Death from the Deep: The Five Best Cold War Submarines

Robert Farley

Key Point: US technological innovation and industrial practice made it possible for the USN to develop and maintain submarines with advanced noise-suppression technology. The USSR’s tried to answer through raw weight, both in terms of size and number of boats.

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?

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