Germany has a submarine problem. During a test dive in October, Deutsche Marine’s U-35 hit something (probably a rock) with one of its four “X-rudders”, the steering planes on its rear fins. The damage required the submarine to be towed back to a shipyard in Kiel for repairs—where it joined three other German submarines currently lying dry. It’s U-35 Deutsche Marine’s only operational submarine before the accident. The rest of the German fleet was in port at the German shipyard at Eckernförde—waiting for the dry docks at Kiel to open.
Germany has a total of six submarines, all in all Type 212 class. These “hybrid” units—also operated by the Italian navy—are powered by a combination of nine diesel engines Proton exchange fuel cells (PEM).. They are among the quietest, most non-destructive cruise ships in the world. Because their fuel cells are “air independent propulsion“(AIP), these can work submerged for weeks without surfacing. And since the PEM cell “engines” have no moving parts other than the electric power screws, they are incredibly stealthy when submerged. They also can operate in water as shallow as 17 meters deep (55 feet), making them ideal for patrolling the waters of the Baltic.
But because of that backlogs are fixed and a series of unfortunate events, only two of the Type 212 class are not under current modifications—and are not ready for service:
- U-31, the leader of the class—launched in 2002—is out of critical care and has a year’s worth of tests before returning to service. He has been out of work since 2014.
- U-32 suffered a battery damage on the voyage to Norway.
- U-33 is in the Kiel shipyard for maintenance until February of 2018 and will not be back in service until May or June.
- U-34 is due to start a yard season in Kiel in January, and it is not certain when it will return to service.
- The U-36, a new submarine built for Deutsche Marine, was completed a year ago, but is still undergoing acceptance tests and is not expected to be fully operational until May of 2018.
The reason for the backlash: a shortage of spare parts made worse by cuts made to Deutsche Marine’s budget. To save money, the service stopped maintaining reserves for its components’ complex systems, relying on either buying parts on demand or being out-of-service subscribers—much like the US Navy had to do as a result of budget allocation over the past four years.
As a result, the entire German submarine operation is essentially sitting on its hands through at least the first half of 2018.