Stealthy, Undetectable, and Deadly

Stealthy, Undetectable, and Deadly

By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo
March 29, 2017

Stealthy, undetectable, and deadly – the qualities of the Colombian Navy’s ARC Pijao, an S-28 submarine, outfitted with state-of-the-art technology designed to mount lethal attacks against enemies without being detected. The Pijao is a conventional diesel-electric submarine that set off from the Bolívar Naval Base in Cartagena, Colombia on January 20th and traveled 1,400 nautical miles, surfacing at Naval Station Mayport, in Florida, to take part in the U.S. Navy’s Diesel Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI), an international training program for anti-submarine warfare. “The main role of the ARC Pijao (S-28) is to carry out naval operations to ensure national maritime security,” Pijao’s skipper, Commander Nelson Villalba, told Diálogo. Cmdr. Villalba arrived with a crew of 42 officers and NCOs on board. “We use the element of surprise, and stealth gives us the upper hand,” Cmdr. Villalba said, discussing his submarine’s advantages when taking on adversaries. “We conduct joint operations since the submarine provides highly important intelligence information that enables the strategic deployment of other naval units, such as surface ships, air units, and troops on the ground, which neutralize the actions of armed national and international criminal groups.” The Pijao The Pijao was built in 1974 and christened in 1975. She takes her name from an pre-Hispanic indigenous Colombian tribe known for its warlike culture. It is 56 meters long, has a 6.2-meter beam, and a surface draft of 5.3 meters. It can reach a maximum operating depth of 300 meters and carry up to 14 SST-4 torpedoes. The submarine conducts naval operations with Colombian surface units, patrols the nation’s maritime borders in the Atlantic and Pacific, and participates in international operations, such as UNITAS and NATO’s Operation Morro Castle, among others. The Pijao also aids in Colombia’s crackdown on drug trafficking, especially in the detection of semisubmersibles that are used by criminal organizations to transport drugs. “In our operations, we are on the lookout for semisubmersibles or sea-going vessels that might be departing or arriving along our coasts,” Cmdr. Villalba reported. DESI The U.S. Navy created the DESI initiative in 2001 to practice and test out its submarine warfare capabilities. The program focuses specifically on the United States’ cooperation with its South American partner nations that own submarines, such as Colombia, Peru, and Chile. DESI seeks to expand to include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, France, and Germany. DESI conducts highly complex exercises that include engagement tactics, close-in operations, and weapons systems testing. “DESI provides training opportunities against a real world threat – a modern, quiet, diesel-electric submarine,” said Juan Fernández, tactical analysis director and DESI program manager for the U.S. Navy’s Commander Naval Submarine Forces, in an interview for the magazine Undersea Warfare. In the event of a real emergency, participating nations will have the training they need to be able to confront the situation through a joint task force. “We don’t have enough of our own subs to train these battle groups. Working with submarines from other countries helps us fill that gap,” explained Rick Current, deputy director for Training, Tactical Weapons, and Tactical Development for Commander Naval Submarine Forces, in Undersea Warfare. “Each nation’s participation in this program is contributing to the coalition’s effort.” For the Colombian Navy, the benefits of participating in DESI are invaluable. “It helps increase our crew’s level of training in anti-submarine warfare or tactical training in scenarios that are as lifelike as possible,” Cmdr. Villalba said. Colombia began its involvement in DESI with the Pijao in 2004. “The opportunity to do this exchange with U.S. naval units is an enriching experience because they bring nuclear submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and helicopters to the table. The exercise is quite interesting, both at sea and on land,” Cmdr. Villalba added. After two months of training, the Pijao’s crew set off for Colombia on March 26th. “Being cooped up and confined to small spaces for long periods isn’t easy,” Cmdr. Villalba acknowledged, just before slipping under the waves of the Caribbean with his “tribe,” as he refers to his crew. “You have to be a relaxed and flexible person, able to think on your feet in high-stress situations,” he explained, describing the profile of the members of his tribe. The Pijao’s tribe will return home with a new understanding of anti-submarine warfare tactics. “We’ve learned a lot and exchanged and shared a lot of experiences,” Cmdr. Villalba noted. “This has been a big boost to our Navy’s culture.”
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