The disappearance of the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan and her 44 crew on Nov. 15 is the most serious incident for the country’s armed forces in decades. And one glimmer of hope — a series of satellite signals thought to have been sent from a crew member — turned out to be mistaken.
A search and rescue mission involving aircraft and 13 ships from seven countries includes the Argentine destroyer ARA Sarandi, the corvettes ARA Rosales and ARA Drummond, the British ice patrol vessel HMS Protector with Royal Navy submarine rescue specialists, and the offshore patrol vessel HMS Clyde routed from South Georgia. Fearing the worst, the U.S. Navy has sent a submersible rescue chamber, or SRC, which is designed to attach to a stricken submarine as it’s underwater and save the crew.
Argentine navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said it’s not known “exactly what happened” to the missing vessel.
Possible scenarios include a loss of communications, engine failure or — catastrophically — a fire or explosion.
The 216-foot-long diesel-electric San Juan is the second of two TR-1700-class attack submarines German shipbuilder Nordseewerke built for Argentina beginning in the late 1970s. She has a maximum speed of 25 knots submerged and 15 knots on the surface, and possesses 22 torpedoes capable of launching from six 21-inch torpedo tubes located in her bow.
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She can stay submerged for up to 70 days if close enough to the surface to snorkel, and has enough supplies aboard to last nearly a month.
If resting on the sea floor, the crew only have enough oxygen to last several days.
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San Juan like her sister arrived too late for the Falklands War in 1982. In fact, the construction program hindered the war effort by sending the most experienced Argentine submariners to Europe to assist the TR-1700’s development.
The inexperienced crews of the World War II-era submarines ARA San Luis and ARA Santa Fe fought in the war. However, the British sank Santa Fe at South Georgia. San Luis tried in vain to sink British warships but was unsuccessful due to crew mishaps and technical problems with her wire-guided torpedoes. “These factors point to a ship [San Luis] that was operationally unready to fight a war,” U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clinton Cragg wrote in a 1991 report for the Naval War College.
San Juan entered service in November 1985. Cragg went on to describe the TR-1700 as “impressive,” noting its 12,000-nautical-mile range and 890-foot maximum depth as representing a “formidable ocean going threat.” During the mid-1980s, U.S. government literature referred to the TR-1700 as the most advanced non-nuclear submarine anywhere in the world.
The San Jorge Gulf off Argentina’s eastern gulf, near San Juan’s last known location, is shallower than her maximum operating depth.
“Numerous overt (and possibly) covert attempts were made to gather intelligence on this generation submarine while it was on sea trials and in transit to Argentina,” Cragg noted.
The sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the war by the British submarine HMS Conqueror was another wake-up call for the Argentine navy. Massive inflation — already a problem before the conflict — continued, and anti-military sentiment after the defeat in the Falklands helped pummel the defense budget.
The TR-1700 program was a rare survivor of this contraction, a testament to the importance of submarines in Argentina’s doctrine at the time, although four more planned TR-1700s were scrapped during construction.
“The submarine, viewed as a luxury item in the seventies, was now considered as an essential element in Argentina’s security,” Cragg added. “The submarine came to be viewed as a cost effective avenue to carry out the mission of the state.”
Argentina has continued investing resources in its submarine fleet — retrofitting San Juan from 2008 to 2013 — as its surface fleet declined and experienced several serious incidents and mishaps.
In 2007, the a fire knocked the icebreaker ARA Almirante Irízar out of commission until April 2017. In 2012, Ghana briefly held the Argentine navy’s masted training ship ARA Libertad over a dispute with one of Argentina’s creditors. The same year, the corvette ARA Espora’sgenerators quit while docked in South Africa and the German shipbuilder refused to fix them due to lack of pay.
In 2014, San Juan’s sister ship, Santa Cruz, ran aground — exposing its rotted-out hull — and Argentina’s third submarine, the the 1973 vintage ARA Salta, recklessly surfaced in the midst of a youth sailing competition. In December 2015, the destroyer ARA Santisima Trinidad keeled over in port and sank. She had been out of service for years due to a lack of maintenance and spare parts.
San Juan’s retrofit included replacing the diesel-electric engines, batteries, and the navigation radar. However, ongoing economic problems and budget shortfalls contributed to the upgrade dragging on twice as long as originally scheduled. The Argentine military is in effect a jobs program, with a disproportionate amount of funding spent on personnel.