One of the major highlights of the Falklands War was the sinking of the Argentine ship ARA General Belgrano by the British nuclear attack submarine, the HMS Conqueror.1 This had an astounding effect on the war as it ended up stranding almost the entire Argentine Navy to their ports for the remainder of the conflict. And while the Argentine ships were quivering in their ports at the threat of submarines, the Argentine Air Force and Army were forced to fight on their own, taking considerable losses in battles against the British. This in effect led to the loss of a lot of prestige to the Argentine Navy after the war.
In fairness, the loss of the Belgrano was quite a feat for the British: The Belgrano was a LARGE ship, around 10,000 tons, and heavily armed with FIFTEEN 152 mm guns in addition to eight 127 mm guns. It was the second largest ship in the Argentine Navy after their aircraft carrier. What unnerved the Argentine navy even more was the nature of the sinking of the Belgrano, where it sank within 20 minutes after being hit with two torpedoes, and with its two Destroyer Escorts unaware of the sinking due to poor visibility and the fact that the Belgrano lost all electrical power and was unable to radio for help. It was only HOURS later when the escorts learned about the loss of the ship.2 So in the eyes of the navy, one of its largest naval combatants just literally vanished into thin air without any of its escorts even knowing about it until later.
‘The ARA San Luis’
However, almost lost to history are the exploits of ANOTHER submarine, this time on the side of the Argentine Navy, the ARA San Luis. At the start of the Falklands War, Argentina had four submarines consisting of two World War II era Balao-class Submarines and two modern Type 209 Submarines. One Balao and one Type 209 submarines were held in reserve, while the other Balao-class submarine (the ARA Santa Fe) and the other Type 209 submarine (the ARA San Luis) were deployed against the British forces. The ARA Sante Fe was lost early in the war due to helicopter attack because of its captain’s incompetence.3
The ARA San Luis, on the other hand, served with distinction during the war, as we shall see later. The Type 209 is a Diesel-Electric propulsion Submarine made by the German company “Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW)”, and was first commissioned in 1971. It is one of the most commercially successful modern submarine designs as over 60 have been built and pressed into service on 13 countries around the world. There are a total of five variants with displacements ranging from 1,200 to 1,800 tons. Maximum speed is 11 knots on the surface, 22 knots submerged, while range is 20,000 km @ 10 knots on the surface, 15,000 km @ 10 knots snorkeling and 700 km @ 4 knots submerged. The maximum depth it can dive to is 500 m, and its armament consists of a mixture of 14 Heavyweight Torpedoes and Anti-Ship Missiles that can be launched thru its eight Torpedo Tubes.4
After the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentine Navy moored almost all of its ships to port except for very few ships, among them the ARA San Luis. In fact, during the remainder of the Falklands War, the Luis was the ONLY Argentine boat still seeking combat with the enemy. In total, the Luis conducted CONTINUOUS patrols around the waters of the Falklands Islands from the second week of April 1982 to the third week of May 1982, or a period of 39 days. During that time, the British ships deployed one aircraft carrier, eleven destroyers, five nuclear attack submarines, one diesel submarine, and over 25 helicopters conducting 24-hour airborne Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) operations against the Luis. Note that the Royal Navy not only had more Submarines of their own at five, but those were BETTER nuclear powered submarines which can travel much faster and stay much longer underwater than the Luis, and yet them and other naval assets were not able to neutralize the Luis.
The British forces also expended over 200 ASW weapons in the hunt for the Luis, including 30 air-launched Mk46 Lightweight Torpedoes, almost depleting their entire ASW weapons inventory and needing the help of the United States for the re-supply of these weapons. The threat of the Luis forced the Royal Navy to cancel the rescue operations of helicopters that ditched into the sea TWICE. Remember that the Royal Navy is no ordinary navy, at 500 years old it is one of the oldest navies in the world and once played a crucial part in turning the British empire into a dominant world power.6 Of course the RN is not anymore the superpower it once was centuries before, but its rich tradition and advanced weapons and equipment still makes it as one of the most powerful and professional navies in the world, and the fact that against this the Luis was able to operate with relative impunity against them makes its feat all the more impressive.
‘San Luis on the Offensive’5
The Luis did more than just troll around in the Falklands waters, it did reportedly make at least three attacks during its period of continuous patrols. It likely would’ve been able to make more attacks if it had gotten airborne surveillance support where aircraft could’ve been tasked to find the British fleet and then relay the information to it, but instead the Luis was forced to find the enemy ships on its own, not an easy thing to do in the large expanse of the ocean.
Its first attack was on May 1, when it detected two Destroyers with their helicopters which turned out to be the HMS Brilliant and HMS Yarmouth. Around two weeks earlier the Luis’ Fire Control System (FCS) broke down and its crew was unable to repair it, but they could still fire their Torpedoes manually. The Luis fired one SST-4 Anti-Surface Torpedo at one of the destroyers from around 10 km, but as the torpedo was launched its guidance wire was inexplicably cut, causing the torpedo to miss. The British ships detected the torpedo attack and counter-attacked for 20 hours, expending torpedoes, depth charges and depth mortars on what turned out to be false targets.
The second attack occurred on May 8 when the Luis detected a possible torpedo attack against it. The Luis maneuvered to evade weapons lock and counter-attacked by firing an Anti-Submarine Mk37 Torpedo of its own towards the direction of the contact. The Luis’ shot was later ruled out as another miss.
The third and final attack was on May 11 when the Luis again detected another two Destroyers, which this time turned out to be the HMS Alarcity and the HMS Arrow. The Luis made a silent approach and again fired an SST-4 Torpedo at 5.6 km, but again the torpedo cut its wires inexplicably after launch. The Alarcity later found out that its towed torpedo decoy was damaged, presumably from the errant SST-4 torpedo which still managed to find the decoy despite the loss of its guidance wires.
After suffering two failed torpedo launches and with its defective FCS, the Luis broke radio silence and reported their situation to their base, which ordered them to return. Repairs were made, but it took four weeks and by the time she was ready, the war was almost over, and the Luis never saw action again for the rest of the war.
‘Training and Technical Problems’5
The Luis was unsuccessful in sinking or damaging any ship because of two things: First is the lack of proper training and lack of experience in terms of live weapons fire. It is likely they relied almost entirely on diagnostic tests to determine the condition of their weapons and equipment beforehand, and these tests were unable to detect some of the problems. If they were able to test their weapons extensively before they set out, problems like the misalignment of the FCS and the Periscope system and the incorrect reconnection of leads to power up the torpedo would’ve been found out.
Another problem was with the SST-4 Torpedo itself, which were eventually found later after the war during extensive tests to be unable to maintain depth while under wire control. The manufacturer subsequently quietly fixed all of its exported torpedoes to correct the problem. At any rate, if the crew were able to train with their weapons extensively, these problems would’ve been found out sooner and the problems fixed, giving them more reliable weapons.
The elusiveness of the San Luis during the war can be attributed to first, the good performance characteristics of the Type 209 submarine, such as its excellent range even while snorkeling (15,000 km) enabling it to travel far and expanding its area of operation where its opponents will need to find it. That long range also enables it to go out of the theater of operations to recharge its batteries and come back in again to look for targets to attack for a number of cycles.
Another reason is its ability to dive deep (500 m) making it harder to detect from the surface or underwater. A third reason is the fact that Diesel-Electric submarines when running on its electric engines are naturally quiet, even more so than nuclear submarines. You can’t help but think about some “what ifs” in this instance. What if the Luis’ crew had better training, for example? What if the Argentine Navy invested more in submarines than surface ships, and were able to field more submarines during the war? How differently would the outcome have been? These are “what ifs” now lost in history.
Of course, 1982 was a long time ago, 32 years ago to be exact, so one wonders how much ASW has evolved since then. However, recent naval exercises still show the effectiveness of diesel-electric submarines up to now. One such exercise was Exercise Amazolo in 2007 involving South African and NATO warships. The exercise called for NATO and South African ships to “protect” a target from the South African Type 209 submarine SAS Manthathisi. The seven ships that formed an Anti-Submarine screen for the target consisted of an American Ticonderoga-class Guided Missile Cruiser, a Dutch Zeven Provincien-class Frigate, a Canadian Halifax-class Frigate, a Portuguese Meko-class Frigate, a Danish Niels Jeul-class Corvette and two African Valour-class Frigate. Against these, the Manthathisi not only was able to “sink” the protected target, but all of the seven ships as well during the exercise.7
The Philippine Navy (PN) could also always confirm the effectiveness of these submarines during local and international naval exercises once they have some in their inventory. The Navy could initially buy one or two, and over the years as they gain operational experience and confirmed its effectiveness they could then acquire more boats as needed.
The example of the Luis and the Manthathisi indicate that current ASW technology seems to be tilted in favor of the submarine, making them an effective weapon for use against a superpower such as China. Despite that, though, submarines does have disadvantages of their own, and the first of these is the COST. For example, in 2011, Indonesia bought three Chang Bogo-class (a variant of the Type 209) submarines for USD 357 million EACH,8 which is almost equivalent to the price we are paying for 2 brand-new Frigates. There is a cheaper option in the smaller Type 210 Ula-class Submarine estimated to be around USD 250 million at only 1,000 tons,9 but it does give up much in terms of performance, only having about less than half the range and maximum depth of a Type 209.
And the bleeding does not stop with the initial cost: Submarines like the Type 209 have limited service lives between overhauls, usually around eight years. After that it will have to go thru a major overhaul to keep it in top combat shape. The Chang Bogo-class submarine in South Korean service for example goes thru such an overhaul or refit every eight years, and it involves cutting, complete disassembly, and re-welding of the hull for the upgrade or total replacement of the submarine’s old engines, navigational equipment, batteries, and other essential equipment.10 Cost for the overhaul/refit of a Chang Bogo class is unknown, but a recent, less comprehensive minor overhaul of a South African Type 209 submarine cost around USD 3.3 million for just one ship.11
On top of that, as shown in the example of the San Luis, a technical and experienced crew is needed to effectively use a submarine properly, hence investments also have to be made in terms of getting them technical training and also giving them regular realistic training exercises.
Submarines have proven to be one of the more effective naval weapons in modern times. In times of war against a powerful enemy with a strong submarine force, submarines of our own may be the only weapon we can use to go on the offensive, hunting down enemy ships and harassing their naval-based supply lines. This is probably the reason why Vietnam recently added no less than SIX new Improved Kilo-class Diesel-Electric Submarines in their arsenal in their Cold War against China.12
However, the hurdles in owning submarines are considerable. They are expensive to buy, and expensive to maintain, and their crews need extensive training and exercises also. They are high maintenance weapons, even more so than aircraft. So there are a lot of challenges for the Philippines, like for example, can the Navy live up to the technical requirements to crew submarines effectively?
An overhaul required at least every eight years means budget for this will have to be approved separately by each incoming new government elected every six years, so will the Philippines be able to maintain these expensive periodic overhaul requirements over a period of several governments? These are the challenges that the country will need to address if is to own submarines, but if other countries like Vietnam can own them, then perhaps we should strive to do the same also. If we are able to conquer these challenges, then we will have the weapon to be able to stand up against the might of the Chinese naval fleet if the need arises.
Lighter and smaller submarines may lower the cost and maintenance of owning submarines, but their trade off in terms of performance (i.e., much less range, can’t dive as deep, etc.) means they may be less effective and less survivable in an actual combat environment in the open ocean, hence I feel that the minimum should be set with the proven Type 209 submarine.
As for the ARA San Luis, after a long and fruitful career in the Argentine Navy, she finally was retired from active service in 1997, while her Type 209 sister ships continue to patrol the waters all around the world to this day.
HMS Conqueror (S48) Nuclear Attack Submarine (1971),
ARA General Belgrano (C-4) Light Cruiser Warship (1951),
ARA San Luis (S-32),
Type 209 Diesel-Electric Attack Submarine (1971),
- “Almost Successful: ARA San Luis War Patrol” article from the “2008 Submarine Almanac” ↩ ↩ ↩
A brief history of the Royal Navy,
SA sub causes red faces in Nato exercise,
South Korea Exports Submarines to Indonesia,
Knm Utvær Type 210 Ula (Type P 6071) Class submarine,
ROKN Chang Bogo Class Submarines, South Korea,
Manthatisi refit nearing completion,
Vietnam Confirms Kilo Sub Buy at Shangri-La,