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Why the US Needs Conventional Submarines

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Asia Defense

Why the US Needs Conventional Submarines

Filling a capability gap in the U.S. Navy’s Pacific operations.

Why the US Needs Conventional Submarines

The Norwegian ULA class submarine Utstein (KNM 302) participates in NATO exercise Odin-One.

Credit: US Navy

The U.S. Armed Forces operate a wide array of sophisticated weaponry,  in many cases superior to anything else in the world. But while the new destroyers, carriers, or the F-22 might have no equal, the U.S. Armed Forces face a significant gap in their capabilities: the total lack of any conventional submarines.

The United States hasn’t produced any conventional submarines since the Barbel-class in the late 1950s; every submarine class since then has been nuclear powered. This might have made sense in the context of the Cold War, where Soviet nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines had to be shadowed, but times have changed.

While previously conventional submarines had to snorkel roughly at least every two days of time under water to recharge their batteries, air-independent propulsion (AIP) has changed the game. German Type 212 submarines can stay under water without snorkeling for up to three weeks, traveling 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) or more. Without emitting heat and with no need for constant cooling due to the lack of a nuclear reactor, these German submarines and comparable designs are more than a match for nuclear-powered submarines in terms of stealthiness.

Whereas the Soviet Union had submarines cruising the globe’s waters, the next big naval challenge for the United States isn’t a revitalized Russian navy, but the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s subs and ships lurking in the South China Sea and East China Sea. These submarines could play a key role in trying to enforce China’s A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy against a superior USN, with the goal of preventing the United States from intervening in any conflict involving the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Senkaku Islands, and Taiwan.

With the PLAN’s mostly conventional submarine force, the USN’s superior anti-submarine warfare capabilities will continue to severely hinder any Chinese submarine operations outside the first island chain and outside of China’s land-based air cover. This limits the theater of operations to a high degree and puts it well into range for conventional submarines using only their AIP based in Okinawa, Singapore, Subic Bay, Guam, or possibly Zuoying Naval Base on Taiwan.

Whereas China can and will create a bigger subsurface fleet than the USN by mixing conventional submarines with nuclear powered ones, the financial burden of matching hull with hull is practically impossible for the United States, at least as long as it limits the USN to SSNs. Conventional submarines might change this.

While one Virginia-class submarine costs roughly $2.7 billion per unit, the same money could buy six to seven conventional submarines of the German Type 212 class. While U.S. nuclear-attack submarines  are superb, many examples have shown that sophisticated conventional submarines aren’t just a match for surface fleets but also for older SSNs under the right circumstances.

In case of a conflict with China, the majority of naval combat will happen well within the first island chain, where a purely nuclear-powered fleet seems like a waste of assets. Neither their range nor their speed will be needed in most cases. As conventional submarines will be able to handle most tasks, the dramatically more expensive SSNs could stay out of the first island chain concentration on shadowing the PLAN’s SSBNs and SSNs outside this area, while keeping enough in reserve and out of harm’s way to maintain a credible deterrence against Russia at the same time. Additional conventional subs would also prevent the projected sub shortfall starting in 2021.

But going back into the business of building conventional submarines for the USN wouldn’t just make sense from an fiscal point of view for a navy that has limited resources. It would also offer various economic and political options for the United States.

President George W. Bush promised Taiwan eight conventional subs in 2001, which were never delivered. If the United States were to start building conventional submarines again, the pledge to Taiwan could finally be fulfilled. Moreover, the market for conventional submarines is gigantic. Most Asian nations are looking to establish, increase, or modernize their submarine fleets; Germany and France have both enjoyed particular success marketing their submarines to countries like South Korea, Indonesia, India, and Malaysia. Many of these nations are close U.S. allies or friends. The market for modern conventional submarines built in the United States would probably amount to several dozen hulls within the next two decades.

Built in the U.S., employing U.S. workers, and spreading the development costs over ever more hulls, Washington could seriously consider subsidizing some of those submarines for navies which are direly in need for a naval deterrence against an ever more aggressive China. If the United States doesn’t want to hand Asia over to China on China’s terms, a price might have to be paid in the end. It’ll be either money or blood. Subsidized submarines for the Philippines and Taiwan might just be what it takes to show the steadfast commitment for the status quo and the support for those two nations, which are under heavy pressure from the Middle Kingdom.

Conventional submarines with AIP wouldn’t just bolster the USN’s capabilities in this crucial theater for a comparative bargain, they would also allow the U.S. to enter a sizable weapons market while giving it the power to supply precious allies with exactly those tools they need for deterrence. The technology transfer necessary for building subs like the Type 212 could very easily be attained by a joint venture or even licensing the German subs from a company desperately looking for sales like Howaldwerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW).

Torsten Heinrich is a military historian from Germany, currently living in Switzerland.