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.
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.
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.
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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