The Navy Is Overlooking Air-Independent Propulsion Submarines At Its Own Peril

The Navy Is Overlooking Air-Independent Propulsion Submarines At Its Own Peril

Robert Farley

Security, Asia

New technology is changing the game.

Key point: The best response for the U.S. Navy may not be to invest in conventional subs.

Over the past decade, air-independent propulsion (AIP) for submarines has spread rapidly around the world. The technology, which allows conventionally powered submarines to operate without access to outside air, has the potential the shift the balance away from the big nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) that have dominated undersea warfare since the 1950s, and back towards small conventional boats. In global terms, this might again make submarines the great strategic equalizer; small, cheap weapons that can destroy the expensive warships of the world’s most powerful navies. Does this mean that the United States should invest in these kinds of boats? Probably not.

Invention

Several navies experimented with AIP during the twentieth century. The earliest work began in World War II in the German and Soviet navies, although none of the experiments produced operationally suitable boats. After the war Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union took advantage of German research to produce their own experimental boats, but nuclear propulsion seemed to offer a more fruitful direction for submarine development.

In the mid-2000s, converging technological developments enabled several major submarine producers around the world to begin to develop practical AIP systems. France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and China all laid down AIP-capable boats, in some cases exporting those submarines to customers around the world.

Engineering

AIP systems allow conventional submarines to recharge their batteries without surfacing for air, which enables them to remain underwater for extend periods of time and not expose themselves to detection. Three main types of AIP are found in extant diesel-electric submarines:

Closed Cycle Steam Turbines

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