Reader Questions

Reader Question: Submarines

Reader elimik asks:

Why do modern submarines have round bows instead of pointy ones, like the early WWII ones?

Interestingly, there are more factors that affect this design choice than I originally thought! Perhaps the biggest factor, though, is propulsion. Although early submarines ran through several forms of propulsion from human power to steam, by World War II many subs were driven by diesel-power on the surface and relied on battery power when submerged. Power limitations meant that submarines of that era did most of their travel while at the surface, not underwater. As a result, the ships had better control and decreased drag with a pointed bow similar to that of a surface ship. It wasn’t until the advent of the nuclear-powered submarine that it became practical for submarines to spend most of their time submerged. Once fully-underwater travel was feasible (and, indeed, preferable), many subs transitioned to a blunter, rounded bow that’s more hydrodynamic underwater–and simultaneously more problematic control-wise when moving on the surface.

Another factor separating WW-era submarines and modern subs is the depth to which they submerge. The deeper a submarine dives, the greater the pressure it must withstand. Rounded or cylindrical shapes make much better pressure vessels because they distribute pressure evenly around a surface. Historically, many subs have balanced control and hydrodynamics against pressure requirements by having two hulls, an outer one for cutting through surface waters and an inner cylindrical one that bears the brunt of the hydrostatic pressure. As we developed stronger materials, though, submarines have achieved greater depths. The German Type VII submarine, the most common U-boat of WWII, had a test depth of 230 m, whereas today’s Los-Angeles-class U.S. submarine can operate at 290 m. (Each 10 meters of depth adds about one atmosphere’s worth of pressure.) The combination of nuclear power for subsurface propulsion and stronger materials that allow deeper dives enables many modern submarines to have a single hull–the rounded hydrodynamic and pressure-resistant bow we commonly see.  (Image credits: U534 by P. Adams and USS George Washington by U.S. Navy)

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