
2013 Aug-13 India INS Sindhurakshak (S63) In port 18 Explosion
2015 Apr UK HMS Talent (S92) At Sea 0 Submerged collision, ice
2016 Mar DPRK Yono Class At Sea ~8 TBD. Lost.
2016 May-11 Italy Scire (S 527) At Sea 0 Periscope collision
2016 Jul-20 UK HMS Ambush (S120) At Sea 0 Periscope depth collision
2016 Aug-16 South Korea Seagull (SX756) In port 1 Explosion
2017 Feb-Mar India INS Arihant (S2) In port 0 Flooding
2017 Nov-15 Argentina San Juan (A-42) At Sea 44 TBD
2019 Jul-1 Russia Losharik (AS-31} At Sea 14 Battery fire
2020 Jun-12 France Perle (S606) Dry Dock 0 Fire
2020 Jul-17 South Korea Jang Bogo-class At Sea 0 Surface collision
2021 Feb-8 Japan JS Sōryū (SS-501) At Sea 0 Persicope collision
2021 Apr-14 Indonesia KRI Nanggala (402) At Sea 53 TBD

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