Question of the Week

December 2008


Welcome to the premiere post of Question of the Week on USNI Blog. It will be my goal each and every week to ask you, loyal readers, a thought provoking question which will cause you to scratch your cranium.

I am also very anxious to read your comments full of wisdom. I am confident they will dwarf the wisdom originating from the 5-sided wind tunnel. The questions will be a mix of old but good ones as well as current events related.

Ideas for future questions are welcome too. My contact info is in my bio off to the side. So here goes the USNI Blog’s first-ever question of the week:

Should the U.S. Navy build diesel submarines?

What say you, loyal readers?

Posted by Jim Dolbow in Hard Power, Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Well….if you’re talking about conventional “non-nuclear” subs, well, then, um…Heck, yea! AIP or variants thereoff….This is something where a defense contractor could–I think–make some money by building something on spec…Aside from the strategic “positioning” that would come from being the only yard with experience building these things, we’re desperate for training opportunities, so even just a training sub would be an asset the Navy would be glad even just to rent for predeployment work-ups.

  • Rubber Ducky

    Is there even a faint hope of this non-question going away? Studied to death. Flogged by ‘military reformers’ since the early ’80s. Conclusion: there ain’t no there there.

    Go back to the lead article in Proceedings December 1982 (“Diesel Boats Forever?”) for a diesel skipper’s reasons for not building smokeboats.

  • If we can get past the cultural impediments within the service, I’d say go for it! The carrier navy doesn’t like small carriers, the surface navy doesn’t like small warships, and the nuke submariners will resist this. All see warship alternatives as a competitor to stretched shipbuilding funds. Industry and Congress backs them up.

    A d/e sub would be better at littoral warfare than a giant attack submarine. It should be small and cheap enough to be expendable. A 7000 ton Virginia certainly is not! I see the latter as the new cruisers, and their size and firepower bear this out. So if we already have blue water cruisers we need some “destroyers” to go along with them for sundry duties (the traditional kind of destroyers, not our current DDG battleships which are hardly kin to the versatile greyhounds of the war years).

  • SeniorD

    Excuse this Surface Warfare Specialist, but I’d be scared to death if I knew an opposing force diesel-electric boat was somewhere near my ship. The bloody thing can silently sit in the path of a CBG, waiting for the right shot. Scratch one carrier.

    Our ASW capabilities have withered with the death of the old Soviet Union and it shows. As Mr. Burleson notes, we don’t have the offensive ASW capability we had even when I served. I believe the next ‘dance’ will begin in shallow, littoral waters where our nuke boats are at a disadvantage. Surface vessels, like Tico/Burke hulls, are designed to protect the carrier from airborne theats so don’t wait for a ‘Little Boy’ to chum up the water looking for the boat that sunk/damaged a multi-billion dollar bird farm.

    If we don’t build/buy non-nuclear boats, at least spend considerable coin in improving Surface Warfare ASW capability.

  • Diesel boats provide a certain amount of capability, as the previous commenters have noted, but that capability comes at a price. The real questions that should be asked are “What elements of the Maritime Strategy would a diesel submarine satisfy?” and “Is a diesel submarine the most cost effective means of satisfying that element?”

  • Byron

    Mike, are you saying that the crews of the snorters would be expendable along with the subs themselves? I really hope not. The only expendable platforms we have are the ones that are unmanned.

  • Pat

    In general, why does the United States build and develop our own ships and subs? Europe has capable d/e subs, especially Germany, that are cheap when compared to our Virginias. The USN leadership has to realize that we can not keep spending billions on developing new platforms (DDX, LCS) and expect to procure those ships in the numbers we need. Why not take a European design, the Dolphin subs, many different Frigate designs, and adapt those to our needs? Wouldn’t that save a bunch of money?

    That said, for various reasons, we will need our nuclear boats but a mix is not out of the question in order to field a larger force. Surface and undersea assets could benefit from the High-Low schemes of the past. I would venture to say that for many missions that SSNs are taking currently, a d/e could do as good if not better due to the operations in littoral waters where size is a disadvantage.

  • Jim, I say we build ’em… and then paint them white with a big red racing stripe… 😉

  • Miise

    More like a big red target, Peter.

    Rather than going off on my own rant, I’ll point to Chap’s post above. Ok, one additional point. One of the favorite Pro-SSK arguments is their maneuverability in the littorals due to their smaller size. The problem with this argument is that it’s not as huge an advantage as people suppose. A Lada or Kilo has about 1/3 less length than a Virginia, but almost the same beam. If we put R&D into technologies that allow a transition to less space-consuming machinery, such as Conformal sonar and Electric Drive, we can get our SSNs to nearly the same overall dimensions as the diesels WITHOUT sacrificing the capabilities that make SSNs such superior platforms.

    I also despise the expendable” argument. We’re going to amazing lengths to protect guys on foot patrol with layers of body armor and MRAPs. Our surface assets have huge amounts of reserve buoyancy and layered air defenses. Why take survivability and defensive speed away from the Dolphins?

    No Diesel Subs.

  • Jeff

    Not sure who came up with the idea of the Naval Institue having a blog, but as a midshipman at USNA I’m loving it! Great way to reach out to a broader audience and have a public discussion of very interesting issues.

  • I just wonder how all these fancy nuke subs (Seawolf excepted) are going to resupply after they shoot off all their torpedoes?

    I mean, AIP sub payload, speed and endurance is only going to increase over time. They’re already boasting something in the range of 16-18 torps/missiles. How many torps does a Los Angeles usually carry, hmm? And when they’re gone, a nuke sub is just a bunch of neutrons in a tube. Frankly, I think the tooth to tail ratio gets pretty high with some nuke sub load-outs.

    What’s the harm in, for once, getting ahead of the technological 8-ball rather than behind it?

  • Jeff–Welcome! You’re why we take the time to do this!

  • Rubber Ducky,

    No hope the question is going away – at least not this week.

    Good dialogue everyone!! Keep those cards and letters coming! Welcome aboard Jeff – tell your friends

  • Chap

    Show me the money, SB.

    –Show me how SSKs will not be “fancy”. The Aussie and Israeli and German SSKs are pretty darn fancy; there’s a reason the Scandanavian multinational effort to build an SSK failed. (This is not unique to SSKs, but it’s not a characteristic solely of SSNs.)
    –Show me how the SSK payload/speed/endurance will be anywhere near that of an SSN. It’s orders of magnitude different even with improvements; that is why SSK advocates discuss differential costs instead. AIP can’t sprint for more than a short period; laws of physics (more precisely, known engineered power density capability) get in the way. If you have an electric car that can cross country at speed without stopping, you’ve got the power density to change the game for SSKs.
    –Show me what you really have when you have an SSN with an expended torpedo room (hint: it ain’t “just a bunch of neturons in a tube” and saying so indicates you might not know what you’re talking about). It’s strategically important, so important that we do many more things in boats besides shoot torpedoes. Besides, in the planning I’ve been a part of, fish are important for resupply but way down there on the list compared to missiles, and way way down there on the list compared to fuel for the conventional ships.
    –Show me how a contractor could build an SSK “on spec”, since the yards I’ve visited wouldn’t touch the concept with a ten foot pole despite a flourishing market in sub export for the Russians and Germans subsidized by defense expenditures for the initial class designs. Oh, wait, maybe that’s one reason…

    I think you’re approaching this the wrong way. There is a place you could put SSKs in the ship mix, but saying “build an SSK” in a strategic vacuum is not varsity level resource allocation. What kind of SSK force would be the right one, how does it fit in a future Navy mix, how does that get achieved, and more importantly why is that kind of force better than the overall Navy we have now?

  • Brine

    Assuming you understand enough about the pints Chap brings up lets hit the hard one when it comes to our position as the the only A-List superpower with a trend in expenditures and not getting the value for our equipment that may change this.

    In this environment diesel boats will be commissioned ships beside their more capable and expensive SSN brethren. Which one do you think those in congress who don’t understand submarines will want to buy the coastal defense ones that are really quiet, or the useful ones for power projection and other things?

    Playing devils advocate to myself we are seeing an interesting swing the the unexpected direction in the fights against the Zumwalt, but these are unexpected. Remember NAVSEA 08 (Director Navy Nuclear Propulsion) is usually the only four star submarine admiral.

  • Commander Mark Condeno


    I guess Building Diesel boats or conventional Subs should be look into,conventional submarines could be put into a variety of missions and a vital weapon for the Allied Nations of the United States specially those with a large span of littoral waters to patrol.

  • Rubber Ducky

    If we were to continue the current de facto strategy of going it alone and ignoring allies, might argue for diesels. But if the Bush Administration’s braindead policy is an aberration, as surely it should be and likely is, then we approach security issues at sea in company with allies who have a grunch of modern diesels and AIP submarines. We should stick with nukes and avoid competing programs that would detract from our advantage here.

    Yes am biased, but from an odd direction, that of a diesel guy with experience all the way through command. There’s a label under the DBF dolphins on display at the Submarine Museum at Pearl: “Device Worn By Incurable Romantics.” Indeed.

  • pk

    gentlemen and mesdames:

    i would draw your attention to the parrelel buisness of mainframe computers vs desktop units.

    the mainframes have a houmoungous capacity and can accomplish truly spectacular tasks. however they are so god awful expensive and fussy in their care and feeding that only outfits that have tasks that require that capacity can afford to even consider their use.

    for purposes of this discussion consider them to be the equivilent of SSN’s

    personal computers are small and inexpensive. because of the economics of scale in thier manufacture they are relatively inexpensive and because of their popularity, software is available to do almost an infinate number of things.

    perhaps NAVSEA could come up with a specification for a very small SSK (about the size of the Dolphin, hull #555?) that could be built in large numbers and be cheap enough that various advances in the art could be tried without waiting ten to twelve years to get them into the fleet.

    for discussion we might call the small SSK the “open source pc boat”.

    in the procurement world you must write a detailed specification that is so detailed that “strange suppliers” cannot slip in and lobid the request with equipment that fills a broad specification but does not accomplish the mission. very small SSK’s would allow examination of various avenues of technology not normally practical with the SSN only buys.

    there are rice bowl aspects of this issue. (see the inhouse battles between the main frame mafia and the pc guerillas) i once used a desktop pc that had 4 times the capacity of the 10 year old mainframe worshiped in the adjacent room. this might have far more weight in this discussion than hardware issues.


  • Chapeau–

    We need a training platform for ASW work. If somebody built one, Congress–with a little nudging–would be running all over the place to find that platform some steady business (Good lord, I seem to recall the days when Venezuela was going to be our great, cost-effective ASW training partner…funny how that worked out, right?).

    And then there’s that pesky agreement with Taiwan for us to provide…what…seven subs? That sounds like a perfect way to get a subsidy going…

  • Byron

    DS, cheaper to rent one, works for both sides, each get experience hunting the other. Works only with allies, or at least people you don’t think you’ll be hunting for real next week.

  • Chap


    “Chapeau”? This is what you use for your high level dialogue?

  • Hmm…Chap, you did write in reply to my comment, “hint: it ain’t “just a bunch of neturons in a tube” and saying so indicates you might not know what you’re talking about,” right?

    You dished it, amigo.