These things are never easy for me and for my Brothers of the ‘Fin. You try to be stoic about it, but really, the idea of fellow submariners trapped under the waves is something that I certainly have nightmares about.
I don’t want to get ahead of things, and news stories such as the missing Argentinean Submarine, ARA San Juan, can move very quickly. Almost as soon as something is said, it is outdated by new information or is confirmed to be something not related. Given those parameters, and because I have been asked to comment, these are my thoughts. They are grim, but not completely without hope.
(1) They are on the bottom. This actually should be obvious, given that if they could have surfaced, they would have. The question as to where that bottom is and how deep it is as yet have no answers. But the ARA San Juan has sunk.
(2) There were reports of electrical problems. In fact, the reports are what officially prompted the Argentine Navy to order her back to base. There are spurious reports that she had an electrical fire and/or short circuit, but these are unconfirmed and more importantly, not verifiable at all until the submarine is found. Presuming she was submerged when it happened, how would her command know about it if she had not surfaced or contacted them since?
(3) There are reports today (11/21/2017) that she is nearing the end of her seven day air supply. This is a false hope. It is highly unlikely that she was 100% charged when the incident happened. How full her air banks were is obviously unknown, but it was unlikely to be at a full charge, given that she was most likely already travelling submerged due to the high sea state. While she could have snorkeled to recharge batteries and air, how likely is that?
(4) Even if she were at 100%, there are things that can be done to extend the air supply. Again how far they could stretch the air would be a combination of available materials and crew training. Seven days would be the theoretical limit, but it’s possibly to go beyond that time limit.
(5) The ship is powerless. The failure to use any equipment to communicate or make her presence known indicates a complete loss of the ability to operate her electrical equipment. (Stay with me here) If she could make noise, she would. Running her engines or using her active sonar or whatever. In trouble, she would want to attract attention.
(6) The crew is most likely incapacitated. Again, if they were not, they would be banging on the hull, releasing oil or debris, or even attempting an escape. They haven’t done so, which points to an inability to take any action.
(7) There is little support available in the South Atlantic. Unlike the Northern oceans, there is little need to monitor Soviet boats, so there are not a lot of hydrophone or SOSUS arrays in place. There are scientific sound gathering systems, but the time needed to assimilate their data will be too much. It may eventually help in the final search to locate the wreck.
(8) Whatever happened, happened fast. I can postulate several scenarios, from flooding while attempting to snorkel in heavy weather, to shorting in the battery due to flooding, to chlorine gas buildup to loss of propulsion while flooding to an electrical fire (which again, seems unlikely to me as I believe that they would have surfaced) to a hydraulic failure and jammed planes casualty. Anything really, we just don’t have any evidence to really even speculate with accuracy. But it clearly happened fast and it clearly was catastrophic. Anything less, they would have surfaced.
I, of course, have my prayers for the crew and the families, and to be honest, even myself. I can assure you that I have not slept well for the past few nights. I don’t mean to be depressing, certainly I hope for a successful recovery and the safety of the men and woman of ARA San Juan. But I am also a submariner, and I know the risks and the odds.
Hopefully ARA San Juan is the luckiest sub to ever sail the seas.
Once you’re qualified, going to sea on a Ballistic Missile Submarine during the Cold War is a combination of boredom, stress, and trying to figure out what to do next. You’ll stand your watches, qualify your next watch stations, and do a lot of maintenance and cleaning. In fact, so much cleaning that there will be a four page memo that describes the difference between “Clean Up Ship” and “Field Day.”
Because even XO’s get bored and once they start writing…. well…
Shoved in between all of that, is eating, sleeping, showering, working out, watching movies, reading books, listening to music and trying to figure out the best prank to pull. Most of which you will never ever hear about because, frankly, they’re only funny to submariners.
There are drills galore. Division and Departmental Training. Throw in some General Military Training just for good measure.
Once in a while there’s a stop in Pearl Harbor, or a Follow On Test that gets you back home in time for opening week of the MLB Season. Even – hopefully not as often – a problem that takes you home and lets you surprise the heck out of your friends who aren’t expecting you.
Mostly though, it’s just tedious, mind-numbing, drawn out, seemingly never going to end, droning on, time flowing like cement, boredom. Much of it recorded on the pages of a green Record Notebook in the Crews Lounge and known as “The Bullshit Log.”
It just goes on and on and on. Broken by the occasional special night, or maybe a FamilyGram that lets you know that there are people back home who at least for fifty words are thinking about you. It just goes on and on. Occasionally somebody gets hurt. Maybe they cut a thumb off or some such. But it goes on and on and on. Somewhere in Russia a nuclear reactor melts down and the Chief of the Watch wants you to take an atmosphere sample “just in case” we sucked in some zoomies while snorkeling a few minutes ago. And then it goes on and on and on.
Until you hear “Alert One” over the 1MC, and the Roving Patrol (MCRP) wakes you up and says they need you in Missile Control Center. Earlier in the day, there had been a major political assassination on the Indian sub-continent. Now you’re handed a Re-target and Strike Message that is missing the traditional header:
SIERRA INDIA MIKE UNIFORM LIMA ALPHA TANGO ECHO
It’s a mistake. Just a simple printer misalignment. But for a few moments, maybe even seconds, you won’t know that.
And after 81 days underwater multiple times, for a few short moments, a blink of the eye for all the time you’ve spent down here, you’ll grasp the full meaning of what it is that you do…