submarine arms race

The World’s Next Submarine Arms Race

A modern day submarine arms race is underway amongst the world’s most powerful militaries.

The seas are playing host to a submarine arms race of global proportions.  Stealthy and powerful, submarines are a sought-after addition to military arsenals around the world. Today there are about 400 of them prowling the world’s waters,  with more on the way.  China supposedly has at least 70 subs, giving it the largest sub fleet (but not the most advanced) in the world.

Here’s a look at what’s going on today in the secretive world of submarines.

submarine arms race


Better armed, better crewed and quieter than ever before, Russia’s sub fleet has increased its activity to levels not seen since the Cold War, according to NATO.  With about 45 attack submarines, Russian naval strategy calls for increased naval presence in the Atlantic and in the Arctic and along undersea communications cable routes.

The Russian navy has a robust program to build new submarines,  including the Borei-class ballistic missile submarine and the K-329 Severodvinsk class guided missile sub.  In addition Russia is building a new submarine base in the Pacific at Kamchatka to service its ballistic missile submarines.

Russia has also reveled plans for an autonomous drone submarine that could carry a nuclear weapon for use in destroying enemy ports and cities via direct blasts or even tsunamis. It’s unclear if the plan is hype or a part of an asymmetric warfare effort to counter NATO superiority.

Autonomous subs are increasingly on the shopping list of all countries with undersea aspirations.

submarine arms race


The Pacific is a hotbed of submarine activity as China and other nations expand and modernize their fleets to guard trade routes and define national boundaries.  With as many as 70 subs, China boasts the largest fleet in the world. Their new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines can reportedly hit western U.S. targets with nuclear weapons launched from their subs in East Asian waters.

Chinese military officials have recently boasted of an experimental new supersonic submarine which they say would be able to travel from Shanghai to San Francisco in just 100 minutes.

Scientists claim that using super-cavitation (a process which reduces water friction), they are able to increase the speed of such subs exponentially.

As with Russian claims to build autonomous nuclear weapon subs, it’s unclear if the Chinese supersonic sub is hype or not.


submarine arms race


With 53 attack submarines and 14 ballistic missile submarines, the US has a large fleet that operates in all oceans.

According to Defense News, the Navy has announced a $17.6 billion contract to construct 10  Virginia-Class submarines–currently the U.S’s most sophisticated class of nuclear sub.

Some of the money for the subs will come from a $1 Trillion U.S. plan to update nuclear weapons and delivery systems, including Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs).

The U.S. is also beginning to develop an entirely new class of ballistic sub  – the Columbia class–  to replace older ones. However, the sub isn’t expected to be operational until 2044.

submarine arms race

Interestingly, the US is also investing in autonomous submarine hunters that may be designed to counter China’s large fleet of subs in event of a conflict.

While the autonomous sub-hunter uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help it find enemy subs, so far the the current prototype version is unarmed and incapable of destroying subs on its own.

Other Countries In The Submarine Arms Race

A surprisingly long list of countries have submarines, with many of them embarking upon modernization and fleet expansion plans. In the Pacific, Australia plans to build a new fleet of twelve attack subs, Japan has an impressive fleet of subs, India has subs, and North Korea has some that can fire ballistic missiles. Even Vietnam is planning to deploy a submarine fleet.

French, German and Japanese companies are benefiting from the submarine arms as they build submarines for countries without indigenous capabilities.

The submarine arms race horizon

As global navies expand their underwater desires and capabilities and as new technology impacts the seascape, some distinct trends are becoming apparent. They include:

  • Over time, autonomous submarines and hunters will become commonplace. They cost much less and can be deployed much longer than conventional subs
  • The Pacific will become increasingly dangerous as more submarines with better technology and weapons systems crowd the waters, competing for territory and influence
  • In the Atlantic and Arctic,  Russian, American and British subs will boost patrols in a strategic cat-and-mouse game reminiscent of the height of the cold war
  • The more subs there are in the oceans, the more military planners will covet them. Like any arms race, perception drives fear and desire in the minds of military planners who covet big budgets and influence

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Updated. Cover photo by Emilio Dellepiane via Flickr.

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