The ARA San Juan, which was last contacted off the coast of Argentina on November 15, has enough air to last only seven to 10 days if it has remained fully immersed since that time, experts say.
If the submarine has surfaced or “snorkeled” — that is, raised a tube to the surface to refresh the vessel’s air — since then, the crew may have bought more time.
Anxious families have been waiting at Argentina’s Mar del Plata navy base, to which the submarine was heading when it vanished, for news of their loved ones. Meanwhile, ships and aircraft from a dozen nations are scouring a swath of the South Atlantic for the missing vessel.
A spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defense confirmed on Thursday that a Royal Air Force C-130 aircraft had landed in Argentina and is now a part of the search, as is a Voyager, a refueling aircraft that helps searches go on longer.
It appears to be the first time since the Falklands conflict in 1982 that an RAF plane has landed in Argentina, although the UK Ministry of Defense would only characterize it as the first time in a “very long time.” The Royal Navy’s ice-patrol ship, HMS Protector, had already joined the search
Navy analyzing new noise
Enrique Balbi, a spokesman for the Argentine navy, said Wednesday that there had been “no type of contact, not passive nor active,” with the submarine since November 15. The search is “in the critical phase,” he said.
The Navy has just begun analyzing a new noise that was detected on the day the sub vanished, Balbi said. But rumors of a recent distress call are false, he said.
On Tuesday night, a British polar ship saw flares — one orange and two white — east of where it was conducting operations, prompting the dispatch of a search-and-rescue team consisting of three ships and two aircraft.
For many hours, they patrolled the area “and were not able to detect any magnetic anomaly,” Balbi told CNN. The spokesman said previously that the flares aboard the San Juan are green and red.
The Argentine navy lost contact with the ARA San Juan shortly after the vessel’s captain reported a failure in the battery system while the sub was submerged off Argentina’s South Atlantic coast, the military said.
The submarine was traveling from a base in Argentina’s far southern Tierra del Fuego archipelago to its home base in Mar del Plata on the northern side of the country.
Families’ tense wait for news
Outside the Mar del Plata navy base, Federico Ibáñez is among the many family members and well-wishers hoping for good news. His brother, Cristian, is a radar technician on the San Juan
Federico Ibáñez questions why the Argentine navy continues to say the boat could be on the ocean surface, and why rescuers took so long to begin searching the ocean floor.
“The other relatives really have more hope and think everything will be OK, while I think the navy is wrong in saying the submarine could be on the surface,” said the 34-year-old.
“It’s a lack of respect. If it was on the surface, they would have found it. They didn’t, and they didn’t look for them at the bottom,” he said. “If they did it earlier, it could have been different.”
He fears the situation will end badly. “They keep saying that a submarine in good condition can have this much time, but they don’t say how long they have if the submarine is not in good condition. So, what if it’s in bad shape?”
Cristian Ibáñez has a daughter, Elisa, 9. His wife, Fernanda Valacco, has told the girl little, hoping that her husband will return and she won’t have to explain what happened.
“She knows her father is missing, but she knows he’s fine and will be home soon,” Valacco told CNN. “I am sure all of the 44 will be fine and could come here any moment.”
‘Everybody is silent’
Federico Ibáñez described a tense atmosphere on the navy base as family members huddle together praying for word of the sub’s discovery.
“They all stay there in a big room with bunk beds and some desks. Everybody is silent. Everybody is waiting. Waiting for what? I cannot stay there,” he said.
Aboard the sub with Cristian Ibáñez is Eliana Maria Krawczyk, Argentina’s first female submarine officer.
In 2004, she joined the navy after seeing an ad about military ships. She has voiced hopes of one day commanding a sub herself.
“At the time, there weren’t any female officers in the force. I took it as a challenge,” she once told the Argentine Defense Ministry in a video interview.
“You can do the same things than any men do, even if you are in a traditionally male-dominated environment. … Any women can do it.”