Captain Patton is a retired submarine officer who is a frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW
In the September 1987 issue of the now defunct journal Defense Science & Electronics, there was an article titled “The SSn – A New Player?” Although it is not mentioned by name, the writing of the article was stimulated by a then current issue involving whether the Canadians would incorporate something called the Auxiliary Marine Power Supply (AMPS) into some of their Oberon-class diesel electric submarines, AMPS being a somewhat self-contained minireactor that could provide a continuous source of some 300KW. Purportedly, the reason behind their interest in such a device was the fact that both U.S. and Soviet submarines were using ice-covered waters within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago without first obtaining permission. Since international law is clear in that a national entity only rates claiming that which they can reasonably enforce, the Canadians had a reason to seek the endurance of an SSN without really needing its mobility, since the waters in question were regional in nature and global deployability was not part of the problem.
As the article pointed out, however, once a nuclear reactor is operated at power, be it 300KW or 300MW, the radiological, training and maintenance issues are exactly the same, and require an enormous infrastructure. Again purportedly, when the Canadian government asked if they could have access to the existing U.S. nuclear propulsion infrastructure, the response was understandably “Sorry, but no”.
A take-away from the subject article above was that a country could not aspire to an SSn, where the power contributed by nuclear power was minimal, unless it already had infrastructure capable of supporting SSNs and/or SSBNs, and if that was the case, why settle for a regional capability when for a few dollars more one could exert global maritime influence?
So, if a logical inference from the above is that the only entities that could build an SSn (i.e. a submarine with nuclear AIP) are those that already have SSNs and or SSBNs, is there still no real incentive for them to do that? Since the SSn has limited mobility, to be useful there must be a need for regional endurance, and if so, to have them serve as more affordable brown water complements to an existing fleet of more powerful blue water boats. Barring really dramatic developments vis a vis the naval forces of such as Hugo Chavez, the U.S. doesn’t really have a level of regional need for such vessels, and as also with the U.K., it would be politically and fiscally dangerous to imply that even some of the U.S. submarine needs could be met with cheaper SSn’s vice Virginias.
However, in the realm of more controlled economics less influenced by popular perceptions, China and Russia come to mind as powers with existing nuclear submarine infrastructures and a far greater need to field regional submarine presence of significant stealth, endurance and firepower. It is a little early to evaluate the needs of nuclear submarine wanna-bees such as India and Brazil, but it is a reasonable assumption that they would first want to gain the prestige and potential for global maritime influence that would be accrued through the operation of an indigenously-produced SSN.
Just one more existing or close to existing nuclear-submarine power remains, and that is France. As the U.S. and U.K., France needs to be sensitive to public perceptions on the relative cost of their submarines, but on the other hand, they tend to be more focused on the fairly restrained waters of the Mediterranean rather than the vast stretches of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans that the U.S. and U.K. deal with, and have tended to build smaller SSNs. At a Naval Strike conference in London in July, 2007, a senior French submariner making an UNCLAS presentation about their forthcoming Barracuda class submarine indicated that its uranium fuel would be enriched only to that level found in commercial power reactors in the order of 4 to 8%- far from the much more highly enriched fuel of normal naval nuclear propulsion plants. This came as somewhat of a shock to other nuclear submariners due to the associated limitations in total stored energy and poorer performance as regards large maneuvering transients.
Related to that statement are words quoted from the conference advertising brochure another London conference
presentation in January 2008 where French Naval, Defense Sales and ARENA
Business Development personnel address the following:
- Using civilian nuclear safety standards for nuclear-powered submarines and related harbour facilities
- Nuclear-powered reactors and sustainable development changes (on shore support, in operation, life cycle fuel, decommissioning)
- Safety assessment analysis and naval nuclear reactors integration in operation
Taken together, a disconcerting conclusion can be drawn from these two conferences, which is that the BARRACUDA might be offered for foreign sales, and since it does not use very highly enriched uranium, would be free of any stigma associated with the proliferation of such material. Furthermore, it is somewhat implied, that unlike the U.S./Canadian affair, they the sellers would be happy to provide all the infrastructure and support needed, to include training, nuclear maintenance and defueling/refueling.
There are major world naval powers who already have the required infrastructure for nuclear submarines and who could see a benefit from deployment of SSns employing nuclear AIP. In littoral waters close to the owner’s shores, the restrictions imposed by top speeds constrained to a dozen or so knots would not be a showstopper, but any ASW against these units would be significantly complicated- far more so then even the best non-nuclear AIP schemes now available that provide 20-30 days at very slow speeds without snorkeling.
Even more disconcerting would be the proliferation by export of commercial-grade enriched SSNs, capability-limited as they might be, to nations (some extremely wealthy), that presently have no credible path to indigenous production or care of nuclear propulsion plants.
Just as there are internationally accepted treaties, conventions, regimes and restrictions regarding ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, mines and the like, it would appear appropriate that some similar arrangements be made concerning the sale or proliferation of such as SSNs and similar submarines.