Time running out for missing Indonesian submarine as US joins search

Indonesian navy ships arrive at the naval base in Banyuwangi to join in the search for the missing submarine (AFP)

Rescue teams from several countries were battling against time on Friday to find a missing Indonesian Navy submarine lost in the Bali Sea with 53 crew.

Search helicopters and more navy ships left Bali and a naval base in Java at first light heading to the area where contact was lost with the 44-year-old KRI Nanggala-402 on Wednesday as it prepared to conduct a torpedo drill.

"The main priority is the safety of the 53 crew members," President Joko Widodo said late on Thursday.

Indonesia's navy said it was investigating whether the submarine lost power during a dive and could not carry out emergency procedures as it descended to a depth of 600-700 metres, well beyond its survivable limits.

An object with "high magnetic force" had been spotted "floating" at a depth of 50-100 metres, Indonesian Navy Chief of Staff Yudo Margono said, and an aerial search had earlier spotted an oil spill near the submarine's last location.

If the submarine was still intact, officials said it would only have enough air to last about another 15 hours until early Saturday morning.

The diesel-electric powered submarine could withstand a depth of up to 500 metres but anything more could be fatal, Navy spokesman Julius Widjojono said. The Bali Sea can reach depths of more than 1,500 metres.

One of the people on board the boat was the commander of the Indonesian submarine fleet, Harry Setiawan.

An Indonesian defence expert said the crew could still be found alive.

"But if the submarine is in a 700-metre sea trough, it will be difficult for them to survive because underwater pressure will cause cracks and ruptures of the steel hull," Connie Rahakundini Bakrie said.

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The submarine joined the Indonesian fleet in 1981, according to the defence ministry, and underwent a refit in South Korea completed in 2012. It was said to be in good condition.

"I hope that they will be found alive," said Berda Asmara, the wife of crew member Guntur Ari Prasetyo, 39, who has sailed on the Nanggala for 10 years.

"We had a video call. He told me that he would go sailing and asked me to pray for him," she said of the last time they spoke.

Australia, India, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States have sent specialised ships or aircraft in response to Indonesian requests for assistance.

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

Two Australian Navy ships were heading for the search area including a frigate with special sonar capabilities, the defence department said.

Indonesia operates five submarines - two German-built Type 209s including Nanggala and three newer South Korean vessels.

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

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