The Buzz

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

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.