The Biggest Submarines in the World

From the earliest hand-cranked wooden craft to today’s largest nuclear submarine, these spectacular stealthy submersibles hold a special fascination. They are used for all sorts of reasons including warfare, protection, blockade running, reconnaissance, marine science, salvage, exploration and even tourism and the race is on to build the biggest submarines in the world.

Building Big Building Big
18 January 2022

In 1578, British mathematician and naval writer William Bourne proposed an enclosed boat that could be rowed underwater. However it wasn’t until 1620 that Dutch engineer Cornelius Drebbel, in the services of James I of England, built a working craft and demonstrated it by diving a few metres under the Thames. At the time it was the only submarine in the world but what came after were quite remarkable feats of science, technology and engineering. Read on to find out about the incredible stories behind the biggest submarines in the world.

Triomphant Class, French Navy

French workers maintain the Triomphant ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine (Photo: Marcel Mochet via Getty Images)

Length: 138 metres | Crew: 111 | Displacement: 14,335 tons submerged | Active: 4

A vital element of the French Navy’s nuclear deterrent strike force, the four nuclear ballistic missile submarines – Le Triomphant (1997), Le Téméraire (1999), Le Vigilant (2004) and Le Terrible (2010) – carry 16 missiles with 6-10 thermonuclear warheads as well as Exocet anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

Based at Île Longue in Brittany, it may not be the largest submarine in the world or the largest nuclear submarine but it has an endurance of over 60 days underwater with a submerged top speed in excess of 25 knots/29 mph.

Vanguard Class, Royal Navy

Ballistic missile submarine (Photo: vale_t via iStock)

Length: 149.9 metres | Crew: 135 | Displacement: 15,900 tons submerged | Active: 4

Based at HM Naval Base Clyde in Scotland, the four boats (submarines are always referred to as boats rather than ships) in the Vanguard class – Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance – are the only platforms for Britain’s nuclear weapons.

Costing a combined £15 billion, these nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines have a top speed of around 25 knots (29 mph) and carry 16 Trident II missiles. In the early 2030s, they are due to be replaced by the new Dreadnought class.

Oscar II Class, Russian Navy

Navel nuclear submarine (Photo: Razihusin via iStock)

Length: 155 metres | Crew: 110 | Displacement: 24,000 tons submerged | Active: 6

Eclipsed only by the Typhoon, Borei and Ohio class submarines, the double-hulled Oscar II class is the fourth largest submarine in the world. It carries 3M-54 Kalibr supersonic cruise missiles as well as 24 anti-ship cruise missiles and is designed to break through thick Arctic ice during war-time operations.

These immense Soviet-era submarines were specifically designed to attack US aircraft carrier battle groups and coastal installations and are incredibly fast, with a submerged top speed of 32 knots/37 mph.

Ohio Class, US Navy

A US Navy submarine heads off to the ocean for a patrol on a hazy day (Photo: Serengeti130 via iStock)

Length: 170 metres | Crew: 155 | Displacement: 18,750 tons submerged | Active: 18

The Ohio class consists of four cruise missile submarines and 14 ballistic missile submarines which carry almost half of America’s active strategic thermonuclear warheads.
The third largest submarine in the world, the nuclear-powered Ohio class are the largest subs ever built for the US Navy and carry more missiles (24 Trident II) than any other submarine. With a reported top speed of 25 knots (29 mph) and a range only limited by how much food it can carry, the Ohio class is led by the USS Ohio. They are due to be replaced by the Columbia class in the 2030s.

Borei Class, Yury Dolgorukiy

Russian submarine is floating in the sea (Photo: Kadnikov Valerii via iStock)

Length: 170 metres | Crew: 107 | Displacement: 24,000 tons submerged | Active: 4

Despite having half the displacement of the Typhoon, the Yury Dolgorukiy (1996), Alexander Nevskiy (2004), Yury Dolgorukiy(2006) and Knyaz Vladimir (2012) are still the second biggest submarines in the world, such is the spectacular scale of the Typhoon.

The Borei class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines have a submerged top speed of 25 knots (29mph) and carry 16 RSM-56 Bulava missiles. They were built using 17,000 tonnes of metal (50% more than the Eiffel Tower), 68 miles of piping and 373 miles of wiring.

Typhoon Class, Russian Navy

Russian nuclear submarine (Photo: lyash01 via iStock)

Length: 175 metres | Crew: 160 | Displacement: 48,000 tons submerged | Active: 1

Project 941 ‘Akula’ (designated ‘Typhoon’ by NATO) is the biggest submarine ever built and remains the largest submarine in the world. Four were designed and built for the Soviet Navy and they went into service in 1981. Today, only one remains in service, the Dmitry Donskoy.

The world’s largest nuclear submarine can comfortably stay at sea for three months or more. It is powered by two pressurised water nuclear reactors and two steam turbines generating almost 275,000 hp driving the Typhoon to a top speed of 27 knots (31 mph).

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