The Loss of the Argentine Submarine ARA "San Juan", 15 November 2017

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1830 – Present Day The Loss of the Argentine Submarine ARA "San Juan", 15 November 2017

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    Geoffrey Brooks

      The following report, translated in its essential parts from the Spanish, appeared in the popular quality daily newspaper “Clarin” on Sunday 25 March 2018, p.16, under the authorship of Nicolas Wiñazki headed “The San Juan participated in a Mission with the entire fleet”.


      On 16 November 2017, thirty-six hours after the last contact between the submarine San Juan and Mar del Plata naval base, the Argentine Minister of Defence Oscar Aguad stated to Argentine President Macri: “I am confirming that we will not be having any further communication with the submarine. It is lost.”

      The President is said to have replied, “Oscar, we have to find her at all costs. We cannot lose a submarine.” All the same it still remains lost, but did not go missing in the way reported by the then Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral (ret’d) Marcelo Srur, to the Presidential Palace and then the population in general.

      Contrary to the official version, the submarine had not left the South Atlantic for Mar del Plata on a lone voyage. Quite the contrary. The entire Argentine fleet, heavy units, corvettes, patrol boats with tactical divers, naval aircraft and the submarine San Juan were all taking part in the country’s largest naval exercise since 1983. It was an operation involving high military risk.

      A decommissioned naval vessel, “Comodoro Somellera” had been chosen as the target for a surface attack operation using naval armaments, some of them still on the secret list, and mines placed aboard by the tactical divers. The location for this exercise was Punto Rojo, a patch of sea north of Isla de los Estados at 65º to 64º20’West and 53º30′ to 54º10’South.

      The newspaper “Clarin” was given access to Navy documents classified “confidencial” – secret – which show that far from the story given out by the highest naval authorities, the submarine did not have a mission limited to a patrol to detect illegal fishing by foreign-flag vessels, but had taken part in the major operation with freedom to shoot, according to various sources consulted, in the calculated sinking of the “Comodoro Somellera”.

      Then the submarine left northwards for the Golfo San Jorge en route to Mar del Plata, and was last heard from on 15 November.

      The Government now showed to Congress confusing documentation with many marginal notes and crossings out in the text which indicated that the submarine with its forty-four crew had entered the waters of the 200-nautical mile exclusion zone which by agreement with the United Kingdom forms the perimeter of the Falkland Islands and is forbidden for any foreign warship to enter without prior authority.


      Geoffrey Brooks

        PART TWO

        The naval Plan was scheduled to be of one month’s duration. It had been organized by Rear-Admiral Mazzeo, Admiral in charge of Recruitment and Training, an officer who appeared to most observers to be the natural successor to his superior, Admiral Srur. The mysterious disappearance of the submarine San Juan gave rise to murmurings from a cadre opposing the elevation of Rear-Admiral Mazzeo. This lobby of dissent was recognized high up in the Defence Ministry and crushed.

        In the midst of the institutional crisis caused by the loss of the submarine, Admiral Srur initiated a summary internal action against Mazzeo, accusing him of responsibility for the deaths of the forty-four crew members of the submarine. Mazzeo took the matter to law and the Defence Minister, taken aback by the accusation, demanded the resignation of Admiral Srur.

        An interesting question occurs to this writer which was not touched upon in the newspaper report. If, as we are now asked to believe, the loss of the submarine San Juan was occasioned by chlorine gas, why did Admiral Srur think at once that Rear Admiral Mazzeo’s Plan was responsible?

        According to the documentation, the submarine had set out for ports at the tip of Patagonia and there joined the remainder of the fleet. Her orders were: “Sail with effect from 27 October, carry out naval training activities integrated into anti-submarine, anti-surface ship and amphibious defensive exercises during operations to reconnoitre the maritime litoral, visiting the port of (USU) – Ushuaia – from 6 to 9 November and (DRY) – unknown – from 20 to 22 November and afterwards be involved in tactical skirmishing at Puerto Belgrano (Mar del Plata) as from 25 November.”

        The newspaper Clarin stated that according to naval and Ministry of Defence sources, at a point in her voyage the submarine San Juan had “navigated keeping a distance of five miles from the Falklands limit ‘set by the Crown’ although the much amended Government document shown to Congress stated that the submarine had entered the zone – “habría entrado en las 200 millas náuticas que de acuerdo al Reino Unido son los límites perimetrales de las Islas Malvinas”. Also unofficially, Government sources admitted that the submarine had a mission to keep an eye on Argentine waters watching out in particular for a repetition of already proven intrusions into Argentine waters to engage in illegal fishing by British flag vessels.

        As confirmed in the judicial files opened by Judge Martha Yañez into the disappearance of the submarine, on a previous patrol in the South Atlantic a difficulty had occurred involving foreign-flag vessels, some alleged to be British. As a result, the commander of the San Juan had been ordered to keep watch and attempt to obtain audiovisual proof of such illegal intrusions into the waters of Argentine jurisdiction.

        At page 4 of the “confidential” Navy document entitled “Final Stage of Specific Integrated training” great importance was attached to the involvement of the submarine: “During the development of the operation as a whole, the concept of consciousness of maritime dominion associated with permanent vigilance over, and control of, the maritime sectors of our jurisdiction is emphasized.

        So far no shred of wreckage of the submarine San Juan has been found nor even the locality where disaster struck identified.

        Malcolm Lewis

          How interesting that an exclusion zone still exists around the Falklands. Is this the 1986 UK exclusive fishing zone agreed between the UK and Argentina? I did not appreciate that UK fishing vessels still operated so far away. Surely it must be difficult for the RN to police with its limited number of warships available.
          I presume there is no suggestion the UK has had any involvement in the loss of the San Juan apart from joining the search. No doubt our nuclear subs range widely including the South Atlantic.

          Malcolm Lewis

            Oops! forgot to tick the reply box. Hope this works Sam. Thanks.

            Geoffrey Brooks

              Googling “UK Claims New Exclusive Fishing Zone Around…” which appears to emanate from the CIA, scroll down to the first map which highlights the cause of all the bitterness and discord surrounding the imposition of the UK Exclusive Fishing Zone of 1986/7 and the UK Total Exclusion Zone of 1982.

              The upper map has a marginal note “new edge of disputed area according to State 11/86” which shows the overlap of disputed areas. As measured from the Isla de los Estados, where the Argentine tactical naval exercises of November 2017 were held, it is only 200 nautical miles to the coast of West Falkland. Therefore, the 150-nautical mile UK Exclusive Fishing Zone extends at places up to 150 nautical miles into Argentine territorial waters. Whether any control agreement has been worked out between the Argentine and British Governments is not known but is on the face of it very doubtful.

              In reply to the correspondent’s question above, and speaking purely as a British observer living in Argentina, it is clear to me that Argentine television and newspapers have far greater access into Admiralty affairs and “official secrets” than could ever be the case in the United Kingdom. Watching the televised developments from home in Buenos Aires immediately after the loss of the submarine, what was announced officially was that the submarine ARA San Juan had gone missing on a lone voyage from Ushuaia to Mar del Plata. However, the involvement of President Macri at the naval base and the manner of reprimand handed down on the second or third day suggested something far more complicated. In the evenings, the subject dominated television. The various lobbies, generally made up of former naval officers and submariners, discussed the possibility, even then early on, of a fisheries protection situation arising in the disputed zones.

              Until the wreckage is found, and the actual coordinates of the disaster known, we can really still only speculate on the true cause of the loss of the ARA San Juan.

              David Hepper

                As mentioned above, it is not a military exclusion zone, rather a fishery zone – see


                Geoffrey Brooks

                  The UK Total Exclusion Zone imposed in April 1982 is 200 nautical miles in a circle from a point in the Falklands Islands. This is the military zone into which Argentine naval vessels are prohibited to enter.

                  The “UK Falkland Islands Exclusive Fishery Zone” imposed in 1986/87 is 150 nautical miles in a circle (with a minor truncated area) from a point in the Falklands Islands. It is therefore totally enclosed within the UK Total Exclusion Zone.

                  The maritime territorial limits claimed by Argentina lie 200 nautical miles from their coast and protrude into the UK military exclusion zone in some cases to the Falklands beaches.

                  Any foreign-flag fishing vessel not licensed by Argentina may not fish in the maritime territorial limits set by Argentina and in a recent case, the Argentine Navy sank a Taiwanese fishing vessel for illegal fishing within the limits. But Argentine fishery protection is limited by the military exclusion zone. The problem is the overlap of the zones. Some part of this problem would be resolved if the Total Exclusion Zone were reduced to 150 nautical miles since then Argentine fishery protection vessels would be enabled to patrol to the perimeter of the UK Falklands Exclusive Fishery Zone.

                  Malcolm Lewis

                    Thank you Geoff for this information. Good to have a member on the spot. Is it known if the Argentines were permitted to search for the San Juan inside the UK Exclusion Zone or was this done by the RN or the USN?

                    Geoffrey Brooks

                      I have not been able to find the information requested. I imagine that Argentine vessels dragging the UK Exclusion Zone “on a fishing expedition” would not have been good policy. However, this very day another long secret naval report has been published and I shall have to spend a day going over it and then summarizing it. There is also a suggestion coming up soon from the same newspaper source that the “explosion” was not the last contact with the submarine.

                      Geoffrey Brooks

                        The Argentine site with the fullest continuing information about the ARA San Juan is INFOBAE, an online daily newspaper. The report I mentioned yesterday could be found by Googling: “busqueda-ara-san-juan-infobae”. I worked copying it out last night and I find this morning that it seems to have been pulled.

                        The Ocean Infinity company which has been exploring the chart area “Juliana” mentioned below using the search and recovery ship “Seabed Constructor” has abandoned the search as from now and will resume in February. The Government does not intend to hire any other contractor.

                        The report was an analysis of confidential documents which the Argentine Navy auditor and Ministry of Defence sent to the Federal Judge overseeing the case, Marta Yáñez. By virtue of the “Order of Operations set by the Commander, Submarine Force, No.04/17 dated 24 October 2017, Mar del Plata”, the San Juan was to obtain “precise recognition of” and “localize, identify and register by photography or film” military and logistical aircraft (RAF C130) and the ships mentioned by name “BP CFL Hunter”, “HMS Clyde”, the Fisheries Protection Vessel “Protegat” as well as any others which looked interesting. This was additional to investigating foreign-flag vessels fishing “beyond the 200-mile limit”. If such vessels fled upon detection into the 200-mile limit, the question arises whether the right of hot pursuit exists in which case the submarine would have entered. Therefore military sources consulted by Infobae do not discount the possibility that in the framework of such operations the submarine might have been detected “beyond the Argentine Economic Zone” by British naval patrols. Apparently this occurred on the previous outing, though it is not known if it was reported by Capt.Fernández, and may have been the reason on this occasion why the San Juan was watched closely by a British nuclear submarine.

                        Part of the zone which had been allocated to ARA San Juan on this last voyage is marked on British charts as being prohibited for fishing to vessels not authorized by the Falklands Government and is patrolled by “British fast vessels”. The filming and photography was to take place in area “Juliana” at 46º 61’30” West to 59’30″West, and 47º50’S, 60º24’W to 62’20″W (due north of the Falklands) about half of which the United Kingdon considers as its own. It is exactly here that the “Seabed Constructor” has been concentrating until deferring the search until February.

                        It was also reported that “almost four hours after the anomalous acoustic event consistent with an explosion” after ten that morning, at 1418 hrs on 15 November 2017 three messages were heard and recorded, “very weak, noisy and with much interference” at the Mar del Plata naval base by Chief Petty Officer Espinola, Supervisor of Communications, which by their characteristics were identified as emissions from ARA San Juan. The poor quality made it impossible to understand what was being said. The entry into the signals log at the principal naval base was not authorized until 20 November. If D/F bearings were made on these transmissions, this would be the reason why the search for the wreckage is now being concentrated in area “Juliana”.

                        Geoffrey Brooks

                          The lost Argentine submarine ARA San Juan has been found today, 17 November 2018, one year and two days after its last message, by the Ocean Infiniti’s ROV on the seabed at 2600 feet. The position is off the Valdez Peninsula at 43ºS.

                          Malcolm Lewis

                            What a terrible death. Surely at this depth it would have been crushed. I doubt even a remote vehicle could operate at this depth trying to recover evidence from the crushed wreckage.

                            Geoffrey Brooks

                              It is reported that Captain Villamide sent eight signals regarding a problem with the batteries. Water had entered through the ventilation system when using the schnorchel in severe weather close to the surface. In his final message, the commander stated that the problem “caused a short circuit and started a fire in the battery balcony.”

                              The Argentine Navy reported at a Press Conference Saturday (17 November) that the submarine “imploded” leaving wreckage scattered over an area 100 x 80 metres in extent at a depth of 900 metres. The implosion would have occurred “very close to the sea bed when the pressure exceeded the resistance of the hull material”.

                              Defence Minister Aguad states that Argentina does not have the means to bring the wreckage to the surface. Contrary to the first report above, the wreckage was found 500 kilometres from Comodoro Rivadavia (but the actual bearing off the port is not stated).

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