Can A Sub Get A Fair Hearing?
As it becomes more obvious that USS Philadelphia was the "stand-on" vessel in an overtaking situation with the Turkish M/V Yaso Aysen in their recent collision, the next question becomes: who will be held legally responsible? It may not be a clear-cut as it might seem, mostly because of the unique light and radar cross-section characteristics of submarines.
The most recent example I could find where a U.S. submarine had been hit by a civilian ship where it was the surface ship's fault was back in 1925, when S-51 was sunk by City of Rome. In that case, U.S courts held that both ships were responsible: City of Rome for not reducing her speed in an unclear situation and not signalling her course change, and S-51 for having improper lights. (Another website that explores the S-51 sinking more thoroughly can be found here.)
COLREGS Inland Rules require that submarines operating on the surface display a flashing yellow (or amber) light -- the requirement is near the bottom of Rule 1. This is because subs appear much smaller than they actually are, both visually (from the positioning of their lights) and on radar, especially from dead ahead or astern. Subs can also hang a "radar reflector" on the bridge which gives a stronger radar return. However, during wartime, I wouldn't be surprised if our boats aren't doing that; additionally, I don't know exactly where the COLREGS demarcation line is for Bahrain, but the collision may very well have occurred on the "International Rules" side of the line, so operation of the Sub ID beacon wouldn't have been "required". The running lights on submarines don't really meet the requirements of the COLREGS; they always told us that submarines had an "exemption" from the rules. This case may tell whether that "exemption" is recognized by international maritime courts.