President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has caused quite a bit of heartburn in the region because of his leftist politics. Chavez has become quite chummy with communist dictator Fidel Castro of Cuba, and is now taking a page from the Cold War playbook by turning to Russia for weapons. Unlike Cuba, Venezuela has lots of oil money, and the Russians are eagerly offering Chavez just about anything he wants. Chavez wants three more submarines, and the Russians are hot to find export customers for their new Lada (replacement form the Kilo) diesel electric boats.
These subs are said to be eight times quieter than the Kilos. This is accomplished by using anechoic (sound absorbing) tile coatings on the exterior, and a very quiet (skewed) propeller. All interior machinery is designed with silence in mind. The sensors include active and passive sonars, including towed passive sonar. The Ladas have six 533mm torpedo tubes, with 18 torpedoes and/or anti-ship missiles carried. The Lada has a surface displacement of 1,750 tons, are 220 feet long and carry a crew of 41. When submerged, the submarine can cruise at a top speed of about 39 kilometers an hour (half that on the surface) and can dive to about 800 feet. The Lada can can stay at sea for as long as 50 days, and the sub can travel as much as 10,000 kilometers using its diesel engine (underwater, via the snorkel) Submerged, using battery power, the Lada can travel about 450 kilometers. There is also an electronic periscope (which goes to the surface via a cable), that includes a night vision capability and a laser range finder. The Lada was designed to accept a AIP (air independent propulsion) system. Russia was long a pioneer in AIP design, but recently Western European nations have taken the lead.
The other two competitors for this sale are the French Scorpene and the German Type 212. Venezuela already has two older German Type 209s. The Germans and French have an advantage in their boats have been on the market for a while, and have a successful track record. Russia has just finished construction of its first Lada.
The Russian advantage is price. If equipped with AIP (Air Independent Propulsion, that allows the subs to cruise submerged and very silent for weeks at a time), the coast per Scorpene or Type 212 is about half a billion dollars each. The Russians can offer the same type of deal for at least a hundred million dollars less per boat. Since Chavez is looking more to score political points, than making a prudent procurement decision, this gives the Russians an inside track. Russia has an export model of the Lada, called the Amur, and this is what is being offered to Venezuela. The navy is the most pro-Chavez of the armed services, and Chavez has been particularly cozy with some of the senior naval officers.
The thought of two AIP boats in the hands of such a rabid anti-American as Chavez gives U.S. admirals a bad feelings. AIP equipped subs are believed to be a bigger threat to American warships than nuclear subs, especially in coastal waters. Venezuela already has experienced submarine sailors because of the two Type 209 boats they have had since the 1970s. The two German boats are being refurbished, to extend their useful life another ten years. Thus Venezuela could end up with a force of five modern submarines if they make the purchase.