US nuclear sub-accident warns of potential disaster

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(MENAFN- Asia Times) The crash of the US nuclear submarine last month demonstrated the incompetence of the operator, the hypocrisy of the government and the environmental threat posed by such operations in the South China Sea.

On October 7, the US Navy announced that five days earlier, on October 2, its nuclear-powered, nuclear-weapon submarine USS Connecticut had struck an unidentified object in the South China Sea. According to the announcement, the submarine “has remained in a safe and stable condition” and its “nuclear propulsion plant and its spaces have not been affected and remain fully operational”.

The vessel eventually sailed on the surface on its own to Guam, where damage is being assessed.

The US Navy announcement was brief and vague. He did not specify what the submarine struck or where – only that it “was operating in the international waters of the Indo-Pacific region”. It turned out to be a “seamount” in the South China Sea.

The incompetence of the commanders of the submarine was recognized. In removing from their positions two officers and the captain of the boat, Vice-Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet, detailed their mistakes. He “determined [that] good judgment, prudent decision making, and adherence to required procedures in navigation planning, watchkeeping, and risk management could have prevented the incident.

As a former American attack sub-commander put it, “Everything’s not going right all the time” and “even the pros have bad days.” In this case, they have had a very bad day.

Hypocritical call for “transparency”

American hypocrisy was painfully apparent. The United States has often accused China of a lack of military transparency. It’s a red herring. Military transparency favors the strongest players, as they can learn the weaknesses of others while intimidating them by leaving a calculated glimpse of their superiority.

In this case, the United States has been anything but transparent about the details, even though the crash raised concerns about radiation affecting their friends and allies in the region.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “The United States should clarify more details about the event, including the specific location, the intention of its navigation, the type of object that the sub -marine struck, if it caused a nuclear leak that would contaminate the marine environment. . It is irresponsible and a lack of transparency on the part of the United States to deliberately delay and cover up the details of the crash.

The US Navy said the delay in reporting the incident was due to concerns about “the safety of the damaged submarine and the completion of a thorough investigation of the incident.” The navy refused to specify the location of the accident “because of the safety of operations”.

But it’s not clear why to report the incident immediately and its location would endanger the safety of the submarine and jeopardize the investigation. One possibility is that the crash happened in waters under Chinese jurisdiction and the United States was concerned that China would demand to resume or at least participate in the investigation. In other words, the submarine may have violated China’s laws and rights in its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

On October 3, the day after the accident, a Seawolf submarine was spotted on the surface 43 miles southeast of the Paracel Islands. The accident may therefore have occurred in China’s 200 nm EEZ around the Paracels.

According to the submarine’s manufacturer, General Dynamics Electric Boat, the missions of the Seawolf class of submarines include “surveillance, intelligence gathering and special warfare,” particularly in shallow water.

China has military installations on the Paracels. It also has a very sensitive naval base at Yunlin on Hainan where it bases its nuclear-powered and nuclear-capable submarines. These circumstances again raise questions about what Connecticut was doing and where.

Fears of radiation

Adding to concerns, a month after the incident, the United States deployed a radiation “sniffer” plane – a Boeing WC-135 – over the South China Sea, a relatively rare occurrence. The main mission of such an aircraft is to collect atmospheric samples to detect nuclear radiation. But if there was no radiation leak from the submarine, what motivated the mission? It would be in the public interest of the region for the United States to disclose what it has found.

The incident also raised the possibility of a catastrophic accident involving a nuclear-powered or nuclear-weapon ship that releases radiation into the environment. This is not hyperbole.

Around the world, nine nuclear submarines have sunk. The Soviet Navy lost five (one of which sank twice), the Russian Navy two, and the US Navy two. These were the worst case scenarios. But non-catastrophic accidents, once rare, are becoming more and more frequent as the number of these ships increases.

In 2003, the Los Angeles-class USS Hartford ran aground while entering a port in Sardinia. In January 2005, the Los Angeles-class USS San Francisco struck a seamount near the Caroline Islands that did not appear on the charts the crew were using to navigate without active sonar. The submarine sustained severe damage to its bow ballast and sonar dome and the vessel was almost lost.

Again in March 2009, the Hartford collided with an American amphibious dock in the Strait of Hormuz. Ironically, his motto is “To hell with torpedoes, at full speed.” In November 2015, an Ohio-class submarine ran aground as it entered its port of King’s Bay, Georgia.

This is what the public knows. But there may have been a lot more near misses.

The worst disasters of US nuclear submarines were the loss of the Thresher in April 1963 and the loss of the Scorpion in May 1968. Both sank in the North Atlantic with full hands along with their nuclear reactors and torpedoes.

As more nuclear submarines are built and deployed, the risk of catastrophic accidents increases, including in the South China Sea. The United States has deployed nuclear submarines there at least 11 times last year. Other countries also operate nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, most notably France and possibly the UK as part of its strike group on the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.

India, which now sends warships to the South China Sea, has only one nuclear-powered submarine but is building more. China already has four Jin-class nuclear submarines and hopes to acquire four more by 2030. The AUKUS deal for the United States and the United Kingdom to supply nuclear submarine technology to Australia for operations that include the South China Sea will add to the mix.

The operation of submarines is difficult and dangerous. Most submarines have active and passive sonar. Active sonar sends out acoustic pulses, or “pings”. The ping will reflect if it hits an object, such as a whale, ship, seamount, or other submarine. But submarines operating in stealth mode turn off their active sonar because the ping could reveal their location.

More problematic is that the South China Sea is a difficult operating environment for submarines. It is particularly “noisy” and has a fairly complex and shifting bottom topography. Much of it is shallower than 180 meters, especially the approaches to the Chinese coast. This means that submarines must operate in a narrow area between a safe distance from the bottom but deep enough to avoid detection.

An accident that would release significant radiation into the marine environment would be a nightmare for countries in the region.

Southeast Asians depend more on fish as a primary source of dietary protein and income generation than any other people in the world. Such an accident could damage the marine food supply of all coastal countries. It would likely create an aversion to eating seafood, even if it was safe.

Judging from the Fukushima disaster in Japan, although the radiation may be insignificant or rapidly diminish to safe levels, the damage to the reputation of the fishery would last much longer.

Response to risky behavior required

The South China Sea coastal countries have a legitimate cause for concern. If countries with nuclear submarines continue this risky behavior in the EEZs of other countries, they could be in breach of the obligation imposed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to give due consideration to the rights and duties of States. coastal areas, such as environmental protection. and not presenting a danger for transport.

Risky behavior that endangers others requires a vigorous response. It may even be necessary over time for countries to establish the equivalent of maritime defense identification zones (SEADIZ) for submarines. Like air defense identification zones, their function would be to serve as early warning zones.

In such areas, submarines – manned and unmanned – would be asked to identify themselves, to indicate their destination and mission. If they didn’t, then they would be treated as potentially hostile and followed closely wherever they went.

Such a drastic measure could be avoided by more responsible and transparent operations of nuclear submarines. However, as the Connecticut accident and its aftermath show, this is highly unlikely.

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