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Op-Ed: A missing submarine is every navy’s concern

Argentine Navy

On Thursday afternoon, the Argentine Navy announced the mission to find the missing submarine ARA San Juan would no longer be considered a rescue mission, but the military would not terminate the search for the submarine that has been missing since Nov. 15. The San Juan rescue effort stretched for 15 days, more than double the number of days the crew of 44 would have been expected to survive under ideal conditions during the emergency.  

The mission to find the San Juan was an international affair, with at least 13 nations providing personnel or equipment to assist Argentina. However, the rescue effort would be hampered by a very large search area that covered 186,000 square miles and rough weather that produced 22-foot waves, preventing ships and aircraft from maximizing their efforts. With new evidence and timeline provided by the Argentine Navy, it appears the search was in vain, as the ARA San Juan suffered a catastrophic casualty that caused the submarine to sink below crush depth and imploded. According to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization, its sensors detected “an underwater impulsive event” that most likely was the collapsing of the San Juan’s hull on Nov. 15.

There are nearly 450 submarines serving 40 navies around the world, and while submarine duty is inherently dangerous, losing a submarine during peacetime training is extremely rare. With the loss of the ARA San Juan, it is not just the Argentine Navy who is grieving – it is submariners around the world. The uniqueness of the duty creates a bond that transcends national boundaries.

Since 2000, there have only been a few instances where a submarine crew has been lost. In 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk sank during a naval exercise in the Barents Sea. And in bizarre incident in 2003, the 70 crew members of a Chinese submarine were lost when a malfunction with the boat’s diesel engine removed all the oxygen from the submerged submarine during an exercise in the Bohai Sea. The boat continued to make way for 10 days with its dead crew, before a Chinese fisherman noticed the extended periscope. The submarine was eventually towed to port.

The American Navy has not lost a submarine at sea since USS Scorpion was lost in 1968, resulting in the death of 99 sailors. Just five years earlier, in 1963, the USS Thresher sank during sea trials, taking 129 sailors and shipyard workers down with her. The loss of Scorpion is still a mystery, despite a host of theories that range from an accidental torpedo activation, flooding through the trash disposal unit and even an attack from a Soviet sub. Thresher suffered a flooding event during a dive to test depth and was not able to recover from the casualty. For several hours in 2007, however, the Navy had thought another sub had been lost when USS San Juan missed a scheduled communication window during an exercise off Florida. A search-and-rescue mission was being organized and the Navy had begun to notify family members that the submarine was indeed missing. When the submarine did check in 12 hours after missing its communications window, no problems were reported, and the crew was entirely unaware that the Navy was mobilizing to find them.

The navies that operate submarines are not always prepared to deal with a potential submarine disaster. A very unpleasant reality exists that any nation that operates a submarine may one day be forced to search for a missing submarine and as such must be prepared. NATO regularly conducts submarine rescue exercises, and while these events are useful, they do not represent the true difficulty of having to locate the missing submarine and then deliver the proper resources to effect a rescue within the strict time restrictions a stricken crew will face.

Another complicating factor is the water depth and the accessibility of most rescue systems. When the Kursk went down, it was in less than 300 feet of water. The area where the ARA San Juan is believed to have sunk can be as deep as 9,000 feet. When I was in the submarine service, the old joke was that escape trunks and life rafts were for mom and Congress, because despite training to exit and to be rescued, the truth was that in most situations, there was no getting out.  

That is the bond submariners share.

Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.

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