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, the German daily Der Spiegel reported that the ThyssenKrupp-manufactured Dolphin submarines in the Israeli Navy “are armed with nuclear warheads. And Berlin has long been aware of that.” Der Spiegel states 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 boat is also likely equipped with 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 may order three more boats for a total fleet of nine submarines. 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, China’s impressive and unrelenting maritime rise has convinced Australia that the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) requires a fleet of twelve advanced submarines 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: www.robertcobrien.com and can be followed on Twitter@robertcobrien.