Every year, around the world, countries spend billions of dollars on their respective armed forces. Armies, air forces and navies all get generous amounts of funding to maintain existing levels of operation, add new equipment and manpower and research new weapons and tactics. Taking up a generous portion of the defense budgets of many of these countries (roughly a quarter in respect to the US) are the massive fleets of aircraft carriers, warships, support vessels and aircraft associated with the navies. This is nothing new. Over the last several centuries the powers of the world have come to quickly understand the importance of a powerful and capable navy. Not only a symbol of power and wealth, a strong navy can project power, be used as a political tool, protect lines of commerce and communication and deliver friendly forces anywhere that has a port or suitable landing area. This was demonstrated repeatedly in the era of kings and queens, during both World Wars and, more recently, by the United States and its allies as it tackles global terrorism.
For many nations one of the most important and versatile components of their navies is the submarine. Dating back to the 17th century, military designers sought a method of approaching an enemy fleet undetected. Over the next few hundred years, the submarine went through a series of evolutionary designs which improved its mobility, practicality, lethality and overall capabilities. Torpedoes were introduced and steadily improved over the years. Communication and detection equipment followed and provided an otherwise ‘blind’ weapon with the ability to see underwater. Propulsion systems improved in reliability and safety leading up to the advanced diesel-electric and nuclear submarines which are operated today. The German navy proved how deadly the submarine could be in both World Wars. The US Navy added further proof with the near annihilation of the Japanese merchant fleet in the Pacific from 1941-1945. The introduction of ballistic missile firing capability adds yet another impressive capability to the submarine’s resume.
The following looks at the 10 largest submarine forces in the world. This list looks at the total number of both diesel-electric and nuclear powered boats. It is not necessarily a statement on capability as not all navies are created equal – as you will see. Instead, this is a sheer numbers assessment which looks at who has the most overall military submarines. A few entries may surprise you but rest assured, all the big players are included.
T8. South Korea – 14 Submarines
Starting off this list is the submarine force of South Korea. The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) currently operates a fleet of 14 diesel-electric submarines. Currently, 12 of these submarines are German designed Type 209 and 214 class, while two are midget submarines built in Korea. Current plans are for Korea to take on construction of the Type 214 in its own shipyards, providing the ROKN with a very advanced, domestically produced submarine. The small Type 214 packs a punch with eight torpedo tubes and the ability to fire anti-ship missiles and lay mines. In all likelihood, any future lists of submarine figures will see South Korea climb the ranks as its introduces more of the Type 214s to its navy.
T8. Turkey – 14 Submarines
Next to Germany, Turkey is the largest operator of German built submarines in the world. All of the Turkish Navy’s submarines are diesel-electric boats belonging to the Type 209 class. This particular submarine is one of the most exported types which can be customized in a variety of ways for potential customers. At a cost of around $290 million each, the newest Type 209s in Turkish service (known as the Gur class) have the ability to fire Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Starting next year, the Turkish Navy is planning on replacing the Type 209 with the more modern German-built type 214 diesel-electric submarine.
T8. Israel – 14 Submarines
When you think of naval powers, you do not often think of Israel. In military terms, most people see Israel as a land or air power, yet, they do operate a small force of missile/patrol boats and submarines. Like many aspects of the Israeli military, figures and information concerning weapons platforms are hard to get. According to globalfirepower.com, the Israeli Navy currently operates 14 submarines (although most online sources report a lower figure). The most well-known and by far most capable of their forces are the Dolphin class boats. Built in Germany since 1998, the Dolphin class submarines are diesel-electric and reportedly capable of carrying and firing Israeli nuclear weapons. The newest of these submarines reportedly has air-independent propulsion which means they are less reliant on running at or near the surface than most other diesel-electric submarines.
7. Japan – 16 Submarines
Following the Second World War, strict regulations were placed on the Japanese military with the country’s constitution even stipulating that Japan must only possess defensive weaponry. What this eventually translated into was the small, yet very modern force which makes up the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). Today, the submarine force of Japan is composed of diesel-electric attack submarines – yes, the name is a bit contradictory. This small force is composed of two classes of very modern subs with the oldest being built in 1994. The newest submarines are from the Soryu class. They are packed with the latest technology, have a range of 7000 miles and can fire missiles and torpedoes and lay mines.
6. India – 17 Submarines
Currently, the vast majority of India’s submarine force are diesel-electric attack submarines built by the Russians and Germans. These craft have allowed India to flex its muscle around its coastal waters and into the Indian Ocean over the past 25 years. More recently, steps have been taken to push the Indian submarine fleet into the realm of nuclear power. The lease of a Russian Akula class nuclear attack submarine and the completion of a domestically constructed ballistic missile submarine are clear indications that India wishes to greatly expand the capabilities of its submarine fleet. Given the time and expense associated with building nuclear submarines, it is likely diesel-electric boats will remain the backbone of the Indian Navy for the next several years. That said, don’t be surprised to see this nation climb up this list as they look to expand their naval power.
5. Iran – 31 Submarines
No, that is not a typo because Iran does currently operate the fifth largest submarine fleet in the world. Iran, traditionally has placed the majority of its military budget into its air and land forces. Over the past several years, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) has begun developing new surface ships and submarines. The IRIN submarine forces have been, and largely remain, focused on coastal and short range operations in and around the Persian Gulf. The most capable submarines currently in operation are three Russian-built Kilo class diesel-electric boats. Built in the 1990s, these submarines provide the IRIN with the ability to patrol over 7000 miles, lay mines and pose a credible threat to any naval forces approaching Iranian shores. They are complemented with a variety of other sub-1200 ton submarines meant for shallow-coastal water operations.
4. Russia – 63 Submarines
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Soviet Navy, like most of the Soviet military forces, suffered from poor funding and maintenance. Over the past several years this situation has changed as Russia seeks to reform and modernize its forces under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. The submarine fleet of the Russian Navy is one branch of the armed forces which has benefitted from this reform. Russia operates a wide range of submarines including around a dozen ballistic missile and 30 nuclear attack submarines. Interestingly, the Russian navy has opted not to go all-nuclear and operates nearly 20 diesel-electric boats of the Kilo class. With numerous new submarines being constructed to replace aging and somewhat dangerous older models, it is likely the Russian Navy’s submarine forces will maintain, if not increase, their position on this list over the coming years.
3. China – 69 Submarines
Over the past 30 years, the military forces of China have undergone a program of massive expansion and modernization. In addition to land and air forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Submarine Force has seen substantial development in an effort to extend operational abilities further out from the Chinese mainland. With only a handful of modern nuclear attack submarines, around 50 diesel-electric submarines make up the bulk of the PLAN force. This is understandable considering that Chinese military doctrine is primarily focused on defending its territory and coastal waters from potential enemies. Providing nuclear deterrent are several ballistic missile submarines. Generally not considered as capable as American or Russian designs, Chinese ballistic missile submarines are still capable of launching long range nuclear weapons at any nation foolish enough to attack.
2. United States – 72 Submarines
Runner-up on this list is the United States Navy. Don’t let that fool you, however. The USN may ‘only’ operate the second largest submarine force in the world, yet, it is probably the most capable force on this list. Since the commission of its first submarine, the USS Holland in 1900, the USN has developed a far reaching and very effective submarine force. Its active fleet is entirely nuclear powered which means operations are limited only by the amount of food the ships can carry. Currently the most numerous type of submarine is the Los Angeles class attack submarine of which around 40 are in service. Built between the 1970s and 1990s, the Los Angeles class subs costs close to $1 billion in today’s currency, displace nearly 7000 tons, can dive to well over 900 feet and is armed with four torpedo tubes. Not to rest on their laurels, the USN have started to replace these Cold War boats with newer and more advanced $2.7 billion submarines of the Virginia class.
1. North Korea – 78 Submarines
The Korean People’s Army Navy Force (KPANF), despite having another rather confusing name, takes top spot on this list with a force of 78 submarines. All of North Korea’s submarines are diesel-electric and none of them displace more than 1800 tons. The potential danger of this force was demonstrated in 2010 when a small 130 ton sub of the Yono class sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan. Nonetheless, it is largely considered to be a second-rate force made up of aging Soviet-era and smaller home-built coastal submarines. The smaller North Korean submarines reportedly have very good shallow water abilities and would, in times of war, be used to lay mines, provide intelligence reports on enemy harbors and transport special-forces to enemy shores. If the KPANF continues to expand its fleet of small submarines, don’t expect them to be bumped off the top of this list any time soon.