USS Connecticut (SSN-22): I am not that Innocent!
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 14 Jan , 2022

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A continental power adheres to a “closed-sea” concept, while a maritime power adheres to an “open-sea” concept. This difference also informs the naval strategy chosen by both, a maritime power seeks to preserve “access” (offensive strategy) and a continental power seeks “denial” (defensive strategy) at sea. These differences contribute towards the structural nature of incidents at sea between the US and China in the SCS. China’s military assertiveness from the perspective of sovereignty will rise in coming years and incidents at sea between her and the US and its allies in SCS will define international security in coming years. According to Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, “The so-called ‘freedom of navigation and over-flight’ by the United States is essentially a cover for the United States to challenge the rights and interests of other countries by virtue of its powerful maritime power”.1 Such ‘freedom of navigation and over-flight’ missions are no longer safe and incur high politico-military cost.

As per a statement by the United States (US) Indo-Pacific Command, on the afternoon of October 02, 2021, the USS Connecticut (SSN 22), a Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine of the US Navy, “struck an object” while operating in international waters2 in the South China Sea (SCS). While there has been no official statement on the details of the “accident” by the US Indo-Pacific fleet, the temporal and spatial coordinates do indicate an un-natural cause.

First, this incident coincided with China’s National Day (October 01) celebrations when China conducted – out of routine military drills – in and around the Republic of China’s (Taiwan) Air Defence Identification Zone. PLA aircraft activity tally in October stood at 196, and this included the record-breaking 38 aircraft on October 01, 39 aircraft on October 02, and 56 aircraft on October 04.3 A total of 700 PLA aircraft compared with only 380 last year marks an escalation in PLA aircraft activity over the East China Sea and Taiwan’s South-West. The PLA’s increased air activity in early October also coincided with naval exercises conducted by the US, the United Kingdom (UK), Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and New Zealand in the Philippines Sea when some of the warships entered the SCS through the Bashi Channel South of Taiwan.4 On October 03, the US, Japan and UK were amidst multiple carrier strike group operations in the Philippine Sea.5 Previously, in August, British aircraft carrier strike group reported two type 093 submarines of the PLAN tracking their movements in the SCS.6

Second, according to Elmer Yuen, the incident occurred at the mouth of China’s nuclear submarine base in Hainan (South China) and at shallow depths (150-200m). These facts, along with the reputation of the Seawolf class – nuclear attack submarine – as the most lethal, complicated, expensive submarine in the US fleet designed for high-end missions close to an adversary’s shore, calls for deep concern regarding the strategic implications of this incident.

China has officially criticised the US government for being non-transparent and irresponsible. The USS Connecticut was stated by the US government to have hit an ‘uncharted seamount’ suffering serious damage after nearly a month since the incident.7 The nature of the accident (nuclear leak), what its mission was and its exact location in the South China Sea remains a cause of concern to China. The US use of deliberate terms such as – international waters in the Indo-Pacific – is deceptive in describing the submarines location whether it lies in the Exclusive Economic Zone or territorial sea of any country and mission. China has interpreted this incident to be a threat to its “sovereign security” and warned of more, not less of similar incidents in reciprocation.

This incident comes in the backdrop of US naval leadership’s belief that in a situation short of war with the US, China has absolute sea control in the South China Sea.8 This is a major transformation since the days of Taiwan Strait crisis (1996) when the PLAN was unable to even locate the exact position of two US aircraft carriers [USS Independence & USS Nimitz] deployed in that theater.9 Cursed by its geography and US military alliances in China’s immediate neighbourhood, China has had difficulties in deploying its Navy and has hence aimed at dealing with this challenge in multiple domains and crafted new military doctrines to specifically deal with it e.g. maritime laws, ADIZ and Far-Seas concept. If there is a Chinese hand behind this incident – it will not be a matter of surprise. China has often used indirect methods with the intention to control escalation and yet try to make its intent known to its adversaries. From improvised weapons at the Sino-Indian boundary, fishing boats, merchant and coast-guard ships to building artificial islands in the SCS, China has a long established record of conducting military operations outside the conventional domain aimed at countering and deterring its adversaries strategy and capability. While foreign observers describe China’s behaviour to be “aggressive”, Chinese scholars claim it to be “assertive” – a trend that has intensified since the 2008 global financial crisis.10 Incidents such as this are of grave concern from both regional and global perspective and fit well within the Chinese strategic culture operating at the tactical level. For India, which regards itself as a growing maritime power and has come to become a champion of “maritime security” at the UN, this incident marks an important reminder and concerns regarding its occurrence elsewhere around the world threatening maritime security. If true, tactics being used by the PLA Navy resemble (not mirror-image) the Soviet Navy – close passes by low-flying aircraft, intentional shouldering (bumping) of surface ships, threatening manoeuvers and mock surface and air attacks against US naval vessels – which eventually led to the signing of the Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement between the governments of the US and the USSR in 1972. The US Naval leadership has been arguing for a similar agreement between the US and China in view of the growing number of dangerous encounters between the US and Chinese forces in the Western Pacific (now Indo-Pacific).11 In 1998, a Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) was signed between the US and China.12

However, some in the US believe that no special bilateral agreement is required between the US and China if existing norms within the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea13 is strictly adhered to. An INCSEA agreement between China and the US would imply the elevation of China’s ‘status’ at par with the Soviet Naval forces which was a true blue water (global) Navy. By initiating concepts such as “far seas” [China’s Defence White Paper], China is at an early stage of developing a blue water capable naval fleet. China’s inferior status in this regard is evident in its conduct while harassing the US Navy. The Soviet Union, given its global power status, used its naval arm including shore based assets, directly and overtly, China employs indirect and covert means indicating its status as an inferior naval power – INCSEA is a navy-to-navy agreement; however, China’s naval power status is rapidly transforming as it has now come to own the largest naval fleet in the world.14 Furthermore, China disregards a maritime order created by the West and seeks to suo moto establish a – code of conduct – at sea with her ASEAN neighbours in the South China Sea.15 China seeks to establish a ‘relational order’ as against ‘rules based order’ and along with Russia, views ‘rules based order’ as a different concept to ‘international law’. A West-led maritime rule-based order is founded on military logic to aid international commerce (maritime) and centres around power politics and balance-of-power theories. The rules-based order has no space for a dominant regional power anywhere in the world as it challenges the idea of ‘free and open’ seas – global common.

From a military perspective, China is perhaps right in disregarding a maritime rules-based order written to suit the military operational requirements of the Western Navy (the US & NATO). For example, the Article III of the ‘rules of the road’ [the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS -1977)] provides that:–

    • Ships engaged in surveillance shall stay at a distance that avoids the risk of collision and shall avoid executing manoeuvers embarrassing or endangering the ship under surveillance.
    • When approaching ships engaged in launching or recovering aircraft and replenishment underway, ships shall take appropriate measures not to hinder manoeuvers of such ships and shall remain well clear.
    • When operating in the vicinity of a formation, ships shall avoid manoeuvering in a manner that would hinder the evolutions of the formation.
    • Article IV similarly provides that aircraft commanders shall use caution in approaching aircraft and ships of the other party operating on or over the high seas, in particular ships engaged in launching or recovering aircraft.
    • Article IV prohibits simulated attacks against aircraft and ships, aerobatics over ships and the dropping of objects near ships that may cause a hazard to the ship or constitute a hazard to navigation.

These and more provisions under COLREGS, make no sense from a military perspective. Why should the Russian or Chinese Navy not manoeuver when US aircraft carriers are launching and recovering their aircraft? After all, the US is not launching aircraft from its carriers for an air display and a routine naval exercise or a naval drill can easily transform into an offensive assault. Also, the range of its aircraft and missiles carried on them punctures the argument that the US aircraft carrier was doing so in international waters. The US argument is that it conducts ‘lawful military activities’ – yes, but whose law? Not all navies have aircraft carriers & Sea-Wolf class submarines. In other words, such laws were written by swimmers for a world where everyone cannot swim. China has officially stated that the presence of US reconnaissance aircraft and Special Mission Ships (SMS) in the Chinese EEZ presented a threat to its national security. Moreover, in March 2010, China declared that the South China Sea was a- “core interest” for China, a position previously reserved for Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. While the US has not signed the UNCLOS, it champions its cause for the simple reason that it has been vetted and approved by the Pentagon. The UNCLOS and other international agreements legitimises foreign military activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone (200nm) and in the territorial waters (12nm) under the garb of – “right to innocent passage”.16 The idea of territorial sea first originated in Europe and was completely a military thought.

Multilateral agreements such as COLREGS & UNCLOS are primarily written to preserve the naval balance and supremacy in favour of Western naval powers such as the US (Navy) and designed to deal with the maritime order in the post-colonial world order that introduced the concept of Territorial Sea [12nm] and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) [200nm]. It makes one wonder why India and its Navy support and champion the cause of a West-led ‘rules-based order’ when Russia and China do not.

The Seawolf Class

The US Navy operates three Seawolf class nuclear-attack submarines, which were built and commissioned to deal with sophisticated Soviet ballistic-missile and attack submarine fleet (Typhoon Class & Akula Class) during the Cold War. Given the budget constraints and exorbitant costs (approx $2.4 billion per boat), the US Navy restricted its procurement to three submarines with the ending of the Cold War. Originally, the US Navy planned to acquire a total of 29 boats over a ten-year period for $33.6 billion.17

The Seawolf class of three includes two standard-length hulls designed for high-end submarine warfare (USS Seawolf and USS Connecticut), built and commissioned in the 1990s. The third and final vessel, USS Jimmy Carter, has a stretched-length (dry-deck) hull designed for ‘covert operations’. This nuclear-attack submarine (Seawolf) is rated to be much quieter, faster and better armed (50 Mark 47 heavyweight torpedoes, Sub-Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Tomahawk missiles) than the Los Angeles and Virginia class. HY-100 steel and its design make it capable of deep dive (for example, under the polar ice cap) and exceptional quietness even at high tactical speeds [20 knots (reported)]. In sum, the Seawolf’s ability to make a “stealthy approach to enemy coasts” along with other attributes, makes it an invaluable weapon system platform in the US’ naval arsenal and is an important ingredient in analysing this incident at sea.

With a sound decibel (95 approx) well below the ocean background sound decibel of (105 approx), the Seawolf class submarine is poised as undetectable with active-sonar switched off at depths down to 600m. This attribute along with the topography of South China Sea (1,212m depth) where the US Navy has been conducting intelligence gathering missions, is expected to be well versed with the hydrology and geography of this area. According to reports based on satellite images (October 10), a day after the incident (October 02) the USS Connecticut was located 42.6 miles from the Xisha Islands while heading back to Guam at surface. It is hypothesized that on October 02, the USS Connecticut may have been playing “edge ball” just outside the 12nm territorial sea perimeter from China’s shores. Photos released upon its return to Guam, reveal that it sustained minor damage at the cowl (base), not bow. Reports in Chinese social media suggest such a minor damage can neither be caused by an un-manned underwater vehicle or a naval submarine and hence it was a natural feature – coral reef. It is further stated that it was perhaps the USS Connecticut’s sailing under duress or emergency that made it neglect its surrounding.18 So in theory, either the USS Connecticut was being spotted or being chased away or it retreated in a hurry after committing some sensitive mission. The injuries sustained reveal its slow speed during the incident.19 So, how were 11 sailors in USS Connecticut injured? Looks like an active object hit the submarine while it was in shallow waters. According to Elmer Yuan, the US Indo-Pacific fleet delayed the public announcement of this incident until December 07 and timed it when the USS Connecticut was safe outside the reach of the Chinese Navy. There was perhaps an attempt on the part of China to use innovative methods to capture one of US Navy’s top secret weapon systems and end it as the EP-3 spy plane incident of 2001 did – apology and humiliation. Through the stripping (dis-assembling) and studying the EP-3 plane, China realised for the first time how the US could track PLAN submarines via signal transmission.

It is difficult to believe that the US nuclear attack submarine hit anything but an active object; however, available evidence and official statements do not confirm such a hypothesis. After first stating that the USS Connecticut collided with an “unknown object” in the South China Sea, the US Indo-Pacific command later stated that it hit an “uncharted seamount” in international waters in the Indo-Pacific. China having raised doubts over the US public statements in this regard, has cited the flight of a US nuclear material detection aircraft to SCS – WC-135W – on October 31 as an indication of possible nuclear leak following the incident.20

US-China Incidents at Sea

First, incidents at sea between the US Navy and the PLA Navy have been insignificant in comparison to those which occurred during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Navy. Second, while the US and Soviet Union shared a similar view regarding the law of the sea – common interest in preserving navigational rights and freedoms throughout the world’s oceans [including the right of innocent passage (1989)] – this does not hold true between the US and China which hold ‘diametrically opposed view’.21 Third, the nature of incidents at sea between China and US is largely shaped by China’s preferred method of conduct as informed by its strategic culture – secure your victory (advantage) ‘before’ the fight. China’s Journal of Underwater Unmanned Systems(无人系统反潜战), has made a study of US plans – Combat Capability Battle Force 2045 – with respect to changing nature of underwater warfare and concluded that un-manned systems can track and strike submarines at ultra-low cost. According to a study done by the US-based Hudson Institute, “The traditional ASW approach is expensive and difficult to scale up and is platform intensive.”

After the mid-air collision of an US Navy EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft with Chinese naval interceptor fighter aircraft – J-8II- in April, 2001, China has opted ‘not’ to use its military for challenging the US presence in near-seas. However, it has employed other means with the aim to control escalation and not forgo the original task of challenging its adversary. Hence, it only appears as if a Cold War-like situation is absent in South China Sea, thanks to China’s paramount desire to not repeat the past in a similar manner – innovative tactics. Yet, things did not change much; in May 2016, the US protested when two Chinese Shenyang J-11BH aircraft reportedly came within 15m of a US EP-3 on ‘a routine’ patrol approximately 80km East of Hainan Island; China responded by demanding an end to US surveillance near China. The USS Connecticut incident is perhaps just another episode in a series of peaceful military engagements with Chinese characteristics between China and the US in the South China Sea.

China argues that military activities in its EEZ, such as US Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations (SRO) and other SMS operations, are hostile acts and therefore violate the “peaceful purposes” provisions of UNCLOS Articles 88, 141and 301. The US understands such claims to have no basis in customary international law or UNCLOS and is not supported by state practice. The US cites state practice, the negotiating history of UNCLOS and Articles 56, 58, and 86 of the Convention in support of its position. The UNCLOS regulates peacetime intelligence collection in only one limited circumstance – while engaged in ‘innocent passage’ through foreign territorial waters [UNCLOS, art. 19(2)(c)].22 In sum, the current state of international law regarding the sea is written in favour of a maritime power as against a continental power (Russia and China). It naturally follows that as and when China’s naval expansion completes to being a blue water navy capable of global reach, she too will seek refuge in a rule-based order. However, as of now, China believes a ‘rules-based international order’ is a violation of the spirit of the rule of law and adherence to ‘power-politics’.23 China’s behaviour has been labeled as dubious or deceptive to outright bluff, as it has been engaged in a series of hostile activities against the navies of its smaller neighbours in the South China Sea despite its efforts at ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2002).

Apart from the logic following the interpretation of international laws of the sea, the US and China remain opposed in their military (naval) approach. China uses ‘sovereignty’ as a framework to seek its claims, whereas the US uses ‘freedom of navigation’ as its framework to preserve its military access and global reach. The difference in approach stems from the geo-political identity of China as a regional ‘continental power’ as against the US identity as a global ‘maritime power’. This difference is at the root of incidents at sea between the US and China and cannot be wished away with common understanding of international law or naval agreements between the two.

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A continental power adheres to a “closed-sea” concept, while a maritime power adheres to an “open-sea” concept. This difference also informs the naval strategy chosen by both, a maritime power seeks to preserve “access” (offensive strategy) and a continental power seeks “denial” (defensive strategy) at sea. These differences contribute towards the structural nature of incidents at sea between the US and China in the SCS. China’s military assertiveness from the perspective of sovereignty will rise in coming years and incidents at sea between her and the US and its allies in SCS will define international security in coming years. According to Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, “The so-called ‘freedom of navigation and over-flight’ by the US is essentially a cover for it to challenge the rights and interests of other countries by virtue of its powerful maritime power”.24 Such ‘freedom of navigation and over-flight’ missions are no longer safe and incur high politico-military cost.


While it remains unknown as to what really happened with the USS Connecticut, given China’s doubts regarding the US official statements, this incident may at best serve as a reminder to the structural nature of naval power at sea. Even if the US submarine hit a passive object (sea-mount), this was perhaps the result of years of constant harassment of its research vessels by China’s fishing and other vessels leading to degradation of topographic data collection capability in the SCS.

With Russia and China conducting joint naval patrol25 through the Osumi Strait which connects the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean and agreeing to ‘watch and help’ each other in the maritime domain (naval warfare),26 the intensity of a long duel between continental and maritime identity within the international system will only intensify in coming years. The joint Russia-China statement states, “The strategic partnership between Russia and China presents a development concept of ‘no-end’, “no forbidden zone”, and “no-upper limit” and aims at jointly maintaining international and regional strategic stability”.


  1. Dzirhan Mahadzir (2021) “Russia, China Wrap Up Drills Off Japan, Pledge More Joint Exercises” USNI, 25 October.
  2. When the US Navy states that it was operating in international waters it includes operations in Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] and territorial waters.
  3. “PLA Sent Nearly 200 Aircraft near Taiwan in Record Month” Global Times, 01 November, 2021.
  4. On Oct. 3, 2021 the United Kingdom’s carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces led by Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer JS Ise joined with U.S. Navy carrier strike groups led by flagships USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson to conduct multiple carrier strike group operations in the Philippine Sea,.
  5. “US, UK aircraft carriers lead show of naval might around South China Sea” Radio Free Asia, 07 October, 2021.
  6. “Chinese nuclear submarines detect by British aircraft carrier group” Defense View, 13 August, 2021.
  7. Bill Chappel (2021), “A U.S. submarine struck an underwater mountain last month, the Navy says” NPR, 02 November, 2021.
  8. Derek Grossman (2020), “Military Build-Up in the South China Sea” RAND Corporation, 22 January. Hannah Beech (2018), “China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, ‘Short of War with the U.S.’” New York Times, 20 September.
  9. Barton Gellman (1998), “US and China nearly came to blows in ‘96” Washington Post, 21 June.
  10. China announced its expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea(SCS) in 2009.
  11. In 2007, Admiral Timothy Keating indicated during his nomination hearing to be the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command that the United States should negotiate an INCSEA agreement with the PRC.
  12. Agreement on Establishing a Consultation Mechanism to Strengthen Military Maritime Safety, U.S.-China, Jan. 19, 1998, T.I.A.S. No. 12,924 [hereinafter MMCA].
  13. January 2011, Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy.
  14. The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.“Military and Security DevelopmentsInvolving the People’s Republic of China2020” Annual Report to the Congress, Office of the Secretary of Defense. p.ii
  15. Viet Hoang (2020), “The Code of Conduct for the South China Sea: A Long and Bumpy Road” The Diplomat, 28 September.
  16. PART II – Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone– UNCLOS.
  17. Peter Suciu (2021), “Ultra-Stealth, Ultra Costs: Why the Seawolf-Class Submarine Sunk” National Interest, 20 March.
  18.  “美国核潜艇撞击事故细节曝光! 曾逼近南海岛礁42 海里, 被撞部位异常蹊跷”, 军武吐槽君, 10 October, 2021.
  19.  “美国核潜艇撞击事故细节曝光! 曾逼近南海岛礁42 海里, 被撞部位异常蹊跷”, 军武吐槽君, 10 October, 2021.
  20. South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, cited in “US Investigation on Submarine Collision ‘Un-Transparent’” Global Times, 02 November, 2021.
  21. Pete Pedrozo (2012), “The U.S.-China Incidents at Sea Agreement: A Recipe for Disaster” Journal of National Security Law & Policy [Vol. 6:207], March.
  22. Ivey, Matthew W. “National Security Implications in the Global War on Terrorism of the United States Accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Dartmouth Law Journal. Vol. 7, No. 2 (2009): 117-131.
  23.  “Geng Shuang: ‘Rule – based international order’ is a violation of the spirit of the rule of law” People’s Daily, 23 October, 2021.
  24. Dzirhan Mahadzir (2021) “Russia, China Wrap Up Drills Off Japan, Pledge More Joint Exercises” USNI, 25 October.
  25. This demonstrates high degree of actual combat and will soon graduate into in joint air-sea patrol. “First joint naval patrol by China, Russia in West Pacific is ‘of vital significance’: military experts” Global Times, 23 October, 2021.
  26. Dzirhan Mahadzir (2021) “Russia, China Wrap Up Drills Off Japan, Pledge More Joint Exercises” USNI, 25 October.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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