Life on a Diesel Submarine

Ben Kelley
Written by Ben Kelley

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has always been entranced with nuclear submarines. It has flirted with the idea in secret several times. Their submarine requirement is essentially for a nuclear submarine. Because no diesel submarine fleet does what the RAN currently does.

Australia by its location is very far away, from everywhere. One of our closest neighbors, the benign, islands of New Zealand, is over 1,500 km away. Its further away than London is from Algiers. From the populated areas of Australia to any thing hostile is many thousands of nautical miles.

Every year Australia conduction an monumental effort of diesel submarine endurance to transit its diesel submarines some 5,500 miles (each way!) to Hawaii for RIMPAC from their base on the West Coast of Australia. That is just for a training exercise.

The Canada on the other hand have a mere 2,700 miles from for its 3 Pacific submarines to Hawaii.

Most diesel submarines don’t just have to regularly run diesel engines for long periods, they are also very slow in comparison to nuclear boats. Many conventional diesel submarines are designed to transit at around 5-7 kts. While nuclear submarines can travel at speeds of 20–30kts, so in many cases a nuclear submarine will get to its station, or area of operation 3 or often 4 times quicker.

Now life on a submarine is already hard. Its tight, its smelly, there is no fresh air, no television, no regular exotic port visits. The work is more demanding and there is just less space.

Throw in a loud noisy transit at 5kts, when you are near the surface in a very big ocean, and you get sea sick sailors. Submarines roll and handle any sort of rough surface very badly, the qualities that make a good surface boat and a submarine are different. You will be regularly at Snorting depth for much of a 5000 Mile journey (each way!). The engines are often not designed for this kind of long haul usages, as diesel submarines typically are operated by nations not far from their own coasts. Diesel submarines have limited power, so no aircon, hot tropical waters, makes for internal temperatures often above 30 degrees while under water, and perhaps near 40 degrees and high humidity on top of it. The only cooling is prioritized for electrical distribution and the computers on board.

So the Australian Navy has had a long term issue with submariner burn out and retention.

Comfort on Collins class hasn’t much improved since the early days of Submarines, if anything its worse! Which were notorious for being hellish, particularly when operating in warmer waters like the tropics or the Mediterranean. The 21 year old Able Seaman, looks like an old salted dog in their late 40’s. Photo: Das Boot, showing a comparatively spacious engine room, which is well lit and ventilated!

Nuclear submarines, are far more comfortable, they have huge electrical output, so things like air-conditioning, fresh water, are possible. Because they are much faster, your mission is generally more effective, so a more sustainable crewing model can be adopted.

Lateral recruits from the Royal Navy, with SSN experience, find the transfer jarring. Giving up their roomy, well lit, non grubby, quiet and comfortable nuke boat for jaunt on a diesel submarine, that does more miles per year than their nuke boat did.

Tactical Advantages

Nuclear submarines are far better offensive weapons, they can project power thousands of kilometers away very effectively. For any Australian submarine to be useful it needs to be able to regularly transit long distances, quickly, and in comfort. Then you have the inherent tactical advantage of a nuclear submarine that doesn’t need to surface, start a large diesel engine, start billowing out a giant diesel plume of hot exhaust, while a large metallic tube pokes above the surface which can be picked up by radar, and in clear topical waters, you can clearly see the submarine below the surface.

With the advantage of speed and stealth nuclear submarines are the elite naval unit, where a single sub can tie up and sink an entire taskforce.

The Military

Yes, the Navy is very excited about nuclear submarines. They offer a huge tactical advantage to the Navy, and also are highly desirable to operate.

This also puts Australia straight at the big table. Strategically, it moves Australia as more of a peer to the US/UK.

About the author

Ben Kelley

Ben Kelley

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