While the final outcome is no more free than anything else from the constant lack of transparency bedevilling this tragedy, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that the 43 servicemen and one female pioneer aboard the submarine ARA San Juan have paid the ultimate price in the service of their country – not in combat, of course, but their fate is no less heroic for the risks they faced. There can be no consolation for their families at a time like this but at least the explosion which has so belatedly come to light as the probable cause of the disaster suggests a mercifully quick end, without the horror of panic-stricken hours or even days waiting for the air to run out or the water to rush in with no chance of survival, as has befallen other submarine crews.
For over a week naval experts downplayed public fears and nor was their disbelief absurd – stealth and silence are the very essence of the submarine weapon and naval history is replete with subs vanishing for long periods only to reappear unexpectedly (the two Nazi U-boats surfacing in Mar del Plata in 1945 would be an example). But the Germany that constructed the San Juan at its Hamburg shipyards over three decades ago once popularly named its U-boats “iron coffins” (“eiserne Särge”), in both world wars, and the death trap potential is always there.
The blame game is largely dominating the media coverage, starting with the botched communications and already reaching the political arena, but this editorial would prefer to focus on a more fundamental question – does this tragedy justify a drive for increased defence spending? Quite apart from the specific flaws in communication strategy (why not proper press conferences instead of infrequent bulletins trying to ward off scrums of impatient reporters?), the Mauricio Macri administration continues to show that sensitivity over human interest issues is not one of its strong points, as most recently seen in the case of Santiago Maldonado. But even more obscene is the incipient politicisation of this tragedy. Pro-government allies and media are already jumping on the fact that the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidency overhauled the submarine locally amid cheap nationalist rhetoric in 2014 rather than in Hamburg in order to try and make the San Juan for former Defence minister Agustín Rossi what the 2012 Once rail disaster already is for former Federal Planning minister Julio De Vido. The Fernández de Kirchner camp has predictably responded by blaming the tragedy on defence under-spending by the Macri administration.
The obvious reply to that critique would be to challenge Fernández de Kirchner to name any government since 1983 which has not systematically run down military spending in favour of other priorities, including and especially her own with its human rights banners. Yet this indecent political jockeying at least has the virtue of placing the spotlight on a decline in defence spending which may have made the San Juan’s fate an accident waiting to happen – since the South Atlantic war in 1982 military spending has fallen from 2.16 percent of gross domestic product to 0.96 percent of GDP with a low of 0.87 percent in 2011, according to World Bank data, with troop strength falling from almost 100,000 to 26,000 in that period.
Those figures, however, do not mean that spending should automatically rise – clearly having submarines at all is debatable in a country with 30 percent below the poverty line among other social urgencies. But if you have them at all, they must be properly trained and maintained – spending just one hour submerged for every 10 days technically needed (19 hours versus 190 days in a recent year) is not good enough. The dead can never be brought back – defining what they died for is always the task of those who remain. And the families of the fallen deserve answers.