New European Attack Submarine Programs Pushing Limits of Diesel Technology

October 18, 2021 7:09 PM
Rendering of a Type 212

New diesel-electric attack submarine (SSK) programs for NATO members Italy, Norway and Germany are indicative of the developing trends in the conventional submarine market for stealthier attack boats.

These countries are all developing the Type 212 SSK design for their navies. Italy is using it to enhance its domestic SSK manufacturing capability, while a Norwegian-German program is piloting the first-ever joint SSK construction program through its initial stages.

Italy’s Near Future Submarine (NFS) program begins this month with the construction of its first U212NFS hull and signifies the first step toward the eventual return of Italy to the SSK market.

The export market for SSKs has been dominated by France and Germany, with their shipyards – Naval Group and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) – successively selling their designs overseas. The second tier of suppliers includes South Korea, Sweden and Russia, which have also secured significant contracts.

Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri is to deliver four NFS boats to the Italian Navy that are a modification of the existing Type 212 submarine – a TKMS design. Fincantieri had earlier built four U212A SSKs for the Italian Navy in cooperation with TKMS.

But this time Fincantieri will play the role of the prime contractor and the design authority for the U212NFS program, including both the development of the architectures and physical and functional integration of the combat and platform systems and sub-systems.

“Unlike the U212A submarines, all the engineering will be developed by Fincantieri and the combat system will be Italian-led. This will contribute not only in increasing the national content of the Near Future Submarine program, but also in gaining autonomy in the underwater field, thus allowing the Italian industry to be potentially present again on the international market,” a spokesperson for Fincantieri told USNI News.

The U212NFS program is in the System Requirement Review, during which the design configuration will be frozen along with its performance and technical requirements. Concurrently, Fincantieri is developing a functional design providing further details and analysis of the requirements, specification of equipment and interfaces and integration.

The final design will be part Critical Design Review in June 2022. The launch of the first U212NFS is expected in 2026, with delivery due at the end of 2027. The second boat will follow the same production drumbeat one year behind.

According to Fincantieri, the U212NFS has additional capabilities compared to the original U212, including endurance improvements due to better hydrodynamic efficiency and increased fuel storage capacity. It will be equipped with Lithium-ion batteries to improve stealth features in tandem with an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system.

Furthermore, changes to the cooling system will allow operations in tropical environments. It has also been fitted with a multi-sensor digital sonar system and an airborne sensors suite.

The first pair of boats will replace the Italian Navy’s two 1980s vintage Sauro-class (batch 3) SSKs and a second pair will replace the two 1990s-vintage boats.

The U212NFS project is considered the starting point for the beginning of a national submarine project. The spokesperson said that the NFS boats would serve “as a testbed for Italian industry” in the provision of submarine systems.

“With this idea, we are working to integrate a new fuel cell system in the 3° boat covering the offer of an Italian AIP system,” the spokesperson said, adding that the next step is the development of a completely Italian submarine with new operational and technical concepts.

“In particular every asset will have to integrate unmanned systems capable of pursuing the goal of extending the ‘over the horizon’ threat assessment capacity,” the spokesperson added.

Elsewhere in Europe another Type 212 program is breaking boundaries. Norway and Germany are embarking on the first joint construction of an SSK between countries with the new Type 212CD variant for their navies. The Royal Norwegian Navy (RNoN) will receive four boats and the Federal German Navy (FGN) two.

A contract signing took place in July 2021 with TKMS worth €5.5 billion, or $6.5 billion). Since then both the German BAAINBw procurement executive and the Norwegian Defence Material Agency (NDMA) have been working on developing the teams and facilities necessary to build this class of boat – which is significantly larger than any SSK previously operated by either country.

According to the BAAINBw and NDMA, they will also finalize the design before construction is due to start in 2023.

Both Norwegian and German personnel will staff a joint program office in Kiel that is merging two existing national project teams into a bi-national joint team to support the design and construction stages.

Meanwhile, Norway is investing NOK3 billion, or $350 million, in a new government-owned maintenance facility at Haakonsvern that will be used to support all six boats. It will also contain a Lifetime Management Project Office for the 212CD that will have staff from both countries.

“The foundations of the new yard have already been completed, and the full facility will be operational by the time the first submarine is delivered,” a spokesperson for the Norwegian program said. This is expected to be in 2029, a delay from the original date of 2026, which moved due to changes in defining requirements, negotiations with the contractors and COVID-19 restrictions.

“The most important factor, however, has been the fact that this not an ordinary acquisition program. This is the first time two countries have agreed to work this closely together on a capability as complex as submarines. In developing this partnership, we identified several questions within areas such as scope of contract and funding that needed to be resolved before we could make a joint commitment of this kind,” the spokesperson explained.

The Type 212CD will replace the existing Ula-class SSKs in RNoN service.

“The 212CD will allow for a completely new approach to submarine operations compared to the Ula-class, thanks to its combination of endurance, low signature and advanced sensors,” Commander Øystein Storebø, the acting project manager for the Type 212CD project at the NDMA, told USNI News.

Further details could not be disclosed, but Storebø added: “The 212CD will be unique in that it will be the first submarine to combine the stealth characteristics of the 212A with the range and endurance of more conventional diesel-electric and AIP submarine designs.”

Tim Fish

Tim Fish

Tim Fish is a defense writer based in New Zealand. He’s written for Shephard Media, Jane’s Navy International, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Monch Publishing and Media Tranasia.

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