More than a century after its debut, the submarine remains a key capability among the world’s navies and an area of continuing investment and technological development. Over forty navies worldwide have submarines in their fleets, and the number of submarine operators appears set to grow.
Submarines remain an attractive investment as more navies seek the combination of stealth and resulting strategic leverage that a small submarine force – even a single hull – can deliver.
Europe continues to be a world leader in submarine construction and operation, especially with regard to conventional submarines. Europe’s submarine builders in Germany, Sweden, Spain, France, and Italy supply domestic markets, and many of these yards export to markets around the world, from the Asia-Pacific to South America. As several new construction submarine programs in Europe are now underway or are expected to contract over the next 1-2 years, the region’s submarine market is worth a closer look.
The Global Submarine Market
This article reviews submarine requirements and building programmes in Europe, including both NATO member countries and other navies, but not including Russia. After a review of global trends in submarine construction, the article will assess European submarine programs as a whole in the context of the world market, and close with additional details on European submarine programs building now and expected in the future. It draws on proprietary market and technical information provided by AMI International, for over 30 years a provider of insights to those involved in the naval market. The chart above (presented by AMI at the 2018 UDT conference in Glasgow, Scotland) shows that the global submarine construction market has shown a consistent pattern over the past 50 years. With an average of 30 years of hull life, submarine building has shown a pattern of periodic “surge production” to replace blocks of submarines that reach their end of service lives.
The last such surge in conventional-power (diesel propulsion plants) submarines marked the end of the Cold War and the following decade, when many programs designed for Cold War requirements were executed.
Submarines built in those years are now going out of service, and a number of new replacement submarines are forecast in another surge of new submarines to be built and put in service over the next 10-15 years. This is especially true in Europe (specifically NATO countries in Europe).
The global submarine force today comprises a small percentage of total platforms in service worldwide. The 456 submarines tracked by AMI in its Existing Ships Database are only 3% of ships and craft in service. However, those 456 submarines absorb a significant portion of the ship construction, repair and maintenance, and operational resources in naval
budgets. Further the specialized demands of submarine operation require an extraordinary investment to recruit, train and keep officers and crew proficient.
While 13 European navies continue to operate submarines, the resource-intensive nature of the platform have pushed some countries, like Denmark, Croatia and, Bulgaria, to retire their submarines from active service. Others, like Romania, retain at least some submarine capability (single hulls) but would need to redirect resources to make that capability operational. Portugal and Greece are examples of countries that operate capable submarine forces but face near-term resource investment decisions to maintain existing sub fleets, since they have no new construction submarine programs currently planned.
Another characteristic that shapes European submarine forces today is the great variation in operational environments. The littoral Baltic and Black Seas are substantially different in maritime geography and acoustic characteristics compared to the wider expanses of the Mediterranean, North, Arctic and Atlantic waters. And as European navies plan for increased submarine operations beyond “home” waters as part of NATO or other multi-lateral operations, requirements for platforms and systems that can adapt to these variations in operating environments are growing.
Looking ahead, while AMI forecasts that Asia-Pacific region has the largest demand for new submarines (about 40% of the global forecast) to be built through 2040, NATO Europe comes in second, with about 20% of the forecasted global build. If realised, this build rate will keep NATO navies’ submarine forces at about the same share of the world’s operational submarine fleet that is the case now.
Of the over 50 new European submarines building in these programmes, most (62 %) are conventional or AIP propulsion submarines displacing about 2000 tonnes fully loaded.
The armament of these submarines is an area of intense scrutiny, especially with regards to capabilities to employ long range anti-ship or land attack missiles. France’s BARRACUDA class SSN will employ a Naval version of the Système de Croisière conventionnel Autonome a Longue Portée Propulsée (SCALP) programme, with ranges reported at over 400km (222 NM). The UK ASTUTE class is capable of launching Tactical TOMAHAWK (Block IV) missiles. Spain’s S80 class is assessed as having the capability to launch Boeing HARPOON anti-ship missiles (ASMs) and tactical land attack missiles (T-LAM). The latter missile is not currently in the Spanish Navy’s arsenal. Poland’s new submarine program has seen proposals from offerers to provide a missile launch capability on the platform.
Another capability area receiving more attention is the employment of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). To date, such capabilities are concentrated on tactical UUVs launched and recovered from existing manned submarine platforms. The Swedish A26 design features a multi-mission portal for the launch of UUVs. The German Type 212 and 214 designs could deploy torpedo hull form UUVs via existing torpedo tubes.
No information has emerged that European navies are considering UUVs of sufficient size to operate independently, using designs and operational concepts similar to those developed by the US Navy in its XLUUV and LDUUV programs.
Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) is another submarine capability seeing significant development. The German Type 212A design has a hybrid AIP fuel cell/battery propulsion plant. The design retains a conventional diesel-electric propulsion system to charge batteries that can support high-speed operations, while adding the AIP capability that can recharge the battery and support extended low-speed operations. HDW estimates that the Type 212A will be able to remain submerged for several weeks and cruise (at four knots) for over 3,000nm. The AIP system is based on the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell technology that was developed jointly by HDW and Siemens AG.
As noted below, the AIP system on the Spanish S80, reportedly a three-hundred-kilowatt PEM fuel cells developed by UTC Power, has experienced some technical issues.
Looking at budget and acquisition cost, conventional (SSK) submarines group around an average fully equipped per-hull cost of about $500M. Collectively, SSK’s represent about a quarter of the total submarine acquisition expenditure for all new European submarines tracked by AMI.
Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN and SSBN) make up the other 75% of the projected acquisition cost in European programs. Per-hull costs are highest for the larger strategic deterrence submarines being acquired by the U.K. and France, not surprising giving that these hulls are significantly larger (est. at 17,000 tonnes and 14,000 tonnes respectively) than SSNs, and 7-8 times the size of most European SSK designs.
France and the UK are only two countries in Europe that are acquiring nuclear-powered attack submarines – in both cases as replacements for existing SSNs now in service. Neither France nor the UK continue to operate conventionally powered submarines, although France’s widely-exported SCORPENE SSK design is the basis for the Spanish S80 class.
Current European Submarine Programmes
AMI tracks 11 submarine programs in nine European countries that are now in construction or planned over the next decade. A brief description of each of these programs follows.
Germany: In May 2017, the German Navy announced that it had intended on procuring two additional Type 212 submarines (hulls 7 and 8) due to the security situation in Europe. The submarines are part of a package deal with the Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN), which will procure four units of the Type 212CD. All six units will be built at ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (tkms) – Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft AG (HDW).
Norway: In March 2017, the Norwegian Defence Ministry announced that they had chosen tkms as a strategic partner to the Norwegian Navy. As a result of this partnering, the Type 212CD (Common Design) was selected over the Naval Group SCORPENE as the preferred design. The first unit of a projected four hulls is expected to begin construction in 2020 and will commission in 2025.
Italy: In June 2017, it was announced that an additional four units of the U-212A (Batch III) would be ordered. Information indicates that the new submarines will be a modified U212 design fitted with an upgraded AIP system, allowing for around 20% more endurance. The four new SSKs will likely commission between 2026 and 2030.
The Netherlands: The RNlN is currently planning to replace the Walrus class under the WALRUS Replacement Programme (WRES). By September 2016 the programme (four hulls) was officially started at the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). Design selection is expected in 2019, followed by the Request for Proposals (RfP) in 2020 and the construction contract in 2021. The remaining competitors to supply the new submarine are assessed as Damen (teamed with Saab) and France’s Naval Group.
Poland: Design selection for three new submarines is still pending, with Swedish, French and German designs under consideration. If a preferred design is chosen by 2022, a construction contract could be in in place by 2024, with the first unit entering service in 2029.
Spain: The construction of the first batch of four units (Batch I) of the S80A class was approved in late 2003, and construction began in Navantia’s shipyard in Cartagena in March 2005. By 2012 the S80 programme was delayed due to economic issues, with the first unit to be delivered in 2015 (rather than the original date of 2011). In late 2013, the programme faced further setbacks when the Spanish Navy announced that the first unit had stability issues resulting from 70 tonnes of excess weight. Questions also arose about the submarines’ Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system. As of 2018, the first unit’s commissioning date is now 2022, the second in 2024, the third in 2025 and the fourth in 2027. Delays in the programme are expected to see modernisation and upkeep investments in Spain’s three GALERNA class submarines commissioned in the mid-1980s.
Sweden: In 2010, the Swedish Parliament approved the A26 Submarine (Nästa Generation Ubåt, or NGU) programme. The RSwN finalised its A26 design in 2014 with the government approving the programme in March 2015 and the construction contract for the first two units signed in June 2015. The first unit (Blekinge) is expected to enter service by 2024 and the second (Skane) in 2025. A minimum of 2 additional units to replace the three GOTLAND class are expected to be funded in the later years of the 2020s.
Turkey: In July 2008, ThyssenKrupp Marine (tkms) was selected as the preferred supplier for the programme to jointly build and supply six PIRI REIS class (Type 214) submarines. Golcuk Naval Shipyard near Istanbul is the shipyard performing integration and completion for the programme. Propulsion and combat system components are provided by companies that have supported previous Turkish submarine construction programmes: MTU, Siemens, Atlas Elektronik, Hensoldt, and Thales Aerospace. First steel was cut on unit one, TCG Piri Reis, in October 2015. The sixth unit in the programme is expected to be commissioned in 2026.
Turkey is in the early stages of formalising an indigenous submarine design and construction programme, identified as the Milli Denizaltı National Submarine (MILDEN). This new submarine programme is intended to replace the eight units of the PREVEZE (Type 209/1400) class that entered service from 1994 through 2008. While the specifics of the program are uncertain, a design phase involving Golcuk shipyard could begin in 2023 and run through 2025. In order for the submarine to begin replacing the Preveze class (the first of which reaches 35 years of service life in 2029), a construction contract with Golcuk would have to be in place no later than 2027 for the first submarine to enter service in 2033.
• BARRACUDA Class Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine (SSN): In 2006 a US$1.3Bn contract was awarded to France’s Naval Group for the construction of the first unit of the class. Construction began at Naval Group’s Cherbourg Shipyard in 2007 and the first unit was expected to commission into the French Navy in December 2017, later postpones to 2020. Units two and three were financed through 2012, and unit four in 2014. Unit five was funded in 2016 and ordered in 2018. Unit six will likely receive funding and be ordered in 2020. With the first unit now expected to enter service in 2020, units two through six are forecast to enter service from 2021 through 2029.
• 3G (Third Generation) Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN): 2011 marked the initial funding for the 3G SSBN to replace the four LE TRIOMPHANT class SSBNs, commissioned between 1989-and 2002. France is expected to replace the LE TRIOMPHANT class with platforms of like capability and numbers. The requirement to maintain the nuclear submarine construction industry will also drive timing of the new SSBN programme, as follow-on nuclear submarine work will be needed when the last BARRACUDA class SSN (De Grasse) is launched from Naval Group’s Cherbourg Shipyard in 2023. If the French Navy begins construction of the first 3G SSBN in 2020, this will enable the new hull to replace LE TRIOMPHANT in 2027, its 40th anniversary. The new class is expected to commission at a rate of one every four years through 2039.
• ASTUTE Class Nuclear Powered Attack Submarine (SSN): Concept development for this programme started in 1991, with the initial construction contract to build three hulls awarded to BAE shipbuilding in 1994. The SDSR 2010 process resulted in the decision to procure the seventh optional hull. SDSR 2015, released in November 2015, confirmed that all seven units of the class would be completed and enter service. The UK Treasury approved funding for the final hull in the class in March 2018. All seven units of the class are being built at Barrow, and hull seven is expected to be delivered to the RN in 2024.
• DREADNOUGHT Class Nuclear Powered Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN): The replacement of the VANGUARD class SSBN has been a subject of sharp debate within the UK and MoD. The 2015 SDSR stated that the SUCCESSOR SSBN Programme will replace the four units of the VANGUARD class. The major question that remained until the release of the SDSR was if the RN would maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrence (CASD) with four new units or with a near CASD with only three hulls. SDSR 2015 clarified that the CASD requirement was four new SSBNs replacing VANGUARD on a one-for-one basis. By October 2016, the MoD announced that the first of the four planned boats would be named HMS DREADNOUGHT. The first of the class is forecast for delivery in 2028, with the fourth hull expected to be commissioned in 2033.
Bob Nugent is a recently-selected Scholar Practitioner Fellow and Instructor at the Busch School of Business at Catholic University of America, (Washington D.C.), as well as Ph.D candidate in Strategy and Management at Virginia Polytechnic University. He continues to work as a consultant and writer/commentator in the Aerospace and Defence industry, affiliated with AMI International. Bob is a retired naval officer.