No More Air: How An Entire Chinese Submarine Crew Died a Tragic Death in 2003

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: All navies experience deadly accidents and technical problems.

On April 25, 2003 the crew of a Chinese fishing boat noticed a strange sight—a periscope drifting listlessly above the surface of the water. The fishermen notified the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) which promptly dispatched two vessels to investigate.

At first, the PLAN believed the contact to be an intruding submarine from South Korea or Japan. But when Chinese personnel finally recovered the apparent derelict they realized it was one of their own diesel-electric submarines, the Ming-class 361.

When they boarded on April 26, they found all seventy personnel slumped dead at their stations.

Military commissioner and former president Jiang Zemin acknowledged the tragic incident on May 2, 2003, in a statement honoring the sacrifice of Chinese sailors lives and vaguely characterizing the cause as “mechanical failure.”

A month later, an inquiry by his commission resulted in the dismissal of both the commander and commissar of the North Sea Fleet, and the demotion or dismissal of six or eight more officers for “improper command and control.” Jiang and President Hu Jintao later reportedly visited the recovered submarine and met with the families of the deceased.

The Chinese government is not disposed to transparency regarding its military accidents. For example, it does not release the results of its investigations into jet fighter crashes and it never publicly acknowledged earlier submarine accidents. At the time, some commentators expressed surprise that Beijing acknowledged the incident at all, and speculated it was obliquely related to contemporaneous criticism of Beijing’s attempts to downplay the SARS epidemic.

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