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Debris from missing Indonesian submarine found off Bali coast

Indonesia has declared a missing submarine with 53 crew “sunk” after finding debris off the coast of Bali it believes belonged to the vessel.

“With the evidence we found believed to be from the submarine, we have now moved from the ‘sub missing’ phase to ‘sub sunk'”, said Admiral Yudo Margono, the Indonesian navy chief of staff, while showing debris found during the search for the KRI Nanggala-402, which went missing in deep water near Bali during a torpedo-firing exercise on Wednesday.

Among the crew members now assumed dead was Harry Setiawan, commander of the Indonesian submarine fleet.

The loss of commander, craft and crew is a tragic setback for the country’s military at a time when territorial disputes and an arms race are heating up in the region.

Authorities had estimated oxygen supply in the diesel-powered vessel, which was built four decades ago, would run out by the early hours of Saturday. 

Indonesia is continuing the search together with specialised aircraft and rescue ships deployed by the US, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and India. 

“The depth of the sea we have detected is at 850 metres, which is very tricky and presents many difficulties,” Margono said late on Saturday. That is more than three times the maximum depth at which experts say the submarine can navigate safely.

Indonesia’s navy operates five submarines. Two, including the one now sunk, were built in Germany and the rest in South Korea.

Jakarta is buying seven additional submarines that will be made in Russia and domestically, as countries in south-east Asia seek to counter China’s rapid military modernisation. Beijing in 2019 was the second biggest military spender worldwide after the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Indonesia’s military expenditure swelled 69 per cent between 2010 and 2019, the fourth largest jump in Asia Pacific, according to SIPRI.

“China’s rise as a regional military power and its claims in the South China Sea have become an increasingly pressing security concern for many south-east Asian states,” according to a paper by Siemon T. Wezeman, senior researcher at SIPRI.

South-east Asia’s military expenditure leapt at least 33 per cent between 2009 and 2018, “significantly more than the global increases [in] military spending,” said Wezeman.

Patrolling its vast maritime borders and myriad islands is a challenge for Indonesia, which has been involved in disputes with China over fishing rights in the contested South China Sea and elsewhere.

The need to replace outdated apparatus — which in more developed countries “would have long ago been replaced or at least extensively modernised” — is also driving south-east Asia’s arms acquisition, said Wezeman, adding that most major Indonesian warships in 2012 were second-hand and between 25 and 40 years old.

The KRI Nanggala-402 was built 41 years ago and overhauled in South Korea in 2012.

The Indonesian navy on Wednesday said a blackout might have occurred during “static diving”, making the submarine lose control.

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