The German U-Boat Reborn
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The German U-Boat Reborn


Although the media has recently focused on the significant reductions to naval budgets in the West, with particular attention being paid to the downsizing of the Royal Navy and the sequestration cuts facing the United States Navy, a number of nations are now seeking to enhance their naval capabilities. For those nations, submarines offer a unique platform to strike enemy targets on land or at sea using conventional or unconventional weapons.  In Asia, there is a even nascent submarine race underway with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam all announcing planned acquisitions in the face of China’s burgeoning fleet of nuclear and diesel-electric boats.  At least two navies are turning to Germany to provide a unique set of undersea capabilities, albeit for very different areas of operation.

Faced with an Iranian nuclear program that shows no sign of slowing down despite American threats, sanctions, and rounds of fruitless negotiations, Israel requires a “second strike” platform to deter Iran from fulfilling its pledge to “wipe Israel off the map.”  It has acquired that capability through its submarine fleet.

In June, theGermandailyDerSpiegel reported that the ThyssenKrupp-manufactured Dolphin submarines in the Israeli Navy “arearmedwithnuclearwarheadsAndBerlinhaslongbeenawareofthat.”  DerSpiegelstates that the Dolphins (similar to the German Navy’s Type 212 boats), carry cruise missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers that can be launched “using a newly developed hydraulic ejection system”.  The advanced Super-Dolphin variant of the boatisalso likelyequippedwith an air independent propulsion (AIP) system that allows it to stay submerged for 18 days while remaining nearly silent. Thus, they are nearly impossible to detect.

Germany provided Israel with its first two Dolphin submarines in 1991 as compensation for the role its companies had played in developing Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons capacity.  Germany also paid a significant amount of the purchase price for Israel’s third submarine.  Three additional Dolphins are slated to be delivered to Israel by 2017 and Der Spiegel claims that Israel mayorderthreemoreboatsforatotalfleetofninesubmarines. This fleet, with its ability to stay submerged for weeks in virtual silence, willprovide the bulk of Israel’s second strike capability.

Half a world away, Chinasimpressiveandunrelentingmaritimerise has convinced Australia that the RoyalAustralianNavy (RAN) requiresafleetoftwelveadvancedsubmarines to replace its current aging and unreliable six-boat Collins class fleet.  Given the expansive nature of the sea lanes that Australia seeks to protect, the RAN wants a large submarine with long-range capabilities, and the ability to remain submerged for extensive periods of time, which is provided by an AIP system.  Australia has also stated that it seeks a boat with an offensive cruise missile strike capacity.  Of the non-nuclear, off-the-shelf options available to the RAN, it seems likely that the AIP-equipped Super Dolphin meets such requirements.

One issue that could impede the purchase of the Dolphin is Australia’s insistence that its submarines use American combat systems and weapons.  This is a necessity borne by the increasingly integrated operations of the RAN and United States Navy in the Pacific.  Thus, the Australian variant of the Dolphin would require significant cooperation between German, American and Australian defense contractors in its manufacture.  While such cooperation involving very sensitive submarine technology might have been unlikely several years ago, given the massive defense cuts taking place in Europe and the United States, it is more likely that the countries would find a way to work together today given the Australian program’s big budget.

For the first half of the 20th Century, the German U-boat was the most feared warship at sea. Even Churchill admitted “[t]he only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”.  Since the scuttling of the U-boat fleet in Operation Deadlight by the Royal Navy at the conclusion of World War II, the world has paid little attention to German submarines.  Now, with the Dolphin on patrol in the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf and possibly coming to the Indian, Pacific and South China Sea in the near future, the U-boat is making a big comeback in the 21st Century.  This time, however, the U-boat’s purpose is to deter aggression and, it sails under the Star of David and, potentially, will be identified as one of “Her Majesty’s” ships.

Robert C. O’Brien is the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of a national law firm. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations. His website is: and can be followed on Twitter@robertcobrien.

May 16, 2013 at 01:23

Why a US command and controll system?

You won't need a special US system to communicate with the US Navy or another allied force. The NATO communication standard is called Link 11, Link 16 or Link 22. The latest batch of Type 212 U-boats got at least Link 16 and a buoy system called Callisto  able to communicate even beneath periscope depth. Necessity for a US system on Australian submarines is only to channel the money in the right direction.

Don't panic about the quite short snorkling periods (lithium batteries). An old type 206 submarine snorkling isn't detectable at distances greater than 6,000 m. Maybe diesel will be history sooner or later on submarines:  On the other side a nuclear reactor always needs some heavy pumps working. Btw, how noisy is a nuclear submarine at high speeds? The more quite u-boat is the better hunter.

juan ganem
January 18, 2013 at 00:22

ho ho ho   History repeats itself… the financial system in ruins.. and countries are arming themselves to the teeth.. irresponsible nuclear weapons are being deployed.. with the consequences of a III WORLD WAR.. and there is no question that this is coming…  WAKE UP

December 26, 2012 at 11:22

It seems to me to be absurd for Australia to buy non-nuclear boats. Also , not fair to its people to not buy what's really needed to do the job

October 29, 2012 at 13:19

While the Dolphin is a very capable platform, what seems to have been picked up as a hot lead by the media here is the Japanese Soryu Class technology transfer. The Soryu fits Australian needs  fairly well, and with Japan has a regional partner with the same sort of nuclear propulsion constraints. Plus the tech transfer agreement will most likely go both ways  drawing on Australian Accousitc stealth tech IE Anechoic tiling and the like.
With  lines  having formed fairly quickly for the possiblity of a China confrontation,the advantages of a joint Japanese-Australian Submarine procurment allows for in any conflict  commonality regarding   service, repair  and parts supply chain. It may prove otherwise but as both nation potentially a common foe,.. this will weigh heavily in Canberra

hans raj
October 29, 2012 at 12:47


major lowen gil marquez, phil army
August 19, 2012 at 23:09

The land of Israel were advisavle to have its additional and newest dolphin class submarine to protect the land of promise includng its existence on the map of the earth, at any situation they should procure it, like the scarborough shoal andspratley island at the western philippine sea, the pilipino people must protect it at all cause no matter what happen we wil for the future and freedom of the next generation inturded by the communist chinese in the WESTERN PHILIPPINE SEA….

August 17, 2012 at 16:29

There is zero chance of the Australians acquiring SSNs.This was always pretty unlikely, but the fact that this option was being actively explored was immediately jumped on and given undue publicity by the media. Also, it is unlikely that 12 new boats will be ordered as the Australian defence budget is shrinking and, even if there is a change of government, is unlikely to increase substantially in the longer term. There may be a requirement for 12, but only 8 or 9 will actually be built. Still a potent force for a relatively small navy though.

August 15, 2012 at 13:53

The German boats are great but they are not blue water boats unless you consider surfaced transit "blue water" for submarines.
Here are Wikipedia stats on the Type 214; the Type 216 is supposed to be an incremental enlargement, so I don’t expect any sort of breakthroughs in terms of submerged speed or range:
* Speed on fuel cells: 2-6 kt estimated
* Range surfaced: 12,000 miles  — very good but very vulnerable, noisy and detectable
* Range submerged: 420 nmi @ 8 kt (780 km @ 15 km/h) — not bad for battery power but remember you have to fire up very noisy diesels when the battery’s depleted. Furthermore, no submarine skipper’s going to routinely push his battery to depletion (i.e., 420 nm) except in emergency.
* Range on fuel cells: 1,248 nmi @ 4 kt — 2 weeks to cover that distance. That’s just about the distance between Perth and Darwin!
* Submerged without snorkelling: 3 weeks

August 15, 2012 at 09:26

Australia is looking for submarines with range/endurance characteristics that normally would require nuclear propulsion, but has officially ruled out nuclear power, so Mr O Brien seems to be correct on that count. Dolphin submarines are very unique to Israeli requirements alas, so they are not suited for the Australian requirement, so Severin is right on the other.
I tend to consider Der Spiegel to be generally more accurate on defence and technical matters than most newpapers. The trend has been downwards in the area across the board unfortunately.

August 15, 2012 at 07:44

Sorry to contradict you mate, but the Australian Government (Labor Party) has categorically ruled out Nuclear power for the subs, they have from the start, the speculation about Nuke Subs has come from think tanks & news papers, but since the Labor Party is solidly Anti-Nuclear there was no chance it would happen.

“The Gillard government has committed to building 12 submarines in Adelaide, but has ruled out nuclear propulsion. The government has not yet finalised whether it will use an existing foreign submarine design, an updated version of the Collins class, an off-the-shelf submarine from another country but modified for Australian needs, or a locally designed and built sub.”

On a personal note, I’d much prefer Nuke Subs, just getting from one side of our country to the other sucks up a lot of fuel, a nuke sub makes more sense to me.

August 15, 2012 at 06:08

Dear Mr. Brian,
First, of all thanks for the good critics on German subs. As a German I can tell you our subs have never been gone. Classes 212 and 214 are the resultet of decadeds of well running German sub industry.
But I agree with you that the Dolphin subs would fullfill Australia's requirements. Due AIP it comes quite close to nuclear subs, but is even less noiser and has not heat signature. Furthermore, there is even a larger class 216 in planning at Thyssen Krupp yard, which has a full blue water capability and comes even closer to the capalities of Virginia or Astute subs. Those may be the far better option for the RAN, because they would not have to cover all the costs for maintaining nuclear reactors.
But severin, you are wrong the 212 have full blue water capability. And let's say it like this: Watching a US nacy carrier through a German sub telescope: priceless! (
The pic is from U.S., German and other Allies exercise in the Carribean 2007. After simulating fireing torpedos on the carrier the German sub, still not detected, emerged close to the carrier making US commanders go nuts. 
Maybe these abilities would suit the RAN with regards to Chinese carriers ;-)

August 15, 2012 at 02:28

You're wrong: unless the Royal Australian Navy has changed their position in the last 2 months, they were calling for up to 12 conventional, not nuclear boats. These boats would be bigger and have longer ranges than the German boats.
But … you're also right in the sense that what the RAN really needs, when you look at what they want to accomplish, is a squadron of nuke boats. They probably don't need 12 since they can spend much less time in transit (25+ knots vs <7 knots).
These German boats are great for short distances and lurking — the Baltic, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, etc. But they have very limited ranges under water. Their AIP (air independent propulsion) systems allow them to quietly lurk, moving at most 3 knots on a sustained basis. They cana move faster underwater for a few hours on their batteries. To move more than several knots for more than several hours, they have to fire up their very noisy diesel engines. They can stay submerged and "snorkel" the diesels' air intake, but they're noisy and their snorkel wakes are very visible at speeds >5 knots. Much above 7 knots and the snorkel mast gets bent.
Just to transit their own coastal waters submerged from Darwin to Perth would take several noisy weeks of snorkeling.
Australia needs nukes. They just haven't come to accept it yet. Their current thinking is to develop a new class even larger than their current long-range Collins class, which has been expensive. In the long-term, it's cheaper for them to buy (if they can) some U.S. nukes; the Virginia class (if the U.S. will sell it) acutally gets a little cheaper every year (how's that for a procurement record??). It's a stable design and a well-run shipbuilding program. The U.S. could probably set the RAN up with their own repair and overhaul infrastructure (if the USN was so inclined).
If not the US, then the UK or France could supply the RAN nukes.

August 14, 2012 at 20:06

Dear Mr O Brien,
A very well thought of article, however with two serious errors. For one Australia is considering the purchase of 12 submarines but nuclear ones. Secondly, the dolphin class in its setup is suitable to Israeli needs, with its ability to also operate in shallow waters. In Australia's case the requirements, set out by the Defence Ministry are different. Submarines would be used in a offshore balancing force function. Thus, the ability of any submarine purchased has to be that it can act autonmous for a protracted period in time, something the dolphin class does not deliver.
Lastly, the article you are referring to, is from the Der Spiegel and as a left wing paper has a certain lack of expertise in matters of Defence.

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