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November 2012 Issue

Commercial Submarines: A Solution for the US Economy and Defense
By Paul D. Bagley

With proposed trillion dollar cutbacks in defense spending, the axe of austerity will soon fall upon major defense projects like the U.S. Navyís nuclear submarine program. How can the U.S. resolve economic woes while avoiding cuts to its national security programs? It can be done—by building and operating commercial submarines designed exclusively for moving cargo.

Surface tension exists wherever air and water meet, slowing the movement of any object within its vortex, for instance, ships moving along the oceanís surface. Submerged vessels, however, are not hampered by it. Speeds attainable underwater are more than twice that possible on the surface. The weather, rough seas and even pirates are not issues underwater. A cargo sub could travel in less than half the time of a surface ship, and the cargo would not be subject to damage from surface conditions nor at risk of losses from piracy.

Cargo submarines would also not need to conduct radical evasive maneuvering below the surface, which means they could be the size of aircraft carriers. They would not need sound-deadening, the ability to dive deep or the active electronic surveillance and defense systems of their military counterparts. The operational bottom need not be deeper than a few hundred feet below the water surface, making feasible large hull openings for loading and unloading containerized cargo.

Some could be equipped with holds for transporting petroleum, grain, ore or other bulk cargo. Furthermore, volatile material like liquefied petroleum gas would ride safer underwater.

The boats could be operated by tax-paying businesses leasing them from the government, as cargo is not a military function. Industry financing would defray operational costs, while the boats would be government-owned and maintained in shipyards that service U.S. military submarines and meet U.S. maritime regulations.

The propulsion systems would be nuclear, which would require crews to meet the same rigid standards for security and expertise as the U.S.ís nuclear Navy. Since the U.S. has already incurred great expense to train crews, it would make sense to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of these trained personnel by putting them to work on similar, nonmilitary tasks.

For example, General Dynamics Electric Boat (Groton, Connecticut) employs thousands of skilled technicians who build military submarines. If contracts were to cease or be drastically curtailed, unemployment alone would cripple Connecticut, causing billions in government expenses. This was the key reason for continuation of the Seawolf nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarine program after the Soviet Union collapsed. Seawolfs were designed to fight an enemy that no longer existed, but it was determined to cost more in lost taxes and unemployment if the boats were not delivered.

Just like skilled sailors, ship designers and builders must maintain their skill levels, and that is tough to do when they are unemployed because jobs are lacking. By switching production to cargo submarines, the U.S. would keep existing shops and yards open, thus offering a nationwide economic benefit.

Another advantage of using Navy- trained crew in commercial subs is that these vessels would require a crew that understands military procedures and chain-of-command, operates under oath to the U.S. and is accountable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Such a crew would shore up the transportation security of hazardous cargo, particularly fissionable materials.

Navy submarine training remains military in nature, and commercial ventures lie well beyond the charge of the U.S. Naval Academy. The extra skills required for cargo submarines could be taught by the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, which could train officers to run commercial subs. Graduates could hold reserve naval commissions to serve in times of war. Since propulsion systems aboard both military and commercial boats would be nuclear, these officers could easily be assigned to a tactical sub at a momentís notice. Crews could also comprise retired naval personnel with a corps of civilian officers.

In wartime, commercial subs could take up the military duties of moving troops, equipment and supplies in rapid fashion. Unlike surface ships that present gigantic targets for enemy vessels and risk aerial attack from both land and sea-based planes, commercial subs could provide the necessary global military support without such risks and could traverse the Earth via channels unavailable to surface vessels, such as the underwater navigational possibilities around the North Pole. This capability would make destinations closer, and travel quicker and safer.

Construction and operation of giant commercial submarines would create a new national economic paradigm. Americaís pride is inseparably linked to its economy, and the reliance upon warfare for national welfare has helped accrue an enormous debt. The old political axiom applies: When you are in a hole, stop digging. Commonsense economics also applies: You cannot cut your way to prosperity. Commercial subs would help the U.S. economy by putting skilled personnel to work.

Implementing a program of this magnitude would be a challenge, but one that could be met with existing infrastructure and resources. It would also present an economic opportunity for the yards that build and maintain submarines, as well as a revenue source for the government. What is needed is leadership to envision such an undertaking and mobilize resources for it.



Paul D. Bagley is the author of the novel Undercurrents and two nonfiction books. He is a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher, a columnist for 9-1-1 Magazine and a U.S. Air Force veteran. He previously worked for the U.S. Congress, focusing on military and economic efforts to revitalize the U.S. economy. He is a graduate of Franklin Pierce University and the New Hampshire Police Academy.


2013:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC
2012:  JAN | FEB | MARCH | APRIL | MAY | JUNE | JULY | AUG | SEPT | OCT | NOV | DEC

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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.