Search Continues for Missing Argentine Sub—Time Growing Short

November 21, 2017 Updated: November 21, 2017    

The search continues on Nov. 21 for an Argentine submarine which has been missing since Nov. 15.

Improved sea conditions are making the search easier, and the number of search craft deployed has since tripled. Experts estimate that the crew has enough oxygen for two or three more days.

“Today is a critical day,” Maria Victoria Morales, the mother of an electrical technician aboard the vessel, told Reuters. “We are holding up as well as we can.”

Argentine naval commander Captain Gabriel Galeazzi, told reporters, “We have tripled the search effort, both on the surface and underwater with ten airplanes; we have 11 ships from the Argentine navy, from municipalities, and from countries that have collaborated with research ships such as Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Peru, the United States, and England.”

“These ships are following the submarine’s planned route, (and are) sweeping the whole area and we also have navy ships sweeping from north to south and from south to north,” he added.

Seas with waves of over 20 feet hampered search efforts over the weekend. The weather has since calmed, making it easier for searchers.

“We trust that the boats assigned to each zone can do an effective maritime patrol, and will not be struggling against the storm as they were in recent days,” Navy spokesman Enrique Balbi said, Reuters reported on Nov. 20.

The Argentine Navy tweeted a video of how rough the seas were during the search: “We share with you more images about the storm that the affected units are heading to the search and rescue operation of #SubmarinoARASanJuan.”

Argentine President Mauricio Macri is working with Naval command to make all resources ready and available.

“I was at the base of Mar del Plata to accompany and offer my full support to the families of the crew of the submarine ARA San Juan in these difficult times,” he tweeted on Nov. 20. “We continue to deploy all available national and international resources to find them as soon as possible.”

Electrical Malfunction

The missing ARA San Juan, a 217-foot-long TR-1700 class diesel-powered German-built submarine with a crew of 44, was built in 1983 and fully retrofitted between 2007 and 2014 to extend its life by another three decades. It is the most up-to-date submarine in the Argentine navy.

According to Captain Galeazzi, the San Juan’s captain reported a short-circuit in its main battery packs on Nov. 15.

“The submarine surfaced and reported a malfunction, which is why its ground command ordered it to return to its naval base at Mar del Plata,” he told Reuters. “A warship has a lot of backup systems, to allow it to move from one to another when there is a breakdown,” he added.

Captain Gabriel Galeazzi walks after speaking with journalists at Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 19, 2017. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images)
Captain Gabriel Galeazzi walks after speaking with journalists at Argentina’s Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 19, 2017. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images)

Navy spokesman Balbi said that the ARA San Juan contacted the naval base once more, at 10:30 a.m. GMT on Nov. 15, after reporting the mechanical problem, BBC reported.

Argentine navy protocol orders submarines to check in twice daily during peacetime operations. When the San Juan did not make its second call, the alarm was raised.

The San Juan was returning from a mission near Ushuaia in Argentina’s extreme south to its base at Mar del Plata when it sent its last signal. The sub was about 300 miles from port.

The ARA San Juan (S-42) (nuestromar.com)
The ARA San Juan (S-42) (nuestromar.com)

A Week’s Worth of Air

The San Juan should have had at least one week’s worth of oxygen on board—possibly enough for ten days. That means the crew could run out of air by Nov. 22, in the “worst-case scenario,” spokesman Balbi said.

Depending on weather conditions and the sub’s mechanical conditions, the San Juan could raise a snorkel “to charge batteries and draw fresh air for the crew.” The diesel engines recharge the batteries but draw air from the sub, so they are not usually run while the sub is submerged without a snorkel.

“This phase of search and rescue is critical,” Balbi emphasized. “This is why we are deploying all resources with high-tech sensors. We welcome the help we have received to find them.”

The ARA san Juan’s sister sub, the S-31 ARA Salta. (en.wikipedia.org)
The ARA san Juan’s sister sub, the S-31 ARA Salta. (en.wikipedia.org)

Hardest Possible Search

A submarine is designed to be stealthy, to move undetected beneath the waves, producing a minimal sonar signature.

A damaged sub is similar. With limited power and oxygen, the sub’s commander would shut down all nonessential equipment and crew movement.

Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, in Australia, told CNN that if you’re sitting at the bottom of the ocean, “you’re probably not making a lot of noise. You can’t recharge oxygen, can’t run too much equipment.”

Sonar is only really effective when you’re looking for a sub “between the sea floor and the surface,” he added.

“What you need is something that maps the sea floor,” similar to the side-scanning sonar used in the search for the wreckage of Malaysia Air Flight MH370, he said.

A lot depends on the depth at which the sub sank. Layton said a sub of the San Juan’s construction can withstand the pressure of up to about 2000 feet. If the sub went down on the continental shelf, the sub should be fine. If it sank in deeper waters, its hull might have collapsed.

 

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