What Does USS Connecticut's Mysterious Collision Say About Pentagon's Strategy in South China Sea?
18:47 GMT 08.10.2021 (Updated: 18:50 GMT 08.10.2021)
The USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, collided with an unknown underwater object on October 2 in the South China Sea. While US officials remain mute on the details of the collision, maritime security and defence experts Marta De Paolis and Arnaud Sobrero have discussed what could have actually happened.
Although the US Navy statement says that the collision occurred while the US sub was "operating in international waters in the Indo-Pacific region," US defence officials later revealed
to CBS News that the incident took place in the highly contested South China Sea, most of which is claimed by the People's Republic of China. The collision left two sailors "moderately" injured while several more sustained minor bumps and bruises.
Following the announcement, Beijing demanded more information from Washington on the incident including the exact location of the accident, the intention of the US navigation, and whether it caused nuclear leakage or damaged the local marine environment.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian suggested that the US deliberately delayed and concealed the details of the incident and accused Washington of stirring up trouble and creating tensions in the region in the name of freedom of navigation.
US Sub in the South China Sea
"The South China Sea is one of the most disputed and economically significant waterways. China claims nearly the whole area below its arguable nine-dash line and has constructed artificial islands and installation navy outposts in current years," says Marta De Paolis, expert of Maritime Security at Luiss University. "The US has been conducting 'freedom of navigation' operations in the area where the incident happened."
Given that tensions have been growing between Washington and Beijing for quite a while, the decision not to make the news immediately public was apparently made "to maintain operational security and be aware that such an accident could worsen the current geopolitical situation between the two countries," according to the expert.
"I think it has to do with the secrecy surrounding the usage of submarines," presumes Arnaud Sobrero, an independent writer focused on defence technology and East Asian affairs and ITSS Verona expert on Defence and Procurement.
According to Sobrero, one needs to see the incident in a broader context: first, this incident signals that the United States operates submarines in the South China Sea; second, the USS Connecticut is a "state-of-the-art-armament and state-of-the-art surveillance" nuclear-powered submarine.
"Whatever type of mission that the submarine was doing, I think it's important not to reveal the location of the submarine as well," he says. "So that's probably one of the reasons why there's been some delay in announcing this incident."
Collision With Another Sub Can't be Entirely Ruled Out
The details of the incident remain shrouded in secrecy; however the media claim, citing US Navy officials, that it is not believed that China caused the collision and that although it is not clear what object struck the USS Connecticut, it was not another submarine. US officials specified that the Connecticut had returned to the surface "under its own power," adding that a full damage assessment would be conducted later at the US base in Guam.
"It's not the first time that a collision has happened between a submarine and a larger object," Sobrero notes, referring to the 2009 smash-up between two nuclear-powered submarines of France and the UK.
The HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant collided in the night between 3 and 4 February 2009. The two subs were "badly damaged" although they came into contact at low speed and no injuries were reported, the BBC wrote
at the time, citing First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Jonathon Band.
What is interesting in the case involving the USS Connecticut is an indication that there are some injuries, in contrast to the 2009 incident, according to the defence expert. "[T]he injuries suggest that the collision was pretty violent, and there’s likely to be structural damage in the submarine," Sobrero notes.
According to the writer, it appears that the submarine was hit very hard. This apparently means that either an object or the submarine was moving fast. And the other side is the fact that submarines are very silent and operate in stealth mode, he highlights.
"So it's not entirely impossible that the unknown object was another submarine," the defence expert deems.
Why Stealth Passage is Fraught With Risks
One might ask as to how the collision could occur given all the navigational tools atomic submarines have.
"These ships are all about stealthiness," explains Marta De Paolis. "To remain stealthy, they would often turn off their active sonar so others cannot detect them, which leaves them essentially blind relying on charts, and those charts do not show anything… It is easy to recall that nuclear-powered submariners have a history of accidents. As we know, the underwater environment is hazardous. Submariners face many risks and insecurities due to this environment."
At the same time, it is hardly surprising that the incident on 2 October has prompted China's ire given the nature of the propulsion of the nuclear-powered submarine.
"That's particularly the case in Seawolf-class submarines," says Sobrero. "They have a nuclear reactor, which is in charge of the propulsion of the submarine. They are basically underwater nuclear plants. So obviously there's a risk that this can damage the reactor core. And second, there is a type of armament that the submarine carries on board."
China-US Tensions are Growing
It is unclear whether the US will reveal what actually happened on that day in the South China Sea. De Paolis suggests that Washington is likely to weigh the pros and cons before making the decision on whether to make the details of the incident public, given Sino-American frictions which started under President Donald Trump and have continued under his successor.
Whatever happened to the USS Connecticut will eventually surface because of the damage to the submarine, Sobrero believes: "The US would have to make some repairs and that's going to have some cost for the shipyards."
It's also interesting that the collision occurred just a couple of weeks after the AUKUS agreement between UK, Australia and US on submarine technologies, according to the defence expert. "This also highlights how important submarines are and that the US is willing to think of a more active presence in the South China Sea," he emphasises.
What’s more, the USS Connecticut's mysterious collision in the South China Sea coincided with joint military exercises carried out north of Taiwan by US and UK aircraft carriers together with Japan, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
On 2 October and 3 October, a total of 17 surface warships from the six countries participated in joint drills in the region off the southwest coast of Okinawa, according to the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), cited
by the Taiwan Times. The newspaper also quoted Japan's nationalist paper Sankei Shimbun that "bluntly" stated that the drills were aimed at "containing" China.
Meanwhile, Sino-American tensions continue to escalate: it has recently been reported that the US has been secretly maintaining a limited contingent of US Special Ops and Marines in Taiwan
for at least a year. Two lawmakers on US national security committees admitted that they had been unaware of the US military deployment in Taiwan, according