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German sub operating in WESTLANT exercise

By Cmdr. (sg) Sascha H. Rackwitz


One hundred ninety-five days, 4,600 nautical miles from home—one way.

These are only the most eye-catching statistics on the first visit of a German submarine to the United States in more than ten years. On February 10 the U212A-class U-32 left Eckernförde on the German Baltic Sea coast, followed shortly afterward by the submarine tender Main. After a brief stop at Sao Miguel in the Azores, the vessels jointly crossed the Atlantic to call at Naval Station Mayport on March 19. Temporarily reinforced by the military research vessel Planet and a Maritime Patrol Aircraft detachment of the German Naval Air Wing 3, the German task group—dubbed the “WESTLANT-Deployment”—cruised along the eastern seaboard until mid-July and returned to Germany in late August.

The U212A-class submarines are, after the decommissioning of the U206A-class boats in 2011, the sole submarines in the German fleet. Together with the submarine tender Main and three intelligence-gathering ships, they form the 1st German Submarine Squadron, based in Eckernförde, near Kiel on the Baltic Sea.

Introduced into the fleet in 2005, the four boats of the first batch—two further boats are to enter the service shortly—present a major technological step for the German submarine service. Indeed, with this first new class of submarines in more than 30 years, the German Navy leap-frogged several evolutionary steps in submarining. With a displacement of about 1,850 tons, the boats are more than triple the size of their predecessors, are 30 feet longer, and have a pressure-hull diameter 50 percent larger. But increased size does not, unfortunately, translate into a more spacious interior, as new engineering, sonar, and weapons capabilities were added to every department of the boat.

One key upgrade is the propulsion system: a permanently excited electrical propulsion engine is fed by a hybrid system of conventional lead-acid batteries, a diesel-generator, and a fuel cell plant. The fuel cell produces electric power to feed into the battery, the propulsion motor, or the boat’s circuits through a reverse-electrolysis of hydrogen and oxygen without any moving and thus potentially noisy parts. While maintaining the advantage of an extremely small acoustic signature, this concept enables a U212A to remain deep for most of its time at sea, reducing the risk of being detected at periscope depth. This capability is most welcome even on peacetime transits, as U-32 experienced when she was able to continue her Atlantic transit last March in the deep while adverse weather conditions raged on the surface. The U212As’ acoustic signature is further reduced by placing all noise-generating equipment—hydraulic plants, generators, fans, pumps etc.—in a noise reduction module that is totally decoupled from the rest of the a-magnetic boat.

A similar investment was made into improving and diversifying the sensors. U212As are provided with a wide variety of passive acoustic sensors, from very low to high frequencies, broad and narrow band, as well as highly refined optical and electro-optical sensors in their two periscopes. With the introduction of the fiber-wire-guided DM2A4 heavy-weight torpedo with enhanced speed, endurance, and signal processing, U212As have improved on the already excellent performance of the older DM2A3 torpedoes.

Often unnoticed but for the combat value, and almost as important as new sensors or propulsion systems, are the living and working conditions aboard. With cooled storage for perishables, two heads and showers, and separate mess decks and berth decks, U212As are literally in another century compared to the rustic accommodations and amenities on the earlier U206A-class boats, which would hardly have been adequate as a third-rate camp ground.

German submarine at periscope depth
U-32 operates at periscope depth near a U.S. destroyer

U212A has by now taken over the full mission set of the U206A, from intelligence, surveillance, and reporting operations in the Mediterranean Sea to training support for the British Flag Officer Sea Training in Plymouth, UK. In spite of all these additions and improvements, U212As maintained the same characteristics that were the hallmark of U206As: a low acoustic and magnetic signature, a very small complement of only 28, and the capability of being fully operational in as little as 60 feet of water.

The WESTLANT deployment to the United States was, for the U212A-class, the venue to put its performance to the test, not only as a hunter and an intelligence platform—U212As had already excelled in these missions in exercises and operations in the European theatre—but most of all as a valuable addition to a surface force. Nowhere else can such an array of formidable naval forces be found to stage demanding exercises and put new tactical ideas to the test, nor better support and hospitality for German naval forces.

The transit across the Atlantic already proved the reliability and efficiency of the fuel cell propulsion system. After the longest continuously submerged transit of a submarine of the German Navy, covering 2,800 nautical miles in 20 days, U-32 could have continued submerged for several more days and had reactants and diesel to spare. Furthermore, having conducted reactant refuelings both in Mayport, Fla. and Norfolk, Va., the logistics of supplying fuel cell boats with reactants was proven to be effective in the Western Hemisphere as well.

Apart from playing the usual part of the cooperative target in ASW exercises for the U.S. Navy and conducting at-sea training and certification courses for German officer-of-the-watch candidates, the German task group held three major events as part of the WESTLANT deployment.

In April Germany’s 1st Submarine Squadron participated in Tactical Development Exercise 13, testing ASW tactics in collaboration with the U.S. Navy. Under the at-sea command of an American destroyer squadron, with substantial American and German forces in all domains, new methods to fight modern submarines at a distance were tested. An exchange of sea-riders and the integration of a staff detail of the German task group into the destroyer squadron staff were integral to the success of the exercise. The goal of this testing was to explore ways of employing a modern SSK in ASW efforts and thus making use of the U212A-class’ superior sonar performance range, speed, and intelligent torpedoes.

Together with the Helicopter Maritime Strike Weapon School, Mayport, the German submarine slipped into the role of the opposing submarine again, allowing U-32 the opportunity to work on evasion and stealth tactics against numerous airborne ASW platforms, including the new MH-60R and P8 Poseidon Multimission Maritime Aircraft, while giving U.S. air crews valuable training against a state-of-the-art submarine.

Joining the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group for its work-up set the scene for testing the experiences gained from previous exercises in a much bigger and more complex operational scenario. To be the first non-U.S. submarine in years—and the first conventional submarine ever—to participate in a carrier strike group on the blue force side as part of the strike group’s chain of command was the crowning experience of the deployment.

Even though the heap of data collected is still being analyzed and evaluated, it is safe to say that WESTLANT 2013 served the overarching goal of the German 1st Submarine Squadron’s deployment to the United States: showing not only that the U212As are the formidable foe that they were already known to be, but that, with a capable crew, they provide a unique contribution in a coalition framework supporting and protecting a surface force. However, the most important goal the German task group has achieved is furthering the bonds between like-minded friends and comrades-in-arms across the Atlantic.

Cmdr. (sg) Sascha H. Rackwitz, is the Commodore of German Submarine Squadron One.