The Cable

Five Questions About the Missing Argentine Submarine

Despite a large international search effort, time is running out for the crew.

The now-missing ARA San Juan submarine in Buenos Aires on May 23, 2014. (Alejandro Moritz/AFP/Getty Images)
The now-missing ARA San Juan submarine in Buenos Aires on May 23, 2014. (Alejandro Moritz/AFP/Getty Images)

A coalition of international forces is frantically searching for Argentina’s ARA San Juan submarine and its 44 crew members, who have not made contact since Nov. 15. The diesel-electric submarine was patrolling off the coast of Patagonia when it reported a fault in its electrical system, according to Argentina’s navy.

In the week since the ARA San Juan went missing, hopes have been raised and dashed by a false alarm that sounds from the submarine might have been heard by the search party as well as a debunked notion that the crew had made calls with an Iridium satellite phone after Nov. 15. A Daily Mail story Wednesday said the U.S. Navy had located the San Juan, but that story’s claim was entirely false, according to U.S. Navy Cmdr. Erik Reynolds, a public affairs officer for the Fourth Fleet.

Here are five questions that address some of what is known about the missing submarine and the search.

What was the submarine doing when it was lost?

Knowing what the submarine was doing and where it was when it lost contact is the key data point from which the search area is determined, according to Richard Bryant, former commander of the USS Miami. There has been a “lack of transparency” on the Argentine government’s part in describing what the vessel was doing, he told Foreign Policy, though he emphasized he was not suggesting “anything nefarious” was occurring.

Instead it might reflect that the government in Buenos Aires was unprepared for dealing with a lost submarine, which is relatively rare in the modern era. Argentina “has never really had to deal with anything like this before,” he said. “Maybe they weren’t really ready for this.”

Clues to the submarine’s operations may be found in the Argentina’s recent history. Last year, its coast guard sank a Chinese ship it claimed was fishing illegally in its territorial waters, BBC News reported. In 2012, Argentina captured two Chinese vessels it claimed were fishing in its exclusive economic zone, according to that report.

Who is participating in the search?

An international search effort is underway including ships from the United States, United Kingdom, Brazil, and Chile as others search for signs of the sub from the sky.

Among the ships is the United Kingdom’s HMS Protector, an ice patrol ship. The United Kingdom’s participation is particularly striking. Argentina’s relationship with the U.K. has has been strained since the 1982 Falklands War, which pitted the two countries against each other over disputed territory in the South Atlantic. British assistance in the search for the submarine marks a significant breakthrough

“The Argentineans will not forget this,” said Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American studies program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. British assistance “is going to increase the warmth in the relationship” between the two countries, he told FP.

What are rescuers using in the search?

The Department of Defense on Tuesday said the U.S. Navy had sent unmanned underwater vehicles, aircraft, and equipment specially designed for submarine search and rescue.

Underwater submersible devices exist that can attach to the a escape hatch of a submarine and listen for morse code tapped from the submarine on U.S. vessels to coordinate opening the hatch, Bryant said. But without that close proximity, listening for distant morse code in a deep ocean full of noise from marine life and other vessels is extremely difficult.

“It’s not like you can tap on the hull and they’ll hear it 100 miles away,” Bryant said.

Distant sounds heard by search vessels brought initial hope that the ARA San Juan might be located, but Argentina’s navy spokesman later said the noise was unlikely to be coming from the submarine.

How do rescuers know where to search?

Search parties have to conduct an exhaustive linear search akin to mowing a lawn, but there’s “the tyranny of time” and the ARA San Juan is relatively small submarine to find compared to some U.S. vessels, Bryant said.

It is still unknown whether the submarine is afloat, navigating underwater, or on the ocean floor. If the vessel has lost its propulsion capabilities, underwater currents could batter it around the seabed. And rescue teams have contended with heavy winds and large ocean waves, trying to search systematically for a relatively small submarine that might itself be changing positions under its own propulsion or at the mercy of the current.

Large waves have plagued rescue efforts and would also hinder the submarine’s ability to “snorkel” at surface level if it is still afloat, Bryant said. Weather can interfere with rescue crews’ ability to see debris, trash, or bodies, and “would make that stuff disperse” making the search difficult “even in daylight hours,” he said.

How long can the crew of the submarine survive?

The search for the submarine is a fight against time. Managing carbon dioxide levels when submerged pose another risk, and even a functioning battery can only operate for so long.

If the San Juan can stay snorkeling on the surface, it had 90 days worth of food and fuel, the spokesman for Argentina’s navy said.  The sub has enough oxygen for roughly a week continuously underwater.

Contact was lost one week ago.

“The longer time goes by without any indications of the submarine,” Bryant told FP, “the harder it becomes to try to locate it.”

John Kester is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter.

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