Defense officials admit that the destroyer John S. McCain was tracking a Chinese submarine near the Philippines when the vessel became entangled in the McCain's trailing sonar array. (MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST JOHN L. BEEMAN / NAV)
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Two defense officials have confirmed that the crew aboard the destroyer John S. McCain was tracking the submarine that struck its towed sonar array June 10 in the South China Sea off the Philippines.
The officials, who are familiar with the incident but were not authorized to speak on the subject, confirmed the array, which trailed up to a mile behind the ship, was hit by a Chinese navy submarine, although it was not sighted on the surface. Days after the incident, Chinese officials acknowledged that the submarine was theirs.
The McCain crew was able to retrieve the sonar array, which was damaged, although it's not clear whether it was retrieved intact, the defense officials said. A mishap investigation is ongoing.
The destroyer, based in Yokosuka, Japan, pulled into port in Sasebo after the incident but soon went back to sea.
The officials would not specify whether the submarine was an attack boat or a ballistic-missile sub, and they were unsure of the time of the incident, which occurred in "international waters" south of Subic Bay.
The Associated Press reported that the collision took place 144 miles from Subic Bay, potentially placing it in the Mindoro Strait.
The collision has been described as "inadvertent" by defense officials.
Beyond that, little has been revealed about the circumstances.
The Navy by practice does not discuss operations that could reveal force capabilities, but observers have been looking for answers in this case because of the proximity of the submarine to a U.S. warship. Towed sonar arrays are dragged on a cable about a mile long, with the sensors placed toward the end of the line to avoid absorbing sound from the host ship.
The collision follows recent incidents in the region in which Chinese vessels harassed two U.S. surveillance ships that specialize in undersea listening, using hefty towed sonar. Chinese submarines are based and operate in the area. News reports at the time said the harassing vessels were trying to snag the trailing U.S. sensor gear.
No officials have said that the most recent incident with the McCain was another case of a Chinese vessel harassing a U.S. ship or that the sub was trying to sever the sonar line, although there is precedent for such behaviors.
As recounted in the bestseller "Blind Man's Bluff," in October 1983 in the Atlantic, a Soviet sub accidentally snagged a sonar array being towed by a U.S. frigate, detached the cable, got tangled in it and was forced to surface.
"No sub skipper in his right mind would use his sub to damage a towed array," said Jan van Tol, a former destroyer captain who hunted subs in the South China Sea. "It's extremely unlikely to be deliberate. You don't want an array caught in your screw."
He said those waters are very noisy, making antisubmarine warfare particularly dicey.
"It's possible it was a blind/blind situation and both sides were surprised," he said.
Most observers resist putting this incident — or accident — into a pattern of what are thought to be calibrated displays of growing Chinese military prowess, such as the 2006 detection of a Chinese sub in torpedo range of the Kitty Hawk Carrier Strike Group.
More likely, the sub's intent was to stalk the McCain, test its detection abilities, get proof of its proximity and slink away unseen and unheard, said John Arquilla, author and professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School.
To have pulled that off would have been a "perfect success," he said.
Instead, they got caught.
"We should hear alarm bells go off every time we have incidents of this sort," Arquilla said. "What I see in this pattern of incidents is a growing capability of the Chinese to use stealthy navy assets to get close to our larger and more visible ships."
Because of competing economic and strategic interests in the region, differing interpretations of international demarcations and a growing Chinese fleet, such incidents are inevitable, said Bonnie Glaser, a China security expert and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
"We increasingly operate in close proximity to each other, and the Chinese do not accept the U.S. presence, especially in their [Exclusive Economic Zone], as legitimate," she said. "They seem increasingly confident and willing to push back."
Glaser points to the U.S. Navy's reputation for safety, professionalism and caution. And although she doesn't believe the Chinese submarine meant to hit the sonar, it's indicative of that government's desire to test U.S. responses as well as its differing military style.
"I don't think you can apply our own standards of behavior to the Chinese," she said. "They seem to have a higher tolerance for risk."