Argentina is still searching for its missing submarine, but the outcome looks bleak

  • An Argentine submarine has been missing in the South Atlantic for nearly two weeks despite international efforts to find it.
  • The sub's fate remains unknown, but an explosion was detected in the area it was in just hours after officials lost contact with it.
  • The incident has aroused public ire at the Argentine government and could stoke tensions between the government and the military.

The Argentine submarine ARA San Juan disappeared in the South Atlantic 12 days ago, and a search by ships and aircraft from more than a dozen countries has failed to locate the missing vessel and its 44 crew members.

The German-built diesel-electric submarine, commissioned in 1985, was en route from the Argentine port in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, to its home base at Mar del Plata, some 250 miles south of Buenos Aires.

Argentine navy Cmdr. Gabriel Galeazzi said the sub surfaced to report a problem — which he described as a "short circuit" in its batteries — early on November 15 and was ordered to return to port.

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Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
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Missing Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
The Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan and crew are seen leaving the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A crew member of the Argentine military submarine ARA San Juan stands on the vessel at the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina June 2, 2014. Picture taken on June 2, 2014. Armada Argentina/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Ships are seen at an Argentine Naval Base, where the missing-at-sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 18, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Picture released by TELAM showing Mar� Morales (L) mother of submarinist Luis Garcia, accompnied by an unidentified man at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 18, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture released by TELAM showing unidentified people gathering at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 17, 2017. Argentina's navy is hunting for one of its submarines which has been reported missing in the South Atlantic with a crew of 44 on board. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / Alejandro MORITZ / Argentina OUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORITZ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORITZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo released on November 17, 2017 by Telam showing the A.R.A. San Juan submarine being delivered to the Argentine Navy after being repaired at the Argentine Naval Industrial Complex (CINAR) in Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2014. The Argentine submarine is missing in Argentine waters after it lost communication more than 48 hours ago. / AFP PHOTO / TELAM / ALEJANDRO MORTIZ / Argentina OUT (Photo credit should read ALEJANDRO MORTIZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A man reacts outside the Argentine Naval Base, where the missing at sea ARA San Juan submarine sailed from, in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A heart formed with stripes with the colours of Argentina's national flag hangs from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
A woman walks past an Argentine national flag hanging from a fence outside the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. Words on the flag read "We are with you". REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Navy crew work aboard the ARA Sarandi destroyer before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
The ARA Sarandi destroyer is seen before leaving to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Argentine Navy captain Gabriel Galeazzi looks on after a news conference at the Argentine Naval Base in Mar del Plata, Argentina November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos hangs a supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Malvina Vallejos, sister of missing submariner Celso Oscar Vallejos speaks outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man prays at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017, after being refueled to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan A man . An Argentine submarine has been lost in the South Atlantic for five days now with 44 people aboard. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
People pray at the entrance of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for the missing Argentine ARA San Juan submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
A man waits in front outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
An Argentinian flag painted with a submarine is dislpayed as supportive message for the 44 crew members of Argentine missing submarine outside Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. Argentina's navy revealed Monday that a submarine missing for five days reported a mechanical breakdown in its final communication, and that weekend signals did not come from the vessel, dimming hopes for its 44 crew members. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
Argentina's Navy destroyer ARA Sarandi sails off to take part in the search of missing submarine ARA San Juan, from the north breakwater of Argentina's Navy base in Mar del Plata, on the Atlantic coast south of Buenos Aires, on November 21, 2017. An international search mission for a missing Argentine submarine entered its sixth day Tuesday as uncertainty over the fate of its 44 crew members gave way to rising anguish for families troubled by earlier false hopes. / AFP PHOTO / EITAN ABRAMOVICH (Photo credit should read EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)
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Argentine navy spokesman Capt. Enrique Balbi said the sub's captain contacted the naval base again to report the problem had been adequately fixed and that the sub would submerge and head to Mar del Plata. The last contact was made at 7:30 a.m. local time.

In the days since, dozens of ships and planes and thousands of personnel from Argentina, the US, the UK, Russia, Chile, Brazil, and other countries have joined the search, scouring an area of the South Atlantic roughly the size of Spain.

A number of sounds and objects have been detected during the search, which has been hindered at times by poor weather, but all have been false alarms.

It's not clear what transpired on the submarine before and after contact was lost. While the sub's crew had enough food, oxygen, and fuel to survive 90 days on the surface, there would only be enough oxygen to survive about seven days if it remained submerged.

Balbi said at the seven-day mark on November 22 that the search had entered "the critical phase ... particularly with respect to oxygen" and that there had been no contact with anything that could have been the sub.

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Military search efforts for missing Argentine submarine
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Military search efforts for missing Argentine submarine
U.S. Navy flight pilots are seen aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane before its departure to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, at a military air base in Bahia Blanca, Argentina November 26, 2017. Picture taken November 26, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Members of the US Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean, Argentina November 26, 2017. Picture taken November 26, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Members of the US Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, take part in the search of for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean, Argentina November 26, 2017. Picture taken November 26, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A member of the US Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, places a sonobuoy in the launching compartment to drop it at sea as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 26, 2017. Picture taken November 26, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A member of the US Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, looks down as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 26, 2017. Picture taken November 26, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A member of the U.S. Navy stands next to the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane before its departure to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, at a military air base in Bahia Blanca, Argentina November 22, 2017. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
A member of the U.S. Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, places a sonobuoy in the launching compartment to drop it at sea as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 22, 2017. A sonobuoy is an expendable sonar system that is ejected from aircraft or ships conducting anti-submarine warfare or underwater acoustic research. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
Members of the U.S. Navy work under the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane before its departure to take part in the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, at a military air base in Bahia Blanca, Argentina November 22, 2017. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
A member of the U.S. Navy, aboard the Boing P-8A Poseidon aircraft, looks down at the the South Atlantic Ocean during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 22, 2017. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
Radar screens are seen at the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea over the South Atlantic Ocean, Argentina November 22, 2017. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
Members of the Argentine Navy look down at the sea from an airplane during a flight to search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 22, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A member of the U.S. Navy, aboard the Boeing P-8A Poseidon plane, takes a sonobuoy to drop it at sea as they fly over the South Atlantic Ocean during the search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 22, 2017. A sonobuoy is an expendable sonar system that is ejected from aircraft or ships conducting anti-submarine warfare or underwater acoustic research. Picture taken November 22, 2017. REUTERS/Magali Cervantes
Members of the Argentine Navy look down at the sea from an airplane during a flight to search for the ARA San Juan submarine missing at sea, Argentina November 22, 2017. Argentine Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
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Since that point, the outlook for the sub and its crew — which includes Argentina's first woman sub officer — has grown increasingly bleak.

On November 23, Balbi described a sound detected a few hours after contact was lost with the sub as "a singular, short, violent, non-nuclear event, consistent with an explosion." But the Argentine navy said it did not have enough information to determine the cause of the blast.

The US and the international body that monitors nuclear tests first detected the sound on November 15 but took days to make their assessments, alerting Buenos Aires a week after the sub disappeared.

Balbi said depth ranged from 650 feet to nearly 10,000 feet in the area where the sound was detected, which is along the continental slope. Hope that the crew would be found alive began to fade after the announcement, and some family members who had gathered at Mar de Plata left after it was made.

"The truth is I have no hope that they will come back," Maria Villareal, the mother of one crew member, told local TV on Friday morning. "They killed my brother," shouted a man leaving the base in a car driven by another man in tears.

After the navy announced details of the explosion on the Thursday, family members at Mar del Plata raged against officials there. "They are some perverse bastards who had us here [for] a week," said Itatí Leguizamon, the wife of one of the submariners. "Why didn't they tell us? They lied to us."

Baldi himself admitted on Saturday, the 10th day of the search, that, "We are at a stage of hope and hopelessness at the same time."

On Monday, Argentina's navy said that water had entered the sub's snorkel, causing its battery to short circuit and that the noise detected about four hours after officials lost contact with the sub could have been the vessel imploding, though Balbi said there was no evidence that a battery malfunction was related to the explosion.

Argentina's navy has said that the search will continue until there is certainty about the ARA San Juan's fate, but many relatives of the missing crew have already resigned themselves to the loss of their loved ones, and some have railed against the Argentine navy and government, saying they were aware of the boat's fate soon after it disappeared — a charge that Balbi denied.

Others have criticized the government for sending the crew out in such an old boat and for doing a poor job maintaining it. (It underwent maintenance in 2008 and was cut in half and reassembled during a refit in 2014.)

Relatives of the crew and politicians extended that criticism to military-spending levels, which have declined since the country's dictatorship fell in 1983 and are currently well below the regional and global averages. (Defense spending has been complicated by the country's recent economic struggles.)

"This has translated into something very concrete: 90% of the equipment of the armed forces of Argentina is between 30 and 50 years old," Rosendo Fraga, a defense expert, told El Pais, noting that the 32-year-old San Juan was one of the navy's more modern ships.

The country's armed forces are seeing an increase in accidents related to the age of the equipment as well as limits on resources for maintenance and training, Fraga said.

Several Argentine patrol planes are currently grounded and unable to join the search because of a lack of spare parts and long overdue maintenance.

The incident also could have political repercussions, exacerbating tensions between the country's political leadership and President Mauricio Macri, whose efforts to update the military's hardware are still in the early stages.

Macri visited crew members' families before military leaders could do so, and because the military was less than forthcoming in the hours after losing contact with the sub, Defense Minister Oscar Aguad — who has been on the job for less than five months — learned about the disappearance from the press.

"Until we find the submarine and have all the information," Macri said on Friday, "we are not going to speculate on who is at fault."

But absent confirmation of the sub's fate, the family of its crew members will be left in a painful limbo, according to Guillermo Bruchstein, a local psychologist.

"The mourning process cannot start, because they are still out there somewhere," he said in a TV interview on Saturday. "They are gone but are not 'dead.'"

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