The Argentine and Chilean navies Combined Antarctic Naval Patrol (PANC, per its Spanish acronym) had a last-minute change to support the international search operations for the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan. PANC began its mission November 15th, the same day the submarine lost contact with its base.
The 2017-2018 edition of PANC, whose operations will end March 31st, 2018, included the ARA Islas Malvinas from the Argentine Navy and two Chilean Navy ships. The ARA Islas Malvinas was conducting the initial phase of PANC when it was ordered back from Antarctica to join the ARA San Juan search-and-rescue operations.
The submarine ARA San Juan lost contact November 15th. In all, 18 nations joined the search operation in the area. On November 30th, the Argentine Navy called off the rescue mission for the 44 crewmembers aboard. According to a report from the Argentine Navy, “The operation extended more than twice the number of days estimated to rescue the crew.” However, the search for the missing submarine continues.
Guardians of the Antarctic
In its 20th edition, PANC’s mission is to protect Antarctic waters and the region's environment, as in case of water pollution due to accidents. The patrol also helps ships in distress and carries out sea search-and-rescue operations. The increase in maritime traffic—cruise ships, fishing vessels, and scientific groups, among others—makes this mission essential.
“Summertime tourism increased tremendously, and we provide monitoring and assistance if help is needed,” said Chilean Navy Lieutenant Commander José Peñaranda Pedemonte, captain of the ATF Lautaro. “In the event of some disaster, for example, if a ship becomes grounded or sinks, or if there’s a fuel spill.”
According to the Chilean Navy, during PANC 2016-2017, Chilean vessels covered more than 9,000 nautical miles, supported 20 bases and refuges in Antarctic territory, and monitored 147 ships and yachts. “Very recently, we’ve had some accidents involving foreign ships in Antarctic waters,” Rear Admiral Ivo Brito Sánchez, commander in chief of the Chilean Navy’s Third Naval Zone, told Diálogo. “Our ships were able to assist right away and support people with first response, the most important task, and mitigate the effects of pollution afterward.”
Alternating combined mission
PANC is conducted in four stages. The navies alternate their patrols, with each in charge of two shifts.
In its 20th edition, the operation planned the initial ALFA phase, November 15th–December 18th, 2017, under the ARA Islas Malvinas, while undertaking phase BRAVO with the Chilean Navy ship ATF Lautaro until January 22nd, 2018. After that, the ARA Islas Malvinas was to lead phase CHARLIE until February 26th, and Chilean ship ATF Galvarino would lead phase DELTA until the end of PANC.
The Chilean Navy transport ship AP-41 Aquiles took over PANC’s initial phase as the ARA Isla Malvinas interrupted its participation. According to the Chilean Navy, the AP-46 Viel also joined the ALPHA phase on December 4th. At the time of publication, it was not known whether the Argentine Navy would return for phase CHARLIE.
“One of PANC’s main functions for Argentina is to protect human life at sea and provide assistance when required,” Rear Adm. Brito said. “And at the same time mitigating the effects of a possible marine contamination from an accident.”
PANC’s origins date back to 1998, when the Chilean and Argentine navies signed an agreement for alternating patrols in the nations’ Antarctic areas south of the 60th parallel, between the 10th and 131st meridians. The execution of PANC depends on the Argentine Navy’s Southern Naval Area and the Chilean Navy’s Third Naval Zone. The commands carry out the joint mission each austral summer. The 20th edition is the first to be altered.
Cooperation between the navies in a zone with extreme climate conditions has been a success. “It’s been fantastic, because, as in all things done for a long time, there has been an ongoing maturation in the combined work we do,” Lt. Cmdr. Peñaranda said. “Today, we absolutely speak a common language when referring to Antarctica: from operational issues, procedures we follow, the way we operate, to the understanding we have between the two navies.”
In addition to the Argentine Navy ship’s sudden return, PANC 2017-2018 faces the adoption of a new international safety code that went into effect January 1st, 2017, for ships operating in polar waters. The International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code covers all operations in Arctic and Antarctic waters, including operational issues for ships and equipment, search-and-rescue, and the protection of ecosystems.
“[The Code] is rather strict about all technical conditions and environmental regulations that must be met, both for ships and operators working in Antarctica,” Lt. Cmdr. Peñaranda concluded. “[Our] challenge is to bring our capacities up to date to be able to supervise and provide assistance under those same terms.”