Armed Forces Unite to Find Missing Argentine Submarine

More than 50 naval and air assets from 12 countries search for the ARA San Juan
Eduardo Szklarz/Diálogo | 27 November 2017

Troops from the Argentine Navy participate in an international mega-operation to search for the ARA San Juan submarine in the South Atlantic. (Photo: Argentine Navy)

An unprecedented international mega-operation searches for the Argentine Navy's ARA San Juan submarine, which lost contact with base November 15th, with 44 people on board. Eleven countries joined the Argentine patrol in the area of operations: Germany, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the United States, France, Italy, Norway, Peru, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

The Norwegian construction support vessel Skandi Patagonia gets underway with Argentine officials and Undersea Rescue Command sailors and equipment heading for the search area of the submarine ARA San Juan. (Photo: U.S. Navy Lt. Karl Schonberg)

“With international support, we have the best technologies available for vessels and aircraft that participate in the search,” Captain Enrique Balbí, Argentine Navy spokesperson, told Diálogo on November 21st. “The effort is ongoing 24 hours a day, and there are more than one aircraft assigned to a search area at the same time,” he said.

The ARA San Juan, a 66-meter long German-made TR-1700 submarine with diesel-electric propulsion, left Ushuaia Naval Base on November 13th for Mar del Plata Naval Base. According to Capt. Balbí, the vessel navigated in an open stretch and “at some point, communication stopped.” Its final radio transmission was November 15th, near San Jorge Gulf, 240 nautical miles (432 kilometers) off the Argentine coast.

The Argentine Navy activated a protocol to force the link of all the submarine's communications systems and delimited a 482,000 square-kilometer search area—nearly equivalent to the size of Spain. During the first few days in the heart of the South Atlantic, Argentine and international rescue workers faced strong winds and waves over six meters high. The improvement of weather conditions on November 21st—after six days of combing the waters—restored hope to the international force and the crew’s relatives.

Brazil joins the efforts

“We currently have two vessels working in the search area: the [Admiral] Maximiano Icebreaker and the Rademaker Frigate,” Brazilian Navy Commander Christian Hingst, commander of the Tapajó submarine, told Diálogo on November 22nd. “Along with vessels from the other countries, these ships rotate in the search procedures at the request of the Argentine Navy, trying to establish contact with the submarine,” said Cmdr. Hingst. “As a military vessel, the submarine is designed to hide, which complicates its search.”

The Brazilian Navy also sent the NSS Felinto Perry, a vessel specialized in rescue of submersibles. “We hope to use it in the next stage of the operation, after contact is made with the submarine,” explained Cmdr. Hingst. “The Felinto will be essential because it has the necessary equipment for the rescue, such as a hyperbaric chamber [which supplies pure oxygen] for the victims.”

Cutting-edge technology from the United States

More than 50 foreign and domestic vehicles, ships, and aircraft participate in the operation. These include a NASA P-3 Orion airplane and a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon—both equipped with submarine-detection systems. A sound the Argentine Navy captured was analyzed with the help of the P-8. It was eventually concluded that it was not from the submarine. “It may have been a biological noise,” Capt. Balbí told the press.

The Brazilian Navy Admiral Maximiano Icebreaker helps in the search for the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan. (Photo: Brazilian Navy)

U.S. Southern Command directed the deployment of U.S. Navy P-8A aircraft, underwater rescue equipment and associated personnel to Argentina to support international efforts to locate the missing Argentine Navy submarine ARA San Juan in Southern Atlantic waters,” U.S. Southern Command said in a press release. In addition, the U.S. Navy sent unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) to support the international effort. The Unmanned Undersea Vehicle Squadron 1, based in Keyport, Washington, operates the Bluefin 12D UUV and three Iver 580 UUV.

“During the P-8’s return flight, white flares were spotted. An investigation concluded they did not come from the ARA San Juan Submarine either,” the Argentine Navy reported in a press release. Meanwhile, members of the U.S. Navy Undersea Rescue Command (URC) set off from the port of Comodoro Rivadavia aboard the support vessel Skandi Patagonia, a Norwegian flag ship. Chartered by the oil company Total, the vessel was converted into a “mothership” for the U.S. sailors' rescue capsule.

The United States also sent a Lockheed C-5—its Air Force's largest military plane used for logistics transport—and two independent rescue assets of the Navy URC, the Submarine Rescue Chamber (SRC) and underwater intervention Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). Also joining the effort: the British C-130 Hercules transport plane, a Uruguayan Navy Beechcraft B-200 patrol aircraft, and a Chilean Navy C-295 turboprop equipped with an information processing system, among other resources.

Probable explosion

On November 22nd, Capt. Balbí informed the press that a “hydroacoustic anomaly” had been detected on the morning of November 15th consistent with the submarine's last known position—some 30 miles to the north, on the way to Mar del Plata. Argentine vessels were immediately sent to the area with sensors to evaluate the nature of the sound, along with the U.S. P-8 Poseidon and a Brazilian Air Force P-3AM airplane. “This way, with three different means, we are going to see about this sign,” Capt. Balbí told reporters.

On the morning of November 23rd, the Argentine Navy confirmed for the first time that there was a “violent event consistent with an explosion.” A report from the Argentine ambassador to Austria, Rafael Grossi, and a detailed analysis from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization supported the information. The organization, headquartered in Vienna, has a network of seismic and hydroacoustic stations to monitor nuclear tests.

According to the report, “an abnormal, singular, short, violent and non-nuclear event, consistent with an explosion,” took place on November 15th. The document confirmed the “hydroacoustic anomaly” the U.S. Navy detected the previous day.

Despite the explosion hypothesis, the international search continued against the clock. "As sailors, we have a sense of solidarity and concern for our Argentine sister navy, with whom we have close ties and participate in various joint exercises," said Cmdr. Hingst. "We do not lose hope. We envision at all times that the submarine will be found, that the crew will be in good health, and that the rescue will happen."

“We're working hand-in-hand with the international community to support Argentina's search for the ARA San Juan,” U.S. Navy Lieutenant Lyndsi Gutierrez, of U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/4th Fleet Public Affairs Augment team, told Diálogo. “We're committed to helping our Argentine partners in any way we can and to assist the country in its ongoing search for the missing Argentine submarine. The role of U.S. military forces during this mission is to rapidly respond with critically-needed capabilities to deliver assistance and aid to areas the government of Argentina deems most necessary.”

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