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The Type 209 submarine, designed by German shipbuilder Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, has become one of the most popular export submarines, used by fifteen different countries since the 1970s.

-Known for its simplicity and flexibility, the Type 209 can carry various torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and mines.

-Over the years, it has evolved through five variants, from the 1100 to the 1500 series.

-Notable users include Argentina’s ARA San Luis, which participated in the Falklands War, and Indonesia’s KRI Nanggala, which tragically sank in 2021.

-The Type 209’s adaptability and upgrades have ensured its continued relevance in modern naval operations.

Usually, defense contractors design equipment for their home country’s military and then modify it for export. In the case of the Type 209 submarine, however, German shipbuilder Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, a division of Thyssen-Krupp, engineered the boat exclusively for export. Today, fifteen different countries operate some variant of the Type 209, cementing its place as one of the most popular submarines on the market. Upgrades and modifications have kept these boats relevant over the years, with Egypt being the latest country to adopt them in the 2020s.

Specs and capabilities

Work began on the Type 209 in the early 1970s, as navies sought to replace their aging submarine fleets, many of which dated to World War II. Overall, 209 represented an iterative design and followed the major principles of preceding German models of the time, such as the Type 205 and 206. These subs were designed for simplicity and ease of use. They feature a single hull as opposed to the double-hull design found in most Soviet boats. One long passageway runs the length of the sub from bow to stern.

One of the selling points of the Type 209 was the flexibility of armaments. Depending on the buyers’ needs, these subs can carry torpedoes, anti-ship missiles, and mines. Currently, 209’s are rated for the German SUT, SST, and DM2A4 torpedoes, as well as the British Mark 24 and the American Mark 37 and 48. The different torpedoes are launched from eight, forward-firing torpedo tubes.

Variants over the years

Since its initial inception, the Type 209 has gone through five variants, the 1100, 1200, 1300, 1400, and 1500. The later series boats are larger: the 1500 is 10 meters longer with 50 percent more displacement than the original 1100 series. Additionally, the 1500 is slightly more powerful. However, like all other models, it utilizes 4 diesel-electric engines turning a single, five-to-seven-bladed screw. This configuration provides approximately 11kts surface speed and 22kts submerged.

Outside of Thyssen-Krupp, few countries have licensed the 209 for manufacture. Most notably, South Korean company Daewoo won a contract to provide three of its Jang-Bogo-class 209 variants to Indonesia in 2011. The most notable differences include increasing displacement of the 1,100 to 1,400 tons, in line with the 1300 model, adding anti-ship missile capability, and torpedo acoustic countermeasures. Of the many exports, two Type 209s in particular stand out, the ARA San Luis and the KRI Nanggala. The former fought in the Falklands War while the latter has the dubious honor of being one of the high-profile submarine disasters of the twenty-first century.

When the Falklands War kicked off in 1982, the Argentine Navy was not insignificant, even boasting an aircraft carrier. Ultimately, it saw little action as following the sinking of the cruiser ARA Belgrano, most of the fleet returned to port where it remained for the rest of the conflict. The exception was the San Luis, a Type 209 sub commissioned in 1974. During her combat patrol, the San Luis made two attacks. Both ultimately failed although one appeared to hit the decoy towed by the frigate HMS Arrow. On May 17, the San Luis returned to port for repairs and did not sortie again. Although she didn’t sink any British tonnage, her mere presence was a major nuisance to the British fleet and dictated operational restrictions as well as hampering rescue efforts to recover two helicopter crews who ditched in the sea as the Brits were concerned by the prospect of a submarine attack.

The Nanggala was also an older boat, commissioned by the Indonesian Navy in 1981. Over the course of its service, Nanggala participated in multiple exercises and intelligence-gathering patrols. In 2010, Nanggala sailed to South Korea for a two-year refit and overhaul. In 2021, she was reported missing during a torpedo test firing drill. Three days later, her wreckage was discovered North of Bali.

While the exact cause of the sinking is unknown, several possibilities exist. Some suggested a power outage, such as one Nanggala had experienced previously, while others blamed a failure of the test torpedo. One Indonesian politician decried the South Korean refit as being poorly performed and the cause of the accident. It was further questioned why fifty-three people were aboard a submarine designed for a crew of thirty-four.

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