Indo-Pacific navies investing in submarine rescue operations

Indo-Pacific navies investing in submarine rescue operations

As the number of submarines populating the seascape of the Indo-Pacific increased in recent years, so, too, has the need for effective submarine rescue systems to save stranded crews and recover damaged vessels. The region’s navies have taken notice, adding submarine rescue systems and participating in multilateral exercises.

“There have been significant investments by regional nations to acquire new submarine capabilities or to improve upon their existing fleets,” wrote defense analyst Kelvin Wong of IHS Jane’s Defense in his recently updated academic paper, titled “Submarine Accidents in Asia: Preparing for the Worst.” Wong estimated that 80 to 100 submarines were procured by the navies of India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam between 2009 and 2018. “As new submarine fleets and the planned expansion of current operators in Asia increase the numbers of such vessels, the risk of peacetime submarine accidents is likely to grow.”

Between 2000 and 2019, 36 incidents involving submarines caused harm to either the vessels or to human lives, according to data collected by the American Society of Safety Engineers. Ten of the incidents occurred in Indo-Pacific waters, claiming 110 lives and injuring 156 others. Four of the submarines involved were from India, three were from Russia, and the countries of Australia, the PRC and the United States each was involved in one incident.

“A successful rescue would likely require the prompt assistance of the closest available rescue assets, regardless of the nations which owns those systems,” Wong emphasized. “As such, institutions such as the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO) have been set up to coordinate rescue efforts during disasters.”

Dedicated submarine rescue systems are now employed by India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, the PRC and the U.S., according to ISMERLO. One of the most advanced systems, made by James Fisher Defense, pictured, is capable of rescues at depths of nearly 700 meters and was recently procured by India and Singapore.

The most dramatic submarine rescue in Pacific waters was a rapidly organized multilateral operation in 2005 to save the crew of a small Russian submarine trapped in a tangle of cables 200 meters below the surface off the coast of Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka peninsula. In response to Russia’s distress call, the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy deployed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), according to Kongsberg, the Norwegian firm that equipped the ROV. In six hours, the ROV cut through the cables, freeing the trapped submarine and allowing it to surface just as its oxygen supply was running out.

ISMERLO helps coordinate the triennial Exercise Pacific Reach for submarine rescue training, the eighth iteration of which is November 4-15, 2019, to be hosted by Australia. Plans call for a command post exercise including a mobilization tabletop activity, a two-day medical symposium and a “comprehensive serialized program between the participating submarines and rescue systems,” ISMERLO reported. Exercise Pacific Reach 2016 was hosted by South Korea with the participation of navies from Australia, Malaysia, South Korea and the U.S.

The Asia-Pacific Submarine Conference is another multilateral event focused on submarine rescue. Its 18th iteration was held February 12-15, 2019, in San Diego, California, and featured a presentation on a pressured rescue module by the U.S. Navy Undersea Rescue Command.

Mandeep Singh is a FORUM contributor reporting from New Delhi, India.