Under The Sea–What’s There? A Sunken Sub Not The Little Mermaid

Things may be wonderful and happy “Under The Sea” for the Little Mermaid, but the scene is tragic and sad under the sea for the crew of an Indonesian sub. The world’s attention was riveted off the coast of Bali at the end of last week as a frantic rescue effort was undertaken to find the missing sub with 53 aboard. Dancing and singing crustaceans populate the floor of the sea in the Little Mermaid’s world, but in the real world the sea floor now holds a sunken sub and, presumably, the remains of its entire crew.

Ask someone to name an exotic destination, and Bali might be the answer given. That island paradise is part of Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous country and an archipelago of over 17,200 islands. But there was trouble in paradise last week, and things didn’t end well. In fact, they ended with a catastrophic loss of life in the Bali Sea, the body of water just north of–you guessed it–Bali.

April 21, 2021 was a day like all days with the Indonesian Navy simply conducting training exercises. Taking part in these exercises was the KRI Nanggala II, one of five subs in the Indonesian Navy. It was a diesel electric sub with 53 aboard–49 crew members, 3 weapons specialists, and 1 commander. Named after the nanggala, a powerful divine short spear wielded by the Hindu god Prabu Baladewa, the 1,395 ton German-built sub seemed mighty and menacing. But the mighty are prone to fall or, in this case, sink.

Around 3:00 a.m. (whew, that’s early!), the sub requested permission to dive to fire a SUT torpedo. For those of us who aren’t familiar with such torpedoes (raising my hand), quick research indicates that it is a 21″ heavyweight wire-guided torpedo. Well, that cleared things right up for me (not!). After firing this live torpedo, the sub went missing. Contact with the vessel was lost an hour after it received clearance to dive. The sub was supposed to check in around 6:00 a.m. before resurfacing, but there was merely the sound of silence.

It wasn’t long before the Indonesian Navy sounded an alarm and sought international assistance in finding the KRI Nanggala II. Time was of the essence since the oxygen supply on board the sub would run out by Saturday morning at 3:00 a.m. Concern mounted when an oil slick and debris, such as a grease bottle for oiling the periscope and a broken piece of a coolant pipe, were found near the site where the sub had last dove. Even with no technical background, I can conclude that those findings spelled bad news.

Good news and bad news followed. The good news? Sonar detected a submarine-like object in the depths. The bad news? The location’s depth of 2,790 feet put the object below the KRI Nanggala II’s diving range. In layman’s terms, that means the object was below the point where water pressure was greater than the sub can withstand and will collapse. The collapse depth for the missing sub was 655′, less than a fourth of the object’s actual depth.

The worst news of all came from pictures taken by an underwater robot equipped with a camera deployed by a Singaporean vessel, the MV Swift Rescue. These visuals showed the sub lying deep on the ocean floor of the Bali Sea broken in at least three parts with the main part cracked. Faced with this evidence, the Indonesian Navy was forced to accept the grim reality that its sub had sunk and all lives aboard had been lost. Crabs and mermaids might be able to live on the ocean floor, but humans cannot.

This loss of life is the largest from a submarine accident since a Chinese sub malfunction in April 2003. While it’s always great to outdo the Chinese, this category is not a good one in which to come out ahead. To no one’s surprise, an investigation into the loss of the KRI Nanggala II is pending. A similar class sub belonging to the Indonesia Navy has been taken out of service in the interim.

Theories have been floated (no pun intended) that an electrical failure could have left the submarine unable to execute the emergency procedures necessary to resurface. No mention has been made of any black box being in the sub which might shed some light on what went awry.

Although I’m no military expert, I do have some pretty good analytical skills. I’m also available for hire at a relatively cheap rate if the Indonesian government wants to throw some money my way to pinpoint what went wrong. My first conclusion is that someone can’t count. The sub was designed to have 38 crew members but 53 sailors were on board at the time of the accident. (Were they trying to pack people in like sardines to enjoy the training exercise???) Being overcapacity may not have been the main culprit leading to the accident, but it certainly didn’t help things other than upping the number of lives lost.

The age of the sub also likely played a part. It was built in 1978 and had been in service since 1981. Thus, the vessel was over 40 years old. In fact, its age required that it be retrofitted in South Korea back in 2012. Some things, such as wine and cheese, may get better with age, but I sincerely doubt that statement applies to submarines.

Serving in the military is, of course hazardous. But most of us think of wartime or hostile engagements causing death, not accidents occurring during routine training. However, when training is occurring in a vessel taking humans deep below the surface of the sea where they cannot breathe on their own should anything go wrong, risks exist. This risk exists not just for the Indonesian Navy, but for any navy utilizing submarines. That means U.S. military members serving on submarines are risking their very lives doing their duty. And with around 75 subs in commission for the U.S. Navy, that’s a lot of lives which could end up under the sea.

Just WONDER-ing:

Think you (or at least a younger version of you) would be up to serving on a submarine? Are accidents inevitable if aging military equipment is utilized? Is the loss of a military member’s life more tragic during peacetime?