5 Best Submarines of the Cold War
History’s three great submarine campaigns include the First Battle of the Atlantic, the Second Battle of the Atlantic, and the US Navy’s (USN) war against Japanese commerce in World War II. The contestants fought these campaigns through asymmetrical means, with submarines doing battle against aircraft and surface escorts.
But the greatest true submarine campaign never (or only intermittently) went “hot.” Waged with advanced, streamlined submarines, hunting each other from the polar ice cap to the Eastern seaboard, the Cold War undersea “game” lasted for over three decades. In case of real war, these submarines would safeguard (or destroy) NATO’s trans-Atlantic lifeline, and would protect (or sink) much of the nuclear deterrent of America, Russia, Britain, and France.
So what were the best submarines of the Cold War era? For the purposes of this list, we’re excluding ballistic missiles submarines or boomers, which have an entirely different mission from attack boats, built for different requirements. Instead, this list will focus on submarines optimized for killing surface ships or other submarines. The criteria should be familiar from previous lists; to what extent did the vessels perform its strategic mission at a price that its nation could afford?
Cost: Submarines compete with other providers of national security. If they break the bank, they risk crowding out the other capabilities that a nation requires for its defense.
Reliability: When submarines have accidents, the results can be catastrophic. And showing up is half the battle; boats stuck in port can’t fulfill national objectives.
Effectiveness: Could the submarine do the job? How did it stack up against its contemporaries?
Large, fast, and quiet, the Permit class set that standard for American and British submarines for the rest of the Cold War. Developed with a series of innovations that set them apart from their predecessors, the Skipjack class, the Permits immediately became state of the undersea art. These innovations included powerful bow sonar, a streamlined, deep-dive capable hull, and advanced quieting technology. Among the first submarines conceived an optimized for an anti-submarine mission, the Permits could threaten not only the Soviet deterrent, but also the Russian capacity for disrupting the trans-Atlantic lifeline.
The first of fourteen Permits entered service in 1961, the last in 1968. Most of the boats served through the end of the Cold War. Displacing 4200 tons, the Permits could make 28 knots, and could fire both advanced torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
The lead ship of the Permit class was Thresher, commissioned in 1961. On April 10, 1963, she was lost with all hands while conducting a diving test. The tragic loss of Thresher, which imploded after a still-disputed systems failure, overshadowed the long careers of the rest of the class. However, that loss was critical to developing the safety standards that would prevent future accidents. The loss of Thresher, in a very important sense, led to the long history of safety success in the USN’s submarine fleet.
The United States and the Soviet Union were the main players in the Cold War submarine campaign, but were hardly the only entrants. The Royal Navy, initially with some US assistance, developed a series of lethal nuclear submarine designs, eventually making a more than creditable contribution to NATO’s undersea posture. One submarine, HMS Conqueror, remains the only nuclear submarine to have destroyed an enemy ship in anger.
Following up on the Churchill class, the Swiftsures were of innovative design, both in terms of hull technology and propulsion. They were the first full class of submarines to employ pump jet technology, which made propulsion more efficient while reducing noise. The enlarged but simplified hull redistributed machinery allowed a much deeper diving depth than previous Royal Navy subs.
Displacing 5000 tons submerged, the Swiftsures could make some 30 knots submerged. They carried standard torpedoes, as well as Harpoon and (in some boats) Tomahawk cruise missiles. The six Swiftsures entered service between 1973 and 1981, with the last decommissioning in 2010.
The Swiftsures had their problems, including a series of bizarre accidental collisions, some structural failures, and some minor reactor troubles. Nevertheless, they served the Royal Navy very effectively against the Soviets, and would have won victories in the Falklands if the politics had played out differently.
Not every navy can afford an advanced nuclear attack submarine. Nevertheless, submarines solve strategic problems, and not every great submarine needs to be a Porsche. The German Type 209, first built in 1971, served as the strategic answer for a great many navies in the Cold War, and continues to serve today.