History

This is what 'eternal patrol' means for submarines

As of this writing, it appears there is little hope for an actual rescue of the crew of the Argentinean submarine ARA San Juan. Some reports indicate an explosion was picked up by both American and United Nations underwater acoustic sensors.


USS Thresher (SSN 593) in 1961. (U.S. Navy photo)

When submarines are lost, they are said to be "on eternal patrol." This comes from the fact that many times, the term submariners use for deployment is "patrol," a term that predates World War II (a 1938 movie focusing on a subchaser was called Submarine Patrol). A combat deployment is often called a "war patrol," and American ballistic missile submarines are on "deterrent patrols."

These patrols begin when a sub leaves port, and end on their return. When a sub sinks, and doesn't make it home, the patrol is "eternal."

USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1960. (US Navy photo)

The loss of a peacetime submarine is not unheard of. Since the end of World War II, the United States lost four submarines. Two, the nuclear-powered attack submarines USS Thresher (SSN 593) and USS Scorpion (SSN 589), were lost with all hands. In the late 1940s, two Balao-class diesel-electric submarines, USS Cochino (SS 345) and USS Stickleback (SS 415) also sank as the result of accidents.

An Oscar-class submarine similar to the Kursk, which sank after an accidental explosion in 2000. (DOD photo)

The United States has not been alone in losing submarines. Most famously, in 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine Kursk, an Oscar-class vessel, suffered an on-board explosion and sank with all hands. The Soviet Union had five nuclear-powered submarines sink, albeit one, a Charlie-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, was raised, and they lost other subs as well, including one in a spectacular explosion pierside.

A Whiskey Twin Cylinder-class submarine. One sank after an accident, and was not found for over seven years. (DOD photo)

It sometimes can take a long time to find those subs. A Whiskey "Twin Cylinder"-class guided-missile submarine that sank in 1961 took over seven years to find. The Soviets never did locate the Golf-class ballistic missile submarine K-129 until investigative reporter Jack Anderson revealed the existence of Project Azorian.

A photo of the Golf-class ballistic-missile submarine K-129, which sank in 1968, and was later salvaged by the CIA. (CIA photo)

While the cause of the explosion that has apparently sent the San Juan and her crew of 44 to the bottom of the South Atlantic may never be known, what is beyond dispute is that submariners face a great deal of danger – even when carrying out routine peacetime operations.