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Ishmael Wilbury: Sub Rosa Superweapon?

(Editor's note: the following was authored by Ishmael Wilbury, and is part of the series of articles written by the Bloggering Wilburys, but never publicly released -- before now. In light of this article, it seems especially timely.)

During the height of the Cold War, the United States Navy developed one of the most potent weapons: the nuclear-powered submarine. Ever since their invention, the submarine had never lived up to its potential. It was shackled to the surface, dependent on air for its crew and its propulsion plant. It could only live part of its life beneath the waves, and it was by this very nature compromised -- neither fish nor fowl, it had to be designed to spend a great deal of time atop the ocean, fighting waves and weather, not safely ensconced in the depths.

The advent of nuclear power finally led to the evolution of the submarine as a true underwater combatant, and not merely a submersible vessel. Nuclear power plants not only don't need air to function, but they can provide fresh air for their crews. It became not only possible, but common and eventually standard practice for nuclear-powered submarines to spend their entire cruises without ever breaking the surface.

Nuclear power also brought many other advantages to submarines. They allowed changes in hull design, optimized for underwater travel. Prior to this, submarines often could only move half as fast underwater as on the surface -- a combination of necessary hull design and lesser available power for propulsion. Nowadays, nuclear submarines can cruise the depths as fast as -- or even faster -- than surface combatants.

The atom, however, was not a panacea. There are disadvantages to be had.

For one, they are larger than conventionally-powered submarines. The reactors take up a great deal of space and weight. This means that they aren't as capable in constricted or shallow waters. For another, they are considerably more expensive. For a third, they require a hell of a lot more training of the crews -- operating and maintaining a nuclear reactor is not something that you can just pick up on. Fourthly, they are a highly politically sensitive item -- many people cannot distinguish a military nuclear reactor and a nuclear warhead.

Nuclear submarines are amazingly potent weapons, and they are almost untouchable by their conventionally-powered siblings.

But the diesel-electric submarine has its own strengths -- and they are not to be casually dismissed.

Some of those advantages are alluded to above, but they are significant enough to be reiterated:

They are smaller, which makes them more maneuverable and useful in constricted waterways -- such as the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

They are cheaper, which means a nation can have more of them for the same money as a nuclear boat.

They are less demanding on the crews, meaning that the talent pool is larger -- and more readily replaced.

They do not carry the nuclear stigma with the general populace.

In addition, they have other strengths. While they are considerably noisier when running their diesel engines, they are considerably quieter than the nuclear boats when submerged and running on their batteries -- indeed, they are virtually silent and undetectable.

With their non-nuclear status, they are far more readily available. Nations that build submarines are far more willing to sell them to other nations when they don't come with nuclear power plants -- and the buyers more willing to invest in boats that cost less, require less expertise to operate, and don't pose a huge potential environmental hazard.

The United States, for good or ill, chose to put all its submarine eggs into the nuclear basket almost 50 years ago. We have not built a non-nuclear submarine since 1958, and the last diesel-electric boat was decommissioned in 1990.

While our submarine forces are the most potent the world has ever seen, this expertise came at a price. Our dedication to the best nuclear-powered boats has left us woefully underprepared to deal with the threats posed by diesel-electric submarines -- and there are far more of those in the world than of other nuclear boats.

Further complicating the matter is that fighting against a diesel-electric boat is significantly different from fighting against a nuclear boat. And the United States, by its lack of such combatants, hasn't been able to fully prepare for any such conflicts. In late years, we've had to "borrow" diesel-electric boats from our NATO allies to use as sparring partners -- and we haven't been as invincible as we'd like to think we are.

With the costs of nuclear submarines constantly rising -- the new Virginia-class boats are running on the high side of two billion dollars apiece -- we might not be able to carve out money for a modern diesel-electric boat. Currently, we're adding one new boat a year, with plans to double that production in 2012 -- but that's doubtful. In the meantime, we're retiring our older boats a smidgen faster than that.

But as difficult as it might be, I think it is essential that we do spend the money. Even if it means licensing a design from another country -- or buying them outright.

Russia has 19 diesel-attack submarines, all variants of the highly-capable Kilo-class. Iran has three Russian-built Kilo-class submarines. China has 64 diesel-electric boats -- including Kilo-class and improved Kilo-class subs. And that's just three of the nine countries that have them, or plan to acquire some.

We are sorely lacking in expertise in fighting both with and against diesel-electric submarines, and that is a deficiency that could come back and cost us dearly.


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Comments (14)

I beg to differ in that we ... (Below threshold)

I beg to differ in that we are "sorely lacking in expertise in fighting... against diesel electric submarines..."

I can vouch from personal experience that we train against some of the best (the Japanese) on a regular basis (at least in the Pacific Fleet, dunno bout them Atlantic Ocean guys).

We handed them their butts every time.

You have a point on shallow water ops though.

Although I have no independ... (Below threshold)

Although I have no independent facts I can rely on in assessing ExSubNuke's statement, I hope he's right and have no reason to doubt him. I used to build nukes at Mare Island (yes, I'm dating myself) and I have to say that I have never met a more competent and motivated group in any context than the guys who wear twin dolphins.

That said, it can't be a good thing for national defense that environmentalists were able to get a US District Court judge to issue an injunction against the use of certain active sonar used in sub-hunting, even though the ban was overturned last week.

Well, truth be told, I can ... (Below threshold)

Well, truth be told, I can only vouch for the competency of the crew of 1 boat in the Pacific Fleet during 1995-2000.

But I doubt any other boat and crew was/is any less competent.

Sooner or later the batteri... (Below threshold)

Sooner or later the batteries on a diesel sub need charging. They have to snorkel to recharge(run the diesel) which is loud and noisy. That's when they go from being a BOAT to being a TARGET.

Because of snorkeling, in today's oceans with all of the sound buoys out there, diesel subs could be tracked all the way across the atlantic. The trick is going undetected until you reach your destination. That's where nuke subs come in and that's why they rule the seas.

btw, I'm an ex-sub nuke, also.

Mechanic, Class 94-03. You... (Below threshold)

Mechanic, Class 94-03. You?

It should be remembered tha... (Below threshold)

It should be remembered that, while diesel boats can be fairly effective for coastal defense, their effectiveness is extremely limited when it comes to taking the fight to the enemy in HIS water. Getting a diesel boat from the U.S. to the Middle East, then sustaining it there effectively, would be a heck of a challenge.

gjab & Vagabond, your point... (Below threshold)

gjab & Vagabond, your points are valid. Nonetheless, should a diesel sub have a really skilled captain, he could make for a really formidable opponent if he did a good job of choosing his area of operation to maximise his advantages and minimize his disadvantages.

You are, ahem, possibly loo... (Below threshold)

You are, ahem, possibly looking in the wrong place.

Have you thought about advancements in TORPEDO technology?

Just sayin' ...

I'm also a former Nuke MM, ... (Below threshold)

I'm also a former Nuke MM, '96-2000. The thing that bothers me about this piece is that it doesn't address the different types of nuke boats we use, boomers(ICBM subs) and my kind, fast attacks. I assume he's comparing d/e boats to fast attack boats as they have more or less the same mission, but there is a reason why they should both be discussed: noise.

I'm fairly sure that splitting an atom and heating water are pretty quiet. There is some noise generated by stem piping, but you have to be really close, like international incident close, to detect it. The detectable noise from a nuke sub comes from a few sources: screw(propeller) noise, cooling pumps amd transient noises. Transient noises come crew movement or check valves slamming... or fromm "cones" dropping wrenches while your sub is rigged for ultra-quiet, but I digress. Two of those three are also sources of noise for diesels; they both have screws and crews. The nuke plants all have cooling pumps constantly moving hot water from the reactor to the tanks where that hot water makes the steam that drives the boat. that is the real noise difference between a submerged d/s and a submerged fast attack.
The reason we should seperate the types is that when on patrol, boomers solve the pump noise problem completely. Fast attacks are deemed not to need the added expense and restrictions associated with the fix, so they go without. Therefore, boomers are every bit as quiet as a d/e, but they don't have to surface and run a noisy diesel engine every so many hours to recharge their batteries.

Keep this in mind, too. Diesel boats DO have to surface and run their diesels, making it VERY easy for a nuke to spot tham and look out for them. A diesel boat has to find a nuke between these rechargings, mainly by dumb luck.

Do not forget those non-nuc... (Below threshold)

Do not forget those non-nuclear subs that operate Air Independent propulsion plants.

Hornet, I keep hearing of t... (Below threshold)

Hornet, I keep hearing of them, but what class has really proven out operationally?

I am not former navy, let a... (Below threshold)
Mikey NTH:

I am not former navy, let alone silent service. I have read a lot on this, though. Diesel boats have too many detriments. If the diesels are run, they are loud, and found. If they run on batteries, they have no radius of action; they cannot get out of harm's way. They must snorkle, if only for air for the crew and the snorkle can be found. If you rule the air, you rule the submarines through either dipping sonar or sonobouys. If you fire a torpedo it must be electric or your position (through tracking the noise of the tropedo - oxygen and air burining torpedos are fast but loud) is given away. Walther (hydrogen peroxide) submarines escape some of the limitations of diesel-electric subs, but are dangerous to run and require a crew that will do routine required maintenance without question (as do diesel-electrics). As a defense for a fixed area they have value, unless the surface enemy is concentrating into that area - then they are coffins. Surface and airborne ASW platforms have advanced greatly since WWII, the last time there was a war with diesel-electric boats. Diesel-electric submarine technology (other than hull shape) has not kept up with those other advances.

In a blue-water war diesel-electrics are useless; in a littoral war they are a submersible gunboat or coast-defence fort.

I'm a former Navy subhunter... (Below threshold)
E. T.:

I'm a former Navy subhunter and can assure you D/E subs were exceptionally difficult to detect and track by airborne platforms. I have no doubt another sub is the best weapon against a D/E sub.

It seems a larger number of D/E subs could overwhelm our smaller fleet of nuclear fast-attack subs. Even nuclear subs can only carry a finite number of torpedoes.

Hey remember VOYAGE TO THE ... (Below threshold)
spurwing plover:

Hey remember VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA? wow one cool looking sub. And we all know that the russians stole all our designs and the chinese got BILL CLINTON to sell them our other top secrets






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