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Run Silent, Run Hydrogen

Hybrids and fuel cells are changing more than road transportation.

Diesel-electric submarines have been around for years—in some ways, they are excellent examples of a hybrid vehicle. Primary power came from diesel engines; the boat would run either surfaced, or submerged at a shallow depth at which a snorkel could provide air for the engines. The diesels would also recharge batteries which the submarine would use for power when fully submerged.

The downside was the submarine couldn’t stay submerged very long. (Think World War II submarine movies.) The diesel-electric submarines of WW II had a submerged endurance of 48 hours at 2 knots. Modern diesel-electrics extended that to four to five days of underwater operation.

Now a new generation of diesel-electric and fuel cell submarines is dramatically extending that submerged capability.


Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW) just christened a new H2 fuel cell submarine at its yards in Kiel, Germany. The new U33 is the third of four Class 212A submarines currently under construction or in sea trials. There are currently orders for seven more from different navies.

The Class 212A submarines reportedly can operate submerged for one month. A slightly improved version—the 214—is on the way.

Other countries are working on different fuel cell approaches. British Maritime, for example, is exploring a gas-turbine/fuel cell approach that offers 25-day submerged operations but at almost twice the speed of the 212.

These developments could change the strategic dynamic underwater: not only could these submarines prove extremely effective in coastal waters, but as submarines go, they are cheap: $200-$300 million per boat, compared to the $1.6 billion pricetag of the new Virginia-class nuclear submarines.

Accordingly, there is increasing concern in the US Navy, which, since the end of the Cold War, hasn’t focused as much on ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare)—i.e., finding and defending against a silent foe.

...a new and ominous threat is growing in the world’s critical coastal waters and maritime choke points: quiet, long-endurance submarines, some armed with lethal torpedoes and sea-skimming cruise missiles.

The growing numbers and increasing sophistication of submarines offer foes a deadly weapon with which to neutralize the United States’ overwhelming combat power and deny its access to critical shipping lanes and seaports.

These boats “are very similar to U.S. Navy state-of-the-art capability,” Rear Adm. Mark W. Kenny, the Navy’s deputy director for submarine warfare, said in an interview. Finding them, he added, could be “a crap shoot.”

The problem has set off alarms within the Navy, which is scrambling to revive sub-hunting skills and technology left dormant since Soviet submarines disappeared as a threat more than a decade ago.

The military strategy evolving under the Bush administration makes the problem more acute. Based on the Iraq war model, the Pentagon now envisions a hard strike, immediately followed by waves of reinforcements and logistics support ships carrying fuel, ammunition, armored vehicles and troops. This “just-in-time” support requires fast and dependable schedules with little margin for delay.

What worries strategists is this:

“All it would take is just one lucky sub to get a hit on a carrier, and we have a huge problem,” said Rick Burgess, a former anti-submarine warfare officer who is managing editor of Sea Power magazine.

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