The world’s most powerful military submarine is a matter of debate, depending on how one defines it. It can vary on factors such as technology, firepower, stealth, and overall capabilities to execute wide-range mission objectives. However, based on the current consensus, here are six of the world’s most potent and advanced nuclear-powered submarines today.
Ohio-class Submarine | United States
Built by General Dynamics Electric Boat between 1976 to 1997, these nuclear-powered submarines are considered the most powerful and lethal today. Each of its class is armed with 24 Trident II D5 nuclear missiles capable of launching multiple warheads simultaneously up to targets as far as 4,603 miles (7,408 kilometers) away.
The lead vessel entered service with the US Navy in the 1980s and remains a critical component of the country’s nuclear deterrence strategy. The service maintains a total of 18 Ohio-class submarines, including 14 ballistic missile-capable (SSBN) and four armed with guided-cruise missiles (SSGN).
Nonetheless, it has since undergone various upgrades and modernization and will most likely stay in service for a couple more years, or at least until its replacement, the Columbia-class submarine, fully enters service.
The Ohio-class submarine is also one of the world’s largest subs, measuring about 170 meters (560 feet) in length and displacing over 18,000 tons when submerged. The platform can accommodate a crew of around 15 officers and 140 enlisted sailors. But depending on its mission, it can likewise carry additional personnel such as special operations forces or intelligence personnel. Moreover, it features state-of-the-art sonar radars and communication systems, allowing Sailors to gather intelligence and communicate with other naval assets.
Borei-class Submarine | Russia
Perhaps the most powerful submarine in the Russian arsenal and among the most feared in the world, the Borei-class sub is a nuclear-powered SSBN capable of carrying about 16 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), each capable of delivering six nuclear warheads.
Also known as the Dolgorukiy-class, the Russian sub can carry and fire torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles for self-defense and other mission objectives.
Sevmash, one of Russia’s largest shipbuilding companies, built the Borei-class submarine in the 1990s to replace the aging Delta III and IV-class underwater platform and as part of the country’s efforts to modernize its strategic nuclear force.
Each vessel features advanced quieting technology typically measures 170 m (560 ft) in length and has a displacement of 24,000 tons when submerged. Furthermore, it can dive to depths of up to 400 m (1,300 ft) and reach a top speed of 29 knots (33 mph) underwater.
Astute-class Submarines | United Kingdom
The Astute-class submarines are nuclear-powered and designed by BAE System for the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom to serve multipurpose roles, including intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and covert surveillance.
Moreover, each sub can conduct anti-submarine warfare and strike missions against land and naval targets using Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish torpedoes as its armaments and features advanced sensors and communication systems. It is also outfitted with state-of-the-art sonar and other detection equipment, allowing its Sailors to detect and track enemy submarines and surface ships.
Another advanced feature that makes this submarine platform exceptionally impressive is its improved acoustic quieting capabilities, making it difficult to detect or evade radar presence altogether. Noise from the engine has also been designed to be very quiet compared to its predecessor.
Each class ship has a length of about 97 m (318 ft) and can displace up to 7,400 tons with a top speed of up to 30 knots (35 mph) when submerged. The Royal Navy currently operates five subs, one undergoing sea trials and the other already in active service since 2010. On the other hand, two submarines remain under construction and are expected to join the rest of the submarine class by 2024 and 2026, respectively.
Yasen-class Submarine | Russia
These nuclear-powered submarines feature advanced weapons systems, including torpedoes, cruise missiles, and anti-ship missiles, and are mainly designed to be exceptionally quiet.
Also known as the Graney class, each submarine was built by Sevmash to replace the Soviet-era attack submarines in the Russian Navy’s fleet, featuring advanced sensors and weapons to address modern naval warfare threats. The class kickstarted the construction in the early 1990s but took more than two decades to enter service, with the lead ship K-560 Severodvinsk commissioned into the Russian Navy in 2014.
Each Yasen-class sub has a length of around 130 m (430 ft) and can displace up to 13,800 tons when submerged. While operating underwater, the submarine can reach a top speed of approximately 35 knots (40 mph) or 28 knots (32 mph) during a silent mission, carrying around 90 officers and enlisted sailors onboard.
As of 2021, only three are in active service, while several more submarines are still under construction or planned.
Virginia-class Submarine | United States
The Virginia-class submarines are known for their advanced stealth technology. They can perform various missions such as intelligence gathering and special operations in diverse environments, including coastal waters, open ocean, and the Arctic.
It is considered one of the most powerful in the world due to its advanced features and capabilities, including its advanced sensors and communication system and its robust weapon systems composed of Tomahawk cruise missiles, MK48 heavyweight torpedo, and advanced mobile mines.
Moreover, the submarine is praised for its modular design, which allows quick reconfiguration according to mission requirements—not to mention its incredible stealth capabilities, equipped with anechoic tiles that absorbs sound waves, thus reducing its acoustic signature and avoiding detection from other ships. Its quiet propulsion system also allows its engine to generate less noise, particularly during underwater operations.
Designed and built by General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries to precede the Seawolf-class platform in the 2000s, each Virginia-class submarine has a length of 115 m (377 ft) and a displacement of roughly 7,800 tons (Block I-IV) and 10,200 tons (Block V) when submerged.
Like the rest of the underwater vessels on the list, a Virginia-class submarine is powered by a nuclear reactor, driving its single propeller up to a maximum speed of 25 knots (29 mph) while submerged. With the size of the ship, it can accommodate up to 15 officers and 117 enlisted sailors onboard.
The class submarine comprises a large portion of the Navy’s fleet, with 66 planned. Twenty-two have already been launched and are in service, while another six are under construction. Reportedly, the service has ordered two, which will join the Block V of the class.
Seawolf-class Submarine | United States
The Seawolf-class underwater warships are among the quietest submarines today, designed for high-speed, deep-water operations.
Initially planned in the 1980s, out of the 29 planned platforms, only three made it out of the production line and into service, namely USS Seawolf (SSN-21), USS Connecticut (SSN-22), and USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23). Due to budget restrictions and the end of the Cold War era, the Navy canceled the rest of the submarines in the class.
Throughout the years, it has been upgraded and retrofitted to keep up with the ever-changing naval warfare and continue operating in the most challenging environment, including the harsh waters of the Arctic.
Its nuclear-power-driven propeller allows the submarine to travel up to 35 knots (40 mph) and around 20 knots (23 mph) when operating stealth missions. Each Seawolf-class sub features advanced sensors, including a spherical active and passive sonar system, and is armed with Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, torpedoes, and mines.
The Seawolf subgroup has a length of 108 m (353 ft) and a displacement of around 9,138 tons when submerged, while the Jimmy Carter subgroup measures 138 m (453 ft) in length and displaces approximately 12,139 tons. Nonetheless, both subgroups can accommodate a crew of 14 officers and 126 enlisted sailors.
Overall, the power of a submarine is not solely based on its technology but also on its crew’s training and expertise, maintenance, and mission objectives.