U.S. Submarines Classes Explained

U.S. Submarines Classes

America has produced some of the world’s most iconic and storied submarines.


From the sleek, deep-diving nuclear boomers like the USS Triton to the diesel-electric fleet submarines that inspired tales of terror throughout World War II, it’s no wonder that so many American subs have become beloved cultural touchstones.

We’ve compiled a list of all  U.S. submarines classes below, including their lengths, depths, number of boats built, and more!

Look to learn more about some of America’s most famous undersea vessels!

USS Alligator (1862)

The first submarine class in the United States was the Alligator class. These seven submarines were built in 1862 and served in the American Civil War. They were used for harbor defense and blockade running. 

It included many features that submarines of the early 20th century would exhibit, such as a conning tower, ballast tanks, and deck guns.

The only surviving example is USS Cachalot (SS-170), on display at the Charleston Museum, North Charleston, South Carolina. USS Pampanito (SS-383): A Balao-class submarine that saw service during World War II and remains active today with the Mexican Navy

USS Holland (SS-1)

 The first official US submarine was the USS Holland (SS-1). Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland designed her. The unique thing about her was that the US Navy bought her– all other submarines at the time were privately owned. 

After the success of Holland, the US government decided to build more submarines. The next class of submarines was the A-boats, much larger than the Holland. There were a total of six A-boats built, and they served in both World Wars. 

The most recent class of submarines is the Virginia class, which entered service in 2004. These subs are nuclear-powered and have a crew of 134. They are considered some of the world’s most advanced  U.S. submarines classes.

USS Plunger (SS-2) Class

The first class of US submarines was the Plunger class, designed by John Philip Holland and built by Electric Boat Company.

These seven boats were relatively small, had a crew of only 14, and could stay submerged for only about an hour. They were armed with two 18-inch (457 mm) torpedo tubes.

In 1903 USS Plunger became the second submarine in history to sink another ship when it attacked and sank HIJMS Shinano during the Russo-Japanese War. The submarine

torpedo boat also served as a training ship for the crews of new submersibles emerging from the builder’s yard. It was scrapped in 1908. The other six boats were broken up by 1907.

USS K-1 (SS-3) Class

This class comprised two submarines ordered from Fore River Shipbuilding Company and built under Holland’s supervision at his expense. This is because he believed that Navy yards could not build modern submarines. The K-1 was scrapped in 1916, and SS-3 was broken up for scrap in 1920. 

USS F-1 (SS-2) Class

Cramp & Sons of Philadelphia built a total of three boats. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard completed these two. This happened after a fire at Cramp’s shipyard destroyed their building ways, where they had been launched.


The first Gato-class submarine was USS Gato (SS-212), commissioned on 25 August 1941. She was the lead boat of her class, which was designed as an improvement over the earlier Tambor and Salmon classes. 

The Gatos were one of the  U.S. submarines classes that are larger. It had a more powerful torpedo armament than the earlier classes. They served with distinction in World War II, and many were still in service in the 1950s.  

Also, it was commissioned on May 12th, 1943, and served until 1946, when it was decommissioned. It saw action during operations off North Africa and Europe as well as in the Eastern Pacific against Japanese targets. It sank two ships totaling 7100 tons and damaged three others totaling 2700 tons.


The Balao class was a successful design of World War II German submarines. The lead boat, USS Balao (SS-285), was commissioned in 1942 and served as the prototype for the class.

A total of 115 boats were built in nine shipyards. The class was large, with an overall length of just over 311 feet (95 meters) and a beam of 27 feet (8.2 meters).

The Balao class was the workhorse of the US submarine force in World War II, with 77 boats lost during the conflict.

The class continued in service after the war, with many boats serving during the Cold War. In total, 18 boats were lost during the Cold War, with the last boat decommissioning in 1990.


The first purpose-built class of submarines for the US Navy, the Tench class, was designed to operate in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Thirty-one boats were built, and all but one saw action during the war.

The Tench class improved over earlier classes, with a more streamlined hull and better range and speed. All boats in the class were decommissioned by the early 1960s.

Its streamlined hull made it special, which meant it could go faster than other subs with a rounder shape. It also had better range and longer trips away from the base. 

With these abilities, the tench could serve as a defensive patrol boat and an offensive attack boat. It’s not hard to see why this sub would be a well-suited service in the Pacific theater!


The Permit class is a class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines in service with the United States Navy. The class was designed in the late 1970s to replace the aging Sturgeon-class submarines.

The lead boat of the  U.S. submarines classes, USS Narwhal, was commissioned in 1981. As of 2017, all 33 boats of the Permit class are still in active service. 

The Permit-class submarines are armed with Mark 48 torpedoes and can also carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles. They are among the quietest and most advanced submarines in the world.


The first class of  U.S. submarines classes was the Snook, launched in 1945. The Snook was designed to be a smaller and more maneuverable vessel than its predecessors, and it was armed with four torpedo tubes and one deck gun.

The Snook class was followed by the Sturgeon class, commissioned in 1959. The Sturgeon class was larger and had more firepower than the Snook, with six torpedo tubes and two deck guns.


The Pargo class consisted of seven diesel-electric submarines built for the United States Navy during World War II. The first class boat, USS Pargo (SS-264), was commissioned on 1 April 1945.

The other six boats were all decommissioned by the end of 1946. The Electric Boat Company built all seven boats in Groton, Connecticut

Pargo was special because of its certain features that are not seen in any other US sub-class. One feature is that it has four torpedo tubes mounted externally, two amidships, and two aft of the conning tower.

This means it can use stern firing torpedoes and ones that fire off the bow like most US subs do. It also has an Aqua Jet system which propels water into an aircraft engine cooling radiator with such force that it blows back out and increases speed while reducing drag. 

In addition, they could even propel water into jet engine turbine blades to slow them down. Also, stop them altogether if necessary when submerged at high speeds or stationary to prevent cavitation or boiling caused by their speed.


The Porpoise class was the first truly successful diesel-electric submarine class in the US Navy. These boats were larger than the preceding Gato and Balao classes, with more powerful engines and electric motors. 

They also had a better sonar suite and greater range. The Porpoise class boats were in service for over two decades and saw action in several conflicts, including the Vietnam War.

The actions included capturing one of three North Vietnamese cargo ships that attempted to run the blockade on 4 May 1972.


The Oscar class was similar to the earlier Permit (SS-178) and Sargo (SS-188) classes. They were one of the  U.S. submarines classes built primarily for coastal defense duties during World War II.

Built as a stopgap measure until new build submarines became available after WWII. These submarines served as underwater battleships against Japan in 1944.

They laid mines at Okinawa and participated in Operation Barney – an offensive operation off Honshu. This resulted in their sinking of four Japanese vessels totaling 24 thousand tons.


The Cachalot class was a diesel-electric attack submarine that served the United States Navy during World War II and the Cold War. They were the first  U.S. submarines classes designed with the sole purpose of attacking enemy ships and submarines. 

The class was named after the cachalot or sperm whale.  The Sturgeon and Thresher classes succeeded the Cachalot class. 

Due to its specifications, it made history in world war 2. This is because it was the type of submarine used in the last mission against Japan.

During the early 1960s, these boats were gradually taken out of service and replaced by Los Angeles-class submarines. A total of 28 boats were built. One was lost in an accident at sea in 1946. Of those remaining, eight remained in commission as late as 1975.


The Barbel class was the first among  U.S. submarines classes built for attack for the United States Navy. It served from 1948 until 1968. The class was designed to operate in the relatively shallow waters of the littoral zone. 

They could stay submerged for up to two weeks at a time and reach speeds of up to 20 knots (37 km/h). The Sturgeon class succeeded the Barbel class.


The Greenling class was a class of diesel-electric submarines in service with the United States Navy from 1950 to 1970. The class was designed for use in the Cold War and saw action in the Korean War and Vietnam War. The class was equipped with eight torpedo tubes and could carry 24 torpedoes. 

The Greenling class was equipped with two 3/50 caliber deck guns, one forward and one aft. It had four torpedo tubes on the bow, two per side, used primarily for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). 

They also had a 5/25 caliber deck gun on the aft deck. The first ship of this class was launched in 1950, making it one of the first post-World War II U.S. submarine classes built after President Truman’s 1949. A directive to form a modern fleet consisting of conventional and nuclear vessels.


The Growler class was a diesel-electric attack submarine (SSK) in service with the United States Navy from 1959 to 1989. The class was designed to operate in the shallow waters of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. 

The lead boat of the class, USS Growler (SSG-577), was commissioned on 9 September 1959. The last boat of the class, USS Gurnard (SSN-662), was decommissioned on 25 March 1989. 

Growler-class submarines made 33 deployments to the Mediterranean Sea and 11 to the North Atlantic during their careers. 

They also participated in several operations and exercises, including Operation Crossroads, Operation Polaris, and Exercise Purple Star. Four Growlers were lost during these 33 deployments.

SSG-574 was sunk by an Iraqi torpedo on 19 June 1987; SSG-572 was mined off Haifa, Israel, on 1 November 1967. Also,  SSC-614 sank after colliding with the carrier USS Guam (CVB-9) off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 5 October 1968.

Lastly, SSR-509 sank after being rammed by another submarine off San Diego, California, on 16 January 1968. A successor class to the old Growlers is currently under development for deployment by 2023.


In 1960, a new Blueback class SSN design began. These nuclear submarines (later named Triumph class in 1962) were a development of earlier Skipjack-class vessels (SSN-585 through 591). The primary improvement was the longer range due to greater fuel capacity. 

A secondary improvement was greater weapons payload. In 1967, seven boats were canceled, and all were completed by 1974.

Some saw service as highly successful oceanographic research vessels. They were decommissioned between 1989 and 1992. In 1960, a new Blueback class SSN design began.

Juliett OO Class

The Juliett class was a class of diesel-electric attack submarines originally built for the Soviet Navy and its allies. The class was designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The first vessel was commissioned in 1963 and the last decommissioned in 1996. A total of 78 submarines were built.

Its features allowed it to make history. The new design incorporated a series of technical innovations which allowed it to be larger and quieter than previous Soviet subs, making them among the most advanced conventional  U.S. submarines classes in service at that time. 

These included noise reduction features such as anechoic tiles, hydrophones with narrow beam patterns, rudders that produced little wake, double hulls, etc.

These helped make this one of the quietest diesel-electric submarines ever built -quieter than many nuclear-powered subs.

Skipjack Class

The Skipjack class was among the first class of nuclear  U.S. submarines classes in the United States Navy. Also the fastest submarine in the world at the time. They were designed to attack Soviet Union surface ships and submarines. 

The USS Nautilus (SSN-571) lead boat was commissioned in 1955. Thirteen boats were built in total: six were lost in accidents, and seven were retired by 1989.

Parche Class

The Parche class is one of the  U.S. submarines classes Navy nuclear attack submarines. The class was developed in the 1970s as a successor to the Sturgeon class and consisted of ten boats. The first boat, USS Parche (SSN-683), was commissioned in 1974. 

The Parche class is powered by an S6W nuclear reactor and can reach speeds of over 35 knots (40 mph; 65 km/h). The boats are armed with four torpedo tubes and can carry up to 50 torpedoes or Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

The Parche class was designed for long-term operations in the ocean’s deep waters and has been used for intelligence gathering and special operations missions.

Sargo Class

The Sargo-class submarines were the first to be designed and built after World War II. They were designed with the needs of the Cold War in mind and were the first to be equipped with nuclear missiles. The class was retired in the 1990s.

It was designed for long-term operations in the ocean’s deep waters and has been used for intelligence gathering and special operations missions.

It is a small but very versatile vessel that can go on stealthy spy missions and use its torpedoes or launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against land targets.

Seawolf Class

The Seawolf class is a class of nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSN) in service with the United States Navy. The class was designed for extended warfighting capabilities and improved stealth. 

USS Seawolf (SSN-21), the lead ship of her class, was commissioned on 30 September 1995. The last ship of the class, USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23), was commissioned on 4 October 2004. 

The Seawolf class was designed to be much quieter than the previous Los Angeles-class submarines, making them more difficult to detect and giving them a better chance of surviving an enemy attack.

They are also equipped with torpedoes and Tomahawk cruise missiles to attack surface ships and land targets.

Sturgeon Class

The Sturgeon class was the last class of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) in service with the United States Navy. They were designed in the late 1960s to counter the Soviet Union’s growing anti-submarine warfare capability.  

They made history as the fastest, deepest diving, and most heavily armed of any American submarine before or since.

There are only two units left, and these are currently stationed at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington State. It is scheduled for decommissioning in 2020 or 2021.

Skate Class

The Skate class is among the smallest and most numerous diesel-electric  U.S. submarines classes in the United States Navy. The class was designed with a small crew and a low acoustic signature. The first class submarine, USS Skate (SSN-578), was commissioned in 1957. 

Tomahawk Class

The Tomahawk class is the newest class of submarines in the US Navy. These submarines are designed for stealth and speed and are equipped with the latest sonar and weapons technology. Tomahawk class submarines are the largest in the US Navy and can stay submerged for up to three months.

Its specifications include 16 torpedo tubes, which carry MK 48 torpedoes or UGM-84A Harpoon missiles; four 533 mm torpedo tubes used by Mk 49 torpedoes.

Also, one 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tube carries MK 50 torpedoes. Lastly, an eight-cell vertical launch system carries either RUM-139 VL ASROC or RUM-162 ESSM missiles.


The US has many submarines that perform various tasks depending on their mission. Some of these include ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), cruise missile submarines (SSGN), guided missile submarines (SSGN), attack submarines (SSN), guided missile attack submarines (SSN), and special operations submarines (SOS).  

However, they have many to select from to perform any task possible. All these  U.S. submarines classes are essential to the US Navy’s submarine force and contribute to its strength and effectiveness. U.S. Submarines Classes

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