Interview with Navy Commodore Enrique BALBI about the tragedy of the submarine ARA San Juan

Navy Commodore Enrique BALBI entered the Naval Military Academy in 1984 (35 years of service) and was qualified as a submariner in 1991. Throughout his career, he was the Executive Officer of the submarines ARA “SANTA CRUZ” and “SAN JUAN”, Commander of the Patrol Ship ARA “MURATURE” and the Submarine ARA “SALTA”. He attended a postgraduate seminar on Disaster Risk Management at the University of El Salvador, with a Master’s Degree in Institutional Communication at the Austral University. He was also Head of the Institutional Communications Department and spokesman for the Argentine Navy for five years, particularly during the tragedy of the Submarine ARA “SAN JUAN”. He currently serves as the Naval and Defense Attaché in the United States.

Navy Commodore Balbi was invited by the IADB to offer a presentation regarding the search for the ARA San Juan. The following is a short summary of the largest joint search and rescue operation ever made for a submarine.

 

How was the Chain of Command established? What was its role? Has a crisis staff been set up? How did this staff work?

As soon as the search for the submarine was declared, a crisis staff was set up made up of Navy members responsible for institutional communication and authorities from the Ministry of Defense.

 

There is possibility of recovery of the underwater parts so that if necessary; procedures are corrected on submarines of the same class in service?

I am not an expert on the salvage of wrecked vessels, but so far no one has ever been recovered in history. There were attempts, all failed. However, this might be possible for some part to come off, which will also depend on their size and weight and, of course, on technology that reaches 900 meters deep. It is important to clarify that the main structure of the submarine “San Juan”, its resistant hull, is imploded and, consequently, its structure is deformed and very damaged and weakened.

 

What was the assistance received from other countries?

Many countries were sympathetic in making unconditionally available material and personal, as needed. For reasons of time and opportunity, aircraft, ships, personnel, specialists and search and rescue equipment were received, among others, from Brazil, Chile, USA, Russia, United Kingdom, Spain and Canada.

 

How was your experience working with other countries in the search for the submarine?

Great. Fully integrated work teams were assembled with the help of interpreters, both onshore and on board the scene, exchanging experiences and always advising the responsible Argentine authority. There was no mutual interference.

 

What steps were taken after the submarine was found?

All photographic and cinematographic material of its positive identification by the company hired by the Argentine Navy was made available to the Court responsible for the official investigation not yet completed. It should be clarified that as the investigation proceeds, no part of the wreck may be moved or removed except with the express permission of the judge in charge of the case.

 

What steps have been taken with respect to crew’s family members?

They received ongoing follow-up with up to two submariners for each family, lodging and food at “Mar del Plata” Naval Base and “Antártida” Hotel, medical, psychological, spiritual and legal assistance, daily parts of search and rescue updates on a personalized basis and before the press, financial aid in addition to the corresponding compulsory insurance and jobs for relatives in need.

 Two visits to the search coordination center at the “Puerto Belgrano” Naval Base and three boarding opportunities in operational means were also planned to demonstrate the magnitude of the search operation.

 

What role did you play while running the SAR operation for the submarine ARA “San Juan” from November 17 to 30, 2017?

I was the Head of the Department of Institutional Communication and spokesman for the Argentine Navy.

 

What were the characteristics of the institutional communication adopted?

The family members of the crew were prioritized in the daily dissemination of events.

 The strategy of informing the Community through a single official source has been adopted, with transparency, according to factual events reliably confirmed, without any conjecture and prudently saving sensitive information.

 The dissemination of news from unqualified sources, which could be unfounded or mislead conclusions, was avoided. Additionally, explanations of the case were presented as new facts emerged.

 

What difficulties were faced from the point of view of institutional communication in the early stages of the crisis?

The surprising and unexpected crisis of the “San Juan” had a huge impact on society as an extraordinary circumstance and forced the simultaneous attendance of conducting search operations and respective information to the public, in an attempt to obtain synergy in the actions of both areas, in order to preserve family members from premature distress as advised by prudence.

 Triggered by the crisis, the events took place at a dizzyingly escalating and ever-increasing rate, with a dominant sense of urgency. Added to all this is a lot of adrenaline and a few hours of sleep.

 Another fact no less relevant was the unscheduled press conferences. In these, official information was provided only to clarify the many inaccurate or even false versions circulating on social networks about the incident, which led public and family members to mistaken conclusions that confused, worried, raised false expectations and hurt susceptibilities.

 

How were these drawbacks fixed?

Through unscheduled press conferences, official written note communications, 24-hour call answering, e-mail response, infographics production, and Navy-managed social media posting.

 

How was the relationship with the press? What were the difficulties faced in this area?

The institutional communication of the submarine’s search for the community through the media has always been accompanied by a great relationship. However, the prolongation of the actions and the prevailing uncertainty led to the emergence of unspecialized opinions, which gave priority to raw data seeking only primacy for the news, but without serious analysis of their content.

 It was opportune to set the schedule of press conferences ten minutes after all time, so as not to interfere with the headlines.

 In coordination with journalists, infographics were produced for a better technical understanding of the facts. Unfortunately, from an audiovisual standpoint, due to the remoteness of the area of operation, the records provided to the media from the operating units’ means was sparse so that the complexity of the search could be better understood.

 

At a certain moment, it was noted that two spokesmen were employed. One at the headquarters of the Armada General Staff in the “Libertad” Building, autonomous city of Buenos Aires, and another at the “Mar del Plata” Naval Base. Why such decision was made?

As a lesson learned, there must be a single spokesman from the beginning. Another point is that perhaps the crisis staff would have to be established in “Mar del Plata” because it was the submarine’s home port with the usual presence of crew relatives. This is why the “Mar del Plata” Naval Base spokesman was employed.

 

How was the process of handling the information, from acquisition to dissemination by the media?

In the beginning, there was a lot of uncertainty. Information was received by telephone and in writing for naval messages. Sometimes they were scarce and came at the last minute. Because they were very technical and difficult to understand, they needed to be expressed in other terms, a process that took time.

 

How were the press conferences organized? How many times were performed?

The press releases were released for 26 consecutive days, up to four times a day, in the “Journalistic Attack” mode on the stairs of the “Libertad” Building for the first 5 days, and then with press conferences in the lobby of the same building, Armada General Staff Headquarters, supplemented daily with written notes.

 

What lessons can be drawn from the perspective of the institutional communication of the SAR case concerning the submarine ARA “San Juan”, which took place from November 17 to 30, 2017?

The Navy has experienced the most difficult situation since the Malvinas War, leading the operating means, mile by mile, all the time, without rest and using the best technologies available in the world, in a quest that developed with the conviction of dispelling uncertainties that most afflicted and disturbed both crew families and all members of the Navy.

 The management of institutional communication and professionalism in conducting search operations has consolidated the Institution’s internal culture, increased its pride in belonging, and strengthened its image, despite certain criticisms, which cannot but exist given the complexity of facts, the bulk of the tragedy and conflicting interests.