Are Nuclear Subs the Best Option?

Nuclear-powered ships are faster and have greater endurance than diesel-electric submarines, which have to charge their batteries at intervals and risk being detected by an adversary. Ever since the USS Nautilus (SSN-57) set sail in 1954, nuclear power has been the defining characteristic of the U. S. UU.

The performance advantages of nuclear submarines over conventional diesel-electric submarines are considerable, yet force structure, procurement and fiscal sustainability have created challenges for total dependence on nuclear energy. Rapid strategic and technological changes, such as the shift to coastal conflict or the extreme stealth of independent air propulsion (AIP) submarines, have eroded nuclear advantage. The nuclear reactor on board a submarine allows it to operate at high speed for long periods of time with an unlimited range. In comparison, diesel submarines run on electric batteries and can only remain submerged for a few days at low speed, or a few hours at maximum speed.

Speed is an important tactical factor, as it determines maneuverability and the ability to rapidly change depth with flow over hydrofoils. Nuclear power provides attack submarines with a sustained submerged speed of more than 30 knots, considerably higher than any contemporary diesel submarine. Superior speed, range, stealth and endurance make the nuclear submarine a very effective offensive weapon, capable of projecting power and taking the fight against the enemy. However, for several reasons, the nuclear advantage is eroding.

The high cost of nuclear technology means that relatively few nations have deployed nuclear submarines, making a nuclear fleet an important technological and economic statement. That's why the reasoning that nuclear power is cheaper, as taught to future submarine officers in the U. Naval Academy, it's not fiscally rational. Such a high cost for a nuclear-powered fleet makes it impossible to keep up with nearby competitors in producing large quantities of capable submarines.

Currently, Russia and China have a large number of incoming submarines, and the United States must keep up with its competing peers. The industrial base is at its peak in the construction of two Virginia-class rapid attack submarines per year. Previous plans even dropped as little as one per year with the start of the Columbia-class program. Even with current talks to increase to three per year, the Navy anticipates a deficit of rapid-attack submarines that will span the years 2025 to 2041, as the Los Angeles class reaches the end of service.

Allies play an important role in combating adversaries' underwater threats. In other areas of war, the United States uses its industrial power to trade, selling military equipment, from firearms to combat aircraft. However, when it comes to submarines, the United States does not export nuclear technology for safety reasons, and information about the program is classified at the top secret level. However, these restrictions are removed with diesel submarines.

In addition, the market for conventional submarines is strong, with many Asian nations seeking to establish and modernize their submarine fleets to curb Chinese aggression. The Bush administration offered Taiwan eight diesel submarines, but the deal languished when no foreigner or American shipbuilder was willing to build an independent class without also selling it to the U. Navy. With a domestic diesel program, the Navy would strengthen its forces, as well as those of its allies.

While nuclear-powered submarines can maintain operational excellence and meet mission requirements, diesel technology is catching up. Today's diesel submarines are not those of the days of the USS Nautilus. They run much quieter on next-generation diesel engines with advanced batteries. AIP technology has significantly improved the stealth performance of a new generation of submarines at a fraction of the cost of a nuclear-powered vessel.

When powered by batteries, AIP-equipped submarines are almost silent, and the only noise comes from the shaft bearings, propeller, and flow around the hull. Nuclear submarines require large reduction gears and a robust cooling system to maintain safe reactor operation. Noisy pumps circulate cooling water around the reactor core at all times, and then pump the same cooling water back to the ocean, leaving nuclear submarines with a much larger infrared heat signature. Virginia-class innovations such as fly-by-wire ship control to provide better ship handling in shallow waters and delivery of special operations forces echo this coastal approach; however Virginia's nuclear propulsion system does not reflect this change to coastal zone due to need for cooling reactor - nuclear powered subs prefer staying in deep & cold waters unless operating in station.

On coastlines such as South China Sea diesel subs could be versatile asset - with naval bases in Okinawa/Singapore/Subic Bay/Guam reach & resistance become less concern & for naval combat within first island chain fighting with purely nuclear fleet is waste of assets - conventional subs would be beneficial in coastal waters compensating for limited operational resistance & not all sub missions require nuclear power - as current strength increases there are wide variety of missions diesel electric subs could accomplish without need for range or resistance of nuke sub - diesel subs could be used for coastal defense & anti sub warfare - particular need when Russia boasts it can approach US - diesel subs could be launched into regional areas concern in event conflict South China Sea/Korea Sea/Black Sea/Baltic Sea/Sea Japan - operating from advanced bases would represent very cost effective & stealthy means carrying out Navy's sea control & denial missions - if Navy has no plans return diesel electric tech flagship subs may return emergence unmanned submarine vehicles (UUVs). Manned subs must support crew &.

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