U.S. NAVY ENGINEMAN (EN) BALL CAP DEVICE

With the arrival of the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus in 1955, the need for Sailors in the Engineman (EN) rating aboard submarines began to inexorably dwindle. The decommissioning of the USS Blueback in 1990 meant that all the U.S. Navy’s combat submarines were nuclear-powered; in 2007, the service eliminated its last tie to the diesel-electric submarine era by decommissioning the deep-diving research submarine USS Dolphin. As Machinist’s Mates took over the operation, maintenance, and repair of non-diesel engines and auxiliary equipment, there seemed to be no reason to billet EN Sailors aboard submarines.

But improvements in diesel-electric submarine technology could mark the return of Enginemen to the Navy’s underwater fleet—especially in an era when tight Federal budgets make expensive nuclear-powered submarines less viable options than they once were.

The Congressional Budget Office’s 2014 report, “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2014 Shipbuilding Plan,” paints a clearer picture of why diesel-electric submarines could make a comeback in the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Currently, the Navy has 55 attack submarines (SSNs) and plans to purchase 47 more through the year 2043. During that period, aging Los Angeles-class submarines will be retired and replaced by newer, more advanced Virginia-class submarines—but not on a one-for-one basis. In just over a dozen years from the time of this writing (2016), the number of attack submarines could drop to just 42. And while the U.S. nuclear subs are the finest in the world, there is something to be said for quantity: a submarine, no matter how advanced its weaponry or propulsion systems, cannot be in two places at once.

Enter the latest generation of diesel-electric submarines, epitomized by the Soryu-class submarine Japan introduced in 2009. Using an air-independent propulsion system that allows it to stay submerged considerably longer than previous diesel-electric subs, Soryu-class boats offer two distinct advantages over the Virginia-class subs the Navy plans to purchase. First, their price tags are extremely attractive: at around $540 million apiece, the Navy could buy five of them for the cost of just one Virginia-class nuclear sub ($2.8 billion). Second, nuclear-powered submarines are constantly pumping coolant for the reactors and, consequently, are generating quite an aural footprint; a submerged Soryu-class sub running on its air-independent propulsion system is almost completely silent.

Of course, submerged Soryu-class subs travel painfully slow compared to nuclear-powered boats. And though they can stay underwater longer than earlier diesel-electric designs, they don’t even begin to approach the underwater staying power of nuclear subs, which can stay submerged indefinitely (provided the crew has food) because they generate their own air and fresh water. But should military budgets grow any tighter, we just might see  diesel-electric subs in the Navy again—and Enginemen roaming the cramped interiors of the ships of the Navy’s Silent Service.

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