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World-Wide Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarines

The US Navy has more nuclear-powered attack submarines - 54 - than all other countries combined, which have a total of 40. Over the past century there have been several classes and types of submarines which performed a variety of missions. These include attack submarines, guided missile submarines deployed, and ballistic-missile submarines which provide strategic deterrence. Attack submarines are part of the conventional forces and have capabilities in several mission areas including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, undersea warfare, strike warfare, and special operations warfare. Ballistic missile submarines are part of the strategic forces and are capable of launching strategic nuclear weapons upon short notice.

The United States uses a forward presence defense, deploying its forces overseas. Diesel submarines travel too slowly and have too limited a range to cover the wide areas of ocean and respond rapidly to crises around the world. World War II submarines were powered by diesel engines on the surface and batteries when submerged. They could not go faster than 10 knots underwater for more than one hour, and they could not normally stay underwater for more than one day at a time. They carried diesel fuel for less than 90 days. They were not designed to dive deeper than about 300 feet. Today's nuclear submarines can go faster than 25 knots, dive deeper than 800 feet and stay underwater for more than 90 days (limited by the amount of food stored on board).

On 26 July 2009 India launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, which is not included here as it is not presently in commission. The 367-foot long INS Arihant, which means "Destroyer of the Enemies" in Hindi according to the official news release. The name Arihant has its origins in the Jain religion, and unofficial news reports stating "Destroyer of Enemies" omitting the definite article. India became the sixth country in the world to have built one. Besides the US, which has 74 nuclear submarines of all types [not just attack submarines], Russia (45), UK (13), France (10) and China (10) also possess nuclear-powered submarines of various types. India is a nation that struggled to enter the select group of countries that build nuclear powered submarines. Its program ATV, or Advanced Technology Vessel, was initiated in 1974. But after three decades it had not presented results that could modify the current picture of the navies with nuclear propulsion.

In an article published by Forbes on 03 November 2019, noted submarine observer H.I. Sutton focused on how the number of countries operating nuclear-powered submarines may change in the immediate future. “Today the number of countries operating nuclear-powered submarines is the same as it was 30 years ago at the end of the Cold War”. Sutton claims that with more navies “thinking nuclear”, the situation “looks set to change” the current balance of power when “those same six countries are still the only ones operating nuclear-powered submarines”.

The Cold War saw some other countries’ unsuccessful attempts to develop indigenous nuclear-powered submarines in the 1960s, Sutton notes, referring to Sweden and Italy. While those programs “did not survive to fruition”, a new wave of interest among several navies is on the rise. “Brazil and South Korea are the safest bets for who will come next. And several other navies have either voiced an intention, or are worthy of speculation,” he added.

Brazil's nuclear submarine program includes the development of the Alvaro Alberto vehicle, due to be commissioned by 2029, while South Korea has yet to firm up such a program, the author says, adding that “Seoul does have a vibrant submarine building capability so it’s not unrealistic”. Another “reasonable bet” is Australia even though officially, it does not have plans to build nuclear-powered submarines, according to Sutton. “It can be argued that nuclear-powered submarine would be better able to cover the long patrol distances involved. And to meet the expanding Chinese Navy on a level. If they do go nuclear then they would, like Brazil, likely also turn to France for help,” he said.

Last but not least is Iran, which Sutton recalls informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last year about its intention to “construct naval nuclear propulsion in the future.” Sutton says that such a drive is reasonable given that “Iran does have a local submarine building industry and has launched a series of successively larger submarines” in the past couple of years. However, “the level of technology displayed is far behind many other countries and it is hard to foresee Iranian nuclear-powered submarines any time soon,” he argues.

A submarine is among the most technologically advanced machines ever built. The combination of computer technology, precision navigation, atmosphere regeneration, sensitive sonar equipment, sound quieting, nuclear power, and precision weapons make for a most unusual environment. Imagine working and living in a 300-foot long, 30-foot wide, three-story building with no windows and surrounded by technology. Then lock the doors, submerge beneath the surface of the ocean and travel silently underwater for months. This requires a tremendous amount of skill, knowledge, personal discipline, and teamwork.

Attack submarines (designated SSN and commonly called fast attacks) are designed to pursue and attack enemy submarines and surface ships using torpedoes. They also carry cruise missiles with conventional high-explosive warheads to attack enemy shore facilities. Fast attack submarines launched cruise missiles against targets in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and targets in Serbia during the conflict in Kosovo. They also conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, mine laying and support special operations.

A submarine's "tear drop" hull design allows it to slice cleanly through the ocean when there is water on all sides. When a "tear drop" hull submarine is on the surface, a great deal of energy is used to generate the bow wave and wake. That energy is then unavailable for propulsion. The hulls of older submarines, like the World War II vessels and the first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, were designed with narrow bows to move faster on the surface than they did underwater.

2015 World Wide Atomic Attack Submarines

54 boats - Attack Submarines

7 boats - Virginia Class

1 boat - Jimmry Carter Class

2 boats - Seawolf Class

44 boats - Los Angeles Class

40 boats - Attack Submarines

20 boats - Attack Submarines

14 boats - Project 971 Bars / Akula

2 boats - Project 945A ("Kondor") Sierra II

4 boats - Project 671 Victor III Class

8 boats - Attack Submarines

1 boat - Astute class

6 boats - Trafalgar class

1 boat - Swiftsure class

6 boats - Attack Submarines

3 boats - Type 093 Shang class

3 boats - Type 091 Han class

6 boats - Attack Submarines

6 boats - Rubis class

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 07-11-2019 19:05:05 ZULU