The Five Worst Submarines of All Time

November 2, 2014 Topic: Defense Region: United States

The Five Worst Submarines of All Time

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

American submariners joke that some foreign subs are as noisy as two skeletons making love inside a metal trash can. When a boat becomes an object of fun, its parent navy has problems. Small wonder China's naval leadership skipped on to a more modern design, the Type 094 -- leaving the Xia a ship class of one.

3. K-class submarines

When new technologies appear, navies habitually deploy them as fleet auxiliaries -- that is, to help the existing fleet do what it's already doing, except better. Undersea craft were no exception a century ago, when navies were still experimenting with them. The Royal Navy's World War I-era K-class boat was a failed experiment, as the nicknames affixed to it--Kalamity, or Katastrophe--attest.

Designed in 1913, these boats were meant to range ahead of the surface fleet, screening the fleet's battlewagons and battlecruisers against enemy torpedo craft. Or they could seize the offensive, softening up the enemy battle line before the decisive fleet encounter. A solid concept. But to keep up with surface men-of-war, such a boat would need to travel at around 21 knots on the surface, faster than any British sub yet built. Diesel engines were incapable of driving a boat through the water at such velocity. The Admiralty's speed requirement, therefore, demanded steam propulsion.

However sound the tactics behind the K-class, outfitting subs with steam plants was a bad idea. Ask any marine engineer. Boilers gulp in air, they generate prodigious amounts of heat, and they emit exhaust gases in large quantities. Trying to submerge a steamship, consequently, means trying to submerge a hull with lots of intakes and smokestacks. Unsurprisingly, the K-class leaked. The heat was torrid while underwater. It wallowed in rough seas, and displayed a troublesome reluctance to pull out of a dive. Of 18 K-class boats, none was lost to enemy action. But six -- a full third of the class -- were lost to accidents.

The most gallant, astute crew can achieve little with hardware that is backward. Never again did the Royal Navy establishment foist a conventional steam-powered boat on British tars.

2. K-219. This Yankee-class Soviet SSBN suffered an explosion and fire in a missile tube in 1986, while cruising some 600 miles east of Bermuda. It occupies an ignominious place on this list because of the repercussions of losing a ballistic-missile boat -- a vessel stuffed with nuclear firepower -- and because by most accounts the mishap was needless. Here, as with the travails of the K-class boats, blame lies at the feet of obtuse senior leaders. Such failings annul even capable platforms.

Two expert commentators, Igor Kurdin and Wayne Grasdock, explain why. First, the Soviet leadership had set the SSBN force on a helter-skelter patrol schedule to reciprocate as the Reagan administration deployed the Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. Crew training and periodic overhauls slipped as Soviet SSBNs made two or three deterrent patrols each year, well beyond their usual clip. Massive turnover within K-219's crew helped little. Performance suffered as the boat prowled patrol grounds far from Soviet bases and shipyards.

Kurdin and Grasdock observe, second, that the Soviet Navy was lackadaisical about safety by comparison with the U.S. Navy. (To its credit, the U.S. silent service got religion in the wake of the Thresher and Scorpion incidents, instituting its SUBSAFE program.) Evidently, they write, the explosion and fire may not have occurred "if one more person had checked the last maintenance performed on missile tube No. 6." In short, to keep up appearances in the late Cold War, Moscow and the naval establishment imposed an operational tempo on the SSBN force that prompted submariners to cut corners on basic standards.

The result: a black eye for the Soviet Union, a superpower in retreat. Here again, neglect of the fundamentals had major political import.

1. Imperial Japanese Navy submarine force. Granted, it seems unfair to indict an entire silent service on this list. But what did IJN submarines accomplish against the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, when the American war effort depended on long, distended sea lanes vulnerable to undersea assault? Not much. Subpar performance resulted not from a shortage of capable boats or skillful, resolute sailors -- by most accounts Japanese fleet boats were the equals of the Gato-class boats that spearheaded the U.S. submarine campaign--but from a shortage of flexibility and imagination among top commanders.

As noted before, navies tend to use unfamiliar technologies as auxiliaries. So it was with Japan. But whereas some services innovate over time, the IJN leadership proved stubbornly shortsighted. For decades, commanders had marinated themselves in a bowdlerized version of Alfred Thayer Mahan's works. In particular, they made a fetish of Mahan's advocacy of duels between big-gun warships. Having donned doctrinal blinkers, they could conceive of few ways to employ subs beyond supporting the battle fleet. Rather than inflict mayhem on U.S. logistics--much as the German Navy did in the Atlantic, and much as the U.S. Navy did against Japanese sea lanes in the Western Pacific--the IJN allowed transports, tankers, and other vital but unsexy shipping to pass to and fro unmolested. Vast quantities of American war materiel traversed the broad Pacific--letting American forces surmount the tyranny of distance.

Inaction added up to a colossal missed opportunity for Imperial Japan. The IJN had largely mastered the aerial dimension of naval warfare, putting to sea impressive aircraft-carrier task forces. Pearl Harbor bore witness to Japanese carrier aviators' prowess. Why its backward approach to submarine warfare? For one thing, there was no Isoroku Yamamoto of undersea combat. Admiral Yamamoto threw his immense personal prestige behind the strike on Oahu, threatening to resign if top commanders rebuffed the aviation-centric strategy he proposed in favor of battleship engagements. The submarine force had no such champion to challenge orthodoxy. The IJN, accordingly, clung to its quasi-Mahanian dogma throughout the Pacific War. A potent submarine force ended up being a wasting asset, consuming resources for little reason.

For which U.S. military veterans everywhere are eternally grateful. When shipping out for oceanic battlegrounds, it's good to face history's worst subs. The Imperial Japanese Navy submarine force is hereby designated Bottom Gun.

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, named Essential Reading on the Navy Professional Reading List. The views voiced here are his alone.

All Images: Wikicommons License.

Editor's Note: This piece was first posted in January. It is being reposted due to reader interest.