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A submarine (or sub) is a watercraft capable of independent operation underwater. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability. The term is also sometimes used historically or colloquially to refer to remotely operated vehicles and robots, as well as medium-sized or smaller vessels, such as the midget submarine and the wet sub. Submarines are referred to as boats rather than ships irrespective of their size.
Although experimental submarines had been built earlier, submarine design took off during the 19th century, and they were adopted by several navies. They were first widely used during World War I (1914–1918), and are now used in many navies, large and small. Military uses include attacking enemy surface ships (merchant and military) or other submarines, and for aircraft carrier protection, blockade running, nuclear deterrence, reconnaissance, conventional land attack (for example, using a cruise missile), and covert insertion of special forces. Civilian uses include marine science, salvage, exploration, and facility inspection and maintenance. Submarines can also be modified for specialized functions such as search-and-rescue missions and undersea cable repair. They are also used in tourism and undersea archaeology. Modern deep-diving submarines derive from the bathyscaphe, which evolved from the diving bell.
Most large submarines consist of a cylindrical body with hemispherical (or conical) ends and a vertical structure, usually located amidships, that houses communications and sensing devices as well as periscopes. In modern submarines, this structure is the "sail" in American usage and "fin" in European usage. A "conning tower" was a feature of earlier designs: a separate pressure hull above the main body of the boat that allowed the use of shorter periscopes. There is a propeller (or pump jet) at the rear, and various hydrodynamic control fins. Smaller, deep-diving, and specialty submarines may deviate significantly from this traditional design. Submarines dive and resurface by means of diving planes and changing the amount of water and air in ballast tanks to affect their buoyancy.
Submarines encompass a wide range of types and capabilities. They include small autonomous examples using A-Navigation and one- or two-person subs that operate for a few hours, to vessels that can remain submerged for six months—such as the Russian Typhoon class, the biggest submarines ever built. Submarines can work at greater depths than are survivable or practical for human divers.