On Saturday, the USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class fast attack submarine, collided with an unidentified underwater object in the South China Sea. On Thursday, the US Navy confirmed the incident and stated that there were several injuries, none of which were life-threatening.
“The submarine remains in a safe and stable condition. USS Connecticut’s nuclear propulsion plant and spaces were not affected and remain fully operational. The extent of damage to the remainder of the submarine is being assessed. The U.S. Navy has not requested assistance. The incident will be investigated,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Thursday.
The Navy did not specify where the incident occurred, but two defense officials told CNN on Thursday that it occurred in the South China Sea, which is hosting a major naval exercise involving the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, and other allies.
11 sailors reportedly injured
CNN also noted the increasing tensions between China and Taiwan as a factor in U.S. naval operations.
The US Naval Institute, an independent forum specializing in the US Navy and naval issues, quoted an unnamed US defense official as saying that 11 sailors were injured in the South China Sea incident and that the submarine is now heading to the Pacific US island territory of Guam “on the surface.”
The USS Connecticut is thought to have been conducting routine operations in the area where the US Navy is attempting to protect freedom of navigation in the face of China’s increased maritime claims and activities.
What object did the USS Connecticut collide?
It’s unclear what the USS Connecticut hit, and speculation abounds on defense forums. Some speculate that it was a shipwreck or a sunken container. Others suggest that a mobile object is a possibility.
“We’ll have to await the U.S. investigation report, if ever it does materialize,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
“Until then, we have a lot to speculate about what that unidentified underwater object is. It can be really an inanimate object such as a shipwreck or even an uncharted seamount, or it could be a mobile object such as another manned submarine or drone,” he told RFA.
“In my mind, this collision in South China Sea would have been inevitable anyway considering the intensifying spate of military activities by regional and extra-regional countries in the area,” Koh said.
“The South China Sea like the other littorals throughout this region isn’t exactly the best place for subs to operate in, honestly.”
A busy time in the South China Sea
Three aircraft carriers from the United States and the United Kingdom have been conducting exercises with regional partners in the South China Sea. The US claims their actions are intended to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” but China, which claims the majority of the South China Sea, claims they are intended to counteract its rising maritime power.
A two-week naval exercise called Bersama Gold 21 began in the South China Sea on Friday, involving US allies Australia, the United Kingdom, Singapore, New Zealand, and Malaysia.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China was “gravely concerned” about the submarine incident and demanded the U.S. “to provide details, its purpose of cruising, and whether it caused a nuclear leak or damaged the marine environment.”
“The U.S. has long been making trouble in the South China Sea in the name of ‘freedom of navigation’, which poses a grave threat and major risks for regional peace and stability. This is the root cause of this incident,” Zhao was quoted as saying in a transcript on the ministry’s website.
China is cautious about publicizing its maritime activities in the South China Sea. It has the world’s largest navy, which includes a dozen nuclear-powered submarines. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, this number is expected to rise to 21 by 2030.
According to observers, the South China Sea has become a flashpoint of tensions between the United States and China, as well as a potential conflict zone between the two countries.
The USS Connecticut is one of three Sea Wolf-class ships that were commissioned during the Cold War. It is 107 meters long and can accommodate approximately 130 sailors and officers. The submarine is stationed at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton in Washington.