September 25, 2004

DBF vs. The Nukes

Filed under: — Chap @ 3:01 pm

I mentioned earlier that there is a periodic “why not conventional subs?” question that pops up in the Navy version of the chattering classes. Not the deciding classes, mind you; the chattering ones. Sometimes this chattering winds up in the very expensive newsletters put out to gather and spread gossip that might help a defense contractor get or defend a contract.

There are a couple of interesting developments in the non-nuclear submarine world: air-independent propulsion has brought us subs that can spend weeks underwater, the navies that figured out the asymmetric value of diesel subs have been buying them by the (ahem) boatload, and some countries want them and can’t get them. As an example of the international nature of sub sales, the Russians have in the past offered Kilos for export, and the Germans have a rather vigorous export program for their SSKs. This kind of ship is expensive per ton to build. Add in the cost of a new class of ship and you get something like the Australian Collins class, which is a great diesel that took so long to get combat ready and cost close enough to the cost of an SSN to make the Australians wince.

And as good as the Collins is, it can’t drive from Perth to Halifax without refueling, or stay underwater without snorkeling for months. This changes how you can use the ship. On the plus side, a small SSK can get into somewhat shallower water, you don’t have the worries or political concerns or infrastructure or manpower cost of a mobile nuclear reactor, and one SSK is cheaper than one SSN.

That cost-vs-capability drives us to a prisoner’s dilemma logic. If the less capable thing is six bucks, the more capable thing is ten bucks, and you have eleven, you always pick the more capable thing. This is, however, a short term logic–if you figure out that the national value of six SSKs is more than the national value of four or two SSNs over the long term, then you make another decision. (Note that I say “national value” here, not “equivalence”–comparing the two directly may not be the correct measure to make.) Add in other things like a different structure for a different kind of ship, too.

Buying SSN vs. SSK requires a decision bigger than the first couple years of budget–and nothing that is in the POM outyears is recognizable by that time. When the Navy buys a gadget, they put a request in the budget that goes via the President to Congress, in a Politburo-style Five Year Plan. The next year’s money gets approved, and the “out years” at the end of that plan aren’t necessarily what happens the next year when we send another budget up to Congress again. So here lies another conundrum. We always say we make up the shortage in the out years, but there isn’t really a hammer to force a service to do so–and that’s probably not all bad, since it’s too long to react to changing technology or strategic situation.

A diesel sub can’t drive at ahead flank for two weeks, then spend three months sitting off the coast of mumble with no support. A nuclear-powered boat can. With thousands of miles between home port and your destination, that makes sense. Our diesels, before they got paid off, were forward deployed to save that time and gas–but it was still harder for them. Nuke aircraft carriers like having the sub sprint ahead. Diesels can’t do that well. With this lower capability, coupled with the prisoner’s dilemma, we stopped building diesels.

Taiwan wants subs, as their WWII U.S. handoffs (Guppy conversion, actually) are old old old, and they realize that an asset in the strait is better for them than a promise of a carrier later. They got a massive case of sticker shock…and then found out that several previous attempts at building non-nuclear subs in the US have been killed off. Now, they’ve found that the initiative promised by our president ain’t happening, and the contractors over there are losing their jobs and moving back to the States.

Some might even say that they’ve been killed off because the nuclear submarine force wants badly to protect their force structure.

Yesterday’s Early Bird supplement, buried in the bottom, had a comment from the not-on-the-Internet Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily. A “fair use” snippet:

Exclusive. Analysis. By GIS (Global Information System) Staff, Washington.

Very reliable sources within the US Navy have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily that deliberate moves have been made, and a concerted campaign mounted, by US Navy (USN) officers committed to the concept of a US “nuclear (powered) navy”, to ensure that the US does not provide the Republic of China Navy (ROCN: Taiwanese Navy) with conventional submarines (SSKs) as promised by US Pres. George W. Bush.

The belief by these officers is that any return by the USN to support the production of conventionally-powered submarines, even for export to the ROC or Israel, would inevitably lead to the USN procuring some SSKs for its own use, thereby ending the all-nuclear submarine (SSN and SSBN) fleet which the USN now has.

The move totally subverts Pres. Bush’s commitment in 2002 to Taiwan, and while the attitude of the “nuclear navy” toward the resumption of conventional boats has been clear for many years, GIS sources report that vehemence with which the pro-nuclear officers have gone about their obstruction of the transfer of any technology or technical information to the ROCN regarding the proposed submarine project. The project was to have involved US funding and possible construction of a German SS or SSK design.

The GIS sources said that, by the time the pro-nuclear officers were through, the ROC “might be lucky to get a license to build US World War II Guppy-type submarines; they would be better off raising some of the scuttled German Type XXIs from the North Sea”. These officers had even forced protracted meetings and debates to discuss the “definition of a submarine”, among other infantile attempts at obfuscating the discussions. Other points raised included the suggestion that providing the ROC with “US technology” was tantamount to providing it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because “Taiwan will be taken over sooner or later by the mainlanders”.

That suggestion in itself ignores US treaty obligations to help sustain Taiwan’s security in the event of a threat by the PRC, but equally ignores the fact that the conventional submarine technology would come not from the US, but from Germany, in any event. And Germany has already demonstrated that its technology is available to the PRC, given the widespread sale of German submarines to states with close relations with Beijing.

Some USN officers, angered by the deliberate sabotaging of US policy, have suggested that the “pro-nuke” officers have, in fact, strengthened the hand of the PRC in planning any confrontation of the ROC, and thereby had made US policy options more difficult, given the treaty obligations which the US has to the ROC. One officer said: “Strengthening US deployment to four SSNs in Guam is hardly going to make Beijing think twice about moving on Taiwan.”

Once as a LT I asked a guy about to put on his fourth star what it would take in SSK capability to consider building AIP SSKs. He never answered…

2 Responses to “DBF vs. The Nukes”

  1. Chapomatic » Taiwan Subs Update Says:

    […] Taiwan Subs Update
    Filed under: Pol-Mil Military — chap @ 10:10 pm

    I shoulda known that the article about the USN nukes killing Taiwan subs was a part of a long proc […]

  2. USNI Blog » Blog Archive » Re: Question: DBF vs SSN Says:

    […] come up but don’t do much more than feed a bull session. I’m not much changed from my 2004 take on the diesels question, except to note the price of ASDS, we still say we’ll make things up […]

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