Germany’s six Type U-212A submarines are intended to block the Baltic Sea in case of a military emergency, but at the moment they are all broken down, and being slowly repaired because of missing spare parts. Not a single submarine is ready for use.
October 15 was a black day for the German submarine fleet. U-35 hit a rock on the Norwegian coast with a fin, and then had to be repaired. So far, the story is not so unusual. But U-35 was Germany’s last remaining operational submarine, and since then, the entire submarine fleet has been on vacation indefinitely.
The navy has six Type 212A submarines. These boats are not huge models like the superpowers’ nuclear submarines, which are equipped with long-range missiles. They are much smaller vessels, but they can travel silently and are very difficult to locate. German submarines, especially, enjoy a very good reputation. In the hands of an experienced crew, which knows how to exploit the currents of the different water layers, these boats are able to break through the defense of even large naval flotillas and attack the enemy's largest ships. The Type 212A is equipped with hydrogen fuel cells, so it can stay under water for more than two weeks.
Problems from the beginning
In case of war, these small boats are supposed to block the Baltic Sea. But only if the emergency does not happen now. Already, the commissioning of Type 212A reads like a story of bankruptcies and mishaps, as Der Spiegel reported back in 2015.
Add to this the long duration of individual repairs. The leader in this respect is U-31, which has been out of service since 2014. In December 2017, repairs were finally due to be completed, but it will take months before the regular service starts.
A NDR report clearly identifies the cause of the problem. Previously, the Navy maintained its own inventory of major spare parts, which were then immediately available in case of damage. The downside of the solution: These spare parts had to be stored and they were paid for if they were not even needed. This stockpiling was ended, for submarines as well as for other weapons systems, after the end of the Cold War.
Eternal spare parts drama
This is a decision that ultimately led only to additional costs and not to savings. With a VW Golf you can buy every spare part at the next VW dealer. The situation is different for the navy, as spare parts for submarines cannot be bought in water sports supply shops: they must be ordered, and usually custom-made as a special order. This takes a long time and is also far more expensive than if you had additionally built the spare part in the original production.
Nobody maintains a production environment in the hope of spare parts orders for several years. "This is a disaster for the Navy," the defense commissioner of the Bundestag Hans-Peter Bartels told the NDR. "Submarines are one of their capabilities, and this is the first time in history, I believe, that they have had nothing to do for months."
There are no sailors, either
The funny thing is that this disaster has no major impact because the German Navy would not be able to use their submarines anyway: there are only three trained crews available for the six boats.
In the context of NATO, the lack of available submarines again shows the readiness of the German armed forces in a bad light. Only a few weeks ago it became known that fewer than 100 Leopard 2 tanks are ready for use. Again, the lack of spare parts is the cause of the failure.
In the future, the management of spare parts will no doubt be better handled. It remains to be seen when the problems of operational readiness will be solved.