The Domecq García shipyard, tucked away in the southern corner of the City of Buenos Aires, is slowly coming to life again after having been stripped by the neoconservative economic policies applied in the 90s.
This specialized shipyard, set up in the 1970s to a Tyssen design to maintain the Argentine navy's submarines, was sold in the 90s, with all the equipment for submarine maintenance reverting to the navy and the yard itself eventually closing in 1994, despite the fact that it was arguably the best shipyard of its kind in Latin America and many other parts of the world.
At a meeting with the Herald, Rear Admiral Gustavo Efraín Leprón, the General Director of the navy's ordinance, and directly responsible for the Domecq García shipyard, said that it has been a struggle to get the yard back on its feet, ever since the navy launched the proposal back in 2003.
"We submitted the proposal back in 2003 and it was immediately authorized by the Defence Ministry," Leprón said, adding "we were given an initial budget spread over two years and as of 2006 the shipyard now finances itself."
"Not only does the revenue meet the fixed costs of the yard, but there is a small profit left over that is reinvested in improving the yard's infrastructure, " Leprón added, with the revenue arising from work carried out for the private sector.
The admiral went on to state that when the navy moved back into the yard in 2004, they found that little was left of its original equipment, and with the exception of key pieces of machinery that the navy had rescued before its closure and mothballed at its Puerto Belgrano base, much of the equipment, such as presses and plate cutting tables, had to be acquired again. "This equipment enabled us to get this project going again," the admiral said.
Leprón detailed that when they took over they had had to replace all the pneumatic piping, as well as buy a compressor that was no longer there, besides replacing all the electricity wiring and the water and gas networks "that had been completely dismantled." "There wasn't even a screwdriver left," one naval source said.
When the yard was closed, in 1999-2000 the navy was forced to send its submarines to Brazil for repairs, although Leprón stated that now that Domecq García is running, these operations can be carried out here, with the overhaul of the San Juan submarine due to start any day.
"This is the navy's strategic interest in Domecq, to have the maintenance capability for our submarines," Leprón emphasized.
Of the three operational submarines in the fleet (made in Germany), Santa Cruz was overhauled in Brazil, while the Salta received its overhaul at Domecq, a task that met huge obstacles as it took place at the time of the yard's closure in 1994 and extended beyond the closure date by a couple of months "with all the logistical nightmares that this involved."
Leprón's largest regret is that the Santa Cruz overhaul was a job that could have and should have been done in Argentina, but circumstances did not allow it.
With Domecq García on the same site as the Tandanor shipyards ? only separated by a mesh fence ? Leprón stated that it would make sense to merge both shipyards, with the navy retaining the right to maintain its submarines there, while surplus capacity would be used for the private sector.
"The Domecq-Tandanor complex, as one should call it, is complementary to the other major shipyards in Argentina. While the Río Santiago shipyard can build large vessels, Domecq García can repair and build smaller craft but with a much higher added value, and the navy's Puerto Belgrano repair facilities has the only dry docks capable of handling large vessels," Leprón stated.
However, although Leprón stated that a proposal to merge Tandanor and Domecq García has been submitted to the Defence Ministry, no decision has yet been taken, probably due to the fact that Tandanor is still faced with a lawsuit from the days when it was privatized in the 90s and the fact that it is now managed by a workers' cooperative.
Moving on to the more general issues of the navy itself, Leprón said that within the restraints of the national budget, the navy has a long-term project to recover, maintain and add new equipment, "a project that is under way not only with navy capabilities, but also with the assistance of state organizations and companies in the private sector."
"This is a government policy that we have no trouble at all in going along with as we have proven how successful it is," Leprón said, describing the cooperation between the navy and the private sector as a "virtuous circle."
The largest project on the navy's hands at the moment, the Rear Admiral said, is completing the overhaul of the Libertad sail-training ship, currently taking place at the Rio Santiago shipyards. The overhaul, involving the replacement of engines, piping, wiring and almost every other device on board, plus a new teak deck, is expected to be concluded by December when sea trials will be carried out.
Beyond this there is also a project under way to completely overhaul landing craft used by the marine corps, amphibious craft that were originally acquired from the United States but which are now over 30 years old.
"To modernize these craft abroad would have been prohibitive, but local companies have the expertise to do the job to high standards and at a fraction of the cost that would have been charged by companies abroad," Leprón stated.
By Peter Johnson & Guillermo Háskel Buenos Aires Herald