Discovering the Inner Workings of Submarines - How Does a Submarine Work?

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Submarines have always captivated our imagination, with their ability to explore the depths of the ocean. But have you ever wondered how these magnificent vessels work underwater? In this article, we will take a closer look at the inner workings of submarines and uncover the secrets behind their operation.

How does a submarine work?

Submarines are marvels of engineering, capable of operating underwater for extended periods. They enable us to explore the deep sea, conduct scientific research, and defend our coastlines. But how do submarines work? Let's dive in and find out!

Buoyancy and Ballast Systems

Submarines rely on the principle of buoyancy to control their depth underwater. By adjusting their ballast tanks, submarines can either increase or decrease their overall density. When the ballast tanks are filled with water, the submarine becomes heavier and sinks. Conversely, when the tanks are emptied of water and filled with air, the submarine becomes less dense and rises to the surface.

Trim Tanks and Submerging

To achieve a stable position underwater, submarines have trim tanks located at the bow and stern. By controlling the water level in these tanks, the submarine can maintain a desired depth and angle.

Diving and Surfacing

To dive, a submarine uses its diving planes, also known as hydroplanes. These surfaces, located on the sides and rear of the submarine, can be adjusted to control the downward or upward force. By tilting the hydroplanes downward, the submarine starts to descend. To resurface, the hydroplanes are tilted upward, generating upward lift that brings the submarine back to the surface.

Propulsion Systems

Submarines employ various propulsion systems to move efficiently underwater. These systems allow submarines to navigate silently and remain undetected.

Diesel-Electric Propulsion

Many conventional submarines use diesel-electric propulsion. Diesel engines drive generators, which produce electricity to power electric motors. These motors then drive the submarine's propellers, providing propulsion. When the submarine needs to recharge its batteries, it surfaces and runs the diesel engines.

Nuclear Propulsion

Nuclear-powered submarines use a reactor to generate heat, which produces steam to drive turbines. The turbines, in turn, generate electricity for propulsion. This technology offers extended underwater endurance and enables submarines to remain submerged for months without refueling.

Pump-Jet Propulsion

Modern submarines often incorporate pump-jet propulsion, also known as a pump-jet propulsor. This system uses a water pump to draw in water and expel it at high velocity, propelling the submarine forward. Pump jets are quieter than traditional propellers, reducing the chances of detection.

Control Systems

To maneuver and maintain stability, submarines rely on sophisticated control systems. These systems ensure precise movements and enable submarines to navigate in challenging underwater environments.

Rudder and Control Surfaces

Submarines are equipped with a rudder, located at the rear of the vessel. The rudder, along with control surfaces on the sail and the aft planes, allows the submarine to change its direction and maintain stability.

Depth Control

Achieving and maintaining the desired depth is crucial for submarines. Depth control is accomplished by adjusting the ballast tanks, using the trim tanks, and controlling the hydroplanes. These systems work together to keep the submarine at the desired depth.

Pitch, Roll, and Yaw

Submarines have the capability to control their pitch (up and down), roll (side to side), and yaw (left and right). By adjusting the ballast and using the control surfaces, submarines can achieve precise control over their movements in all directions.

Navigation and Sonar Systems

Navigating underwater poses unique challenges, but submarines are equipped with advanced navigation and sonar systems to overcome them.

Inertial Navigation Systems

Submarines utilize inertial navigation systems (INS) to determine their position and course. These systems use accelerometers and gyroscopes to measure changes in velocity and rotation, allowing the submarine to calculate its precise location.

Sonar Technology

Sonar plays a vital role in submarine operations. Submarines use active and passive sonar systems to detect other vessels, obstacles, and underwater features. Active sonar emits sound waves and listens for their reflections, while passive sonar listens for sounds emitted by other sources.

Global Positioning System (GPS)

While submerged, submarines cannot use GPS due to the inability of satellite signals to penetrate water. However, when a submarine surfaces, it can use GPS to obtain accurate positioning and update navigation data.

Life Support Systems

Submarines are self-contained environments, providing everything the crew needs to survive underwater for extended periods.

Air Purification Systems

To maintain breathable air, submarines employ air purification systems. These systems remove carbon dioxide and replenish the oxygen supply, ensuring a constant flow of fresh air for the crew.

Food and Water Supply

Submarines must store enough food and water to sustain the crew during long missions. Specialized storage areas are designed to maximize space utilization and preserve the quality of food and water.

Waste Management

Submarines have systems in place to handle waste disposal. These systems treat and process wastewater, minimizing environmental impact and maintaining a clean and hygienic environment for the crew.

Weapons and Defensive Systems

Submarines serve as powerful naval assets, equipped with a range of weapons and defensive systems.


One of the primary weapons of submarines is torpedoes. Torpedoes are self-propelled underwater missiles capable of targeting and engaging enemy vessels. They can be launched from torpedo tubes, allowing submarines to engage targets while remaining submerged.

Cruise Missiles

Certain submarines are also equipped with cruise missiles. These missiles can be launched from vertical launch systems (VLS) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) tubes, providing submarines with long-range strike capabilities.

Countermeasures and Stealth

To avoid detection and protect themselves, submarines employ various countermeasures and stealth technologies. These include acoustic and electromagnetic signature reduction, decoys, and advanced encryption systems.

Stealth Technology

Stealth is a crucial aspect of submarine operations. Submarines utilize several technologies to minimize their detectability and remain hidden underwater.

Sound Dampening and Silent Running

Submarines are designed to minimize noise, both from internal machinery and hydrodynamic sources. Sound-dampening materials and advanced engineering techniques help reduce noise levels, making submarines quieter and harder to detect.

Low Magnetic Signature

Submarines are constructed using materials and designs that reduce their magnetic signature. This minimizes the chances of detection by magnetic anomaly detectors (MAD) and magnetic mines.

Thermal and Acoustic Camouflage

To blend in with the surrounding environment, submarines use thermal and acoustic camouflage. Thermal insulation helps maintain similar temperatures to the surrounding water, while acoustic camouflage reduces the reflection of sound waves.

Maintenance and Repairs

Operating in a harsh underwater environment takes a toll on submarines, requiring regular maintenance and repairs.

Dry Docks and Maintenance Facilities

Submarines require dry docks and specialized maintenance facilities for major repairs and overhauls. Dry docks allow submarines to be dry-docked, enabling access to the hull for maintenance and inspections.

Onboard Repair Capabilities

Submarines also have onboard repair capabilities, allowing the crew to perform minor repairs while at sea. These capabilities ensure the submarine's operational readiness and reduce dependence on external repair facilities.

Communication Systems

Communication is essential for submarines to receive orders, transmit information, and maintain contact with other naval assets.

Very Low-Frequency (VLF) Communication

Submarines utilize very-low-frequency (VLF) communication systems to communicate with surface vessels and command centers. VLF signals can penetrate the ocean's depths, allowing submarines to maintain communication even when submerged.

Satellite Communication

When a submarine surfaces or is at periscope depth, it can establish communication with satellites. Satellite communication enables secure and high-bandwidth data transmission, facilitating rapid exchange of information.

Submarine Crew and Roles

A submarine operates as a tight-knit team, with each crew member performing specialized roles.

Commanding Officer (CO)

The Commanding Officer is responsible for the overall operation of the submarine. They make critical decisions, ensure the safety of the crew, and execute mission objectives.

Executive Officer (XO)

The Executive Officer assists the Commanding Officer and oversees day-to-day operations. They are responsible for managing crew assignments, maintenance, and logistics.

Officers and Enlisted Personnel

Submarines have officers and enlisted personnel who perform a variety of duties, including navigation, sonar operation, engineering, weapons systems, and culinary services.


Submarine crews maintain a continuous watch rotation. Watchstanders monitor various systems, ensuring the submarine's safe operation and readiness for any situation.

Submarine Classes and Types

Submarines come in different classes and types, each serving specific purposes and operating in unique environments.

Attack Submarines (SSN)

Attack submarines are designed for anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, and intelligence gathering. They are fast, highly maneuverable, and equipped with advanced sensor systems.

Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBN)

Ballistic missile submarines serve as a strategic deterrent. These submarines carry intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), providing a hidden platform for a second-strike capability.

Guided Missile Submarines (SSGN)

Guided missile submarines are versatile platforms capable of launching cruise missiles and conducting special operations. They can engage both surface and land targets, providing additional flexibility.

Historical Significance of Submarines

Submarines have played a significant role in naval warfare and scientific exploration throughout history.

World War I and World War II

Submarines emerged as powerful weapons during both world wars. They were used for naval blockades, anti-ship warfare, and reconnaissance missions.

Cold War

The Cold War era saw the development of nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear missiles. Submarines became integral to strategic deterrence and played a crucial role in maintaining the balance of power.

Scientific Exploration

Submarines have facilitated groundbreaking scientific discoveries, allowing researchers to explore deep-sea ecosystems, study marine life, and investigate geological formations.

Submarines in Modern Warfare

Submarines continue to be vital assets in modern warfare, offering unique capabilities and strategic advantages.

Intelligence Gathering and Surveillance

Submarines are used for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and monitoring of enemy activities. Their stealthy nature allows them to gather critical information without being detected.

Special Operations

Certain submarines are equipped to support special operations, such as covert insertions of special forces personnel or intelligence-gathering missions in hostile territories.

Maritime Security and Deterrence

Submarines contribute to maritime security by patrolling coastlines, safeguarding shipping lanes, and deterring potential aggressors. Their presence acts as a deterrent, preventing unauthorized activities in territorial waters.

Environmental Impact of Submarines

While submarines are incredible technological achievements, their operations can have environmental implications.

Underwater Noise Pollution

Submarines generate noise during their operations, which can impact marine life. Efforts are made to reduce noise levels and minimize the ecological effects on underwater habitats.

Fuel Consumption and Emissions

Conventional submarines that use diesel engines consume fuel and emit exhaust gases. However, nuclear-powered submarines produce minimal emissions, making them more environmentally friendly.

Protected Marine Areas

Strict protocols are followed to ensure submarines avoid protected marine areas and sensitive ecosystems. This helps minimize the disturbance caused to marine life and preserve delicate habitats.

Future of Submarine Technology

Submarine technology continues to evolve, with ongoing research and development driving innovation in various areas.

Advanced Materials and Construction

Advancements in materials science enable the construction of submarines with improved strength, durability, and stealth characteristics. New alloys, composites, and coatings enhance performance and reduce maintenance requirements.

Autonomous Submarines

Research is underway to develop autonomous submarines capable of performing missions without human intervention. These submarines can navigate, gather data, and carry out tasks independently.

Underwater Communication and Networking

Advancements in underwater communication technology are essential for improved communication between submarines and other naval assets. Developing efficient communication systems enhances coordination and situational awareness.


Submarines are incredible feats of engineering that allow us to explore the depths of the ocean and fulfill various military and scientific objectives. Through buoyancy and ballast systems, propulsion mechanisms, advanced control systems, navigation technology, and stealth features, submarines operate silently and efficiently underwater. As technology advances, submarines will continue to play a vital role in shaping our understanding of the oceans and securing our maritime interests.


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