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Lessons Indonesia must learn from the Nanggala submarine tragedy

The KRI Nanggala-402 submarine and its crew in 2012 upon completing an overhaul and retrofit. M Risyal Hidayat/Antara Foto

Indonesia’s submarine KRI Nanggala-402 sank in the Bali Sea last month during a torpedo exercise, killing all 53 personnel aboard.

Nanggala is one of Indonesia’s two Cakra-class submarines, developed by German shipbuilding company Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) in 1977. The Indonesian Navy commissioned the submarines in 1981. Both submarines have been in service for 40 years.

After Nanggala went missing, Indonesia immediately began a search assisted by other countries. However, after discovering the submarine debris on April 24 2021, Indonesia declared it sunk. The submarine and its personnel are, thus, “on eternal patrol”.

The Indonesian government is left with lessons it should act on in future defence planning to reduce the odds of, as well as prepare for, future accidents. Of the many lessons, two major ones are as follows.

Prepare for the worst

Nanggala was only the latest entry in a long list of accidents involving Indonesian weapon systems.

There have been 18 such accidents since 2015, involving five aeroplanes, five helicopters, six warships, one artillery and one combat vehicle. Those accidents claimed not only military lives, but also 86 civilian lives.

In 2020 alone, Indonesia had three weapon system accidents. On June 6, the army’s Mi-17 helicopter crashed during training in Kendal, Central Java, killing four soldiers. Ten days later, the air force’s Hawk Mk209 fighter aircraft crashed near Kampar, Riau. In the following month, on July 14, the navy’s KRI Teluk Jakarta-541 warship sank near Kangean Island, East Java.

Weapon system accidents happen so frequently in Indonesia that we must treat the chances of the next one as an absolute certainty and be prepared for the search and rescue of weapon systems and personnel immediately it happens.

The Nanggala incident is arguably the worst that could happen since submarines are designed to be undetectable. It makes the search and rescue of submarines and their personnel very difficult. In the history of submarine rescues, very few have been successful.

However, the difficulty does not mean Indonesia should give up preparing to search for and rescue submarines if it happens again in the future.

The government needs to procure submarine rescue ships and deep-submergence rescue vehicles (DSRVs). It also needs to improve the anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the military’s warships and aircraft, which can be used to track and find missing submarines.

Indonesia currently does not have any submarine rescue ships or DSRVs.

The only countries in Southeast Asia that have submarine rescue ships are Malaysia and Singapore. They deployed their ships – MV Mega Bakti and MV Swift Rescue respectively – to assist in the search for Nanggala.

Indonesia’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities are also very limited. Many of its warships are not equipped with sonar devices capable of detecting submarines that dive very deep.

Indonesian maritime patrol aircraft also have limited capabilities – an issue that the navy was still trying to solve.

Until the procurement of AS565MBe Panther helicopters for the 100 Air Squadron in 2015, Indonesia’s naval aviation did not have an anti-submarine warfare squadron.

Going forward, Indonesia needs to catch up with the latest advanced technology in submarine search and rescue to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Holistic weapon system acquisition

Often, Indonesia’s weapon system procurement process considers only the purchase and not the full life of the weapon system.

This should stop. Defence acquisition should include not only the procurement process (from design through to initial purchase), but also the in-life support elements, and then the weapon system disposal.

In-life or in-service support provides operational value to a weapon system by ensuring it’s available and reliable for missions and training. In-life support also ensures a weapon system has a long useful life.

In-life or in-service support includes, but is not limited to, the maintenance, repair and overhaul of the equipment. It also includes the logistics services and support of the equipment. Manufacturers usually provide this service. But it can also be contracted out or outsourced to other companies.

Arguably, from the start of the procurement process, governments should consider the in-life demands of a weapon system as one of the most important requirements.

Defence planners need to consider all support that will be needed after buying a weapon system. Neglecting this aspect will cause problems when a weapon system needs servicing.

In the case of Nanggala, 40 years in service seem very long. But this would not be a problem if the submarines receive good in-life support.

Many submarines operated by the world’s most technologically advanced navies were developed and commissioned in the 1970s and 1980s. For example, the United States’ Ohio-class submarines have also been in service since 1981, and its Los Angeles-class submarines since 1976.

Indonesian neighbor Singapore’s Archer-class and Challenger-class submarines are former Swedish submarines – ex-Västergötland-class and ex-Sjölejonet-class, respectively. The former was in service of the Swedish Navy from the late 1980s to 1997, while the latter was from the late 1960s to 1997.

These submarines were sold to Singapore and underwent major refitting before being commissioned into service again by the Singapore Navy from 2004 until now.

If in-life support is the key, what about the support received by Nanggala? The submarine underwent its last overhaul by South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) in 2009–2012.

According to the Indonesian Navy, since then the submarine had routinely undergone mid-level maintenance by the navy’s Principal Command. Whether the level of maintenance was sufficient remains for audit.

Meanwhile, Nanggala’s sister submarine, KRI Cakra-401, has been undergoing an overhaul by Indonesia state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL since 2018.

PT PAL is now capable of submarine overhaul after a submarine production facility was constructed in the company’s shipyard in Surabaya, East Java, in 2017. Hopefully, Indonesia can provide better maintenance for its submarines in the future.

Going forward, Indonesia needs to improve the in-life support for its in-service weapon systems to reduce the odds of future accidents.

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