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What Does Japan's New Attack Submarines Have In Common with Your iPhone?

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Certain basic technologies found in everyday devices can be used as the foundation for advanced military systems.

On October 4, 2018, the shattering of a bottle of sake at the Kobe Shipyards of Japan heralded not only the launch of a new submarine, but the dawning of a new era in submarine warfare—using a bit of technology you’re probably carrying in your pocket.

The Oryu (“Phoenix Dragon”) is the eleventh launched of Japan’s Soryu (“Blue Dragon”)-class submarines—a large design measuring 84-meters long that carries a crew of sixty-five and displaces 4,519 tons submerged. In many respects, the Soryu’s capabilities are typical of conventional submarines: it’s armed with six 533-millimeter tubes which can fire up to thirty Type 89 torpedoes or Harpoon anti-ship missiles and has a top underwater speed of twenty knots. Its range of 6,100 nautical miles lags a bit behind peers, while its maximum diving depth of 600 meters or greater is well above average, exceeding the crush depth of some anti-submarine torpedoes!

Despite their size and hi-tech trimmings such as a maneuverability-enhancing computer-controlled X-shaped rudder, two advanced acoustic decoy launchers and an extensive coating of sound-canceling tiles on the hull, the Oryu costs about $536 million—one-fourth to one-sixth the cost of a U.S. Virginia-class nuclear powered attack submarine. But Oryu stands apart from her predecessors because she’s the first large submarine to use lithium ion batteries—the same technology used in your smartphone and laptop computer.

Modern conventional submarines use electricity to turn the screw of their propellers and power their combat systems. This electricity is produced by diesel engines and generators and stored in hundreds of lead acid batteries. However, diesel engines consume a submarine’s air supply, forcing the sub to periodically surface, or snorkel close to the surface, and recharge its batteries in an ‘indiscretion period’ in which it is exposed to easier detection and destruction.

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