The Five Worst Submarines of All Time

The worst of the worst lumbering around in the briny deep.

What a drag. Top Gun was about the best of the best flitting around the skies, kept aloft by a lonely impulse of delight. This list of History's Worst 5 Submarines catalogues the worst of the worst lumbering around in the briny deep. Such a vessel is a millstone dragging down the fortunes of its navy, its parent military, or the society that puts it to sea.

Call it Bottom Gun.

Now, it's possible to rank hardware, including submersibles and their armament, purely by technical characteristics. The crummiest piece of kit -- condemned by shoddy design, faulty construction work, or premature obsolescence -- is the bottom-feeder on such a list. In the case of submarines, then, tallying up speed, submerged endurance, acoustic properties, and kindred statistics offers a reputable way to proceed. But it tells only part of the story.

Carl von Clausewitz, that doughty purveyor of strategic wisdom, helps reveal the rest. Clausewitz defines strength as a product of force and resolve, affirming that people -- not machines -- compete for supremacy. The weapon or platform is just an implement. Both material and human factors, consequently, are crucial to success in strategic competition or war. You can't judge the best of the best or the worst of the worst by widgets alone.

Depicting strength as a multiple rather than a sum makes intuitive sense, doesn't it? If either variable is zero -- if hardware or seafarers are worthless -- a boat supplies zero strength to its parent fleet. The finest crewmen in the world stand little chance if their boat is hopelessly outclassed technologically, if its weaponry malfunctions, or if the navy skimps on maintenance, overhauls, or logistical support. "Damn the torpedoes!" exclaimed Lieutenant Commander Dudley "Mush" Morton, one of history's greatest undersea marksmen, after his Wahoo discharged a volley of nine Mark XIV torpedoes against a Japanese convoy -- only to see every "fish" miss or malfunction.

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Skill and élan go only so far toward overcoming a material deficit.

Or, conversely, a submarine boasting the latest in technological wizardry accomplishes little if handled by an incompetent or apathetic crew. There's a good reason  a ship, its crew, and its commander are all known by the ship's name. The relationship between man and materiel is symbiotic. The hull provides a home and sustains life, while the mariners manning the hull provide seamanship and upkeep and fight the ship when need be.

Senior leadership is crucial to the silent service, even more than in surface fleets. Subs operate largely independently, free of micromanagement from on high. In effect a boat takes on the personality of its skipper. A boat blessed with a skilled, aggressive commander like Mush Morton or Eugene Fluckey is an effective boat. A sub not so blessed is apt to run afoul of hard luck--or worse.

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Despite submariners' penchant for independence, though, higher-ups can handicap their performance indirectly. Navies are bureaucracies, and they shape minds. Officialdom rewards officers who comply with established practices while punishing those who flout routine. If top leaders embrace methods that defy tactical reality, they can negate much of a submarine's potential. Its combat power misapplied, it degenerates into a wasting asset.

Either inert materiel or inert people, it seems, reduce a boat's real-life combat power--regardless of how impressive its technical specifications look in Jane's Fighting Ships.

Worse still, an ineffective submarine can actually subtract from its navy's strategic efficacy. Henry Kissinger observes that deterrence is a product not just of Clausewitzian strength but of an adversary's belief in that strength. In all likelihood, that is, an adversary who doubts another's physical capacity or resolve to follow through on a threat will not be deterred. The same goes for coercion. No one does an antagonist's bidding at gunpoint if the gunman's sidearm appears rusty or his hand quavers.

A sad-sack boat's performance, then, can detract from a navy's renown for prowess beneath the waves--undermining national leaders' efforts to deter or compel rivals.

And lastly, building submarines, of the nuclear-powered variety in particular, imposes heavy opportunity costs on a navy. Money spent on nuclear-powered attack or ballistic-missile subs (SSNs and SSBNs, respectively) is money that can't be spent on surface combatants, amphibious-assault ships, and other workhorse platforms. Overall fleet numbers may suffer for the sake of undersea warfare.

And indeed, at present the U.S. and Royal navies are struggling with the cost of fielding replacements to their Trident SSBNs. SSBN programs could crowd out other shipbuilding priorities, leaving behind boutique navies comprising too few assets for commanders or statesmen to risk in battle. Here again, the credibility of a nation's bareknuckles diplomacy could turn on innate features of submarines. Too expensive a boat is a bad boat.

Factoring in all of this, here's how to rate history's worst submarines. One, did a sub's basic design, the quality of its construction, or its expense cancel out whatever tactical or operational promise it held? Two, did its crew egregiously fail to execute assigned duties, whether out of incompetence, carelessness, or faulty doctrine or tactics? And three, was its performance so deficient that it set back national power or purposes?

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