Asia-Pacific

Rescuers race against time to find missing Indonesian submarine as oxygen supplies dwindle

An undated handout photo made available by the Indonesian Navy shows now-missing Navy submarine KRI Nanggala-402 during a mission. Source: Indonesian Navy via AAP

Indonesia is racing to find its missing submarine, with the country's navy chief saying the 53 crew are expected to run out of oxygen within hours.

Rescue aircraft and ships are scouring the sea north of Bali as the hunt for a missing Indonesian submarine with 53 crew on board reaches a critical phase due to limited supplies of oxygen aboard the 44-year-old vessel.

More navy ships left the Indonesian base of Banyuwangi early on Friday to head to the Bali Sea where contact was lost with the KRI Nanggala-402 on Wednesday during a torpedo drill.

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"The main priority is the safety of the 53 crew members," President Joko Widodo said late on Thursday, calling for an all-out effort to find the vessel.

Helicopters also flew from Bali at first light.

Members of the Royal Malaysian Navy prepare to join the search for missing Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala at Sepanggar navy base, Malaysia.
Members of the Royal Malaysian Navy prepare to join the search for missing Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala at Sepanggar navy base, Malaysia.
Royal Malaysian Navy via AAP

Officials have said the air supply of the submarine, which had been cleared for use and was said to be in good condition, would last only until Saturday.

"Hopefully before they can be found, the oxygen will be enough," Yudo Margono, the navy chief of staff, told a news conference.

The commander of the Indonesian submarine fleet, Harry Setiawan, was one of four people aboard who were not regular crew members, a military official said.

While nothing conclusive had been found in the search so far, the chief of staff said an item with "high magnetic force" at a depth of 50-100 metres had been seen. It was unclear if the object was suspended or on the sea floor.

The diesel-electric powered submarine could withstand a depth of up to 500m but anything more could be fatal, a navy spokesman said. The Bali Sea can reach depths of more than 1500m.

An aerial search also spotted an oil spill near the submarine's dive location, which the navy said could indicate damage to the vessel or could be a signal from the crew.

The 1395-tonne vessel was built in Germany in 1977 and joined the Indonesian fleet in 1981, according to the defence ministry. It underwent a two-year refit in South Korea that was completed in 2012.

Republic of Singapore Navy personnel board the MV Swift Rescue to aid the search for missing Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala-402, from Singapore, on 21 April.
Republic of Singapore Navy personnel board the MV Swift Rescue to aid the search for missing Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala-402, from Singapore, on 21 April.
Ministry of Defence via AAP

The navy has said a blackout may have occurred during static diving, causing a loss of control and preventing emergency procedures being carried out.

A number of countries have responded to Indonesia's requests for assistance, with Australia, Malaysia, India, Singapore and the United States sending specialised ships or aircraft.

The US Defence Department is sending "airborne assets" to assist in the submarine search, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Twitter.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to speak with Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto on Friday "to convey our sorrow and to discuss how else the United States can be of assistance", Kirby said.

Meanwhile, two Australian ships were heading for the search area including a support ship and a frigate with sonar capabilities, the defence department said.

Indonesian Navy submarine KRI Alugoro is shown in the search mission for missing Navy submarine KRI Nanggala, off Bali Island, Indonesia, on 22 April.
Indonesian Navy submarine KRI Alugoro is shown in the search mission for missing Navy submarine KRI Nanggala, off Bali Island, Indonesia, on 22 April.
EPA via AAP

Fleet commander Mark Hammond said the two Australian ships would help expand the search area and extend the duration of the effort.

"My thoughts are with the submariners of KRI Nanggala, their families and the Indonesian people," Rear Admiral Hammond said.

Indonesia has been seeking to modernise its defence capabilities but some of its equipment is old and there have been fatal accidents in recent years.

Indonesia in the past operated a fleet of 12 submarines bought from the Soviet Union to patrol the waters of the sprawling archipelago.

It now operates five - the two German-built Type 209 submarines and three newer South Korean vessels.

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