Friday, June 19, 2009

More Details of Submarine Incident off the Philippines

Andrew Scutro has a story on Navy Times offering up more details on the incident with the USS John S McCain (DDG 56) and the Chinese submarine off Subic Bay earlier this week. We usually do not get so many specific details of a Navy incident, and certainly never got this level of detail regarding the 2006 Song class submarine incident near the USS Kitty Hawk.

Two defense officials have confirmed that the crew aboard the destroyer John S. McCain was tracking the submarine that struck its towed sonar array June 10 in the South China Sea off the Philippines.

The McCain crew was able to retrieve the sonar array, which was damaged, although it’s not clear whether it was retrieved intact, the defense officials said. A mishap investigation is ongoing.

The officials would not specify whether the submarine was an attack boat or a ballistic-missile sub, and they were unsure of the time of the incident, which occurred in “international waters” south of Subic Bay.

The Associated Press reported that the collision took place 144 miles from Subic Bay, potentially placing it in the Mindoro Strait.

The collision has been described as “inadvertent” by defense officials.
These details tend to confirm what many of us previously speculated regarding the incident. It is kind of obvious that when a submarine accidentally rams a towed sonar array, the submarine is being tracked by the ship, although it also suggests the submarine was tracking the ship as well.

The report that the Navy was able to recover the towed array is also a good thing. The report goes on to quote Jon Von Tol from CSBA for an opinion on the incident.
“No sub skipper in his right mind would use his sub to damage a towed array,” said Jan van Tol, a former destroyer captain who hunted subs in the South China Sea. “It’s extremely unlikely to be deliberate. You don’t want an array caught in your screw.”

He said those waters are very noisy, making antisubmarine warfare particularly dicey.

“It’s possible it was a blind/blind situation and both sides were surprised,” he said.
Professor John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School is quoted with a slightly different take.
More likely, the sub’s intent was to stalk the McCain, test its detection abilities, get proof of its proximity and slink away unseen and unheard, said John Arquilla, author and professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.

To have pulled that off would have been a “perfect success,” he said.

Instead, they got caught.

“We should hear alarm bells go off every time we have incidents of this sort,” Arquilla said. “What I see in this pattern of incidents is a growing capability of the Chinese to use stealthy navy assets to get close to our larger and more visible ships.”
It is difficult to speculate the intentions of each vessel at the specific act time the submarine hit the towed array, but I think both of these opinions are insightful as speculation. Clearly China is testing submarine capabilities over recent months, one only has to listen to ADM Roughead in testimony before Congress to get a sense that the activity at sea between Chinese submarines and US Pacific naval forces is much higher this year than in previous years.

However, in noisy waters, just because a ship can track a submarine doesn't mean the ship can hold that track of the submarine indefinitely, indeed by its nature the submarine cat and mouse game is better described as repetitive lost and found. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you lose it, and it takes both skill and art to play the ASW lost and found game well.

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