A few weeks ago I passed the German submarine U 35 in Kattegat, and as always the encounter with a submarine caused a bit of attention on the bridge. She was heading North, and we suspected that she was going to Skagerrak for some test dives. Turns out we were right. Unfortunately she also hit a rock and damage a rudder during the tests, so now she has returned to the shipyard in Kiel for repairs.
With the damage of U 35 all of Germany’s six submarines are now unoperative. Closer investigations will reveal whether U 35 can be repaired by taking spare parts from one of the other unoperative submarines, but if this is not possible, Germany will be without submarines well into next year.
This is bad news for several reasons. Most obviously it means that Germany cannot use the submarines until they are operative again, so some tasks will not be solved in the meantime. But in the bigger perspective it also underscores the fragility of NATO’s ability to operate submarines in the Baltic. Danish Rear Admiral Nils Wang made some headlines last month stating that for Denmark to invest in submarines number 15, 16 and 17 in the Baltic would be a flagrant waste of money, but that argument doesn’t hold up very well if Denmark’s most obvious training partner and provider of submarine gathered intelligence is severely restrained in its resources. The expectation is that Germany will have four operative submarines before the end of 2018, and they are taking measures to improve the maintenance schedule so hopefully they won’t end up in a similar predicament again. But it does show that NATO’s submarine weapon in the Baltic is currently dependent on a logistics system that doesn’t seem to be working.
It is interesting to notice the candor with which the German Navy explains its own problems with the provisioning of spare parts for its submarines. Apparently the problem is the lean management system that has been implemented to reduce costs by guaranteeing just-in-time availability of necessary parts. The official statement as well as the accompanying Twitter message and the explanations by the spokesperson make no secret of the fact that the situation is appalling. The system doesn’t work, and the Navy is not shy to admit it. Fingers are directly pointed at the policies which have forced the navy to implement a broken logistical system. I find it refreshing to see such clear messages from a military organization, because that’s just not the style of communication I am used to from a military leadership.
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