Despite a String of False Reports, Time Is Running Out To Find Missing Argentine Sub

Satellite phone calls, mysterious sounds, heat plumes, flares, and more have been unrelated to the missing sub.

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More than a dozen ships and over a dozen more aircraft from ten different countries are still busily searching the South Atlantic off the coast of Argentina for any sign of the Argentine Navy’s Santa Cruz-class submarine ARA San Juan. A steady stream of possible leads, including possible satellite phone calls, unknown underwater sounds, a infrared "spot," distress flares, and more, have provided only false hope and the boats 44 crew members are now likely on the verge of running out of air.

Argentinean authorities last had contact with San Juan on Nov. 15, 2017. Since then, a growing armada of military and civilian rescuers, including warships, survey vessels, and specialized rescue ships, have been scouring the seas while submarine hunting and maritime patrol aircraft, as well as scientific research planes, have flown overhead. If the submarine has indeed become stranded underwater and has not been able to replenish its air supply, the sailors on board could begin to tragically suffocate to death as early as Oct. 22, 2017.

“This phase of search and rescue is critical,” Argentine Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said on Nov. 21, 2017, according to CNN. “This is why we are deploying all resources with high-tech sensors. We welcome the help we have received to find them.”

Argentina MoD

An official infographic from Argentina's Ministry of Defense detailing the search area and the multi-national force looking for ARA San Juan as of Nov. 20, 2017.

The U.S. military in particular has surged specialized support assets into the region. Since Nov. 19, 2017, U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III and C-5M Galaxy cargo aircraft have flown 26 sorties to the region and deployed approximately 830,000 pounds of equipment, as well as more than 80 passengers, including members of the U.S. Navy’s Undersea Rescue Command, Navy Times reported. The cargo has included unmanned underwater vehicles to help expand the area rescuers can search at any one time and the Submarine Rescue Chamber, which American personnel could use to rescue the trapped sailors and get them safely to the surface.

The U.S. Navy underwater drone in question are the Bluefin-12D, a modular design that can carry various sensor packages, such as sonars and video cameras. These are similar to the Bluefin-21s that took part in the search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in the Pacific in 2014.

On Nov. 22, 2017, the U.K. Royal Navy announced it had sent elite Submarine Parachute Assistance Group (SPAG) to Argentina, as well. The unit can be ready to deploy within six hours and is trained to make parachute jumps right into the water above a stricken submarine, along with small boats and other equipment, to recover and provide first aid to sailors escaping from below.

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A member of the Royal Navy's SPAG jumps into the Bay of Gibraltar during a training exercise.

This is particularly notable, since the two countries fought a brief war in 1982 over control of the Falkland Islands, which the Argentinians refer to as the Malvinas. Though U.K. authorities continue to claim ownership of and administer the islands and their British inhabitants, the formal dispute persists to this day and continues to major source of diplomatic friction. The two have clearly been able to put aside their differences in light of the situation.

Rough seas, cold weather, and a broad search area have already made the response effort more complicated. “The search area is two times the size of Buenos Aires,” the Argentine Navy spokesman Balbi said, referring to the country’s capital city, which occupies an area of approximately 78 square miles.

There have been some glimmers of hope, but all have unfortunately turned out to be false alarms, so far. On Nov. 20, 2017, it became clear that earlier reports of unusual underwater noises and possible satellite phone calls were not from the San Juan

Then, on Nov. 21, 2017, the Argentine Navy tempered reports about the possible sighting of white distress flares by noting that the submarine would only have been carrying red and green ones. Ships and aircraft had previously spotted rafts and other debris and a U.S. Navy P-8 patrol plane detected a "heat stain," but these potential leads similarly proved to have no link to the sub.

The exact state of the San Juan also remains entirely unknown, though Argentinean authorities have denied initial reports that the submarine had suffered a fire. The boat’s captain had reported an apparent short circuit in the electrical system and a possible battery failure, before all communication stopped.

Even without power, there are ways the crew may have been able to get more air, though. If the submarine has been able to maintain a position close enough to the surface it might be able to manually extend its snorkel and at least replenish the on board oxygen supply.

"The seven days [until they run out of air] is not dogmatic,” Argentine Navy spokesman Balbi acknowledged, according to the Associated Press. “It varies according to the circumstances.”

Martín Otero via Wikimedia

ARA San Juan and her sister ship ARA Santa Cruz at the Mar Del Plata Naval Base in 2007.

Still, a boat-wide loss of power might explain why the ship has not been able to activate any emergency transponders or other electronic signally equipment since it went missing. One would imagine that those types systems would have separate backup power supplies, though, raising the possibility of further break downs after San Juani left port. We have no way of knowing at this point, though, and the boat could have suffered one or more entirely accidental, but catastrophic failures.

Argentina’s submarine force is small, with just three boats in total. The country’s economic crisis in the 1980s prompted the government to scrap plans to buy a total of six of the German-designed Santa Cruz-class submarines, also known as TR-1700s, even with the other four already in production. The Argentine Navy picked two of those apart for spare parts, while the other pair languished, half-finished. In 2010, the Argentine government conducted a study and found it would take approximately $60 million to finish the semi-complete Santa Fe, but does not appear to have acted on that proposal.

But unless the San Juan’s crew has been able to surface or put some portion of the boat above water, the window for a successful rescue is still closing. Experts have suggest that the submarine will almost certainly have run out of oxygen by the 10th day. The big question then will be how long to continue to look for the boat at all and how many countries, Argentina included, would be interested in expending the time and resources to continuing the search and to what degree. 

So, for now, the search continues. We will be sure to update this story or otherwise follow-up if, and when new information becomes available.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com