The unfortunate disappearance of the Argentine submarine fostered rare co-operation between Britain and Argentina. The episode witnessed the two countries overcoming their differences and working together for the first time in years.

The author Vitor Tossini is a student of International Relations at the Sao Paulo State University. Vitor studies matters of defence and security that concerns the UK. He also explores British imperial and military history and its legacies to the modern world. Currently, Vitor is researching the British military presence in the South Atlantic.

On the 15th of November 2017, the diesel-electric patrol submarine ARA San Juan ceased communicating with the rest of the fleet during a routine patrol mission from the port of Ushuaia to Mar del Plata with 44 crew members aboard. The submarine, built in West Germany in 1983 and commissioned 1985, was one of the three vessels that composed the Argentine Submarine Force Command and was the newest of three ageing boats in the under-funded Argentine fleet.

Shortly after the San Juan’s disappearance was confirmed by the Argentine Government, other nations were quick to offer aid to locate the vessel. Amongst those that took part in the search, there were forces from neighbouring countries such as Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. The United States participated in the search offering aircraft and cutting-edge equipment. Britain also provided aid and participated in the tracking of the missing submarine, nonetheless her position in the region diverges from the others that were engaged in the mission; Britain’s position is tempered by her territories and permanent military presence in the area that generates diplomatic discomfort with Argentina.

Britain is present in the South Atlantic through its Overseas Territories, scattered from tiny Ascension Island to the Falkland Islands. These territories offer a considerable space of manoeuvre in the region, and as the war for the Falklands showed back in 1982, they might be of use as staging points for military forces alongside Gibraltar and other British territories throughout the globe. Britain keeps a garrison to protect her dependencies in the South Atlantic avoiding any further invasions.

When the San Juan went missing, Britain moved to support the Argentines using some of its forces based in the Falklands that are part of the ‘British Forces South Atlantic Islands’. Royal Navy ships HMS Clyde, an offshore patrol vessel permanently located in the South Atlantic, and HMS Protector were sent to help the Argentine effort. One Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules present in the islands was placed at Argentine disposal, and one RAF Voyager based in Oxfordshire landed in Comodoro Rivadavia, on the 22nd of November; this landing was the first of a British military aircraft to do so in Argentina since 1982. Besides that, specialists from the British Submarine Parachute Assistance Group, regarded as an elite unit, were deployed to advise its Argentine counterparts.

These were the forces mobilised by Britain in less than seven days to attend the Argentine request to search and rescue the San Juan. The British participation also demonstrates that even with budgetary constraints, its military presence has been a relevant factor in the region and is not fading away.

The increase in its technological capabilities is also relevant to comprehend the reduced numbers of British capital ships, aircraft and personnel not just in the South Atlantic. According to international strategic studies, as the technological advancements are introduced, the total numbers are set to reduce, for the new assets are more efficient than its previous versions. This phenomenon is part of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’. So, the new military assets are heading towards the concepts of capabilities and effectiveness instead of purely relying on numbers, helping to explain why the British military personnel in the Falklands number roughly 1,200. However, this is not a consensus amongst defence specialists with a relevant number pointing out the enduring importance of numbers, especially when discussing great power politics.

Thus, the technological gap that persists between the South American nations and Britain is a matter as central as the total numbers of conventional forces. The trend is represented by a widening gap between the great powers, such as Britain, and the other nations on the periphery, such as Argentina and Brazil. Concisely, meanwhile, the wealthier countries are capable of maintaining armed forces with the newest and most capable weaponry other nations are not able to follow the technological breakthroughs and the costs of implementation.

Another issue brought to light by the San Juan disaster was the condition of the Argentine Armed Forces. The maintenance of the military has been under severe neglect, and there are many problems concerning the readiness of the Argentine fleet. Under-funded and struggling to reach training requirements and upkeep of its vessels, the Argentine Navy is failing to sustain its commissioned ships fully operational.

In 2013, the defence budget permitted 15 boats to spend no more than 11 days at sea, and the submarines spent on average just over six hours submerged in the previous year. Moreover, the fleet is composed of 42 ships, most of them constructed and commissioned in the 1970s and the early 1980s and a few are British-made; for the standards adopted by Britain, the United States and other NATO members the Argentine Navy would be regarded as out-dated, in need of a complete reformulation and a more substantial budget.

So, the role played by the British military assets and the readiness in gathering some of them 8,000 miles from London in the search the San Juan reveals a glimpse of the capabilities of a nation in projecting its power elsewhere. It also shows that the South Atlantic is not a stage exclusive to the regional countries, it is an area where British interests have weight. Britain’s position depends on the overseas territories: They grant a permanent voice in the area, are support facilities for military forces therefore relevant part of its projection of power. Moreover, the most important fact is the desire of the inhabitants of these territories to remain British.

Argentina and Britain share a complicated history of ups and downs. If the tragic incident with the San Juan can teach a positive aspect to these two nations it is that cooperation with former rivals is possible and desirable; despite its divergent interests, it is a win-win situation for both parties.

24 COMMENTS

  1. I feel for the crew as well… Awful way to go. It’s always the troops who have to live with the repercussions of bad political decisions and poor funding…

    Still my favorite magazine cover ever. We (the U.S. Forces) were cheering you on from Germany when this occurred. Couldn’t believe how fast the Iron Lady was able to dispatch the fleet South.

    Cheers

    • and they still can,t believe we flew a vulcan bomber all the way down to drop a few bombs..even if it was just to prove a point…

      • I WELL remember that little trick… As I recall a refueling probe had to be pried off museum aircraft so IFR could be accomplished to get to Wide Awake Field.

      • My Great Uncle was on that black buck mission. It was an astonishing feat and immense bravery from the final refuelling crew.

        It proved a point and gave the troops at the Falklands a bit of breathing space. However the tales of the red flag exercises before that mission were even more amazing. The Americans wondering how the Vulcans kept getting past their radars and then finding out they were flying them under the electricity wires! Utterly bonkers but brilliant.

  2. Good article but I don’t agree with the section saying as we are so technologically advanced it explains why we have 1200 personnel in BFSAA.

    That minimal garrison to run RAF MP and a small garrison of an infantry company on rotation, Rapier Battery and assorted supporting units is all that is deemed necessary compared to the threat, which is minimal at the moment.

    Technology does not come into it.

      • LOL. You really think I suggest that?

        He mentioned the garrison, so he is on about numbers of men and women in that section, which is what I refer to.

        If he had mentioned “so the British only have 4 Typhoon there” then i would not have commented.

        And by the way, it is 3 Radar Stations, not 1. Mounts Kent, Alice, and Byron Heights, with the CRC Griffon.

  3. The Falklands defence posture is based around preventing incursions and holding MP airbase to long enough to allow rapid reinforcement. Now we have HMS QE and the massive capabilities that ship brings to the armed forces I cannot see anyone but a major power being able to take the Falklands and then successfully hold them against a counter attack launched from a task force centred on QE class carriers and F35Bs soon to be brought into service
    The Falklands defence posture is correctly balanced, just enough forces and high performance typhoon jets to make any attack costly and require a massive attack from a peer equivalent nation. Argentina is not financially, politically or militarily capable at this time of threatening the Falklands….. currently.

    • I’ve often thought what Op Corporate 2 would consist of if we had to do it post Invicibles and prior to QEs.

      Two Astutes might be enough West of the islands, but they would have to arrive very quickly, sink everything they find, and use Tomahawks on mainland airfields. Two T45s each escorted by a T23 North and South of the islands would be enough as forward pickets if the T45s actually can shoot down sea skimming missiles without AEW. A 3rd and 4th T45 and T23 might be OK escorting our LPDs, Wave and Point class ships in a position East of the islands.

      Our LPDs would then have to get in somewhere near Mere Harbour at night and unload 1000 RMs with say 40 tracked Scimitars and some Starstreak sets, then another 1000 RMs with supplies the next night? Along with just a handful of Merlins and Wildcats, would that be enough to get to MPA and onto Stanley? It would depend on what we would face but I think that’s about all we could do.

      • Don’t forget 16 AA Bde and varied other bits of the JRRF as well as UKSF.

        That assumes MPA was lost and we had no warning of invasion. Reinforcements would have arrived by air already with warning.

        There were signs in 82 they were coming and they were ignored by the FCO until pretty much too late. Our Intelligence capabilities now are on another scale entirely.

  4. “The great powers,such as Britain “.Argentina managed to make available one more MPA than the UK.
    It’s this sort of thinking that has lead us into building 2 white elephants that are in fact platforms for the US,as they are undeployable and have insufficient aircraft and escorts without their help.

    • ‘Undeployable” ? Here we go again. HMS Prince of Wales is still in the construction phase, HMS Queen Elizabeth is still on sea trials. 617 Squadron has reformed to be the first Squadron to receive the F-35s this year. So trott of back to your left wing newspapers.

      • I’m definitely not a leftie,not that that’s got anything to do with it.We now seem to be talking about 24 F35Bs not the original “minimum 36” that the carriers were originally designed for and have nothing like enough escorts. We lost 4 escorts during the Falklands war and were incredibly lucky not to lose twice that.
        A carrier battle group is self licking lollipop that isn’t even able to lick itself. Pier or near pier enermies are non starters and almost any nation could very quickly acquire a nasty Exocet like surprise.Can you think of any mission that would be worth the risk?As you correctly point there’s another 5 years before we can even contemplate sending them into battle.

        • Yes indeed – the capability GAP is out of financial control with a lack of MP support who pushed pensions into the defence budget to claim 2% spending; the number of type 26s and prospective promised type31s and lost HMS Ocean / RFA being laid up represents a reducing number of ships.

          The previous labour government had a sustained worse record that also reduced the warship fleet.

          What happened to the submarine crew was tragic, one hopes that the explosion that was heard, did end their story quickly so that they did not suffer.

          However, Argentina teaches its children that the Falklands is their property when the truth is that the Falklands was British territory before during and after the country called Argentina came into existence. Read the history of Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin and you will see that as a matter of historical fact, Argentina has never belonged to Argentina and nor does it belong to Spain either.

          • Opps, meant to say that
            Read the history of Captain Fitzroy and Charles Darwin and you will see that as a matter of historical fact, The Falklands has never belonged to Argentina and nor does it belong to Spain either.

        • What are you talking about? There’s never been “minimum 36”. The ships are optimised for a mix of aircraft that includes 36 F35. They can carry more but are unlikely to ever need to. In peacetime they will carry between 12 and 24 F35. And in the same peacetime scenario a QEC would be escorted either by a T45 and T23 or by the equivalent from an allied navy. Exactly as we do with the US and French navies. You think that’s not realistic to provide?

          In a high threat scenario you will probably add in an Astute and a second T ship. Who is really going to challenge that? The capability is massively superior to what was available back in the Falkland era.

          “Peer” nations that could threaten that are China and Russia, but can you really see either of those thinking of challenging a NATO member?

        • Agreed – to an extent. The truth is that we don’t need 2 enormous aircraft carriers of this size and complexity.

          We haven’t needed aircraft carriers since 1982. That’s 36 years ago – almost the same time period between the end of WW2 and the Falklands Conflict. Things have moved on and the aircraft carrier, for a nation like the UK, has become an expensive luxury.

          It’s not too late now to sell them and reinvest the money and manpower back into the RN and RAF to buy critical capabilities, including much needed surface vessels.

          The carriers can’t operate without land based support, including MPA and AAR, so there is no point. We will always have a land base for air and if we haven’t an ally in the region, then arguably what is the UK doing there in the first place.

          This is the era of cooperative and alliances, not the UK going alone.

  5. Argentina is not a warlike country its armed forces are weak we will never invade Malvinas Falklands again we lost many very young conscripts and others committed suicide
    Paradoxically having lost the war was good to us since we got rid of the military and we got Democracy.Having won that war…uh we would be still ruled by the militars
    I admit that at school the islands are taught as being argentine and there are nationalists who want them back If Argentina tries to invade again,it will be only possible with the support of another strong nation I fell sorry for the ARA San Juan crew.
    Remember this: The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

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