The 5 Most Powerful Aircraft Carriers, Subs, Bombers and Fighter Aircraft Ever
In effect, the Type XXI had the stealth to avoid detection prior to an attack, and the speed to escape afterward. Germany completed 118 of these boats, but because of a variety of industrial problems could only put four into service, none of which sank an enemy ship. All of the Allies seized surviving examples of the Type XXI, using them both as models for their own designs and in order to develop more advanced anti-submarine technologies and techniques. For example, the Type XXI was the model for the Soviet “Whiskey” class, and eventually for a large flotilla of Chinese submarines.
We take for granted the most common form of today’s nuclear deterrent; a nuclear submarine, bristling with missiles, capable of destroying a dozen cities a continent away. These submarines provide the most secure leg of the deterrent triad, as no foe could reasonably expect to destroy the entire submarine fleet before the missiles fly.
The secure submarine deterrent began in 1960, with the USS George Washington. An enlarged version of the Skipjack class nuclear attack sub, George Washington’s design incorporated space for sixteen Polaris ballistic missiles. When the Polaris became operational, USS George Washington had the capability from striking targets up to 1000 miles distant with 600 KT warheads. The boats would eventually upgrade to the Polaris A3, with three warheads and a 2500 mile range. Slow relative to attack subs but extremely quiet, the George Washington class pioneered the “go away and hide” form of nuclear deterrence that is still practiced by five of the world’s nine nuclear powers.
And until 1967, the George Washington and her sisters were the only modern boomers. Their clunky Soviet counterparts carried only three missiles each, and usually had to surface in order to fire. This made them of limited deterrent value. But soon, virtually every nuclear power copied the George Washington class. The first “Yankee” class SSBN entered service in 1967, the first Resolution boat in 1968, and the first of the French Redoutables in 1971. China would eventually follow suit, although the PLAN’s first genuinely modern SSBNs have only entered service recently. The Indian Navy’s INS Arihant will likely enter service in the next year or so.
The five boats of the George Washington class conducted deterrent patrols until 1982, when the SALT II Treaty forced their retirement. Three of the five (including George Washington) continued in service as nuclear attack submarines for several more years.
Immortalized in the Tom Clancy novels Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, the U.S. Los Angeles class is the longest production line of nuclear submarines in history, constituting sixty-two boats and first entering service in 1976. Forty-one subs remain in commission today, continuing to form the backbone of the USN’s submarine fleet.
The Los Angeles (or 688) class are outstanding examples of Cold War submarines, equally capable of conducting anti-surface or anti-submarine warfare. In wartime, they would have been used to penetrate Soviet base areas, where Russian boomers were protected by rings of subs, surface ships, and aircraft, and to protect American carrier battle groups.
In 1991, two Los Angeles class attack boats launched the first ever salvo of cruise missiles against land targets, ushering in an entirely new vision of how submarines could impact warfare. While cruise missile armed submarines had long been part of the Cold War duel between the United States and the Soviet Union, most attention focused either on nuclear delivery or anti-ship attacks. Submarine launched Tomahawks gave the United States a new means for kicking in the doors of anti-access/area denial systems. The concept has proven so successful that four Ohio class boomers were refitted as cruise missile submarines, with the USS Florida delivering the initial strikes of the Libya intervention.
The last Los Angeles class submarine is expected to leave service in at some point in the 2020s, although outside factors may delay that date. By that time, new designs will undoubtedly have exceeded the 688 in terms of striking land targets, and in capacity for conducting anti-submarine warfare. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles class will have carved out a space as the sub-surface mainstay of the world’s most powerful Navy for five decades.
Fortunately, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided direct conflict during the Cold War, meaning that many of the technologies and practices of advanced submarine warfare were never employed in anger. However, every country in the world that pretends to serious maritime power is building or acquiring advanced submarines. The next submarine war will look very different from the last, and it’s difficult to predict how it will play out. We can be certain, however, that the fight will be conducted in silence.
Honorable Mention: Ohio, 260O-21, Akula, Alfa, Seawolf, Swiftsure, I-201, Kilo, S class, Type VII
Bombers are the essence of strategic airpower. While fighters have often been important to air forces, it was the promise of the heavy bomber than won and kept independence for the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force. At different points in time, air forces in the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Italy have treated bomber design and construction as a virtually all-consuming obsession, setting fighter and attack aviation aside.