30 October 2017
Its work is unseen, its operations silent, its responsibility ongoing, and its results constant: this is the Submarine Force of Colombia. This unit of the Colombian Navy, which navigates in national and international waters in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, celebrated 45 years of operations on May 14th, 2017.
“The submarine fleet is among the highest representatives of our nation’s naval power,” Captain Rafael Aranguren Devia, commander of the Submarine Force of Colombia, told Diálogo. “The 45 years that we’re celebrating represent Colombia’s pledge to always have a strategic arsenal available, and a responsibility to keep it active, vigilant, and evolving, year after year.”
Also known as the Caribbean Submarine Fleet, the force includes four conventional attack submarines that share operations in the waters of both oceans, and extend their capabilities to other operations where needed. The fleet actively participated in multinational operations such as UNITAS exercises, Operation Pelican, and the Diesel-Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI).
Naval power projection
The submarine force has trained and exchanged doctrines with Ecuador, Germany, and Peru. “To have crew members from other navies aboard our submarines is not frequent. When it happens, it’s due to a very special operation,” Capt. Aranguren said. “We strive to maintain our strategic capacity throughout the region. To achieve that, we continually work on training our men on fleet maintenance.”
The submarine force dates back to 1972, when the Colombian Navy acquired its first two submarines. Those vessels were christened the ARC Tayrona and ARC Pijao, both names of indigenous Colombian tribes that are legendary for the strength and bravery of their men.
The submersibles have been retrofitted in the shipyard of the Science and Technology Corporation of the Naval, Maritime, and Riverine Industry Development in Cartagena, Colombia. They were completely taken apart, their parts repaired, obsolete parts replaced, and were upgraded with the latest sensors, sonar (radar), and control systems. Colombian professionals performed all the work.
“The lifespan of a submarine depends on faithfully following maintenance schedule,” Capt. Aranguren said. “The incorporation of new technology is ongoing to the extent that it has an impact on the doctrine. At this moment, the four submarines we have are highly operational.”
The submarines are 56 meters long, with a six-meter beam and a displacement of 1,200 tons. They can conduct any kind of naval operation with a crew of up to 36 men and eight officers, spending 15 to 45 days at depth.
Another two submarines acquired for $86 million in 2012 complete the fleet. They were operational in 2015, following a three-year process of adaptation to the warm waters of Colombia.
Christened with names that illustrate the operations they conduct—ARC Intrépido (intrepid) and ARC Indomable (untamed)—they can carry 23 people and 800 tons onboard. The submarines can stay on a mission for 15 days without needing to be resupplied. As of 2017, the ARC Intrépido, with a 500-ton displacement, has already navigated 10,000 miles.
A costly dreamIn February 1975, three years after the creation of the Submarine Force of Colombia, the Submarine School was established. The center trains officers and non-commissioned officers who man the Colombian Navy’s submarine fleet.
Many men yearn to become submariners. To be a part of a strategic arsenal that heavily influences the nation’s naval and sea power is the dream of many sailors, but not all can achieve it.
“The school only admits sailors who are able to pass the [mandatory] test—a psychological examination. Candidates must meet a specific profile to be able to endure the tremendous psychological pressure experienced in a confined space,” explained Captain Luis Felipe Rojas, director of the Colombian Navy’s “CFESU César Neira Mora” Submarine School, to Diálogo. “After passing that exam, you are then faced with 30 more medical tests in which your overall health is [examined].”
Only five officers and 15 non-commissioned officers are admitted to the course—two years of training. As of today, 300 sailors have achieved the goal of becoming a part of the submarine force. “The knowledge, use, and operation of submarines is highly restricted, which is why there are no exchanges with other countries,” Capt. Rojas explained.
Submariners spend a long time in this unit, nearly 16 years of continuous work in the depths of the ocean, with very little rotation due to the highly specialized nature of the work. There, at the bottom of the sea, they follow a rigorous protocol, working two six-hour shifts with a strict duty log, a balanced dietary program, and recreation spaces—all within the framework of the learned culture that teaches crew members to look after one another, in a cohesive chain of work.
All trained equalThe submariner course has four phases. The first phase consists of physical training and submarine evacuation techniques. In this basic phase, submariners also learn the basic workings of the various onboard systems. The advanced phase involves knowledge and specific use of the equipment. Finally, in the practical phase of boarding, students apply theoretical knowledge and come into permanent contact with navigations.
“There are no specialties,” said Colombian Navy Petty Officer Third Class Robinson Montalbán, who is in the final phase of the course. “The training requires that each submariner learn how to do his colleague’s job. It’s a way of being completely integrated.”
“After 45 years of continuous operations for the [submarine] fleet, the first thing one feels is great pride—group pride, because this is a unit of the Colombian Navy with a lot of esprit de corps and a high degree of teamwork,” Capt. Rojas said. “Having to live together during long deployments closed up in a 56-meter space, where each crew member knows that the crew’s survival depends on him executing his duties, carries with it a high degree of cohesion and professionalism.”