Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is
a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
Between 4-7 September 2007, perhaps the best submarine associated conference I have ever attended was held in Kiel, Germany, and was sponsored by the HOW (Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft) Company, the producers of the type 206, 209, 212 and 214 (among others) series submarines. This was their fourth SUBCON, the others being held in 1995, 1999, and 2003. A special issue of the European Defense Journal Naval Forces which contained copies of the papers presented was included in the package provided all delegates.
- The conference was held at an unclassified level, with 450 delegates
present from 26 different countries and was done entirely in English.
Highlights of the conference included:
- Detailed description of the design, operation and H/02 recharging evolutions for the PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane) fuel cell system installed aboard type 212 and 214 submarines.
- An extensive tour of the building halls where construction of type 212 and 214 submarines was in progress.
- Presentations by several senior submariners concerning the forces and operations of their respective country’s submarines.
- Various European approaches to partial solutions to the ubiquitous “Comms at Speed and Depth” submarine issue.
- An extensive tour of the fuel cell and torpedo tube and countermeasure launcher construction facilities.
- A display of various equipment and hardware at the construction hall on the last day of the conference.
In the HDW fuel cell design, oxygen is stored in a liquid form either in a heavily insulated tank within the pressure hull (type 214) or in external tanks atop the pressure hull. Hydrogen is stored in metal hydride cylinders in external cylinders towards the bottom of the hull. The oxygen is “medical grade” (99.5% pure), and the slight “boil-off” plus the approximate 1 % of flow volume through the two 120 KW (type 214) or nine 34 KW (first flight 212s) PEM cells that doesn’t react is used for crew breathing consumption. The hydrogen was described as “level 5”, and had to be extremely pure (99.999%), since any carbon monoxide or sulfur contamination would seriously damage the PEM membranes. In addition to the exceptionally high purity, hydride recharging was a non-trivial affair, required a good deal of infrastructure on the pier (evaporators, pressure/flow rate controllers etc.), and once everything was present and set up, took about 35 hours of temperature-controlled “soaking” to fully recharge the metal hydride stowage cylinders. The charging process was exothermic, requiring the storage canisters to be cooled, and the at sea release of the gas required cylinder heating, being endothermic.
The building hall was fascinating, and exceptionally clean and neat by shipyard standards. The type 212 has an austenitic stainless steel hull (to reduce vulnerability to magnetic mines), is about an inch thick, with frame spacing of 8-10 inches and a web length of 4-5 inches. Being non-magnetic, the automatic frame to hull welds could not be checked through magnetic particle eddy current means, and it was interesting to see the entire hull circumference of these welds being checked with dye penetrant means. The equipment installations are end-loaded and there was evidence of extensive “rafting” and sound isolation. The sail and casings (topside superstructure) were of composite material, and the shipyard was replete with the molds upon which the composite structures were laid-up and cured. Also in development there at the yard are replaceable composite blades for their heavily skewed 7-bladed propellers.
Submariners from Germany, Sweden, Israel, Greece, Brazil and South Africa gave presentations about some facets of their countries Submarine Forces and operations. Of significant interest was the fact that when the Brazilian Captain making his presentation was asked if Brazil was working towards a nuclear submarine, his answer was a straightforward yes.
Perhaps the most interesting thing seen at the torpedo tube/countermeasure launcher construction facilities were the external countermeasure clips installed on the type 214 and other units. The 214, for example, has four such clips, each holding 10 noisemaker or mobile countermeasures. The countermeasure diameters run from 4 to 8 inches, and doctrine calls for being fired five at a time. There was also one 5-6 foot long launcher under construction with a I 0 inch diameter that the touring official indicated was unique to the Israeli Dolphin class.
The European company of Gabler is very active in the field of comms at speed and depth and mast design. One of their products features a high data rate mast whose tethered antennas can detach and fly to the air-water interface by means of an organic lifting body where it provides two-way comms while being towed by a 300-600 meter cable. When the comms event is completed, the antennas are winched down to be reseated on their mast. Another Gabler innovation is the mast-mounted large watertight container of figure (2) with a hatch operated from within the submarine. One of the employments of this container is for the launching of the expendable UAV of figure (3) and another is the stowage of an erectable, trainable 30mm recoilless gun (an existing Muraena design found on some armored personnel carriers) with a magazine of 30 rounds. Another advertised use was the dry stowage of SOF equipment.
There were several other interesting exhibits. HDW had a mockup of a submarine’s after elliptical bulkhead and their electrical actuators. There were also what seemed to be fully developed weapon concepts. One was the 21 inch, torpedo-sized wooden round of figure (4) which contained 4 independently fired “IDAS” AAW/anti-small craft weapons
A very valuable part of the conference was the opportunity to talk with other submariners at the very fine catered meals and other social events. For example, while chatting with the Australian delegates, a Commodore and a Commander, the Commodore indicated that he didn’t think that Australia would be interested in AIP from an operational point of view. The Commander offered a “yeh, but. .. ” opinion that some form of AIP would be valuable as an contingency system-like parachutes for fighter pilots or fire extinguishers and active sonar on submarines- something that wasn’t intended to be used, but when pinned down” in some shallow water or bay with battery running low, it would be nice to have a week or so of emergency propulsion to extricate oneself from adversaries.
In closing, I’m sure there is probably some nuclear/non-nuclear propulsion political rationale that argues against US Submarine Force participation in SUBCON, but it is a rich environment from which to glean valuable insights into not only the cutting edge technologies involved, but also the operational concepts of employing them.