A Vast Leviathan
In the frigid depths below the Arctic circle, a monster glides effortlessly through the dark water. An object larger than anything ever seen below the waves. Six times longer than a blue whale and armed to the teeth with the kind of weaponry that leads to only one thing – nuclear war. What first appeared in the 1970s, is almost gone now, but still retains its hallowed status as the largest submarine ever put to sea – and by some distance. The Soviets named it the Akula class, meaning shark. But we know it better by the name given to it by NATO – the Typhoon Class Submarine.
What rolled out of the Severodvinsk shipyard in 1979, was quite simply, a different level. The Typhoon class submarine had been designed as a direct challenger to Ohio Class of the United States. This was at the height of the cold war, with both sides frantically attempting to match each other in every way possible. The Typhoon Class submarine came to public prominence, in the west at least, thanks to the 1984 book, and 1990 film, The Hunt for the Red October, in which a brooding Soviet Captain played wonderfully by Sean Connery goes rogue. Is he defecting, or does he have his sights set on the destruction of the American east coast? I’m not going to give any more details, but it’s well worth a watch, not only as an excellent film, but as an insight into what life must have been like aboard a Typhoon Class Submarine. While the Soviets had of course kept much of the mechanical systems well under wraps, they also wanted the world to know it existed – this was all part of the psychological warfare. The Hunt for the Red October introduced the wider public to these fearsome monsters for the first time
OK, let’s take a look at the submarine itself. First of all, it was enormous. At 175 metres (574ft) it is only slightly longer than its American counterpart. While the width – or beam as us nautical folk refer to it as – is 23 metres (75ft), compared to just 13 metres (42ft) on the Ohio Class. You might not think that 10 metres makes much of a difference, but it really does. It can sometimes be difficult to compare submarines simply by looking at their length or beam, so we often focus on water displacement. This is the amount of water that the submarine effectively replaces when it is submerged. And this is where the Typhoon class stands head and shoulders above anything else. At a colossal 48,000 tons, it has a displacement of two and a half times that of the Ohio Class.
So why did the Soviet Union need such a vast leviathan of a submarine? Well there are two main reasons. We’re going to go into the weapons carried on board in more detail shortly, but let me start by saying that the missiles carried were significantly bigger than those of the Americans. Their power was roughly the same, but American engineering was ahead, at least in how compact they could make a nuclear bomb. The Typhoon class submarines needed to be enormous to accommodate the enormous bombs on board. Simple maths really.
The second reason was far less practical and certainly more ego-driven. This may have been secondary to the capacity needed, but no doubt Soviet leaders rather enjoyed the fact that this submarine was bigger than anything ever created. The cold war game of cat and mouse had so many intriguing aspects to it, but simple prestige played a huge role.
Today only one Typhoon Class Submarine, the Dmitriy Donskoy, remains in active duty. This was also the very first to be built, and currently operates as a test platform for the more modern Beluva missiles. Two further Typhoons, the Arkhangelsk and the Severstal have been held in reserve for the last 15 years.
The Cold War
Right, let’s jump back to the start. The Soviet Union had fallen slightly behind – in terms of submarines at least. The introduction of the Ohio Class submarine in the late 1970s, at a reported cost of $2 billion (adjusted for inflation), was a significant turning point for nuclear submarines. This was not a submarine designed to wage battle beneath the waves, no, this was a ballistic missile submarine capable of single-handedly wiping nations off the face earth. They were a fearsome rival and didn’t the Soviets know it.
At the time the Soviets relied heavily on the Delta Class, non-nuclear submarines. Though they would have been the envy of almost every nation around the world, the Soviets knew they needed to keep up with the Americans.
Records from the Soviet Union are always sketchy at best, but when it came to the production of weaponry, it remained a closely guarded secret. We believe it was 1979 when the first Typhoon class submarine left the shipyard to begin live testing, and was officially commissioned in 1981.
Much of what the Typhoons did with their time we will simply never know because it’s all classified. Perhaps luckily for everybody, the 1980s saw the beginning of the end of the cold war. The days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world apparently teetered on the edge of nuclear war, were thankfully long gone. While both the Soviets and the Americans needed to still strut their stuff and flex their mighty muscles every now and again, change was in the air. In 1986 at the Reykjavik summit, U.S President Ronald Reagon and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev began a series of steps that would limit the number of nuclear weapons held in both countries. On 31st July 1991, they signed the START 1 treaty limiting both countries to only 6,000 nuclear warheads atop a maximum of 1,600 intercontinental missiles. Let’s be very clear here, that’s still enough to destroy the world many times over, but I guess it was the symbolism that counted.
Just under five months later, on December 25th 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. So what did this mean for these dreadnaughts of the seas? Well, at first, very little. As a new Russia stepped forward, it needed to retain its impressive submarines. But it quickly became apparent that the need for such submarines was coming to an end.
One slightly odd fact about the arms reduction treaties, was that when the first Typhoon was withdrawn from duty in 1999 and scrapped shortly after, it was done so with the financial aid of the United States. Yes, Russia’s old foe was now effectively paying to help remove its most terrifying weaponry.
The Shark/Typhoon was a submarine that could remain submerged for 120 days, and even longer when absolutely necessary. But despite its girth, life was still cramped within this metal shell. There were however some surprising additions that would have made these long dives a little more manageable. Each submarine came with a small swimming pool, sauna and gym. And when I say a swimming pool, I mean a 2-metre long pool, so you’re not really doing any laps in it. But plunging into cold war after a sauna has always been a much loved Russian tradition, so why the hell not.
Unlike most other submarines, the Typhoon class had two central pressurized hulls instead of just one, with three smaller above them, one for the torpedo room at the front, one in the middle for the control room, and one at the back for the rudder machinery. The two main pressurized hulls were a unique design, and each housed one reactor and one turbine, which would enable the submarine to continue operating if one hull was compromised and needed to be locked down. But this was a design forced upon them by the vast size of the missiles that were to be carried. It would have been simply impossible for a Delta Class submarine to carry what the Typhoons did.
It certainly was a big boy, but its size really wasn’t what NATO was worried about when this submarine appeared. As I said earlier, this was a ballistic missile submarine. Not particularly fast or agile – this was not the attack class submarines that both the Soviets and the Americans were using. While it certainly had the capabilities to defend itself if attacked underwater, its primary use was to act as a mobile nuclear launchpad, capable of punching through thick ice, firing its missiles off quickly, before disappearing again below with little trace.
Now, I’ve spoken a lot about the size of this submarine, and much of it is because of 20 R-39s (known to NATO as SS-N-20 Sturgeon) each with 10 nuclear warheads. This was an intercontinental missile with a fearsome reputation. Weighing 75 tons each, with a length of 16 metres and diameter of 2.4 metres (7.9 ft), you begin to understand why this was the biggest submarine ever constructed. These missiles had a maximum range of 5,200 miles (8,300km), and had blast yield of between 100 and 200 kilotons. Each warhead alone was 5-10 times more powerful than what was dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II – and there were 200 of them.
Now if ending the world wasn’t enough, it also came with 6 torpedo tubes, with a casual 22 torpedoes on the submarine if underwater combat was required.
Now, not only did these submarines carry an Arsenal capable of destroying significant portions of the world, the engines themselves were nuclear.
The Typhoon class submarines ran on two OK-659vv pressurized nuclear reactors, using 20-45% enriched uranium, which in turn powered two VV type steam turbines which could each produce 37 MW of power. This total of 74 MW would be enough to power 7,400 homes in New York City. The submarine could travel at a reported maximum speed of 22.22 knots, 25.57 mph (41.15 km/h) while on the surface, and 27 knots 31 mph (50 km/h) when submerged. I said, reported there because official speeds have never been released by the Soviets or Russians. But if these are roughly accurate it would make it slightly faster than the American Ohio Class submarines.
Moments From Disaster
There is one story, in particular, involving a Typhoon submarine that has almost passed into legend at this point, but remains frustratingly underreported. In September 1991, TK-17, known as Arkhangelsk was ordered to execute a test launch of one of its R-39s – without the nuclear weapons of course. Captain Igor Grishkov ordered his submarine into the White Sea, close to the Finnish border, and set coordinates for a target thousands of miles away on the Chukotka Peninsula.
This was nothing more than a routine manoeuvre, and one that this submarine had done many times before. As the countdown reached 1, it’s fair to assume that nobody on board had any inkling as to what was about to happen. Instead of the swoosh of a missile soaring to the surface, zero was greeted with the worst possible noise a submariner can hear. An explosion rocked the submarine, alarms began blaring frantically. Now you don’t need me to tell you that being on board a submerged submarine after an explosion must be hell. Doing so while also carrying two nuclear reactors and live nuclear warheads, would not only be catastrophic for the crew. It could also spell doom for the surrounding area.
Captain Grishkov ordered the ballast tanks to be blown, an emergency system that shoots the submarine quickly to the surface. At this point, the full damage was not known, but after surfacing the crew were able to assess the carnage by simply looking down the submarine from the open hatch. It was not a pretty sight.
Several fires were raging towards the bow, unfortunately exactly where the other nineteen R-39s still sat. Instead of launching, the missile had partially exploded within its tube, and its rocket fuel was quickly spreading across the surface of the boat.
Now, spare a thought for Captain Grishkov at this point. You have a closely guarded state secret under your control, which is now on fire. Flames that were quickly moving towards the nuclear reactors and weapons on board. It wasn’t clear how many had died already, but the fate of the remaining 160 men lay in his hands, along with the unimaginable fear of several nuclear explosions.
His actions that day remain some of the most courageous and quick-thinking by a captain you are ever likely to see. With a gaping hole in the submarine, the worst possible course of action would be to dive, right? If you punch a hole in a heavy object and put it in water, it will usually sink. But Captain Grishkov was thinking differently.
To the disbelief of the crew, he ordered the submarine to dive once again, and warned those in the front hull to expect flooding. With extraordinary skill and courage, the crew of the Arkhangelsk carried out his order perfectly and guided the stricken submarine beneath the surface once again. When the submarine resurfaced moments later, the fires had been extinguished. Still in serious danger, the Arkhangelsk managed to limp home and the threat of nuclear disaster eventually disappeared.
Many throughout the Soviet Navy felt Captain Grishkov should be commended for his extraordinary quick thinking, but he never was. This was a very politically sensitive time in the Soviet Union, coming just a month after the failed coup against Mikhael Gorbachev. The missile test had been planned to demonstrate an air of normality, but such a close call was not the kind of event the Soviets wished to publicize, and it was quickly swept under the carpet. Captain Igor Grishkov died in 2018, aged 67, his heroic actions still shrouded in secrecy.
As Big As It Gets?
So we know that only one of these titans remains in active service. But have we seen the last of this type of mega submarine? This is, of course, difficult to predict, but right now it seems unlikely. The Typhoon class submarines were designed to carry the kind of weapons that just don’t exist anymore. Nuclear missiles are significantly more compact today, so something of that size really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Not only in terms of size but that level of competition is no longer a factor. Yes, the Soviets needed something of that size to carry that amount of weaponry, but as I said earlier, I suspect the title of the largest submarine in the world was a big draw to them. We have moved from the age of enormous weaponry to something much more discreet. Where stealth and speed is much more important than size.
The Typhoon Class Submarines may have entered the world at the only time when the technology and political drive was there to do so. Another reason they began to fall out of favour, was the huge costs associated not just with building them, but with general upkeep. Their replacement, the Borei Class Submarines, cost about half as much, and still pack a hell of a punch. In recent years murmurs have emanated from the Kremlin about refitting the Dmitriy Donskoy for modern use, but this remains to be seen.
The days of the Typhoon Class might soon be over, and we may never see the likes of it again. If you can forget the fact that they were essentially designed to destroy the world, we can only marvel at such creations. War has a habit of pushing humanity to unimaginable heights, and what lurked menacingly deep in the oceans during the 80’s and 90’s, in particular, was exactly that.