Germany’s entire submarine fleet is out of commission
Virtually everything that could go wrong—from accidents a lack of cash—has set Berlin’s U-boat fleet adrift.
Germany, a major pioneer of submarine warfare, finds itself with its entire submarine fleet out of action. All six of the country’s Type 212A attack submarines are out of commission, and the reasons stretch from an underfunded defense establishment to a shortage of sailors. The total absence of any usable u-boats, a key capability as Russia continues to intimidate Germany’s NATO allies, calls into question Berlin’s commitment to defense.
Germany has six Type 212A diesel electric attack submarines. Known as “u-boats,” for unterseeboot (“underwater boat”), Germany’s submarine fleet dates back to before World War I. During both World Wars, Germany’s u-boats proved impressive adversaries, sinking enemy capital ships, attacking Allied convoys crossing the Atlantic in aptly named “wolf packs,” and forcing Berlin’s adversaries to tie up an enormous amount of resources to hunt them down.
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 The National Interest, the Deutsche Marine’s submarine fleet suffers from a long list of problems.
U-31: The first submarine of its class, U-31 entered service with German Navy in 2005. U-31 has been out of commission since 2014, likely on a midlife refit. Will re-enter service this month, December 2017.
U-32: Also in service since 2005, U-32 suffered battery damage en route to Norway in July 2017. There is no shipyard capable of taking it on for repairs. Given that the U-32 is the same age as the U-31, it’s probably due for a refit too.
U-33: Undergoing maintenance until February 2018.
U-34: Like U-32, also out of service and waiting in line for a spot at a shipyard.
U-35: Suffered rudder blade damage during a diving maneuver. No timeline on when she’ll be back in service.
U-36: The newest Type 212A. Officially, undergoing maintenance until May 2018. U-36 was nicknamed “Organ Donor” as it was being cannibalized for parts to keep U-35 in service.
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.
One reason is that, in the post-Cold War era, the German Navy decided to stop stockpiling spare parts necessary to keep the submarines running. Instead, the Navy would rely on industry to provide spare parts on a timely basis, copying the “just in time” logistics that has transformed modern business.
The problem is there isn’t a big enough market for German submarine parts to justify industry producing them ahead of time and let them sit in a warehouse, hoping the Deutsche Marine someday buys them. On a cost basis, it’s better for industry to wait until the part is needed. So, once the German Navy decides it has a problem with its submarines it orders the parts and waits. And waits.
Another reason is that Germany has consistently cut its defense spending, an obvious example being the no longer stockpiling of spare submarine parts. At the height of the Cold War the German military had a total strength of 495,000. Today, that number hovers at 178,000. German defense spending, once a leader of NATO, has sagged to 1.26 percent of GDP, or $43.5 billion dollars. NATO recommends member countries spend a minimum of 2.0 percent GDP on defense.
Germany’s decrease in spending has had broad consequences across its entire military. Of the country’s 244 Leopard II tanks, only 95 are ready for action. In 2014, only 42 out of 109 Typhoon fighter jets were fully operational. Of the country’s 14 new A-400M Grizzly transport aircraft, sometimes none are available. And in 2015, when Germany debated sending Tornado strike jets to Syria, it was revealed that only 29 out 66 Tornados were airworthy. Given such low readiness rates, it's not surprising the submarine force is also in a bind.
Germany is a part of NATO, a political-military alliance dedicated to collective self-defense. Smaller countries, like the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia rely on larger states to help them resist aggression, such as the Russian campaign of intimidation all three countries have recently experienced. For example German submarines could help keep the Baltic Sea, a lifeline for those countries, open during wartime. Right now, that’s just a dream.
According to The National Interest, three submarines should be ready for duty by mid-2018, with possibly a fourth that fall. That fourth submarine might be a moot point, however: the German Navy only has three trained submarine crews for six submarines. It’s clear Germany’s submarine trouble is only a symptom of a larger trend.