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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Germany’s Submarine Fleet: Ready to Take on Russia or Slowly ‘Sinking’?

Type 212CD
190605-N-JX484-151 BALTIC SEA (June 5, 2019) A rigid-hull inflatable boat from the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) departs a German U-33 submarine during a passenger transfer exercise. Gravely is underway on a regularly-scheduled deployment as the flagship of Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 to conduct maritime operations and provide a continuous maritime capability for NATO in the northern Atlantic. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Andrew Hays/Released)

Back in the First and Second World Wars, the U-boats (Unterseebooten; literally “underwater boats”) of the Imperial Germany Navy and Kriegsmarine were arguably the most feared submarine force in the world. During WWI U-boats sank over 5,000 ships and claimed the lives of 15,000 sailors, with the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, in particular, serving as the catalyst for America’s entry into that war (thus triggering The Law of Unintended Consequences to the detriment of “Kaiser Bill”). 

In WWII, the Kriegsmarine subs inflicted even greater damage, and sank about 2,779 Allied warships and merchant vessels for a total of 14.1 million tons’ worth of gross registered tonnage (GRT); according to Gudmundur Helgason’s website, “This figure is roughly 70 percent of all allied shipping losses in all theatres of the war and to all hostile action.” Today, the tiny submarine fleet of the Federal Republic of Germany’s Deutsche Marine is but a small fraction of its World War-era predecessors in terms of fleet size and manpower. Question is, do these German subs at least partially compensate in terms of capabilities for what they lack in sheer numbers?

Brief History of the Post-WWII German Navy and Its Submarine Fleet

From its inception in 1956 up until 1995, the Bundesmarine was the official name of the Navy of the Federal Republic of Germany; the name change of Deutsche Marine was implemented to account for the incorporation of the former Cold War-era East German Volksmarine (“People’s Navy”) subsequent to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. During the Cold War, the Bundesmarine’s submarine fleet was comprised of Type 205 and Type 206 U-boats (yes, they’re still called “U-boats” in the post-WWII era, just like the present-day German Air Force has retained the Luftwaffe moniker); the former class first entered into service in November 1962 and was decommissioned by June 2005; the latter class served from 1973 to 2007. Meanwhile, interestingly, the Volksmarine never had a submarine fleet (one might’ve logically expected that the Soviet Union would’ve at least provided a few Kilo-class boats in the spirit of Warsaw Pact solidarity, but apparently this never happened).  

Hier Kommt der Typ 212

Nowadays, the Deutsche Marine’s U-boat fleet consists of a total of six Type 212A-class warships (known in the Italian Navy as the Todaro class). Built by the Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW) in the German city of Kiel, the first ship of the class was the FGS U-31 (S-181) commissioned in October 2005, and the newest is the U-36 (S-186). According to the official Mission page of the Bundeswehr:

Submarine Squadron, based in Eckernförde, operates six Type 212A submarines, one Elbe class tender, and the Oste class intelligence collectors. The Submarine Training Centre and the Navy Hydroacoustic Analysis Centre are also part of the Squadron…The submarines’ two key capabilities are the collection of information using long-range sonar and the engagement of submarine and surface targets. Although developed for worldwide deployment, their size, design and manoeuvrability make the submarines particularly suited to operations in shallow and littoral waters. Their air-independent propulsion [AIP] enables them to stay submerged for extended periods of time, for example to covertly gather information on the situation in a specific sea area. The submarines can also be used to covertly deploy special forces, for example for rescue and evacuation missions.”

The Type 212As are diesel-electric boats. They have a displacement of 1,524 tons on the surface and 1,830 tons whilst submerged. Hull length is 56 meters (183 feet 9 inches), beam width is 6.8 m (22 ft 4 in), and draft is 6.4 m (21 ft). Operational depth is 250 meters; reportedly the hull crush depth is in excess of 700 meters (2,296 feet). Speed is 12 knots (22 kph/13 mph) surfaced and 20 knots (37 kph/22 mph) submerged, with a maximum operational range of 8,000 nautical miles whilst maintaining a speed of 8 knots (14.8 kph/9.2 mph). The boats host a crew complement of 27 (5 commissioned officers, 22 enlisted sailors). 

Armament-wise, the Type 212As/Todaros wield six 533mm (21-inch) torpedo tubes and a capacity for 13 DM2A4 Seehecht (“Sea Hake”) heavyweight torpedoes and the option for 24 naval mines. 

The Recent Past and the Future

The German submarine fleet endured an episode of considerable embarrassment when all six ships were out of commission between 2017 and 2018, though all were fully reactivated by January 2019. As Kyle Mizokami wrote in Popular Mechanics back in December 2017, “the reasons stretch from an underfunded defense establishment to a shortage of sailors … Today, Germany is the fourth largest economy in the world, with a GDP of 3.47 trillion dollars. Evidently not enough to maintain a fleet of six submarines … According to an official with Germany’s Bundestag parliament, this is the “first time in history” Germany’s entire submarine fleet is out of action.” 

Fast-forward to June 2021, and the German Navy finally received a much-needed infusion of additional funding. This funding included a provision for a building of new and improved Type 212CD subs, which will be 1,000 tons heavier and 17 meters (56 feet) longer than the 212As, and will have a stealth design as well as the capacity for the IDAS (Interactive Defense and Attack System for Submarines) weapons system. Two of the CDs are planned for the Deutsche Marine whilst four more will be sold to Norway. 

Hopefully, the new funding for submarines, along with the extra sense of urgency created by Putin’s ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine, will prevent a repeat of the 2017 deactivation fiasco. Even with the expansion to eight boats, Germany’s submarine fleet size will pale in comparison to the 64 subs possessed by the Russian Navy, and moreover, the Germans don’t have the ballistic missile submarines that the Russians do.

However, contrary to a WWIII scenario, the German submarine sailors certainly won’t be expected to take on the Russians single-handedly, as they’ll have the more powerful submarine forces of NATO allies Britain, France, and the United States to back them up. 

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).