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.