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…