Ballistic missile submarine

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USS George Washington (SSBN-598)–the lead ship of US Navy's first class of Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines, Nuclear (SSBN). George Washington was the first operational (non-experimental) multi-missile strategic deterrence asset fielded by any navy.
Soviet Delta II class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine

A ballistic missile submarine is a submarine equipped to launch submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with nuclear warheads. These submarines became a major weapon system in the Cold War because of their nuclear deterrence capability. They can fire missiles thousands of kilometres from their targets, and Acoustic quieting makes them very difficult to detect (see acoustic signature). Their deployment has been dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union / Russia, with smaller numbers in service for France, the United Kingdom, China and India.


Further information: Regulus missile

The first nation to field ballistic missile submarines was the Soviet Union, whose first ballistic missile submarine was a converted Zulu IV-class submarine equipped with a single ballistic missile launch tube in its sail. The first successful submarine launch of a ballistic missile was on 16 September 1955, and in 1956 the Soviet Navy modified the design of five additional Zulu-class diesel powered attack submarines and installed an extra compartment containing two large vertical ballistic missile launch tubes in the middle with the launchers incorporated in the fin/sail. These were called the Zulu V-class by NATO. This was followed by a series of specifically designed Golf-class units complemented by the nuclear-powered Hotel-class, with both classes having three vertical launch tubes incorporated in the sail/fin of each submarine. The initial SS-N-4 ballistic missiles could only be launched with the submarines on the surface, but were soon followed by SS-N-5 missiles which were launched with the submarine submerged. The Soviet analogue to the U.S. SSBNs, the Yankee-class SSBN with sixteen missiles, began to be built in 1964.

In the U.S. Navy, ballistic missile submarines have the designation SSBN and are nicknamed 'boomers.' The first U.S. SSBN was a Skipjack-class fast attack submarine, Scorpion, with a 130 ft (40 m) missile compartment welded into the middle. Renamed George Washington, this became the first submarine in the George Washington-class submarine, commissioned in the late 1950s and early 1960s.


Further information: Second strike and Nuclear triad

Ballistic missile submarines differ in purpose from attack submarines and cruise missile submarines; while attack submarines specialise in combat with other vessels (including enemy submarines and merchant shipping), and cruise missile submarines are designed to attack large warships and tactical targets on land, the primary mission of the ballistic missile is nuclear deterrence. Accordingly, the mission profile of a ballistic missile submarine concentrates on remaining undetected, rather than aggressively pursuing other vessels. Ballistic missile submarines are designed for stealth, to avoid detection at all costs. They use many sound-reducing design features, such as anechoic tiles on their hull surfaces, carefully designed propulsion systems, and machinery mounted on vibration-damping mounts.

Ballistic missile submarines equipped with nuclear warheads serve as the third leg of the nuclear triad in countries which also operate nuclear-armed land based missiles and aircraft. The invisibility and mobility of submarines offer both a reliable means of deterrence against an attack (by maintaining the threat of a second strike), and a surprise first strike capability - particularly given the range of the weapons they carry.


The extra length and/or beam over attack subs of the same generation is in order to accommodate SLBMs such as the Russian R-29 or the NATO fielded—American manufactured Polaris-II, Poseidon and Trident-II missiles. Although some early models had to surface to launch their missiles, modern vessels typically launch while submerged at keel depths of usually less than 50 meters (164 feet). Missiles are launched upwards with an initial velocity sufficient for them to pop above the surface when their rocket motors fire, beginning the characteristic parabolic climb-from-launch of a ballistic missile.


SSBN is the US Navy hull classification symbol for a nuclear-powered, ballistic missile-carrying submarine.[1] The SS denotes "Submarine" (alternatively "Ship, Submersible") the B denotes "ballistic missile," and the N denotes "nuclear powered." The designation SSBN is used not just in the USN, but throughout NATO under STANAG 1166.[2]

In US naval slang, ballistic missile submarines are called boomers. In Britain, they are known as bombers.[3] In both cases, submarines operate on a two-crew concept, with two complete crews including two captains, called Gold and Blue in the United States, Starboard and Port in the United Kingdom.

The French Navy commissioned its first ballistic missile submarines as SNLE, for Sous-marin Nucléaire Lanceur d'Engin (lit. "nuclear-powered device-launching submarines"). The term applies both to ballistic missile submarines in general (for instance "British SNLE" occurs [4]) and, more technically, as a specific classification of the Redoutable class. The more recent Triomphant class is referred to as SNLE-NG (Nouvelle Génération, "New Generation"). The two crews used to maximise the availability time of the ships are called 'blue' and 'red' crews.

The Soviets called this type of ship RPKSN[5] (lit. "Strategic Purpose Underwater Missile Cruiser"). This designation was applied to the Typhoon class. Another designation used was PLARB(«ПЛАРБ» - подводная лодка атомная с баллистическими ракетами, which translates as "Nuclear Submarine with Ballistic Missiles"). This designation was applied to smaller submarines such as the Delta class. After a peak in 1984 (following Able Archer 83), Russian SSBN deterrence patrols have declined to the point where there is less than one patrol per sub each year and at best one sub on patrol at any time. Hence the Russians do not use multiple crews per ship.[6][dead link]

Active classes[edit]

Classes under development[edit]

Retired classes[edit]

The French SNLE Le Redoutable
USS Sam Rayburn showing the hatches for her UGM-27 Polaris missiles
France France
Soviet Union/Russia Soviet Union / Russia
United Kingdom United Kingdom
United States United States


On 4 February 2009, the British HMS Vanguard (S28) and the French Triomphant collided in the Atlantic.[17][18][19] Vanguard returned to Faslane in Scotland, under her own power,[20] and Triomphant to Île Longue in Brittany.


  1. ^ "SECNAVINST 5030.8" (PDF). United States Navy. 21 November 2006. Retrieved 10 September 2008. 
  2. ^ "NATO glossary of abbreviations used in NATO documents and publications (AAP-11)" (PDF). NATO. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "SNLE-NG Le Triomphant". Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  5. ^ РПКСН Ракетный подводный крейсер стратегического назначения (Raketny Podvodnyy Kreiser Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya)
  6. ^ "Russian SSBN Fleet: Modernizing But Not Sailing Much". Federation of American Scientists. 3 May 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  7. ^ a b "Russia to start building 2 nuclear Borei super-subs in 2013". 12 January 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  8. ^ "Finally flying colors: Yury Dolgoruky nuclear sub joins Russian Navy". 10 January 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Chang, Andrei (3 March 2008), Satellite Images Provide Insight Into Chinese Ballistic Missile Submarine Capabilities,, archived from the original on 30 August 2008 
  10. ^ Subranamiam, T.S. (26 July 2009). "Nuclear submarine all set to enter waters". The Hindu. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  11. ^ "India set to launch home-built nuclear submarine". Vancouver Sun. 2012-08-10. Retrieved 2012-08-21. 
  12. ^ "Q&A: Trident replacement". BBC News. 11 November 2006. Archived from the original on 7 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-01. 
  13. ^ "The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent" (PDF). Ministry of Defence. 4 December 2006. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  14. ^ Weinberger, Sharon Weinberger Sharon (11 May 2010). "Five Big-Ticket Pentagon Programs in the Cross Hairs". Aol news. AOL Inc. Archived from the original on 14 May 2010. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  15. ^ Chavanne, Bettina. "Gates Says U.S. Navy Plans Are Unaffordable". The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Retrieved 12 May 2010. 
  16. ^ Unnithan, Sandeep (23 July 2009). "Deep impact". indiatoday. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  17. ^ "British and French nuclear submarines crash". The Sun (London). 16 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  18. ^ Allen, Peter; Kelly, Tom (17 February 2009). "British and French submarines packed with nuclear missiles collide beneath the Atlantic". London: The Daily Mail. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  19. ^ Williams, Rachel (16 February 2009). "Nuclear submarines collide in Atlantic". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-02-16. 
  20. ^ "Nuclear subs collide in Atlantic". BBC News. 16 February 2009. Retrieved 4 May 2010. 


  • Norman Friedman: U.S. Submarines since 1945. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis 1994, ISBN 978-1-55750-260-5.
  • David Miller, John Jordan: Moderne Unterseeboote. Stocker Schmid AG, Zürich 1987, 1999 (2. Auflage). ISBN 3-7276-7088-6.
  • Norman Polmar, Jurrien Noot: Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1991. ISBN 0-87021-570-1.
  • Norman Polmar, K. J. Moore: Cold War Submarines: The Design and Construction of U.S. and Soviet Submarines, 1945–2001. Potomac Books, Dulles, VA 2003. ISBN 978-1-57488-594-1.

External links[edit]

  • Video showing various SSBNs in action.