Chilean Navy Diesel-Electric Attack Submarine Appears In San Diego

A publicly accessible webcam shows what appears to be a Chilean Navy Scorpene class submarine sailing into the Port of San Diego in southern California earlier today. Though we don’t know for sure what the purpose of its visit is, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet has engaged with Latin American navies in the past as part of a program that offers valuable opportunities to work with, and train against, advanced diesel-electric submarines. Since 1990, the U.S. Navy has only operated nuclear-powered submarines.

The submarine first appeared on the feed from San Diego Web Cam at around 3:30 PM local time. At multiple points in the stream, the Chilean national flag is seen flying atop the boat’s sail. At present, the Chilean Navy operates two Franco-Spanish Scorpene class submarines and a pair of German-made Type 209/1400-Ls, known in the country as the Thomson class. The Scorpenes are easy to separate from the Thomsons, with the former type having dive planes on the sail, while the latter does not.

The Chilean Scorpenes, the first of which, the O’Higgins, entered service in 2005, are fairly modern diesel-electric attack submarines. Among other things, they feature air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems, which allow them to dive for days at a time while remaining very quiet and, and as a result, difficult to detect and track. AIP-equipped diesel submarines are now proliferating around the globe and are considered major threat. Each one of the Scorpene class has six torpedo tubes that can be used to fire Black Shark heavyweight torpedoes or Exocet anti-ship cruise missiles.

The reason for this submarine’s visit to San Diego is unclear and we have already reached out to U.S. Third Fleet, which is headquartered there, for more information. In 2001, the U.S. Navy did begin working with boats from various Latin American nations as part of the Diesel-Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI), a combined training program that units on the West and East Coasts take part in. Ostensibly, these combined training events are meant to give all of the participants opportunities to practice various core skills sets relating to submarine and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, as well as help broaden ties, in general, between the U.S. military and its partners in the Southern Hemisphere.

However, since the U.S. Navy does not have any diesel-electric boats of its own, DESI has also provided particularly valuable opportunities over the years for it to train against these kinds of submarines, which have distinct operational characteristics and signatures from nuclear-powered ones. “During these visits, we are able to simulate a variety of wartime scenarios against diesel submarines which adds an additional degree of difficulty and reality to fleet ASW, as diesel submarines have proven to be quiet and elusive,” Navy Lieutenant Alexander Papadakos, a member of Submarine Squadron 11, said during DESI engagement with the Chilean Navy’s Thomson class submarine Simpson, in 2018.

The U.S. Navy has sought out these kinds of opportunities in different ways since 1990, when it decommissioned the Barbel class attack submarine USS Blueback, its last diesel-electric submarine. Blueback, one of just three Barbels the Navy acquired, had served for a time at the end of its career as an aggressor due to its unique characteristics among the rest of the service’s submarine fleet. 

In the mid-2000s, the Navy then leased Sweden’s AIP-equipped HSwMS Gotland to serve as a diesel-electric aggressor. That period highlighted the value of being able to train against these kinds of submarines, with Gotland famously managing to sneak right into the middle of an aircraft carrier strike groups during exercises, as well as scoring simulated kills against various surface ships and other submarines during training engagements. 

The Navy has also acquired at least two large-scale training targets designed to mimic diesel-electric submarines in the past two decades.

More recently, in 2019, the service stood up a new dedicated submarine aggressor squadron, or AGGRON, to help in training submarine and anti-submarine forces. However, as it exists now, this unit’s primary job is schooling Navy personnel in enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures, and helping submarines acting as the “opposing force,” or OPFOR, to better represent potential threats. At least as of last year, it has no submarines permanently assigned to it and the Navy still has no plans to acquire its own diesel-electric types, which could add greater realism to exercises.

In the meantime, combined training programs, such as DESI, remain the most readily available ways for Navy submarine and anti-submarine forces to train against these threats.

So, while we don’t know why exactly this Chilean Scorpene class boat is in San Diego, it is very likely there to, at least in part, provide very useful training for Navy personnel against a type of submarine they might not otherwise encounter on a routine basis during training.

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