Three hundred service members, eight ships, and two aircraft from the Argentine and Chilean navies participated from August 22nd -26th in the Viekaren XVI combined naval exercise in the Beagle Channel, located in Puerto Williams, off the southernmost tip of Chile.
Viekaren aims to train the navies’ Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) capacities through the interoperability of both, Chilean and Argentine aircraft, and the establishment of joint procedures that will allow them to respond to any possible maritime emergency in the region.
An increase in maritime traffic in the Antarctic and surrounding areas as a result of tourism, logistical support, and research ships have required the Argentine and Chilean navies to be ready for possible emergencies in the area. "That is why this exercise has a fundamental relevance that allows us to be prepared for any contingency that may occur," said Captain Patricio Espinoza, commander of the Beagle Naval District and maritime governor of Puerto Williams.
The challenge for Viekaren, the only bilateral naval exercise held at the southernmost tip of the Americas, is to improve the response capacity and coordination of the two navies by simulating mock emergency scenarios that involve, among others, humanitarian aid, naval control of maritime traffic, and maritime search and rescue. Participants also practiced combined daytime and nighttime diving and how to respond in case of marine contamination.
While "there has been no type of contamination or large ships being grounded in the Beagle Channel, we should be prepared for an occasion in which we may have to act as a combined force," said Capt. Espinoza.
Viekaren, which means "trust" in the Yagán language of the Selknam people who live in the region, has been held annually since 1999. It falls within the framework of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed by Chile and Argentina in 1984, which, among other things, establishes sovereignty and shared responsibilities in the Beagle Channel. It also promotes good bilateral relations.
The 16th version of Viekaren was led by the Chilean Navy under the leadership of Capt. Espinoza and consisted of the mock accident of a boat carrying passengers from Antarctica to Ushuaia, Argentina. "Every year we have to come up with new cases of possible emergencies, as real as possible, and we continue increasing the difficulty level," noted Capt. Espinoza.
During the five-day training, various mock emergency situations unfolded in a 1,000 square mile area of the Beagle Channel, where the crew practiced leading rescue operations and making decisions about topics ranging from the planning to the tactical level.
A combined air evacuation operation between the Chilean UH-05 naval helicopter, an Argentine tugboat, and an Argentine B-200 airplane was included in the exercise for the first time this year. The exercise included the evacuation of a mock victim in need of medical assistance from Puerto Williams, Chile, to Ushuaia. "This required a good amount of coordination and joint procedures, so we were able to increase the capacity to interoperate between the two crews even more," said Captain Gabriel Galeazzi, chief of staff of the Southern Naval Area of Argentina.
This year, the Argentine Navy included a Beechcraft B-200 maritime exploration aircraft in the exercise. Chile, meanwhile, deployed a PSG-73 Isaza General Service Patrol Vessel, the Alacalufe LSG-1603 and Hallef LSG-1604 general service boats, among others.
Participants also trained to improve their SAR capacities during the deployment and creation of barriers against pollution, fire and flooding of a vessel, as well as combined nighttime diving by the Rescue Diving Unit of the Beagle Naval District and the Southern Naval District.
"We have demonstrated that we are capable of operating with no problem, that we know each other, and that with all these years of experience, we have been able to improve our procedures and standardize our operability," said Capt. Espinoza.
"We completed everything we had planned, and we finished up with zero injuries and zero damage to the units," added Capt. Galeazzi.
Next year, Argentina will lead the Viekaren exercise, and Capt. Galeazzi anticipates that to increase the complexity of the training they will simulate a cruise ship accident, which would involve a greater number of people and a larger ship. "We have to be prepared for any emergency scenario," he concluded.