The modern nuclear submarine in its 3 main guises is a stealthy, capable vessel, unlike it's WW II predecessors - as those that hunt them may find to their cost...
Conventional submarines can't compete well in the open ocean due to being limited by their fuel requirements. For long range patrols, sea lane control and projection of power a nuclear submarine is what you want. The SSN is theoretically a regular SS (a conventional attack submarine), but powered by a nuclear powered steam turbine allowing it much greater endurance and thus massively increasing its tactical and strategic capabilities. In fact, without the need to return to the surface to recharge batteries or replenish oxygen (efficient 'scrubbers' recycle the air in the boat) the limit to the boat's underwater endurance is the amount of food and the psychological limits of the crew. Due to this extended endurance, and necessary increase in size, they are usually given larger weapon loads including anti-ship missiles (ASMs) than regular SSs.
SSGN is a version of the SSN which has been designed specifically to attack surface vessels with long range ASMs. They are mostly used by the communist bloc and are found in the smaller oceans (for example, the Baltic) where they are most effective.
SSBNs are the heavyweights of the submarine world and are only found in the arsenals of the large nuclear powers. Known as 'bombers' in the UK and 'boomers' in the US they serve no role in fighting other vessels (though they are equipped with torpedoes and maybe ASMs for self defence). Their purpose is to travel undetected throughout the world's oceans remaining hidden (defended by escort SSNs if necessary) until someone unfriendly presses a nuclear launch button. Then they rise from the depths and counter launch with as many multiple warhead nuclear missiles as they can before someone targets their position (from detecting their first missile launch) and counter-counter launches removing them from the face of the world ... it's a tough life!
A submarine launched cruise missile is a normal cruise missile such as Tomahawk which may have be slightly reshaped to be fitted into a waterproof capsule (encapsulated) so that it maybe launched from a torpedo tube or a specially designed vertical launch tube. the capsule floats to the surface and allows the weapon to launch itself, with the help of booster rockets, from there. They are usually used for stand-off attacks on land targets up to 500 or 600 nm (900 - 1100 km) away and use conventional warheads though, as with all cruise missiles, they may be fitted with nuclear warheads as required.
ASMs are normal sea-skimming missiles (such as the American Harpoon or French
Exocet) encapsulated as per the cruise missiles (see above) so that it may be
launched from a submarine torpedo tube. From this point on it will perform a
normal attack, hugging the waves at the height of a few meters to avoid radar
detection (though it will often be detected on launch as it boosts into the
air) on a pre-programmed course until the target is within range of its own
radar seeker. When it reaches its target where it may either pop-up and come
down through the deck or simply fly straight into the side of the ship. Other
variations on this theme modify the weapon's warhead to either launch a lightweight
torpedo during the final attack phase (avoiding the close in weapon systems
- CIWS, designed to deal with incoming ASMs) or dropping a nuclear depth charge
as exemplified by the American SUBROC weapon. These weapons usually have a 60
- 100 nm (110 - 184 km ) range and fly at subsonic speeds (Mach 0.7 - 0.8).
ASMs are not often the weapon of choice nowadays for a number of reasons:
The torpedo has been the staple weapon of submarines since WW I but it is now
a much more sophisticated and reliable device than back then. No longer a 'point
and shoot' weapon the modern torpedo is almost always wire guided with its own
sonar built in for the terminal homing run.
Propulsion is either via the traditional propeller or the more advanced pump jet, with power supplied either by large batteries or the more powerful (but not very safe to be near if it leaks) OTTO hydrogen peroxide fuel, giving a maximum speed of 50 - 65 knots (92 - 120 km/h) and a range of 10 - 15 nm (18 - 27 km) at high speeds or 20 - 30 nm (36 - 55 km) at low speeds. The 'heavyweight' torpedoes employed by submarines are about 6 - 7 m long and usually have a 250 - 350 kg warhead designed to explode on impact (best against submarine targets) or upwards from underneath the target (to 'break the back' of a surface vessel).
Though usually the province of the conventional submarines mines may still be carried by nuclear boats, as required, and dispensed through the torpedo tubes. Different types of mine may either lie on the bottom or be tethered to a certain depth and may be activated by magnetic sensor (which is why mine clearance vessels have plastic hulls) or propeller noise (usually a specific type of propeller noise programmed into the mine). Most commonly a simple explosive charge is employed to do the damage but, among the more esoteric devices, there is one mine that fires a torpedo at the target when activated !
Ballistic nuclear missiles are only carried by SSBNs and are a major part of the nuclear deterant held by capable countries over the last 40 years or more. They are typically capable of flying 2000-3000 nm and have multiple nuclear warheads (probably 3-20 of them plus penetration aids and decoys) each more powerful than the bombs that devastated Japan at the end of World War 2.
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