(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.