19 Different Types of Submarines Explained

Submarines, those enigmatic watercraft, possess an enchanting allure as they unlock the enigmatic depths of our oceans. These vessels have evolved in tandem with technological advancements, affording us the unprecedented ability to venture deeper, farther, and for extended durations beneath the ocean’s surface. Let’s delve into the realm of these extraordinary underwater vehicles, exploring their multifaceted utility and the invaluable contributions they make to modern society.

Submarines span a diverse spectrum, exhibiting a wide array of shapes, sizes, and configurations, each meticulously tailored to fulfill specific roles. These versatile vessels serve as versatile instruments, playing roles as instruments of warfare, instruments of exploration, platforms for scientific inquiry, conduits for tourism, tools for commercial endeavors, and even sources of recreation. The raison d’être and mission of a submarine profoundly influence its design and capabilities.

In essence, submarines bear an uncanny resemblance to spacecraft, sharing a common purpose—to facilitate human exploration in inhospitable environments where our very survival hinges on sophisticated technology. While spacecraft enable us to traverse the celestial realms beyond our planet, submarines empower us to plumb the fathomless depths of our Earth’s oceans. These vessels stand as testaments to human ingenuity, intriguing and ingenious in their inception, emblematic of humanity’s indomitable pioneering spirit.

The allure of submarines lies not only in their capacity to unveil the mysteries of the deep but also in their remarkable adaptability, serving as vehicles of scientific discovery, guardians of maritime security, conduits of underwater tourism, and vessels of leisure, all the while epitomizing our insatiable curiosity and unwavering quest for exploration and knowledge.

History Of Submarines

For centuries, humanity’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge and exploration has driven us to ponder the mysteries concealed beneath the watery depths. As far back as the early 1500s, our fascination with the submerged world has been an enduring pursuit, fueled by a relentless curiosity.

Historical accounts trace tales of daring endeavors to penetrate the aquatic realm. Among the earliest narratives, there is a captivating story of two Greeks who embarked on a remarkable venture. They purportedly constructed a craft that defied the elements, submerging into the abyss and resurfacing unscathed. Astonishingly, they emerged dry, with a lamp that continued to cast its light, all within the backdrop of the river Tagus near Toledo. This extraordinary feat was said to have unfolded in the presence of the Roman Emperor Charles V. Yet, the historical records offer a veil of ambiguity, leaving questions regarding the authenticity of this event and the precise nature of the craft they employed.

It was not until 1620 that a concrete milestone in submarine history emerged, marked by the ingenuity of a Dutchman named Cornelis Drebbel. His pioneering submersible was a modest creation, reliant on oars for propulsion. This marked the humble genesis of the submarine, an invention that would undergo a remarkable evolution driven by advancements in design and technological capabilities.

The annals of submarine development reached a pivotal juncture in 1775 with the advent of the first military submarine on American soil, conceived by David Bushnell. This pioneering vessel, a solitary craft, departed from tradition by employing screws as a propulsion method, diverging from the convention of oars. This marked a revolutionary stride in the evolution of submarines, setting the stage for a journey of continuous improvement and innovation in submersible craft.

1. Human Powered Submarine

The nascent stages of submarine development, all designs were reliant on human power for propulsion. These early underwater vessels harnessed the physical prowess of their crew members, employing oars as the primary means of locomotion. Crewmen would tirelessly wield these oars to propel the submarine through the aquatic depths, while their comrades took on the arduous task of manually clearing the bilge to ensure the vessel’s functionality.

However, as submarine technology advanced, notable innovations emerged. One iconic example was the creation of the Nautilus, masterminded by an American expatriate, Robert Fulton, residing in France. This groundbreaking vessel marked a departure from the reliance on oars. Instead, it embraced a revolutionary approach, adopting a screw propeller as its primary source of propulsion. The crewmembers would engage in the intricate task of hand-cranking this screw propeller, propelling the submarine forward.

Remarkably, the Nautilus was not merely an experimental endeavor but held a distinct wartime purpose. Its mission entailed the delivery of naval mines, intended for the devastating disruption of merchant ships. This strategic shift in submarine design heralded a new era in underwater warfare and propelled the ongoing evolution of submersible technology.

2. Mechanically Powered Submarine

A pivotal milestone in the evolutionary journey of submarines arrived with the advent of mechanical propulsion systems. The year 1863 marked a watershed moment as it witnessed the birth of the first mechanically powered submarine. This pioneering creation harnessed the force of compressed air to propel the craft through the watery depths, heralding a new era in submarine propulsion.

Subsequent years witnessed remarkable developments, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this transformative period, diesel-electric propulsion systems emerged as the preferred choice for submarines. This innovative approach revolutionized the way submarines operated.

In these cutting-edge submarines, diesel engines assumed a central role when the vessel operated on the water’s surface. These engines not only provided propulsion but also served the vital function of charging an onboard bank of batteries. These batteries, in turn, supplied the submarine with the necessary power to continue its operations when submerged beneath the waves.

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This shift towards diesel-electric propulsion represented a profound advancement in submarine technology, enhancing their capabilities and expanding their potential for both military and civilian applications.

3. Submersible

A submersible, distinct from traditional submarines, represents a specialized category of underwater vehicles tailored to a diverse array of applications. These versatile submersibles find utility in scientific, commercial, and military endeavors, with their size and purpose differentiating them from their larger counterparts.

Submersibles, often smaller in scale, can be either manned or unmanned, a defining characteristic setting them apart. They frequently serve research or commercial roles, such as tasks related to pipelines or oil rigs. Small submersibles may bear labels like MROVs (Marine Remotely Operated Vehicles) or ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles). Some of these submersibles maintain a physical tether to the surface vessel, with control cables transmitting signals from the operator to the craft below.

In contrast, certain submersibles operate untethered to the surface vessel and are remotely piloted via radio signals. Typically unmanned, these submersibles prove invaluable in scientific research and the maintenance of undersea infrastructure, including pipelines and oil rigs.

Manned submersibles, while generally limited in crew capacity—often accommodating only one person—also serve crucial roles, primarily in the realms of oceanic research and exploration. It’s important to note that submersibles rely on a support vessel for their operations, differentiating them from autonomous submarines. This symbiotic relationship ensures their functionality and enables the achievement of various underwater missions.

4. Air-Independent Propulsion Submarines

Air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines represent a class of vessels employing innovative techniques to provide oxygen to engines that conventionally rely on air for combustion. Typically, these submarines are non-nuclear and are equipped with diesel or alternative combustion engines.

Initially, research focused on identifying fuels capable of anaerobic combustion, but the emphasis later shifted towards developing mechanisms for oxygen supply to combustion-based engines. Several categories of AIP submarines have emerged:

  1. Open-Cycle System Submarines: Early experiments explored the use of hydrogen peroxide to furnish oxygen for engine operation. While the concept proved feasible, impractical fuel consumption hampered its viability. Steam turbine engines were a primary focus of these trials.
  2. Closed-Cycle Diesel Engine Submarines: These submarines utilized diesel engines as their primary power source, with liquid oxygen serving as the oxidant. To mitigate the extreme heat generated by pure oxygen combustion, the oxygen was diluted with exhaust gas from the engine.
  3. Closed-Cycle Steam Turbine Submarines: French engineers experimented with this approach, employing steam for propulsion. The steam was generated by burning a mixture of ethanol and oxygen as fuel. However, the anticipated energy efficiency was not achieved, leading to the abandonment of this method.
  4. Stirling-Cycle Engine Submarines: Swedish engineers pioneered Stirling-cycle engines, which harnessed both liquid oxygen and diesel for driving generators. These generators, in turn, powered propulsion systems or charged batteries for electric motor operation.
  5. Fuel Cell Submarines: These submarines rely on chemical reactions to drive their engines. Typically, they employ liquid oxygen and hydrogen stored in pressurized tanks within the vessel, enabling power generation through chemical processes.

The development of AIP submarines has expanded the capabilities and operational efficiency of non-nuclear submarines, offering diverse propulsion alternatives for underwater missions.

5. Nuclear Submarines

The concept of nuclear-powered submarines originated with the United States Navy in 1939, and by 1951, the world witnessed the launch of the first nuclear-powered submarine.

A nuclear submarine is a remarkable vessel propelled by an onboard nuclear reactor. It boasts numerous advantages over conventional submarines, most notably its oxygen-independence, reducing the need for frequent surfacing to replenish crew supplies. These submarines harness the enduring power of nuclear fuel and achieve impressive speeds, virtually extending their operational range indefinitely. In fact, modern nuclear submarines are engineered to operate without refueling throughout their anticipated 25-year lifespan.

Nuclear energy is harnessed in one of two ways for submarine propulsion. Firstly, the nuclear reactor generates electricity to power the submarine. Alternatively, it heats water to produce steam, propelling the submarine forward. Additionally, the nuclear reactor serves as the powerhouse for all other onboard systems, encompassing life support functions, freshwater production from seawater, air purification, and the electricity supply for various operational systems aboard the vessel.

Nevertheless, there are certain disadvantages to employing nuclear power in military submarines, particularly from a stealth perspective. Several factors compromise the stealth of nuclear submarines:

  1. Thermal Signature: The reactor generates heat, leaving a detectable thermal signature in the surrounding water, visible through thermal imaging.
  2. Continuous Operation: Nuclear reactors cannot be switched off for silent running, resulting in persistent steam noise detectable by sonar systems.
  3. Uninterrupted Pump Operation: Cooling pumps within the reactor must remain active, creating additional noise that contributes to the submarine’s sonar profile.

To address these issues, many nations allocate substantial portions of their military budgets to enhance the stealth characteristics of their nuclear submarines, ensuring their effectiveness in covert operations.

6. Tourist Submarines

Numerous companies specialize in the creation and operation of submarines as part of their entertainment offerings in various tourist destinations. This unique experience grants the general public the opportunity to immerse themselves in the captivating world of underwater wildlife and scenery.

Tourist submarines are meticulously designed to showcase the rich marine life found in tourist hotspots, typically adhering to depths commonly explored by scuba divers, ranging from 100 to 120 feet. These submarines are equipped to accommodate a passenger capacity typically ranging between 50 to 100 individuals. Notably, these captivating underwater excursions are privately owned and operated, ensuring a memorable and educational adventure for tourists.

One noteworthy illustration of a tourist submarine is the Windermere, which operates on a picturesque lake in the enchanting region of Cumbria, England. This remarkable vessel offers tourists the unique opportunity to embark on captivating journeys, where they can explore underwater wrecks within the lake’s depths. Moreover, the Windermere extends its services to include adventurous excursions that take tourists on unforgettable trips to various other scenic spots nestled around the lake.

7. Narco-Submarines

Submarines are no longer exclusive to scientific exploration, commercial ventures, or military operations. Recent developments have seen criminals employ submarines for drug smuggling.

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These illicit vessels, often referred to as narco-submarines, are utilized to clandestinely transport illegal drugs. South American drug smugglers have adopted this method to ferry their narcotics into the coastal waters of the United States. It allows for the transportation of substantial quantities of drugs while evading detection.

Narco-submarines come in two main categories: semi-submarines and fully submerged submarines. Semi-submarines travel partially submerged, with a portion of the vessel remaining above the waterline. Both types have been employed by drug cartels in an attempt to outmaneuver law enforcement agencies in South America and the United States, allowing them to continue their illicit operations.

8. Deep Diving Submarines

The profound depths of our oceans pose formidable challenges even for the most advanced military submarines. The immense pressure exerted by the water at extreme depths imposes limits on how deep these colossal vessels can descend. In such conditions, smaller submarines offer a more viable solution, as they can be designed to withstand the external pressure.

Deep diving submarines serve as vital tools for scientific exploration, enabling researchers to investigate the most profound and mysterious parts of our oceans. Typically, these submarines are compact and modest in size, accommodating only a crew of one or two individuals. Research institutes often operate these vessels.

Deep diving submersibles are equipped with various essential features, including robotic arms for collecting samples at depth, an array of powerful lights to illuminate the pitch-dark depths, and advanced recording equipment to capture photographs and videos of the enigmatic deep-sea life and its environment. These specialized submarines play a pivotal role in expanding our understanding of the deep ocean realms.

9. Military Submarines

Military submarines hold paramount importance for countries with extensive coastlines and substantial naval forces. These underwater vessels serve as indispensable assets for safeguarding national security interests.

A military submarine encompasses any submersible vessel employed for military purposes, primarily aimed at defending a nation against potential aggressors and fortifying the nation’s maritime borders. Military submarines are categorized into various classes, each defined by its energy source, capabilities, and designated mission objectives.

Presently, more than 46 countries retain operational submarines within their naval fleets. Among these, the majority consist of non-nuclear submarines. Notably, only six nations include nuclear submarines as integral components of their naval forces. These nations encompass the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and India.

10. U-Boat Submarines

The term “U-boat” is commonly associated with submarines from the World War I and World War II eras, primarily those of German origin. The name “U-boat” is derived from the German term “Unterseeboot,” which translates to “under-sea-boat.” Germany strategically employed submarines during World War II, implementing blockades to disrupt the resupply of their enemy forces.

While these submarines achieved some success against enemy warships, their primary mission focused on targeting merchant fleets from the United States, Canada, and Britain. U-boats often operated in groups known as “wolf-packs” and proved highly effective in this role until the Allies developed various countermeasures.

Enhancements such as radar, high-frequency direction finding, sonar technology, depth charges, anti-submarine mortars, and the successful decoding of the German Enigma code all played pivotal roles in thwarting U-boat attacks on merchant convoys.

11. Fast Attack Submarines

Fast attack submarines, often referred to as hunter-killer submarines, constitute a specific class of military submarines primarily tailored for one core mission: hunting and eliminating other submarines and warships. These submarines typically lack vertical launch capability and instead rely on torpedo-based weaponry to incapacitate enemy submarines and ships. They can be powered by either nuclear or diesel-electric propulsion systems.

To enhance their versatility, certain attack submarines are equipped with cruise missile capabilities, allowing them to undertake various roles. Attack submarines are frequently deployed to safeguard ballistic missile submarines or fleets of surface warships against potential threats posed by enemy warships and submarines.

Distinguished by their comparatively smaller and more streamlined profiles, these submarines are equipped with highly advanced detection equipment to fulfill their strategic roles effectively.

12. Ballistic Missile Submarines

Ballistic missile submarines represent a highly diverse category of submarines meticulously engineered for specific military purposes. These submarines are distinguished by their vertical launch capability for ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, often armed with nuclear warheads. This advanced technology empowers these submarines with the ability to conduct long-range strikes against a wide array of targets, whether they be on land or at sea.

This transformative development has elevated submarines to an entirely new level as strategic weapons for military forces. Leveraging their inherent stealth capabilities, these vessels can effectively conceal themselves in various underwater locations, providing them with the unprecedented capability to launch long-range attacks from virtually any point across the globe.

13. Midget Submarines

Midget submarines, as the name implies, owe their designation to their compact size. Many of the early submarines can be categorized within this class, as they did not possess the substantial dimensions of larger vessels.

In the realm of submarines, midget submarines are those that fall below the 150-ton threshold and can be effectively operated by a crew ranging from as few as 2 members to a maximum of 9 individuals. These versatile submarines find application in both military and civilian contexts. In military usage, they serve purposes such as facilitating shallow harbor invasions. On the civilian front, they are deployed for exploration missions, underwater repairs, and scientific research ventures beneath the ocean’s depths.

Typically, these diminutive vessels lack amenities for sleeping and food preparation, underscoring their design for shorter missions. In a military capacity, these submarines have often been instrumental in delivering combat divers in close proximity to their objectives and subsequently extracting them after the mission’s completion.

14. Bathysphere

The exploration of the ocean’s profound depths often necessitates a means of safely transporting divers to these hazardous environments. In response to this need, the bathysphere was conceived and developed.

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The bathysphere represents a spherical submersible devoid of propulsion capabilities. Its primary function is to facilitate the descent and ascent of divers from significant depths, enabling them to investigate and study the mysteries of the deep-sea ecosystem. This specialized craft is gently lowered into the ocean’s abyss by means of a robust steel cable, which remains securely tethered to a vessel on the surface.

The bathysphere serves as a stable platform at significant depths, offering divers a strategic hub from which they can venture into the underwater realm and subsequently return for reprieve. During their underwater sojourns, divers within the bathysphere undergo a meticulous decompression process as they ascend towards the surface. This step is crucial in averting the potentially lethal condition known as decompression sickness, or the bends, which can manifest when individuals respire compressed air at substantial depths.

15. Bathyscaphe

The unfathomable depths of the ocean, ordinary submarines are inadequate, succumbing to the immense pressure that would crush their hulls. For such profound exploration, specialized vessels are imperative.

A bathyscaphe, akin to a bathysphere, distinguishes itself as a self-propelled submersible housing a crew cabin, suspended beneath a buoyant float instead of being tethered to a ship by a cable. This ingenious innovation emerged from the mind of Swiss inventor and explorer, Auguste Piccard, with the aim of delving into the mysteries of the ocean.

One pivotal moment in bathyscaphe history was the historic journey undertaken by Jacques Piccard, Auguste Piccard’s son, and Don Walsh. Their voyage plumbed the deepest-known recesses of our ocean, specifically the Challenger Deep within the Mariana Trench, a staggering descent that reached over 35,000 feet or 10 kilometers in depth. In this profoundly remote realm, they made the astonishing discovery of aquatic life thriving in the absence of light, enduring the colossal pressures of this abyssal abyss.

16. Air-Sea Rescue Submarines

Submarines not only served as covert instruments for striking the enemy but also played a pivotal role in daring rescue missions.

In the midst of World War II in the Pacific, specific classes of submarines undertook the critical mission of rescuing downed fighter pilots, earning them the distinguished title of the “Lifeguard League” of submarines. Positioned strategically in advance of air assaults, these vessels stood ready to pluck to safety pilots forced to abandon their aircraft or those who found themselves adrift at sea.

The air-sea rescue responsibilities shouldered by submarines in the Pacific theater during World War II emerged as one of their most significant and heroic contributions to the war effort.

17. Single Hull Submarines

Submarine designs have evolved significantly over the centuries, particularly as our understanding of the profound effects of water pressure at great depths has grown.

A single-hull submarine refers to a vessel that relies on a solitary pressure hull to safeguard the crew from the immense pressures of the deep-sea environment. The optimal shape for a pressure hull is cylindrical, though this configuration doesn’t lend itself to superior underwater speed.

In the realm of submarines, both historical and contemporary, many possess a single pressure hull. However, when it comes to larger submarines, particularly those of military significance, the imperative for speed became paramount, necessitating a departure from the single-hull design.

18. Double Hull Submarines

Submarine engineers and builders soon confronted a fundamental challenge: the optimal hull shape for pressure protection didn’t align with the need for a submarine to effortlessly traverse water, offering minimal resistance and increased speed.

The solution came in the form of double-hull submarines. These vessels featured an inner pressure hull to shield the crew from the crushing depths of the ocean and an outer non-pressure hull, which offered an aerodynamic shape for streamlined underwater movement, resulting in enhanced speed and efficiency.

The outer hull of a double-hull submarine operates at the same pressure as the surrounding water, eliminating the need for substantial structural strength to resist pressure.

Conversely, the inner hull, enclosed within the outer hull, was engineered to be thicker and sturdier, withstanding the formidable pressures found in the ocean’s depths.

Notably, a breach of the outer hull does not imperil the submarine’s integrity or pose any danger to the crew protected by the pressure hull, or inner hull.

19. Personal Submarines

Advancements in technology, materials, and safety measures have reached a point where various companies are now venturing into the manufacturing of submarines and submersibles accessible to the general public. This transformation has expanded the scope of submarines beyond the realms of science and the military.

Personal submarines, a notable addition to this evolution, are designed primarily for recreational purposes, offering individuals a unique underwater experience. These submarines are often tailored as complementary vessels for luxury yachts. Typically accommodating one or two passengers, they possess limited depth capabilities, allowing enthusiasts to explore the mesmerizing underwater landscapes, particularly in shallow coral reefs.

It’s worth noting that personal submarines are exclusively dedicated to leisure activities. Consequently, they lack the sophisticated robotics or sensitive telemetry devices typically found in vehicles designed for research or data collection.


The unquenchable human thirst for exploration and the desire to unravel the mysteries of the unknown compel us to extend our boundaries into the most remote and perilous corners of both our world and the vast universe that surrounds us.

Submarines, with their remarkable capabilities, serve as invaluable tools for delving into the profound depths of our oceans. As the technology behind these underwater vessels continues to advance, our ability to reach and explore the deep regions of our planet becomes increasingly attainable.

While submarines are often associated with their military applications, they should not be solely confined to this role in our collective consciousness. Beyond their contributions to warfare, these remarkable vehicles also offer us a means to propel our exploration of the oceans and expand our knowledge of the profound depths and the life forms that inhabit them.