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Might the Navy Get Conventional Submarines?

December 11, 2009


This is a modest proposal on what some would consider unlikely, the return to building conventionally powered, nonnuclear submarines in the US Navy. First, here is the setup via Raymond Pritchett:

If the Navy wants to reduce the number of nuclear submarines, maybe Congress should impose a new law that requires the US Navy to maintain 8-16 non-nuclear submarines. The world is building conventionally powered submarines at prices 1/10th the cost of a Virginia class, and the often used endurance argument for submarines is a load of crap when one considers how Germany operated off the US coast in WWII with submarines that came in at less than 1000 tons. Congress has already legislated the Navy to only use existing hulls for surface combatants with their nuclear power requirement. There is nothing restricting Congress from making an energy initiative out of the submarine community to forward battery and hydrogen power technologies.

I don’t think it  matters if Congress wants to reduce submarine orders, but that’s  happening. Now it appears the Navy is backing away from its plans to build 2 Virginia boats annually, we will likely struggle to keep boats at 30 total as the Cold War era Los Angeles, still the backbone of the force, retires from age.

But hope is not lost, and we get a gleam of it from the following DefPro article:

Today at Fincantieri’s shipyard in Muggiano there was the ceremony to celebrate the cutting of the first sheeting – marking the start-up of construction of the first of the second pair of class U212A “Todaro” submarines, ordered by the Central Unit for Naval Armament – NAVARM for the Italian Navy…

Construction of the two submarines is the continuation of a program which started in 1994 in cooperation with the German Submarine Consortium, which led to two submarines being built for Italy – the “Todaro” and the “Scirè”, delivered by Fincantieri in 2006 and 2007 respectively – and four submarines for Germany.
At an overall length of 56 metres, the vessels will have a surface displacement of 1,450 tons and a maximum diameter of 7 metres and be able to reach a submerged speed of 20 knots with a crew of 24.

So, what does German submarines built by an Italian shipbuilding firm, for the Italian Navy have to do with the USN? Well, Fincantieri recently purchased the American shipbuilding company building the Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS). It might not be a stretch for the same company to construct U-212s for an American customer.

I would hope it would still be the U-212 boat, a great design, practical and affordable. It is far from a Blue Water battleship, nor should it be. Here is a good coastal boat which could operate with our littoral forces, in confined waters where the giant Virginia’s probably should not venture, due to their exquisite cost and small numbers. The following post via Softpedia gives an idea how this might work:

Being able to operate in shallow waters, near the shore, with a minimum depth of 18 meters, far beyond the capabilities of a nuclear submarine, the U 212 can launch the German equivalent of Navy SEAL, special forces units that can go undetected and sink docked ships, neutralize the crew or rescue secret agents when all other means failed, and all this before the enemies ever knowing what hit them.

What more could you ask for in modern war at sea? With some 400 examples of non-nuclear submarines in the world’s arsenals, it is obvious the concept is not obsolete and you can buy at least 4 for the price of 1 Virginia class. The nuclear boat never displaced their cheaper, less capable alternatives, only made a already incredible capability better. As we see with the numbers, and America’s sub fleet now at half size and falling, the drawbacks of an all-nuclear sub fleet is you can’t afford enough of them especially in a era of spartan naval budgets, which may fall even further.

More here from Milan Vego on SSN’s versus SSK’s.

*That’s the Italian Type 212 submarine Scire in the poster, from a USN photo.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael permalink
    November 25, 2012 12:37 pm

    As a former Navy veteran I would like to see America turn out 150 subs of the same class as Germany and Sweden are producing. Range isn’t really an issue as they CAN be resupplied at sea just like they were in WW2. Our surface fleets are going to the dogs and I feel our best bet is to build a huge fleet of conventional subs, resupply ships and long range cruiser size surface ships with advanced electronics and 6 INCH GUNS!

  2. Anonymous permalink
    June 7, 2011 11:57 am

    US Navy Submarine Force veteran here, two decades, MM1/SS….

    Diesel boats are fine and dandy , but are no match against a SSN, specially in a fight when the only way to get away from torpedoes is with speed…. so althought they would be advantageous in shallow waters, a SSN is still the way to go, because we don’t know what the future may bring, and you don’t want to find out you are outmatch at the last minute, while you are in the fight…

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 14, 2009 7:01 am

    Des, I agree! Springbored has posted something similar today:

    He also “scooped” me on this idea last year!

  4. DesScorp permalink
    December 14, 2009 12:59 am

    I’d rather have a $600 million conventional sub than a $600 million LCS.

  5. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 13, 2009 6:56 am

    For those still following this thread, read this, especially the last paragraph!

  6. nico permalink
    December 12, 2009 7:26 pm

    has there been a study on how many SSN/SSK the US Navy would need? what would be the right mix? i think we should buy a small batch,say, 4 0r 5 from Germany or Italy. i think to many people still think about WWII when it comes to these boats, the navy probably is scared that once we buy a few and how capable these new SSK are, pressure would build to stop buying so many SSN.

    we can forward deploy them, so do we really have to worry so much about range?
    it’s not like we are going to have them cross the Pacific all the time and they are made for shallow waters, where we need to operate, i.e. Persian Gulf/ Korea.

    also, SSK have a smaller public footprint than SSN, foreign countries would probably accept US SSK far easier then a US SNN, isn’t that a benefit?

  7. Graham Strouse permalink
    December 12, 2009 6:16 pm

    The WWII comparison is indeed facetious. Modern diesel-electric & AIP submarines can stay underwater for a very long time, have adequate speed & plenty of ordnance. Range is quite sufficient. And consider that even nuclear submariners prefer to creep along then go hot rod: engine noise & sonar performance decrease dramatically at high speeds.

    Another factor which is not often addressed is crew competence. Nuke subs are notoriously hard to operate effectively. So much effort goes into maintaining the bloody reactor. Too many engineers & not enough warfighters.

    It’s also worth noting that since the advent of the nuclear submarine, there has been exactly ONE documented case of a nuke sub firing at & sinking an enemy vessel. That would be HMS Conqueror, which sank the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.

    At $2 billion a pop in an ailing economy, we can hardly afford to keep buying these gold-plated nuke subs which, in all likelihood, we’ll never use.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 12, 2009 5:32 am

    Recall it took the combined resources of 3 Western industrial democracies 4 years to finally manage the U-boats, when they were still very slow, and did most of their fighting on the surface. Today they can stay under water for a week with AIP and are much more stealthy. And we have no dedicated ASW flotilla. SSK’s also carry the same long-range weapons of the SSN’s though an old fashioned torp is still good enough.

  9. Distiller permalink
    December 12, 2009 1:19 am

    The minimum number of SSN is 60 = three per year with a 20 years service life, in an continously, evolutionary design process and with rolling modifications for older boats. And I’d be willing to trade a whole carrier group to keep that number stable.

    But the SSN fleet has nothing to do with SSKs, they complement each other. As said before here, the main area of operation would be the shallow waters off China and down to Singapore, with secondary playgrounds off Iran and NKorea, were the blue water SSN are too big. And as long as USV technology doesn’t allow to do it remote, I think the Navy would be well advised to get eight 212A boats plus two dedicated Flo/Flo-Tenders.

  10. Hudson permalink
    December 12, 2009 1:17 am

    Yes, the U-boat service lost more than practically anybody, though how many Japanese subs survived? Not many. My Old Man flew B-17s with the 379th Heavy Bombardment Group, in England, much of it before the Mustang came on the scene. The 379th suffered 48% casualties (aircraft losses rather than crews) by war’s end, fairly typical of the 8th’s bomber losses. The percentage of returning planes damaged beyond repair raised that figure considerably. After my Old Man came home in early ’44, part of his kit traveled by a separate ship, which was torpedoed and sunk.

  11. Benjamin Walthrop permalink
    December 11, 2009 10:27 pm

    Nope for a number of very good reasons.

  12. elgatoso permalink
    December 11, 2009 8:22 pm

    Blind Man’s Bluff
    whiskey a-go-go.
    The soviets probes rang steel chills trough Gudgeon.A ship had zeroed on them.Operating just in batteries and submerged ,Cudgeon couldn’t outrun them,couldn’t do much than a few knots.
    A lot of times in this book you see situations like this.That it the problem with diesel subs.Can’t run.

  13. Chuck Hill permalink
    December 11, 2009 8:02 pm

    If I remember correctly, the U-boat arm lost 33, 000 of their 39,000 members, worse than even the 8th air force–probably worse than the Kamikaze force.

    On the other hand likely adversaries like Iran and North Korea are very poorly prepared to do any ASW.

  14. December 11, 2009 7:49 pm

    This is an interesting topic and one that I’m inclined to think a moderately sized SSK complement to our core SSN force is a possibly a good thing. However I think the logistical problem is still in question. The comparison to the U-boats in WWII is not terribly relevant if you ask me. Back then the U-boats spent the majority of their time on the surface (can’t be done nowadays) and got refueled by also surfaced “milch-cow” submarines to be able to make it to our Atlantic coast. Once we developed radar and the maritime version of the B-24 to close the gap in the Atlantic the U-boats were done for. I don’t know the numbers but I would venture that of all the major branches of arms in all the major combatants of WWII none suffered a more devastating and horrendous death rate than the German U-boat service.

    Given modern radar and airborne patrol assets, how would the US actually get SSK’s to places like the Persian Gulf, Sunda Strait, etc?

    Also, I think you have the responsibility between politician and acquisition official for our unfortunately pathetic acquisition death spiral (the so called unilateral disarmament and why is it so dang expensive?) backwards. Frequently it is the politicians that don’t have a good grasp on military matters who are more impressed the more bells and whistles you put on something, and thus are more likely to back those programs in appropriations bills over the simpler designs. Can you imagine a politician trying to propose/back a perhaps forward stealth quarter only $50M fighter rather than the JSF? How much flak they would get for foisting a “less capable” platform on our armed forces ensuring the death of servicemembers when the more capable JSF was available? As one of many “positive” feedback loops (although extremely negative in consequence) defense industries will spread the sub-contractor/supplier base for the more and more capabilities across many congressional districts. Sadly I don’t know the how of getting out of the acquisition death spiral. I agree that the result of getting out of it would look like a larger number of more diverse platforms that are less omni-role and more single purpose and lean in their design. But I wouldn’t put too much faith in the politicians to pull us out of it.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 11, 2009 6:44 pm

    Alex 2.0 said “I would’t trust the RN, USN or MN to request an SSK that would be austere enough”

    You make a good point, and their record shows they cannot be trusted. If the politicians don’t take steps to freeze the size of warship design, they will load it with every unnecessary add-on you can possibly imagine. Which is why we constantly harp about the 1000-1500 ton hull limit, since they are not to be trusted with anything bigger, plus it is a very capable type of ship historically.

    I can’t help but think too we are being dazzled by the enhanced capability of SSNs instead of the thinking what a force of SSKs might do for us. Here is a very good, very capable boat, of a type that held the world under seige in the last two world wars. Sure, we finally managed them, but it was very, very hard. I don’t think Western navies have nearly the mindset they need for anti-submarine warfare. It likely might be all we should be thinking about.

    I see the SSK’s as complementing the SSN’s. Hopefully, we will consider what these boats can do, rather than what they cannot do, the first being to restore numbers to the fleet, increase its patrolling area, and give rest to some of our worn out, over-worked crews who have to man our shrunken fleets. the new SSNs might can do many wondrous things, “1 ship replacing 4” or whatever, but their crews are still human.

  16. Joe K. permalink
    December 11, 2009 6:08 pm

    That first quote is just flat out stupid. He’s acting as though Germany could have built either diesel or nuclear subs in WWII but opted for diesel…like the technology was even possible in the 1930s-40s.

  17. Alex 2.0 permalink
    December 11, 2009 5:26 pm

    Well if you can think of an area of ocean that needs patrolling then conventional subs are a great idea, the Royal Navy up until 1991 was maintaining a conventional force almost the size of her nuclear equivilent, main work was patrolling the GIUK gap (Taking care of Soviet submarines in the atlantic was our job!) up until the end of the cold war the plan was for 12 then 10 then 9 Upholder class submarines, 4 were built, then with no need for the conventional submarines anymore they were axed in favour of a lean all nuclear force, the 4 Upholders rotted away until eventually bought (at a nominal price) by the Canadians (before someone brings that one up again)

    Conventionally powered subs are most effective as a defencive weapon, in amongst the enemy without escort and they’re very much in problems

    As to the littoral waters argument, there is no doubt which is the more potent weapon in the littoral environment but there is also little argument that the most effective attack platform in the littorals are rotaries.

    I Appreciate the origins of your concern we’re in similar bother this side of the pond, 17 SSNs in 1990 (and 10 SSKs) outlined that a force of 10 SSNs would be required in the 1997 SDR now it appears the RN will be lucky to get 7 (6 looks like it at the moment) even if cost wasn’t a problem the maximum that can be built is 8 before the bombers replacements need to be sorted, lack of facilities; there was 16 years between the last Trafalgar and HMS Astute (there was the bombers between them but still the better side of a decade with the submarine yards empty) the capability is long gone.

    Even another handful of Nuclear submarines is a greater weapon than an entire class of Conventional ones (in the case of the UK, France and the USA anyway infact if policies were different Australia would benefit from some a class of modern austere SSNs [by austere I’m not referring to cheap and nasty but more to not throwing yourself in at the deep end, with lots of un-necessary bells and whistles])

    I’m slowly buying into the idea of a resurgence of 1,500-2,500T Corvettes in modern navies but you’ll not convince me that a extensive class of even as much as 50 SSKs to complement 30 SSNs is better than a sole force of 40-42 SSNs, its not so much the endurance as its speed, size and it’s relatively unflexible platform that’s the problem

    Not only that but I wouldn’t trust the RN, USN or MN to request an SSK that would be austere enough(this time I do mean cheap and nasty) to procure in enough numbers to be able to hold a candle to the capabilties of a smaller number of SSNs… If you’re driving Range Rovers you’ll not be overly keen to jump back into a Lada.

  18. Sanem permalink
    December 11, 2009 5:19 pm

    the gold-plated curse: buying F-35’s at a 100 milion a piece, when a 10 milion Reaper will do the job better

  19. Mike Burleson permalink*
    December 11, 2009 3:49 pm

    elgatoso-I’m not sure of what you are referring to but like I said in the post, the problem isn’t with the Nuclear subs’ capability, but affordability. We are now down to less than half the number in the Cold War, and for many functions needed for submarines, like the littoral mission I mentioned, a high end warship is not needed.

    I wish we could afford 100 or even 75. We will be lucky to not lose some of the 50 we have by 2030, as I said because of the age of the LA Class. Everytime the USN seeks to build an “affordable” nuke, it ends up costing as least as much if not more than its predecessor as we see with Virginia. The SSK’s are already there, and if bought off the shelf, we can add an amazing capability to the fleet, all for the price of a handful of SSNs.

  20. Hudson permalink
    December 11, 2009 3:17 pm

    Thanks, elgatoso, for mentioning “Blind Man’s Bluff.” I’ve been reading reviews/comments of the book on Amazon and came across this sentence: “If, as Carl Builder wrote in “The Masks of War” (Rand/John Hopkins University Press, 1989), the Navy is happiest when left alone, then submariners must be the happiest sailors in the Navy.”

    We certainly don’t leave the Navy alone, do we! I think there is a truth in this statement though. The Navy has certainly got a lot right in all its years of service in war and peace.

    And I see your point about the long range operations of the SSNs. Do submariners take some special oath of silence unlike in other services not to reveal technical or operational information, like the Mafia code of omerta? I wonder.

  21. elgatoso permalink
    December 11, 2009 2:27 pm

    After read Blind Man’s Bluff:The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage I am not so sure if I want again diesel-powered subs in my fleet.

  22. Joe permalink
    December 11, 2009 1:13 pm

    Good idea. This would be an example of change we should buy into.

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