Diesels or Nukes
Diesels Or Nukes: Officer who did both reflects on differences
By Robert A. Hamilton originally published in the New London Day on Feb. 29, 2004.
Diesel submarines have become very quiet and potent, said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Cloutier, speaking to the local chapter of the Naval Submarine League Friday at the U.S. Submarine Veterans Inc. Groton base on Friday.
But Cloutier, a graduate of the Dutch “Perisher” course that trains diesel submarine commanders, who is the executive officer of the Jimmy Carter, under construction at Electric Boat, said joint exercises with countries that operate them have started to teach the U.S. Navy how to deal with the hazards they pose.
The Walrus-class submarine he trained on was huge by diesel standards, but at 2,000 tons was just over one-quarter the displacement of a U.S. nuclear submarine, or SSN. It has a crew of 55, versus 140 or more for an SSN, and is 200 feet long, dwarfed by a 360-foot Los Angeles-class SSN.
Diesel submarines or SSKs have some advantages, such as they can put to sea in minutes, bypassing the lengthy reactor startup process that can keep an SSN in port two days after the decision to deploy.
But the nuclear submarine will quickly catch up: a Walrus-class boat will take 15 days to get from Groton to Gibraltar, most of that time on the surface charging its batteries, while an SSN can do it in nine days even at part-throttle.
The difference can be even greater moving from one spot to another in a combat theatre, because the SSN is capable of sprinting far ahead of its SSK counterpart, he said.
“We can get there quick,” Cloutier said. “You can't do that with a 10-knot submarine that can do only 8-knots submerged ... that would be crippling to a battle group commander.”
Diesel submarines, particularly the modern versions, are very quiet, he said. During the Perisher course, he saw hordes of aircraft and surface ships looking for the Walrus that he trained on, but they were not successful.
A diesel submarine, though, has to surface to recharge its batteries, and even if it has a new air-independent propulsion system, it has to surface to ventilate the air, which becomes virtually unbreathable after a couple of days. On the surface, diesels are much more vulnerable, he said.
“They have to come up eventually,” Cloutier said. An SSN, however, makes its own power, air and water, and can stay down for months.
But perhaps the starkest difference is in training. In the U.S. Navy, crews are trained to be experts in their field. In diesel fleets, there is a much greater reliance on a couple of key people, particularly the captain.
So efforts to hunt a diesel should rely on relentless use of active sonar from surface ships, aircraft and other submarines, forcing the boat to stay submerged and out of sight, until morale drops and conditions worse.
“If you can wear the captain out, make him fatigued, he'll make more errors,” Cloutier said. “If you can take out the commanding officer, the submarine is useless.”
“Don't think of it as a very small SSN,” Cloutier continued. “It doesn't have the speed, it doesn't have the endurance, and it has counter-detection limitations.”
“Our biggest advantage, though, is our taxpayers' confidence in us,” Cloutier said. “They give us the tools we need ... and the time we need to train, which other navies just don't have.”
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