Oftentimes, and especially by rank amateurs, submarines’ quality is measured by just one criterion: noise level. While it’s critical (as it determines its stealthiness), it isn’t by any means the sole criterion. Being stealthy does not make a submarine completely invincible; conversely, being noisy doesn’t automatically doom a sub to being sunk. A lot of other factors are in play, including the submarine crew’s training and competence, the tactics adopted by its skipper, and the quality of the opposing force (both materiel and men).
That being said, one can make a careful comparison of the nuclear powered submarines of the US, Russian, Chinese, British, and French navies, to the extent data is publicly available. Based on the data that IS available, I’m offering this simple comparison of these submarines based on noise levels, maximum depth, and speed. All of these criteria are crucial for submarine survival and capability; it doesn’t matter if you can detect an enemy submarine if it can outrun you and escape.
The following graph was published in 1997 by the Office of Naval Intelligence – the US Navy’s intelligence arm.
A word of caution is on order: any ONI publications or data must be treated very skeptically. The ONI is also known as the US Navy’s propaganda arm. It routinely overestimates and exaggerates the USN’s capabilities and dramatically underestimates that of its adversaries. Moreover, it can’t even get basic facts right: for example, it calls the Vanguard class “SSNs”, i.e. attack submarines, when they are in fact ballistic missile subs, and includes them in a noise comparison of other attack submarines. No professional organization would make such a mistake.
The above ONI graph shows that when the Improved Akulas entered service in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to the milling equipment sold to the USSR by Japan, they were quieter than the Improved Los Angeles (688I) class. So will be the Severodvisnk class SSGNs the Russian Navy is now building. The US Navy has been forced to respond by building first Seawolf-class and then Virginia-class (NSSN) submarines. By contrast, the Chinese Navy’s Type 091 Han class and Type 093 Shang class were found in 1997 to be very noisy – but that is very old (18 year old) data. The PLAN is now building a newer, much quieter variant of the Type 093 Shang class – as well as the even newer and quieter Type 095 class.
As stated above, it doesn’t matter how noisy the enemy submarine is if it can run fast enough to escape its predators.
The Seawolf and Virginia classes are Fast Attack Submarine classes, that is, the vessels which make them up can run fast when submerged (at a speed of up to 35 knots), one of the fastest in the world. The LA class is slower: officially, it can run only at speeds “over 20 knots” (the exact speed is classified), but reportedly, it can do up to 33 knots.
Which puts it at rough parity with the older Victor and Sierra classes of Soviet attack submarines and the Oscar class of SSGNs, all which can run at 32 knots maximum, but at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Akula and Yasen classes, which can do as many as 35 knots. The Chinese Type 093 Shang class also comes somewhat short, at 30 knots maximum, although the newest Chinese SSN class, the Type 095, can run at over 30 knots (how many exactly is classified). On par with all these classes is their British contemporary, the late 1970s Trafalgar class, which can run at up to 32 knots (surprisingly, the newest British SSN class, the Astute class, can run at only 30 knots).
France is at a great disadvantage vis-a-vis the rest of the club – her Rubis class of SSNs has a max speed of “over 25 knots”, but it isn’t known how many. The newest French class of SSNs – Barracuda – will have the same max speed. This suggests speed is not a priority for the French SSN fleet.
Another important criterion – which indicates a submarine’s survivability as well as its possible range of missions – is the maximum depth at which it can operate. Here, the Russian Navy holds an overwhelming, outsized edge over the US Navy – and everyone else in the world, for that matter.
Data is not available for the Chinese Navy, but for the other navies’ submarine classes, maximum depths are as follows:
Yasen class: 600 m (2,000 ft)
Akula class: 600 m (2,000 ft)
Borei class: 450 m (1400 ft) (test depth)
Los Angeles class: 290 m (950 ft)
Seawolf class: unknown
Virginia class: 240 m (800+ ft)
Sturgeon class: 400 m (1,320 ft)
Astute class: over 300 m (test depth)