Time running out for missing Indonesian submarine as US joins search

World

Indonesian Navy submarine KRI Nanggala sails in the waters off Tuban, East Java, Indonesia, as seen in this aerial photo taken from Indonesian Navy helicopter of 400 Air Squadron, in this Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 photo. Indonesia’s navy is searching for the submarine that went missing north of the resort island of Bali with a number of people on board, the military said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Eric Ireng)

JAKARTA, Indonesia (NewsNation Now) — Rescue teams were battling against time on Friday to find a missing Indonesian Navy submarine lost in the Bali Sea with 53 crew, which would be running out of oxygen if not already crushed by water pressure.

Search helicopters and more ships left Bali and a naval base in Java heading to the area where contact was lost with the 44-year-old KRI Nanggala-402 on Wednesday as it prepared to conduct a torpedo drill, with the head of the Indonesian submarine fleet aboard.

If the submarine was still intact, officials said it would only have enough air to last until around dawn on Saturday.

“So far we haven’t found it… but with the equipment available we should be able to find the location,” Achmad Riad, a spokesman for the Indonesian military, told reporters.

An Indonesian air force pilot said six tons of equipment had been flown to a base to help with the search, including underwater balloons to help lift a vessel.

The diesel-powered KRI Nanggala 402 was participating in a training exercise Wednesday when it missed a scheduled reporting call. Officials reported an oil slick and the smell of diesel fuel near the starting position of its last dive, about 60 miles north of the resort island of Bali, though there was no conclusive evidence that they were linked to the submarine.

Indonesia’s Naval Chief of staff, Adm. Yudo Margono, said rescuers found an unidentified object with high magnetism at a depth of 165 to 330 feet and that officials hope it’s the submarine.

The navy believes the submarine sank to a depth of 2,000-2,300 feet, much deeper than its estimated collapse depth.

Ahn Guk-hyeon, an official from South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, which refitted the vessel in 2009-2012, said the submarine would collapse if it goes deeper than around 655 feet because of pressure. He said his company upgraded much of the submarine’s internal structures and systems but lacks recent information about the vessel.

Frank Owen, secretary of the Submarine Institute of Australia, also said the submarine could be at too great a depth for a rescue team to operate.

“Most rescue systems are really only rated to about 970 feet, he said. “They can go deeper than that because they will have a safety margin built into the design, but the pumps and other systems that are associated with that may not have the capacity to operate. So they can survive at that depth, but not necessarily operate.”

Owen, a former submariner who developed an Australian submarine rescue system, said the Indonesian vessel was not fitted with a rescue seat around an escape hatch designed for underwater rescues. He said a rescue submarine would make a waterproof connection to a disabled submarine with a so-called skirt fitted over the rescue seat so that the hatch can be opened without the disabled submarine filling with water.

Owen said the submarine could be recovered from 1,640 feet without any damage but couldn’t say if it would have imploded at 2,300 feet.

In November 2017, an Argentine submarine went missing with 44 crew members in the South Atlantic, almost a year before its wreckage was found at a depth of 2,625 feet. In 2019, a fire broke out on one of the Russian navy’s deep-sea research submersibles, killing 14 sailors.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo asked all of the country’s people to pray that the submarine and crew could be found.

“Our main priority is the safety of the 53 crew members,” Widodo said in a televised address. “To the families of the crew members, I can understand your feelings and we are doing our best to save all of the crew members on board.”

The military said more than 20 navy ships, two submarines and five aircraft were searching the area where the submarine was last detected. A hydro-oceanographic survey ship equipped with underwater detection capabilities also was on its way to the site around the oil spills.

Margono said the oil slick may have been caused by a crack in the submarine’s tank after the vessel sank.

Neighboring countries are rushing to join the complex operation.

Rescue ships from Singapore and Malaysia are expected to arrive between Saturday and Monday. The Indonesian military said Australia, the United States, Germany, France, Russia, India and Turkey have also offered assistance. South Korea said it has also offered help.

“The news of the missing submarine is deeply concerning,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said during a visit to New Zealand. “We will provide any assistance that we can. There’s no question that submarine search and rescues are very complex.”

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton called the incident “a terrible tragedy.” He told Sydney Radio 2GB that the fact that the submarine is “in a very deep part of waters” makes it “very difficult for the recovery or for location.”

“Our fervent prayers and hopes go out to the crew of KRI Nanggala, for their safety and resilience,” Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote on Facebook.

Indonesia’s navy said an electrical failure may have occurred during the dive, causing the submarine to lose control and become unable to undertake emergency procedures that would have allowed it to resurface. It was rehearsing for a missile-firing exercise on Thursday, which was eventually canceled.

The German-built submarine, which has been in service in Indonesia since 1981, was carrying 49 crew members, its commander and three gunners, the Indonesian Defense Ministry said. It had been maintained and overhauled in Germany, Indonesia and most recently in South Korea.

More than 60 of the Type 209 class submarines have been sold and have served in 14 navies around the world, ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems spokesperson Eugen Witte said.

Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago nation with more than 17,000 islands, has faced growing challenges to its maritime claims in recent years, including numerous incidents involving Chinese vessels near the Natuna islands.

Last year, President Widodo reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty during a visit to the islands at the edge of the South China Sea, one of the busiest sea lanes where China is embroiled in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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