Germany today is ranked ninth in the world in terms of defense spending though with a much more moderate budget as compared with her 1930's era war funding - additionally, she is not engaged currently in a running arms race with other European powers. The USS Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine built in 1954, started a new type of weapons race, primarily geared towards the Soviet Union, though pushing other allied nations to start building nuclear-powered/conventionally-powered submarines. Today, with all world powers reeling from defense budget constraints, the trend in shipbuilding has gravitated to producing smaller, multi-mission-minded warships such as the German Navy's Type 212A U-boat. The Type 212A was born from a 1990s joint-development effort between Germany and Italy which initially produced the Type 212 designation, updated to the Type 212A mark. The Type 214 is the export designation.
Type 212A boats replaced the Type 206 series which were introduced in 1971 and built in 18 examples (all since retired). The Type 212 is based on the Type 209 diesel-electric attack class of which 61 were completed after they were introduces in 1971. The Type 212 entered service in 2002 and was formally commissioned in 2005 with eight vessels being completed (U-31, U-32, U-33, U-34, U-35, U-36). The Type 212A is also in service with the Italian Navy as the Salvatore Todaro, the Scire and two planned, though unnamed at this time, vessels (S528, S529).
The Type 212A is a conventional diesel-powered boat though one of the more advanced submarines in operation today. U-32 (S182) sports a running length of 183 feet, 7.3 inches (56 meters) with a beam measuring 22 feet, 9.7 inches (7 meters) and a draught of 19 feet, 6.9 inches (6 meters). She is manned by a surprisingly small crew of just 5 officers and 22 sailors. Power is through a single MTU 16V 396 diesel engine which allows for cruising at 20 knots (37 km/h) along the surface and 12 knots submerged. Along with the diesel engine is a supplementary Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system using the Siemens Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) hydrogen fuel cells. The AIP system allows the submarine to switch from flank speed using the diesel engine to a silent and slow cruising speed. The hydrogen fuel cells can power the U-boat for up to 21 days without surfacing, making her essentially invisible when combined with her prismatic hull. A smooth joining of the sail to the hull helps her overall stealthy characteristics. The steel hull is made of anti-magnetic material as are all of the metal objects with the boat itself - even the dishwasher.
The use of hydrogen fuel cells is groundbreaking for, at the end of World War 2, the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy both took, as war prizes, two German Type XVIIB submarines that used an experimental hydrogen-peroxide propulsion system. The US Navy dropped the experiment due to the lethal nature of hydrogen-peroxide when confined in small spaces with crew members. Its modern form, however, as the Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) system, has been redesigned using small amounts of hydrogen in a protected crew-safe environment. The interest is high to build or purchase small submarines that can operate in brown water as well as blue without the cost (and dangers) of nuclear-driven power. Having said that, nuclear power can offer options that a diesel-powered combined with AIP cannot - an increased weapons suite or an unlimited operational range with submersion time that conventionally-powered vessels lack. The final decision is always the cost of the complete weapons system with crew size, nuclear as compared to conventional fuel and now AIP. A nation's overall military mission doctrine coupled with the cost of developing nuclear energy steers many away from nuclear propulsion.