On Oct. 2, the USS Connecticut struck a mysterious object while submerged in the South China Sea. It was operating in international waters in the Indo-Pacific when the collision took place. 11 crew members were injured, with no one sustaining life-threatening injuries.
“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,” Capt. Bill Clinton told USNI News.
The U.S. Pacific fleet did not provide more details on the incident. In an interview with the Associated Press (AP), two anonymous Navy officials revealed that the collision took place when the submarine was conducting routine operations. The submarine then went to the port of Guam. It isn’t clear what the mysterious object was that had collided with the submarine. Both officials asserted that it was not another submarine. According to one, the object could have been a sunken container, sunken vessel, or something similar.
Beijing lost no time picking up on the incident and used it to criticize the United States. At a press conference on Oct. 8, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that Beijing is “gravely concerned” about the incident. Zhao accused the U.S. of “making trouble” in the South China Sea for a long time in the name of freedom of navigation. Zhao asked Washington to reveal more information on the collision.
“As the party involved, the US should clarify in specific details what happened, including the exact location of the incident, the US side’s navigation intention, the details of the incident, the object the submarine struck, whether the collision caused a nuclear leak or damaged local marine environment, etc.,” Zhao said.
Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, believes that the risk of accidents in the South China Sea region is high due to the ongoing arms race to acquire nuclear submarines. The complex underwater terrain is also a reason.
Waters in the region are “quite complex” for submarine operations due to shallow and narrow waterways. The accident involving USS Connecticut raises questions on whether nuclear submarines can be safely operated in the region. Koh believes that as more submarines proliferate, the risk of accidents will increase.
Zack Cooper from the American Enterprise Institute says that the collision offered Beijing an opportunity to throw dirt at America. “This is just kind of classic Chinese line, right, where they’re trying to argue that U.S. operations in the South China Sea are inherently risky and dangerous… The fact that it was a nuclear attack submarine means that they’ve got a little but more ample reason to try and critique this at the moment, given the AUKUS deal,” Cooper told the Washington Examiner.
The reason why the USS Connecticut was operating in the South China Sea remains unclear. Some officials believe that the submarine was involved in surveillance operations. In an interview with Business Insider, Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a retired submarine officer, said that the American submarine might have been monitoring China’s Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island.
“[I]would not be surprised if the Connecticut was up there doing some kind of surveillance operation on Chinese submarine operations out of Hainan Island and it was close to the bottom because it was trying to hide and it ran into something while it was doing that,” Clark said.