The Buzz

Is It Time for the U.S. Navy to Start Building Non-Nuclear Stealth Submarines?

If Congress and the Trump administration read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Russia’s diesel-electric submarines, they might be thinking America needs to seriously consider acquiring its own conventional submarines.

The blockbuster article by Julian E. Barnes documents a three-month cat-and-mouse game between a Russian diesel-electric submarine and the NATO countries trying to track it. As Barnes writes, “The Krasnodar, a Russian attack submarine, left the coast of Libya in late May, headed east across the Mediterranean, then slipped undersea, quiet as a mouse. Then, it fired a volley of cruise missiles into Syria.”

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Barnes shows how the NATO alliance went to great lengths to track the vessel throughout its entire journey. This began with the Dutch following it while it was in the North Sea, before a British ship took over when it approached the English Channel. Once the submarine reached Gibraltar, an American cruiser assisted by P-8 Poseidon aircraft followed the vessel into the Mediterranean.

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Moscow had said the submarine was headed to Libya to conduct drills. Before it got there, however, the vessel submerged into water and began firing cruise missiles into Syria in late May. Complicating matters, a U.S. carrier strike group was headed into the same area in early June to participate in anti-ISIS operations in Syria. This made tracking the Russian submarine all the more important because, as one U.S. official explained, “One small submarine has the ability to threaten a large capital asset like an aircraft carrier.”

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Barnes goes on to detail some of the various ways the United States and its allies attempt to track submarines like the Krasnodar, as well as some of the evasion tactics the sub used to thwart them. It’s unclear from the article exactly how well the Western naval forces fared in keeping tabs on the Russian sub. A U.S. naval officer does claim that the submarine’s second missile salvo into Syria was monitored by a French frigate and U.S. Navy aerial surveillance. But, if NATO struggled to track the Russian sub, it’s almost certain countries like China or Russia wouldn’t be able to track a similar U.S. submarine.

What is clear from the article is that the United States and its allies devoted extensive resources trying to track the Krasnodar. If they were able to do so, it was only with great difficult. This is important because the United States boasts the best antisubmarine-warfare capabilities in the world, and it has numerous allies and forward bases that were integral in tracking the Krasnodar. Thus, even if America and NATO were able to track the submarine fairly well, countries like China and Russia still might not be able to track a similar Western submarine.

It’s worth noting that the Krasnodar isn’t an especially advanced diesel-electric submarine. As I noted when the submarine was first launched back in 2015, the Krasnodar is a Project 636.3 Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarine. Although Russia claims these are the quietest submarines in the world, the Project 636.3 boats are really just upgraded versions of the Kilo-class submarines. They are also fairly cheap. In 2009, Russia signed a deal to provide Vietnam with six Project 636.3 submarines for only $2 billion (and that price included the training of Vietnamese crews and supplying spare parts). By contrast, America pays some $2.7 billion for a single nuclear-attack submarine. Even the largest and arguably most capable conventional submarine, Japan’s Soryu, only costs a little over half a billion dollars a piece. Thus, America could procure anywhere from five to seven diesel-electric submarines for the cost of a single nuclear-powered attack submarine.

All this suggests that, especially as America tries to build up a 355-ship navy, it needs to consider acquiring conventionally powered attack submarines to complement its nuclear-powered ones. This would be no small change. The U.S. Navy commissioned its last diesel-electric submarine in the 1950s, and it hasn’t operated one since 1990. Still, the idea of building diesel-electric submarines has gained some steam in recent years. Earlier this year, in a congressionally mandated report on how the Navy should look in 2030, the MITRE Corporation called for fielding conventional subs.

Naturally, U.S. Navy officials pushed back against this proposal, claiming that conventional submarines had serious geographical, logistical and capability shortcomings. But, as the man formerly known as the Naval Diplomat persuasively argued, none of these challenges are prohibitive. First, James Holmes noted that geography was only an issue if the submarines were stationed in the United States. If, instead, America forward deployed them in a place like Japan, they were actually quite advantageous relative to U.S.-based nuclear subs. Similarly, Holmes pointed out that any logistical problems with conventionally powered submarines could be overcome through some innovations involving Japanese islands. This would not only benefit the diesel-electric subs, but also better empower other naval ships.

With regard to capability, the more advanced diesel-electric subs are not excessively vulnerable. As Holmes pointed out, Japan’s Soryus only have to surface every two weeks. And, while they wouldn’t have the same endurance of nuclear-powered subs, the fact is America could buy at least five Soryus for each Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine. Even if each conventional sub isn’t as capable as its nuclear counterpart, there is strength in numbers, especially when the numbers are overwhelmingly lopsided.

To be sure, there are certain missions on the high seas where nuclear submarines’ greater endurance and deep-dive capabilities are indispensable. On the other hand, in shallow waters and closed sea areas like the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea, air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines might be preferable. This again suggests that Congress and the Trump administration should at least seriously consider busting the nuclear-submarine monopoly.

Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of the National Interest.

Image: A Russian made Iranian navy Kilo class submarine takes part in Iranian naval exercises in the Persian Gulf November 2, 2000. Iranian navy maneuvers on both sides of the strategic strait of Hormuz will continue until November 6, 2000.