NATO member Spain's new submarines too long to fit into their docks

NATO member Spain's new submarines are too long to fit into its docks.

Spain will be hiking its defense expenditures and thereby moving in the direction President Trump is calling for.  Unfortunately, a good part of that increase will go toward correcting an embarrassing fiasco in defense procurement: a new fleet of high-tech diesel (not nuclear propulsion) submarines too big to fit into Spain's existing submarine pens, which now will have to be dredged and reconstructed.

Joseph Trevithick reports in The Drive on the new generation S-8o Plus fleet that will start to be delivered to the Spanish Navy:

Artist's conception of the S-80 from Navantia, the contractor.

[T]he S-80 Plus is larger than manufacturer Navantia had said it would be when the Spanish government approved construction of four boats all the way back in 2003.  The program to develop a new submarine for Spain's Navy dates back to before the end of the Cold War, at which time it was a joint Franco-Spanish effort.

The original project began in the 1980s as an effort to develop diesel subs that could be used in France and Spain but also exported to third countries.  At every step of the way, keeping local shipyards and workers busy and enhancing the technological prowess of domestic shipyards and their suppliers was a primary concern.  Pork-barrel politics, in other words.

After the joint project with France was canceled when the USSR fell apart, both Spain and France eventually decided to restart the project separately.  Spain's new fleet was supposed to incorporate a new generation of diesel propulsion systems, so-called "air-independent propulsion" (AIP) that does not need to vent fumes via a snorkel, but rather can run fully submerged.  This is a way to counter one big advantage of nuclear propulsion, the ability to operate without surfacing or venting.  However, the pork-barrel mentality meant that:

... rather than leverage an in-production system or hire an established manufacturer to build a new one specifically for the S-80 Plus, Spain hired two domestic firms, Técnicas Reunidas and Abengoa, to build one.  By most accounts, their design has been underperforming, with past demonstrations indicating that the system will be able to propel the boats while submerged for 21 days, a week shorter than required. ...

According to El País, Spanish authorities are now expecting to take delivery of the first two S-80 Plus submarines – the future S-81 Isaac Peral and S-82 Narciso Monturiol – with a traditional diesel-electric propulsion system.  The third and fourth examples – the S-83 Cosme García and S-84 Mateo García de los Reyes – which are now expected to enter service in 2026 and 2028 respectively, would be the first in an AIP configuration.  The Spanish Navy would then upgrade the Peral and Monturiol with the improved propulsion system when they arrive at their first major maintenance availability, expected to come around 2032.

But that was just a warm-up for the real fiascoes.  The subs too long to fit into the docks got that way in response to an earlier crisis: the subs were too heavy to be able to resurface.  The Telegraph reported in 2013:

Last month it emerged that the Isaac Peral sub – part of the new S-80 series and named in honour of the Spanish man credited by some as the inventor of the underwater vessel – was at least 75 tons overweight, an excess that could compromise its ability to surface after submerging.

Navantia admitted the existence of "deviations related to the balance of weight" in the vessel and estimated it would take up to two years more to correct the problem.

The 233ft vessel may have to be lengthened to compensate for the excess weight, a redesign that comes with an estimated cost of 7.5 million euros per extra metre.

So, after creating the weight problem by modifications to the existing design, a new modification was undertaken – lengthening the subs, without apparently considering whether the docks were capable of handling them.

Large, complex, high-tech endeavors always run into problems as they are executed.  Changes have to be made, and those changes trigger further necessity for change in other systems.  I wrote about the difficulties Airbus and Boeing encountered launching their (then) new generation airliners, the A-380 and B-787, fifteen years ago.  The discipline of "systems integration" is an ever evolving and complex organizational skill.  Spain obviously has not mastered even the basics if it failed to consider the dimensions of the submarine in the light of the size of the docks.

The Spanish are blaming a misplaced decimal point:

"Apparently somebody in the calculations made a mistake in the very beginning and nobody paid attention to review the calculations," Rafael Bardaji, formerly the director of the Office of Strategic Assessment at Spain's Defense Ministry and subsequently a defense consultant, said at the time.  He blamed the matter on a single misplaced decimal point.

Arithmetic is not the problem.  It is the lack of review and coordination.  Nobody was looking at the project as a whole.  Or, more likely, if someone was, the decision was made to ignore the problem in order to avoid pushing up the visible cost of the project, including dock modification.  The fear must have been that if the higher cost were known, the project might be canceled, with interested parties losing out on the contracts and jobs it was providing.  So, like California's bullet train project, they pressed ahead in the hopes that committing even more money to the project would make cancelation less palatable because of the "sunk costs" (an unfortunate metaphor for a submarine too heavy to resurface).

Besides, the Spanish had already blamed a misplaced decimal point for the first fiasco: the subs that were too heavy to resurface.  Michael Melia of the AP reported five years ago:

A new, Spanish-designed submarine has a weighty problem: The vessel is more than 70 tons too heavy, and officials fear if it goes out to sea, it will not be able to surface.

And a former Spanish official says the problem can be traced to a miscalculation – someone apparently put a decimal point in the wrong place.

As a result, Spain will be hiking its defense expenditures to make up for problems created when it attempted to mimic high-tech weapons pioneered elsewhere but keep the jobs and technology at home.  In doing so, it will receive submarines that are missing vital technology necessary to accomplish their mission until at least 2032, and probably several years after that.

If you experience technical problems, please write to