Submarines on collision course in busy sea

AS submarines increasingly become the clandestine weapon of choice in the Asia-Pacific, an ­admiral from the US Pacific Fleet says regional nations must tell each other where their boats are operating or risk a deadly underwater collision.

The head of the US Pacific Command’s submarine force, Rear Admiral Phillip G. Sawyer, told a conference in Canberra yesterday the rapidly increasing number of submarines had created a greater chance of an underwater crash.

Nations operating submarines must also much better prepare themselves to rescue the crews from sunken boats, Rear Admiral Sawyer told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute submarine conference.

Rear Admiral Sawyer said agreements should start with “navy to navy” discussions and the massive multi-nation search off Western Australia for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 proved such co-operation was possible.

“It really requires trust to reach that level of agreement and that is built up over time,” he said.

He said extra traffic was being created as Vietnam, for instance, had just acquired the first two of six Kilo-class Russian sub­marines. Bangladesh had just completed a deal with China to buy two big submarines.

India operated both conventional and nuclear submarines and the Royal Thai Navy was planning to buy three.

“This should be a concern for every country that operates submarines. As the total number of submarines increases in this ­region, the risk will increase of a sub on sub collision,’’ he said.

“We must plan for the event­uality that we will need to rescue the crew of a submarine that has been disabled.”

“Submarine rescue is a race against time,” he said. If the rescuers were not well prepared, co-ordinated and quick to react, “we will be outpaced and sailors will die’’.

Rear Admiral Sawyer said he did not subscribe to the idea that the “big ocean, little submarine” theory would make collisions unlikely. Air traffic controllers were there to prevent midair collisions. “We must do the same for the water,” he said.

The need for an agreement was becoming more and more urgent, he said. As marine trade increased there was also an increasing risk of a submarine colliding with a cargo ship.

A US submarine had already collided with a supertanker in the Strait of Hormuz.

It also emerged yesterday that the Abbott government is about to start negotiating with industry in Australia and with allied nations on how to structure the consortium which is to take on Australia’s biggest ever defence project — the building of new submarines for an estimated $40 billion.

The Australian was told the government will soon issue an “intent to consult” notice to major companies keen to join the submarine project.

A 130-strong expert team is being built up in Adelaide to integrate the best technology available in Australia and internationally into the new submarine.

Defence Minister David Johnston and navy Chief Vice Admiral Ray Griggs told the conference they were talking to Japan about the possibility of using some of its technology.

That sparked claims from the opposition that the government was backing away from an election commitment to build 12 submarines in Adelaide.

Premier Jay Weatherill, who will join Tony Abbott in China this week, said yesterday that Senator Johnston appeared to be backing away from a commitment to build the next fleet of submarines in the state.

“Of course when you hear language like this from the federal government it is a cause of concern,” he said. “I think that there is only one solution — to build submarines here in South Australia. Not in South Australia and the nation’s interests in terms of manufacturing, but in terms of our defence needs.”

But Steve Ludlam, chief executive of the Adelaide shipbuilder ASC, said he would not be concerned if the government shifted its focus to a submarine design from overseas.

Additional reporting: Sarah Martin

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