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Diesel Boats Forever! or ever?

German and Italian Type 212

Modern German Diesel Electric Submarines (Type 212)

by J. Scott Shipman (diesel electric submarines, naval strategy, Taiwan, Republic of China, submarines)

David Trombly at the new Fear, Honor, and Interest blog posted a thought provoking article on Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance.

This post caught my eye for several reasons, not the least of which is that in another life I rode submarines (ballistic missile subs: USS VON STEUBEN (SSBN-632) and the commissioning crew of USS PENNSYLVANIA (SSBN-735). Another is I attended on behalf of a former employer in 2001/2002 an industry day event soliciting interest in the US production of diesel electric submarines for the use of Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC). US production was authorized (see background: here) because the ROC was having difficulty purchasing through European diesel boat manufacturers. Germany, Sweden, and France have proven platforms, as do the Russians and their KILO class. All of these nations export submarines, but few want to antagonize the ROC’s increasingly global neighbor China.

The industry day event was well attended, but as I sat there I had little confidence there would ever be a diesel electric submarine produced in a US shipyard. Here’s why: the US Navy is heavily vested in nuclear powered submarines which are incredibly expensive, with the most modern VIRGINIA Class coming in at around $2B a copy. When compared to modern diesel boats which run between $200-$300M, Big Navy understandably wants to avoid any possible comparisons—or for the question even to be raised. The industry event was more a public show of supporting Congress and the president than a serious inquiry, and nothing more than slides were produced (which is often the case in Washington, btw).

The USN is overextended by almost any measure, our national shipbuilding infrastructure is perhaps at its lowest point and our Fleet has less ships (about 283) than any time since WWI. We have about 70 submarines (18 OHIO Class of which 4 are guided missile submarines, 7 VA Class, 3 SEAWOLF, and about 43 older Los Angeles Class). These boats spend about half their time deployed, which drives up maintenance costs and cost to crew separated from family [the OHIO Class ships rotate crews about every 90 days] Our submarines are built exclusively in Groton, CT, and Newport News, VA. We have naval shipyards for heavy modifications, nuclear refueling/overhauls in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Bremerton, and Pearl Harbor (though I don’t believe Portsmouth or Pearl are authorized refueling facilities).

In this environment of increased op-tempo, and low numbers of ships/boats we have continuing challenges to the maritime domain, including China’s increasingly muscular approach in the South China sea and that age old naval scourge, piracy. (H/T Feral Jundi at Facebook)

These realities, combined with an ally in need (and perhaps many more potential customers) seem to form a perfect storm of need for a small fleet of stealthy, American-made diesel electric submarines. If the Obama administration wanted to strengthen it bonafides in East Asia and with the American public, it would reengage on the Taiwan submarine issue and this time, instead of a deal neither side could abide (our side the very thought and insane requirements, their side appropriating the funds). If Taiwan is willing to pay for R&D, allow the building shipyard to keep the design, and find an American suitor, that all translates into that three letter word Joe Biden is so fond of: jobs. Jobs that would have little to no reliance on the increasingly precarious federal government and shrinking defense budgets. Taiwan and the region would gain stealthy deterrents to potential Chinese mischief, the US could invigorate a fairly inbred shipbuilding industry with new talent, new ideas, and new competition, and maybe, just maybe we could build a few boats for those missions too mundane or cost-prohibitive for our nuke boats (like the piracy problem for a starter).

Postscript: As a former nuclear navy submariner, I am intimately familiar of the many positives nuke boats offer (I once spent 82 days submerged). My musing here is not a call for replacement, but rather to point out yet again (see this analysis), that our navy should have room for both in our increasingly complex world.

Please read my exchange with David at the Fear, Honor, and Interest post, as some innovative ideas not included in this post are presented. But I thought I’d share with the zenpundit audience as we spend a great deal of time talking strateegery here, but rarely naval issues, and I don’t post often enough…

15 Responses to “Diesel Boats Forever! or ever?”

  1. david ronfeldt Says:

    aha, a post about an interesting naval matter.  it makes me wonder anew about a related matter that i’ve wondered about for decades, ever since first thinking about networked swarming in military and non-military contexts.  i’ve hesitated to inquire, mostly because i’m really not a military guy, but maybe i can ask here anyway:  
    we’ve long had aircraft carriers.  why don’t we have seacraft carriers too?  
    say a ship about the size of an aircraft carrier, but loaded with myriad small boats of various kinds for dispersal (and retrieval) over large areas.  they could linger and maneuver a long time.  in addition to being well-armed, they could have lots of sensors, including small drones.  some might be submersible, others just plain speedy atop.  with it all being quite fuel-efficient, cost-effective, and deadly — tho not as awe-inspiring as an aircraft carrier.
    i suppose that command of littorals and straits would be major purposes.  i also suppose that there are good long-established reasons to rely on aircraft carriers and task forces for such purposes.  but i still keep wondering about it all, esp as times and places keep changing.  besides, a versatile seacraft system might help protect an aircraft carrier battle group.
    have such seacrat carrier systems already been considered before?  if so, to what effect?  if not, why not?  

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi David,
    I have heard of this concept, but never more than a theory. The arsenal ship concept has been captured in the OHIO class SSGN, where the weapons complement includes lot of TOMAHAWK cruise missiles and SOF capability. There has been a healthy debate recently on the question of super carriers with Captain Jerry Hendrix publicly questioning the super carrier program (you can find the link: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2011-05/twilight-uperfluous-carrier).
    In a world of potential anti-carrier ballistic missiles, big can be bad without a very good defense, so your seacraft carrier would face the same challenges perhaps. I don’t recall your seacraft concept—we have a relatively new class of amphibious ship LPD-17 SAN ANTONIO class (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_San_Antonio_(LPD-17)) that may have the capability you suggest.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Scott,
    " Here’s why: the US Navy is heavily vested in nuclear powered submarines which are incredibly expensive, with the most modern VIRGINIA Class coming in at around $2B a copy. When compared to modern diesel boats which run between $200-$300M, Big Navy understandably wants to avoid any possible comparisons—or for the question even to be raised"
    Understandable indeed. The next question might be "Hey….what the hell is our naval strategy, anyway?" and I’m not certain we would get a coherent answer.

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Given the "leadership" of the navy these last few years, I’m not sure anyone could articulate it beyond Beltway-speak BS jargon. There are a few very good officers who are thinking (Capt Hendrix is among em—just hope he gets a flag), but I’m not holding out hope. We’ve talked of the AF fighter mafia, well the navy has a nuke sub mafia—never mind the utility or cost of the platform, it MUST be nuclear powered…
    We used to joke that the weapons on our ballistic missile sub were the secondary mission to proving Rickover’s tea-kettle worked as advertised—and like all good humor, had a smidge of truth…
    If there is any coherence it is being hidden well…LCS comes to mind, but I’ll stick with undersea warfare for this post…

  5. Diesel Boats Forever!…or ever? | Fear, Honor, and Interest Says:

    […] This is cross posted from zenpundit.com […]

  6. JKSchaffer Says:


    The Navy is afraid of ending up with nothing but diesel subs and "Harrier carriers" so they don’t talk about stuff like that. Really though, do you imagine that there is a submariner out there that would not trade his diesel boat for a nuke? I can see arguing about one or two engines for a fighter or tracks vs. wheels for an armored vehicle, but we are talking about submarines. Current air-independent propulsion schemata get one nowhere near the capabilities of a nuclear sub.

    As for a coherent defense policy, figure the odds.

    Great site. I really appreciate it. You are a cut above.

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi JKS, Many thanks for the kind words! There is a breed of sailor (I served with many) who would trade their nuke for a diesel. Behind the speed and persistence of a nuke boat is an incredibly rigorous and unforgiving set of processes, procedures, and continual evaluations—making life difficult for those on the crew who don’t take care of the tea kettle. So while many would prefer the sports car aspect of a nuke, I suspect many would enjoy a respite from "nukism."

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Here is an article which asks good questions of a future US DB solution:

  9. historyguy99 Says:

    Hi Scott,

    Good stuff that adds traffic to the intersection of ideas regarding naval strategy that with the exception of a few sites like http://www.informationdissemination.net/2009/06/theories-and-considerations.html, which seems to be the best platform of non-inside the gold braid and beltway source for discussing these issues. Glad to see you get a platform to share your views.

  10. J.ScottShipman Says:

    HG, Thanks for sharing the link, and you’re right ID is a destination site for navy stuff. This post was the result of a nice give an take at Fear, Honor, and Interest and got me to thinking about an old dream of building diesel boats. Many thanks!

  11. JKSchaffer Says:

    I stand corrected. Hadn’t thought of the regulatory effects of living next to a reactor. I can only imagine.

  12. Dale Says:

    Good discussion about this issue.  I served aboard USS Redfish during her last two years before decommissioning in June 1968.  Redfish was launched in 1944 & saw significant action during WWII.  I have been impressed by articles relating the US Navy’s use of a Swedish diesel submarine off the California coast to hone their ASW skills against a diesel boat that is very quiet & very difficult to detect.  I do think that diesel boats with current technology would be a very cost-effective strategy for taking to patrol/operational pressure off our nuke boats.

  13. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Dale, Many thanks for the comment and thanks for your service! I’ve a commentary in Defense News this week on this topic. We need diesel boats for our Allies in the Pacific Rim now.

  14. Everett Good Says:

    I am a 73 year old retired  ARMY Reserveist, partly driven out of the nuclear submarine Navy by politics, and nepotism…  Also, I was too vocal about some things that irritated the wardroom.  I qualified on USS BREAM in 1962, in Pearl Harbor, and served with a few ‘oldtimers’ wearing WWII combat patrol pins.  After Nuke School, I went aboard TRITON,  ssn586, 8th nuke sub.  In true Navy tradition, I was trained on an aircraft carrier plant, designed by Westinghouse, then, placed aboard a submarine plant, designed by General Electric.  Herein lies the rub:
    TRITON plant had a prototype a land-based mockup for training, and a graduate could walk aboard TRITON and take the watch, very little training required.  There were 3 0r 4 of us misfits, thought slow in requalification, trained on other prototypes, and shunned by the clicque  of nukes trained on S3G prototype.  They just didn’t know how to answer our questions, or didn’t care.  That, along with a chief engineer, willing to blame anybody for his really thoughtless mistakes, made me a very bitter sailor, unwilling to reenlist, no matter what the incentive.

  15. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Mr. Good, Many thanks for your service—in both services. I served with a few diesel boat sailors while assigned to a 41-for freedom nuke boat…they hated the nuke culture and many, like you, voted with their feet.

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