The Tragedy of KRI Nanggala-402, Indonesia mourns sunken submarine crew

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IO – Indonesia is in mourning. One of its submarines, the KRI Nanggala-402, sank in the waters off the coast of Bali. Along with it, the entire Navy crew and personnel onboard also perished. From the government’s feed of information, contact with the submarine reportedly disappeared shortly after requesting permission to dive as part of a live-fire torpedo drill.

Many rumors and speculations soon emerged. Some questioned the likelihood of bad weather or disturbances caused by ocean currents. Some even pointed out to alleged sabotage. But most of the speculation is blamed on the aged submarine.

I myself, find the statement from Indonesian Navy more credible, that it experienced a “blackout” or power failure. This could have been caused by damage to its power supply source, disruption in its power distribution network or even excessive loads.

In almost all types of vessel, electricity is a vital component. All mechanical and electronic devices on board, from engines, navigation devices, to communication devices rely on electricity to work. One can imagine how the power supply is cut off, total paralysis is bound to happen.

On a submarine, this can cause disruption in the supply and circulation of oxygen. And when it is submerged, it can cause serious problems. The vessel would be ‘stuck’, even losing the ability to resurface, maneuver or communicate with command center. For the crew,

this situation becomes potentially fatal, as the oxygen level dwindles.

Indications that the ship was in trouble was first seen from the oil slick spotted around the area where it is thought the vessel submerged. That gave rise to the hypothesis of cracks in the hull, which led to further failures. This is because the fuel tank on a submarine is actually located in the innermost compartment of the hull.

We cannot come to any definitive conclusion yet. After search equipment deployed by KRI Rigel and the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) operated by Singapore’s MV Swift Rescue found a number of objects that were thought to have come from inside the vessel, along with other ship parts, it was concluded that the vessel had indeed sunk and the personnel onboard could not be saved.

So, should further actions be halted? Of course not. The possibility of lifting the sunken vessel, which has reportedly broken into three parts, continues to be explored. At the very least, the effort to collect data and information to the greatest extent possible, is crucial for thorough evaluation and lessons for the future.

Complete data and information are also needed to ascertain what actually happened at that time, especially since the Indonesian Navy asserts that the ship was fully operational and combat-worthy. Likewise, when the crew of the vessel asked for permission from the command center to dive and start its exercise, we can assume that they believed that the condition of the vessel and the waters/weather were conducive. We hope all such speculations can be fully answered.

The state of Indonesia’s primary weapons system

In terms of firepower, compared to that of neighboring countries, our primary weapons system is arguably quite capable. But in terms of the ability to ward off threats, enforce security and state sovereignty, it is clear that we still have not met the Minimum EssentialFforce (MEF) requirement.

Take our submarines, for example. As an archipelagic state, Indonesia’s territorial waters are vast. There are three major shipping lanes that must be secured. Not only shallow waters. Some of them are in very deep waters. This means that we cannot rely solely on surface patrols. Moreover, our waters are also buzzing with various underwater activities, both legal and illegal.

Thus, for the sake of underwater defense, we need submarines. The submarine is one of the more superior defense armaments owned by the Navy. It has the strongest deterrent effect. And we need at least 12 submarines to secure our territorial waters. Ideally, 25. But as of this writing we can only afford five vessels, including the sunk KRI Nanggala-402 and its contemporary KRI Cakra. It is thus understandable if these old submarines are still being deployed, because we haven’t any replacements.

Thus, all of our existing defense equipment must be optimized, whether modern or legacy, to secure our home land. We can’t just talk about procurement, but also logistics, maintenance, and the welfare and capability development of its personnel.

The effort to modernize our primary weapons has actually been planned since 2007, and is in the government’s Minimum Essential Force (MEF) roadmap. The MEF is divided into several phases covering a five-year timeframe. Phase one started in 20102014, phase two in 2015-2019, and phase three is to be fulfilled in 2020-2024. This means that by 2024, our primary weapons posture would have been ideal. However, it was later revealed that we were already lagging in phase two. In reality, we have only fulfilled 63.19 percent of the roadmap, instead of the supposedly 75.54 percent by now.

There was minimal progress in the fulfilment of MEF target in phase two. In 2014, we only managed to reach 54.97 percent. This means a mere 8.22 percent in five years. The lowest target fulfilment occurred in the Indonesian Air Force, at only 45.19 percent, compared to 78.82 percent in the Army and 67.57 percent in the Navy.

The major problem is, as always, lack of budget. To tackle this shortcomings, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto continues to emphasize that his ministry is working on creative solutions to quickly modernize and rejuvenate the country’s defense armaments.

As Defense Minister, Prabowo is left with a lot of ‘homework’ carried over from the previous administrations. He has recently conducted frequent visits across the world in the context of defense diplomacy to procure primary weapons, while enhancing military cooperation with friendly countries.

One of Prabowo’s missions is to bolster and modernize defense equipment through direct procurement from producing countries, especially those that the domestic defense industry cannot fulfill, while seeking buyers for locally-produced defense equipment.

Since early 2021, Prabowo has made defense diplomacy visits to Britain, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The agenda was to discuss negotiations related to previous agreements, as well as exploring possibilities for new offers, interests and commitments regarding primary weapons and ancillary instruments.

The visits have yielded strategic cooperation regarding the procurement and joint development of defense equipment such as fighter jets, tanks and submarines, training programs, as well as other strategic plans. We can finally see that the government is seriously working on meeting the need for defense equipment and enhancing the capabilities of our military personnel.

Submarine search and rescue is never easy

Regarding the tragedy of KRI Nanggala-402, we must admit that the rescue effort of a sunken submarine scattered on seabed is never an easy task. This reality started to sink in from the outset.

It takes a long time and capable equipment just to locate the ship. The biggest challenge is that submersibles stay below sea level at a depth that is not easily detected by search vessels on the surface. At a depth of more than 800m, it is a complex challenge for search vessels to ping the exact location. Also, we have limited search and rescue assets, so we have to involve various parties, from other institutions and countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. This is, of course, time-consuming.

Assistance was offered by the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO), a military organization under NATO that focuses on the humanitarian goal of saving lives at sea. The organization was founded in 2003, three years after the Kursk submarine tragedy in which all 118 of its crew perished.

We can see that search and rescue efforts have been conducted very seriously. KRI Nanggala-402 submarine is permitted to dive no more than 300 meters below the surface. However, as it lost contact, suffered blackout and loss of buoyancy, the situation became increasingly dire and, as we eventually found out, fatal.

While the fate of KRI Nanggala was still unknown at that time, KRI Rigel was dispatched from Jakarta to join the search team, arriving at the location on Friday (23/04). It is the most advanced research vessel owned by the Indonesian Navy’s Hydrology and Oceanography Center (Pushidros).

Rigel’s arrival was followed by Singapore’s MV Swift Rescue that arrived at the search location on Saturday (24/04). Bolstered by the two technologically-advanced ships, the deep-sea search could be carried out optimally, so that finally we could obtain authentic evidence and ascertain that KRI Nanggala-402 has indeed been lost at sea.

Soon onward, the public started to question why personnel onboard did not try to evacuate, using available safety devices and surface, it became clear the ship was in trouble and going down. First, we have yet to know exactly what caused the vessel to sink. The situation could get out-of-hand pretty quickly from the time the operations command lost contact with the vessel.

Secondly, if that is not the case, the crew were equipped with the skills and expertise to control the ship including during emergencies, disturbances or other dangerous situations. This means that their number one priority was to overcome the dificulty and return to base safely, considering that they still had time until their oxygen supply ran out.

Third, if the situation was beyond saving, evacuating the ship and swimming to the surface may still have been possible were the vessel still be in shallow waters. But when it already reached the deep sea, of course this move would be impossible.

Submarines are built with valves carefully designed to ensure that seawater cannot enter the chamber easily. If a valve is opened, water will quickly flood the vessel and cause fatalities. Moreover, at great depths, the hydrostatic pressure is extremely high, above human tolerance. Everyone inside would be crushed by that kind of pressure.

So we can’t just assume that should the KRI Nanggala crew at the depth of 700-850 meters make an attempt to escape and swim to the surface, they would still have a chance of survival. That would be nearly impossible. Just opening the door to the rescue compartment would be in itself fatal. Therefore, in such a situation, the best chance the submarine crew had was to wait for the rescue team from the surface.

A lesson that costs 53 lives

KRI Nanggala-402 has been in commission for over 40 years. This is the second-oldest submarine in the Indonesian Navy fleet that is still operational. Of course, there is a reason why it was still in service.

As explained earlier, to meet the MEF we need to have at least 12 submarines, but currently we only have five. Thus, to enforce maritime security and sovereignty, all available ships must be optimized. Moreover, the ship was declared to be operational and combat-worthy. So, technically, the Indonesian Navy would be disposed to conclude that the KRI Nanggala-402 could be in

volved in an exercise.

But then tragedy struck. The exercise became its last deployment. While the exact cause is still being investigated, we cannot rule out the suspicion that advanced age and maintenance factors contributed to its sinking. But to answer that we need a comprehensive audit of its workload, history of disruptions, maintenance and repairs, as well as budget.

The tragedy that befell the Nanggala-402 KRI is a lesson-learned: that the development of the defense sector and efforts to uphold our security and sovereignty must be taken very seriously and must be well-planned.

Maintenance will ensure that they are fully functioning and combat ready. In this regard, there are at least two essential components: mechanical and electronic. As for frequency, there is routine and periodic maintenance, or even drydock when necessary.

Routine maintenance is carried out by, among others, testing the equipment in joint military exercises, to ensure that it works in simulated combat and the personnel is able to operate it properly. Meanwhile, periodic maintenance is carried out to ensure the equipment is always in good condition, and repairs can be executed immediately if there is an indication of a potential glitch that may affect its performance.

And the most important of all is that defense force buildup requires comprehensive, sustainable planning, based on a clear, measurable scale of priority, and aligns with foresight on the form and level of threats in the future.

It also calls for consistency in the long-term plan. The defense roadmap should not undergo drastic change with each incoming administration, as there will be no continuity; a foundation laid today will become the ornerstone in facing future threats.

The government must also be nudged to allocate defense budget proportionally and stick to the priority. Otherwise, noble ambition to bolster our sovereignty and dignity will become more elusive. While the state must be present to protect all its citizens, we cannot look the other way with regard to our aging defense equipment and the safety of our military personnel.

If the government is serious about modernizing the country’s defense force, then it also needs to allocate sufficient budget, including to encourage research and development with universities and provide incentives for domestic defense manufacturers to innovate and build more advanced weaponry.

This is a long game. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It should be anchored on careful planning, thoughtful calculation, consistency and measurable priorities. Eventually, the sinking of the KRI Nanggala provides a lesson that currently the safety of our military personnel and the national sovereignty is vulnerable and the best solution is to ramp up military modernization speedily and precisely. (Khairul Fahmi)

Khairul Fahmi is the co-founder of Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISESS). He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Airlangga University, Surabaya. He was formerly a journalist with Radio Elshinta and Managing Editor of media lensaindonesia. com until he finally decided to focus on the think tank that he helped established in 2013.