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South America's Growing Interest in Antarctica Drives Polar Ship Buys

Aug. 3, 2014 - 02:31PM   |  
By JOSÉ HIGUERA   |   Comments
Antarctic Ambitions: Argentina's Irizar is the only icebreaker in the inventory of a South American navy, but it has been out of service since April 2007, when it was damaged by a fire onboard.
Antarctic Ambitions: Argentina's Irizar is the only icebreaker in the inventory of a South American navy, but it has been out of service since April 2007, when it was damaged by a fire onboard. (Argentine Navy)
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BUENOS AIRES — Colombia is set to join its South American neighbors in their plans to upgrade Antarctic assets and establishments, which are opening bases and buying polar ships.

The interest among South American nations in Antarctica has been going on for the past two decades, when Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador joined the long established presence of Argentina and Chile.

Colombia, which launched its first Antarctic expedition in 2013, has plans for a permanent base and the procurement of a polar ship. Argentina, Chile and Peru, meanwhile, are all interested in procuring icebreakers.

“It is driven by the current push to exploit natural resources towards the North Pole, which South American countries expect to be replicated in Antarctica,” said Emilio Meneses, an analyst based in Santiago. Expectations are that it will change the Antarctic Treaty, which at the moment allows only scientific activities and forbids exploitation.

The countries with the most consolidated and longest presence in Antarctica are Argentina and Chile, and both nations have claims to substantial portions of territory in the so-called South American Quadrant. Both claims are slightly superposed on each other, encompassing the Antarctic peninsula under the names Land of San Martin and Land of O’Higgins, respectively. Adding complexity, the UK also has claims over the peninsula, which is called Land of Ross on British maps.

Argentina has six permanent bases in Antarctica, staffed by 250 military and civilian personnel including scientists, plus a number of posts and shelters that are used only during the summer. Marambio is the biggest base, with DHC-6 Twin Otter transport and liaison aircraft and Mil Mi-17 medium transport helicopters permanently stationed there, while C-130 aircraft make frequent flights from Rio Gallegos in the continent. Argentina is also the only country in South America that owns a real icebreaker, the 11,000-ton Irizar completed in 1978 by Finland’s Wärtsillä. The ship was extensively damaged by onboard fire in 2007, and since 2009 has been through extended repairs and modification works, that are expected to be completed in 2015.

Argentina has requirements for a second icebreaker, and the local building of such a vessel with Ukrainian technical support was studied from 2009, to include the fitting of a nuclear power plant developed by local firm INVAP. But rows between the Ministry of Defense and the newly created Ministry of Security, which wanted to handle the project and to place the ship under Coast Guard control, led to its freezing.

Its reactivation is under consideration now, after a Russian offer of technical support and financial credit received during President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Buenos Aires. Also under consideration is the purchase of the 10,500-ton icebreaker Kapitan Nikolaev, completed by Wärtsillä in 1978 and also being offered by Russia.

Meanwhile, Chile has four permanent bases in Antarctica staffed by 160 people, including three belonging to the military services and a scientific base handled by the Foreign Affairs Ministry and its National Antarctic Institute, as well as a number of posts occupied only during summer. The biggest base is the Complex Presidente Frei, under Air Force control, with DHC-6 Twin Otter liaison aircraft and Bell 412 helicopters stationed permanently and C-130 flights connecting regularly from Punta Arenas.

The Chilean Navy owns the 6,500-ton Almirante Viel, completed in 1969 as an icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard and acquired in 1995. The vessel is reaching the end of its service life and negotiations with undisclosed ship builders are underway to provide technical assistance for designing and building an 8,000-ton icebreaker in local shipyard ASMAR. A budget of US $150 million has been granted by the government. Meanwhile, Marinero Fuentealba, an 1,800-ton offshore patrol vessel with reinforced hull for polar operations, is being completed by ASMAR for commissioning in August.

The Brazilian Antarctic program started early in 1982 with the procurement of a 2,200-ton Danish-built polar casourgo ship, rechristened Barão de Teffé, which allowed its Navy to launch the first expedition the same year. Antarctic operations were handed in 1994 over to the 2,300-ton Ary Rongel, a Norwegian-built polar vessel completed in 1981, which was joined in 2009 by Almirante Maximiano, a US-built polar ship completed in 1974 and refitted in Bremerhaven during 2008. Brazil has not revealed intentions to buy an icebreaker, but it is a logical step likely to happen.

Brazil’s Antarctic base, Comandante Ferraz, established in 1984 and destroyed in 2012 by an explosion and fire, will be rebuilt with bigger facilities through an investment of $52 million.

Early in the 1980s, Peru initiated expeditions to Antarctica, and in 1983 established its first and sole base there, Macchu Picchu, staffed by 30 people. The Peruvian Navy operates the polar research ship Humbolt, completed in 1980 by local shipyard SIMA and to be replaced by the end of this decade by a locally built icebreaker. The costs are expected to amount to $80 million and conversations are underway with foreign shipbuilders for technical support.

Uruguay has the bases Artigas and Elichiribehety, established in 1984 in 1991. Artigas is the biggest base, with a staff of 20 people and a Bell 212 helicopter permanently attached. Supplies are delivered by C-130 transport aircraft and the Uruguayan Navy’s 1,700-ton logistic ship Vanguardia, completed in 1976 in Poland for Easter Germany and acquired in the 1990s.

Opened in 1990, Ecuador’s single base Maldonado is logistically supported by Chile and used only on summer. Permanent use from 2016 have been announced, and the procurement of a polar ship is under study. ■

Email: jhiguera@defensenews.com.

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