The first indication I got that something was amiss was a Face Book post (FB); “I think we may have a boat down, not much detail, only that it is Argentinean.”
Then another submarine veteran posted a website news story detailing that the sub was on a routine mission and, traveling back from Ushuaia—a city close to the southernmost tip of South America—to the Mar del Plata naval base. Also, that the sub’s crew made contact with the navy on November 15th, reporting an “electrical breakdown,” according to Argentinean naval commander Gabriel Galeazzi. The sub had surfaced to report the problem, which Galeazzi described as a “short circuit” in the vessel’s batteries. Then it was ordered to return immediately to Mar del Plata. But according to a BBC report, the captain made contact with the naval base once more, around 7:30 a.m. local time on November 15, to say that a temporary fix had been made for the problem; the sub would submerge and travel directly to the base. However, soon after another article was posted that said it was announced that she had not been heard from since the 15 November contact.
Next, the news story broke that “Argentina’s navy has launched a huge search-and-rescue operation for a military submarine with 44 crew members that have been missing off the coast of Patagonia for more than two days.” So, it became official again, a submarine and its crew were lost at sea and the world watched and waited as the drama unfolded that hasn’t occurred since the Kursk disaster. The article went on to say “Local media reports claimed the submarine had been located 70 meters down in waters 300km east of the Patagonian coastal city of Puerto Madryn by the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office. The media reports have not been officially confirmed and came as Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, tweeted that: We are committed to using all the national and international resources that are necessary to find the Argentinean Navy’s submarine San Juan as soon as possible.”
Also, that a navy spokesman, Enrique Balbi, told local television that as there was no indication of problems from the submarine, it could not yet be termed lost.
“The latest official and reliable information is that the submarine has not yet been found. It’s not that it’s lost: to be lost you’d have to look for it – and not find it,” he said. A tracker aero plane and navy ships were scouring the area in search of the missing vessel, he said.
Then it was revealed that the sub was carrying a crew of 44 submariners. Forty-three of the crew members were male, but the sub was also carrying Eliana Maria Krawczyk, the first female submarine officer in Argentina. Krawczyk, 35, was born in the landlocked Argentine province of Misiones and joined the navy in 2004. She graduated from the country’s submarine and diving school in 2012, and her sister said that she had been aboard the ARA San Juan when it made the same trip from Ushuaia in 2016 without incident. “It is like she was born for this,” said Silvina Krawczyk. “She really likes to do what she does in the navy.” Tragically, she now has the distinction of being the first woman in history to have lost her life while serving as an active duty submariner aboard an operating submarine.
The search and rescue operation was carried out under the auspices of International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office (“ISMERLO”), an international organization of more than 40 countries set up in 2003 following the Russian Kursk submarine disaster. It consists of an international team of submarine escape and rescue experts based in Northwood, UK. The intention of ISMERLO is to establish endorsed procedures as the international standard for submarine escape and rescue using consultation and consensus among submarine-operating nations. Guidance on training and procurement as well as an inspection and monitoring service is also obtainable. As well, the organization provides online information about Submarine Escape and Rescue (SMER) in order to enable the rapid response of international rescue systems in the event of a submarine accident. The Submarine Escape and Rescue Working Group (SMERWG) cover technical and procedural issues and strive to share information and define mutually accepted standards for design and operation of SMER systems. It also provides a forum for problems and exercises to be discussed with experts in the field.
The search area for the missing submarine was 186,297 sq. miles in size, and weather conditions throughout the search and rescue period were unstable, making the task far more difficult on most days with high seas whipped up by stiff winds.
Then another FB post; “Bad news brothers, Apparently the ARA San Juan had gone to scope depth to raise the snorkel mast while in 25 ft. seas and took salt water through the snorkel and into the battery well. We all know that would make a real nasty explosion imminent, and one breath you are dead. A good thing about the situation is that no one suffered.” When seawater mixes with battery acid it produces hydrogen chloride gas which can be deadly to breath and highly explosive. And, it’s just one of the many realities that submariners live with and accept while living in an enclosed atmosphere under the sea.
And, although the submarine wasn’t one of ours (USN) the situation began to be carefully watched by the close knit international submarine community because our comradery transcends international boundaries. After all, the first enemy of all submariners is the sea and its crushing pressure at depth; it’s a threat we have all shared.
Although the U.S. main-stream news (MSN) overlooked the story early on I was able to follow the news via FB posts from other submarine friends who were monitoring various news websites for information. So soon it became clear that yes, an Argentine Navy diesel-electric submarine went missing as it was sailing from the extreme southern port of Ushuaia to the city of Mar del Plata, about 250 miles southeast of Buenos Aires.
ARA San Juan (S-42) was a TR-1700-class diesel-electric submarine in service with the Argentine Submarine Force. She was built in West Germany and entered service on 19 November 1985 and had undergone a mid-life update in the shipyard from 2008 to 2013. The submarine’s name derives from the province of San Juan; the names of all Argentine submarines begin with the letter S. The prefix ARA is the acronym of the Argentine Navy in Spanish (Armada de la República Argentina).
Soon, the MSN did pick up on the story and began to release news concerning the ongoing search and rescue mission and reported that that an Argentine navy spokesman said search teams had returned to area some 30 miles north of the sub’s last registered position, after a “hydro-acoustic anomaly” was detected by the U.S. and others. The noise occurred a few hours after final contact on November 15. But they didn’t want to speculate on what caused it and refused to confirm whether it could have been caused by an explosion. Meanwhile, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri had promised to devote all the resources required to find the ARA San Juan. Macri met with the families of the missing sailors at Mar del Plata.
As well, the United States sent four unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and two search planes to attempt to find the lost sub. A NASA research plane was flown over the search area but failed to discover anything. The UUVs used sonar imaging technology to create images of the sea floor, which could help to find the sub if it was laying on the seabed.
President Donald Trump said he had ordered the mission. “….. Not much time left. May God be with them and the people of Argentina!” said Trump. And, other countries including Russia, the U.K. and Brazil are among those that had deployed resources, ships or planes to help with the search. Officials also said that the submarine had an oxygen supply of around seven or eight days maximum. But if the sub had managed to surface during the period it has been missing, it may have been able to replenish its air supply.
On 23 November the Argentine Navy said an event consistent with an explosion had been detected, on the day the submarine lost communications by CTBTO seismic anomaly listening posts on Ascension Island and the Crozet Islands. Two CTBTO hydro-acoustic stations detected an unusual signal in the vicinity of the last known position of the missing Argentine submarine ARA San Juan.
“Hydro-acoustic stations HA10 on Ascension Island and HA04 at Crozet detected a signal from an underwater impulsive event that occurred at 13:51 GMT on 15 November. The location of the event is as follows: Event Latitude: -46.12 deg; Event Longitude: -59.69 deg which is in the vicinity of the last known location of the ARA San Juan. Details and data were made available to the Argentinean authorities to support the search operations that were underway.”
By 24 November, the search and rescue operation to find San Juan involved more than 30 aircraft and ships from Argentina, the United Kingdom, Brazil, the United States, Chile and other countries. In all, more than 4,000 personnel from 13 countries assisted the search, scouring an area the size of Spain.
Then, on 27 November, it was revealed to the press San Juan’s snorkel leaked water into the forward storage batteries which ignited a fire. After quenching the fire, the crew disconnected the forward storage batteries. The submarine continued to move powered by the aft batteries.
On 30 November, 15 days after the San Juan went missing, the Navy declared the rescue part of the operation to be over, turning its attention to finding the submarine and not her crew. The loss of 44 crewmen constitutes the largest loss of life aboard a submarine since the Russian Kursk sank on 12 August 2000. And sadly, the general consensus now is that the ARA San Juan experienced an explosion and sank, killing the entire crew shortly after her last radio contact on November 15th, 2017. This was probably the result of a battery fire caused by sea water entering the battery compartment through the leaky snorkel mast.
The loss of the ARA San Juan while on a routine transit illustrates the extreme risk that submariners undertake on a daily basis around the world whether in peacetime or at war. And why, in most countries, the Submarine Force is a strictly volunteer service whose elite members are paid an extra salary that is the equivalent of combat pay.
Additional reading and video; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/argentina-ara-san-juan-submarine-south-atlantic-oxygen-running-out/