Submarines 1950-2000, a study in unused potential

Most weapon systems in this century of warfare have been increasingly used throughout the 100 years of combat. Certainly, land weapons and small arms have been used daily, and aircraft have seen action continuously. Navy surface ships have been engaged constantly up until the present day. Perhaps the most notable exception is the submarine, which is a tale of two halves.

It is beyond the scope of this document, but the effects of the submarine in combat in the first 50 years of this century are impressive. Thousands of submarines were lost, but many, many thousands of ships were sunk by them. Wars were won and lost in large measure because of the efforts of submarines.

England twice nearly was starved into submission by submarines. Japan was hounded into poverty by submarines. Carriers and battleships were sunk in large numbers by submarines. Fear and panic were wrought by the sudden appearance of the torpedo wake in the night. Legends were made, myths built and heroes born in the cold waters of the world's oceans.

However, in the second 50 years, from 1950 on, the submarine has seen only a handful of combat actions. This is not due to a lack of subs. Far from it, the number of submarines employed by navies has only grown, and become amazingly more deadly. Nor it is due to a lack of conflict. From 1950 to the present day, the world has seen no end to armed conflicts, many running at the same time, many involving the world's great naval powers.

It is just a quirk of timing that one of the most important military innovations in history has seen virtually no use in our modern era. No other major weapon system has been so valuable and influential, yet so underused, in the last 50 years.

This short document will give those few stories of the submarine in combat in the second half of the century. They took place in 1971, 1982, 1991 and 1999.

Of course, these are the only known actions. Who knows what deeds have been comitted under the seas that have been kept secret for years.


During the Second India-Pakistan War, two Pakistani submarines played important roles.

The most successful was the PNS Hangor. The Hangor was a French built Daphne class diesel attack boat, displacing 869 tons and armed with twelve 21.7inch torpedo tubes.

Not the Hangor, but another Pakistani Daphne class

As the Indo-Pak War was raging on land, the Hangor was sent to sea. The sub didn't find India's sole aircraft carrier, the Virkant, as it was at the moment in the North Bay of Bengal right on the other side of the Indian peninsular mass and the Pakistanis cannot but have known it. In the North Arabian Sea the Hangor ran afoul of the Indian Navy's 14th Frigate Squadron, comprising the anti-submarine frigates Khukri, Kuthar, and Kirpan.

The Khurki was a modified Blackwood class (Type 14) anti-submarine frigate, a British design transferred in 1961. It was 1,500 tons, had a good sonar set and two three-barreled Limbo ASW mortars.

Not the Khurki, but a British Blackwood class

On the night of December 9, the frigates were searching for the submarine, which they had detected off the coast of Kathaiwar. The Hangor, instead of fleeing or diving deep, decided to fight back. It fired a spread of three torpedoes at the Khukri. One struck the ship in the ammunition magazine, detonating the stored munitions.

The Khukri sank in just a few minutes, 18 officers and 176 sailors including the ship's Captain, who deliberately chose to go down with his sinking ship, lost their lives. 6 officers and 61 sailors were rescued.

The Indian Navy hunted the Hangor vigorously, but failed to find her. Over 150 depth charges were dropped in the hunt, but only once were they close enough to shake the Hangor. The submarine escaped, and the hunt was given up on December 13.

This was the sole kill by any conventionally powered submarine in the fifty year period from 1950 to 2000.

The other 1971 incident involving a Pakistani submarine did not go as well. In this action, the PNS Ghazi was sunk off Vishakhapathamn on December 3 by an Indian destroyer.

The Ghazi was formerly the USS Diablo, a Tench class diesel powered attack boat sold to Pakistan in 1964. It displaced 1,900 tons, was crewed by 82 men, and was armed with ten 21inch torpedo tubes.

The Ghazi while in US service

The Ghazi was involved in hunting the Indian carrier Virkrant the week before the Hangor tried. Acting on what later turned out to be a false tip, the Ghazi was lurking in the Bay of Bengal, near the port of Vishakhapathamn.

The whole episode is extremely murky and one wishes it was better known in the west so someone might get something done on it. Coming out of the port on the night of December 3, was the Indian destroyer INS Rajput. The destroyer was aware that a Pakistani submarine was in the area, and was on alert.

The Rajput was a British-built R-class destroyer, formerly the HMS Rotherham, constructed in 1942 and transferred to India in 1949. She weighed 1,750 tons, and was armed with guns, torpedoes, and depth charges.

A model of an R class destroyer

Shortly after leaving port, a sonar contact was reported. The destroyer arrived at the spot in time to see the disturbance in the water left behind by the sub, which had just dived. According to some reports, two depth charges were fired, but reputable sources state that the destroyer was in the process of being decomissioned and carried no depth charges at the time. Regardless, two tremendous explosions were heard, loud enough to shatter windows in coastal houses. The Rajput also was jolted.

Exactly what sank the sub is still a mystery. Many competing theories have been advanced, both by the Indians and the Pakistanis. It could have been the two depth charges, or maybe a torpedo that the sub was carrying exploded from the charges. There is another idea that the Ghazi's bow hit the seabed while it was trying to escape the Rajput's depth charges causing its own mines to blow but there again it comes up against the fact that the Rajput had no depth charges.

Regardless of the actual cause, the sub was still dead. The next morning, an Indian diving team was rushed to the area to check out the spot. The divers found the submarine wreck at a depth of about 150 feet of water. Over the next few days, divers recovered debris marked with US Navy numbers, and on the third day, they managed to open a hatch and recover one body.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union made offers to raise the submarine at their own expense, but this was turned down by the Indian government.

This was the only example of a surface ship sinking a submarine in the fifty year period from 1950 to 2000.

1982: During the Falkland Islands War between Argentina and England, there were several submarine actions.

During the conflict, two submarines of the Argentine Navy saw action. The first to see combat was the San Luis, a German-built Type 209 diesel powered attack boat. She was built in 1968, and entered Argentine service in 1974. The Type 209 displaces 1,265 tons, has a crew of 34 men, and is armed with eight 21inch torpedo tubes.

Not the San Luis, but a Type 209

The San Luis managed to avoid nearly a dozen British frigates and destroyers and maneuver into a position to fire three torpedoes at the British fleet. All three shots were from maximum range, however, and missed. The Argentine captain was rightfully afraid of the British ASW prowess. There is some doubt whether or not the British even knew they were fired upon.

The other Argentine sub, the Santa Fe, was not so lucky. She was a former US Navy GUPPY boat dating from World War II, formerly the USS Catfish. She was a Balaoclass boat built in 1944 and transferred to Argentina in 1971. She displaced 2,040 tons, had a crew of 81, and was armed with ten 21inch torpedo tubes.

The USS Catfish in 1945

On April 25, the sub was caught on the surface near the Falklands, returning from running supplies and soldiers to the beleagured garrison.

Five helicopters from the destroyer Atrium, and the frigates Brilliant and Plymouth, pounced on the Santa Fe. These were a Wessex, two Wasp and two Sea Lynx. They dropped on her one ASW torpedo, two ASW depth bombs, at least four AS.12 missiles, and thousands of machinegun bullets.

Without AA armament, the sub could fight back only with some old rifles they had onboard. These attacks damaged her enough that she had to return to port in the Falklands. She was run aground there and forced to surrender when the island was overrun. The British thought about keeping her as a war prize, but due to the damage they decided not to and sank her in Grytvyken Sound.

The most memorable and the most impressive event, however, was the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the British submarine Conqueror.

The HMS Conqueror was a Valiant class nuclear attack boat. Completed in 1970, she displaced 4,000 tons, had a crew of 103, and was armed with six 21inch torpedo tubes.

The HMS Conqueror

On May 1, the Conqueror located an Argentine task force about 235 miles southwest of the Falklands. It consisted of the aged cruiser General Belgrano (C-4) and two escorting destroyers, all three of vintage US Navy design. The destroyers were the Piedra Buena (D-29) and the Bouchard (D-26).

The General Belgrano was once the USS Phoenix, a Brooklyn class light cruiser. The Phoenix had been completed in 1938, and had served through WWII in the Pacific. Sold to Argentina in 1951, she became the strongest unit of that country's surface fleet. By 1982, the ship was in fair shape, but in need of some serious updating. At the time she was about 12,242 tons, had a crew of 1,091, and was armed with helicopters, SeaCat anti-aircraft missiles and a battery of 6inch guns.

The last photo of the Belgrano

The destroyers carried Exocet anti-ship missiles, and as such the task force was deemed a threat to the British fleet. This despite the fact that the ships were well out of the 200 mile Total Exclusion Zone set up by the British. The decision to attack went all the way up to Margaret Thatcher, who put her approval on it. The final order came on May 2.

The attack itself was fairly simple, as the Conqueror was very sophisticated system, and the Belgrano lacked even sonar.

The Conqueror fired a pattern of three torpedoes from about 2,000 meters and scored two hull hits. Her bow was severed and the cruiser sank rapidly. 368 crewmen died, 723 were saved.

The torpedoes used were the straight-running type in service since 1932. They were Mark 8 mod 4 types, each with a 800 pound warhead.

This was the first sinking of an enemy ship by a nuclear submarine in history, and so far the only one. The cruiser was also the largest warship sunk in any combat in the fifty year period from 1950 to 2000.


During the first Gulf War against Iraq, two US Navy submarines saw action.

A total of 12 Tomahawk Land Attack cruise missiles were fired against Iraqi targets from two submarines, one each in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. The two were the Los Angeles class nuclear attack boats, Louisville (SSN-724) and Pittsburgh (SSN-720). The Louisville was the first submarine ever to use the Tomahawk in combat. Other than firing these missiles, none of the subs were involved in any other combat.

The USS Louisville

The USS Pittsburgh


During operations against Serbia during the NATO effort to control the situation in Kosovo, several subs were involved.

The HMS Splendid, a Swiftsure class nuclear attack boat, fired Tomahawk Land Attack cruise missiles on March 24. This was the first British use of this weapon system in combat.

The HMS Splendid

Two American Los Angeles class nuclear attack boats also fired a number of Tomahawk TLAMs. These were the USS Miami (SSN-755) and the USS Norfolk (SSN-714).

The USS Miami

The USS Norfolk

So, as you can see, the submarine has not seen much action in the last 50 years. Compared to the first 50 years, it is rather amazing. If you have any info that i missed, please email me and i will include it.

Go back to my homepage for more good stuff, please and thank you.

Document written in July 2004 by Nathan Decker 1