The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Project 941 Akula / TYPHOON

The Typhoon was the world's largest submarine, a size resulting not simply from Russian entrancement with the stupendous but also from specific mission requirements. Form follows function. During the Cold War Soviet submarines prowled the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. As the missile these submarines carried achieved longer ranges, eventually they did not even have to submerge or go to sea to launch their long-range missiles. They were able to do so tied up at their docks, where they were an inviting target for an American strike.

Soviet nuclear capabilities evolved in a distinctively different ways from that of the United States. The evolution of the Soviet Union's fleet of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is a clear example of this difference. In both weapons design and deployment, the Soviet force displayed a logical progression towards the creation of a secure strategic reserve, withheld physically and operationally to provide intra-war deterrence.

  1. Early Soviet ballistic and and strategic cruise missile submarines [eg Hotel and Yankee] lurked hundreds of miles of American coasts, within striking range of their missiles. To be available for immediate strikes, patrol areas were limited to forward areas, subject to hostile Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) forces. These boats had to transit waters patrolled by U.S. and Allied ASW forces, notably the the Greenland- Iceland- UK Gap [the fabled GIUK gap], where they could be detected and trailed. Faced with superior Western ASW capability, the survivability of the Yankee class could not be guaranteed. The boats on "forward patrol" were faced with the choice of "using or losing" their missiles.
  2. Subsequent Soviet ballistic missile submarines of the Delta classes carried longer-range missiles that could be launched from patrol areas within the Sea of Okhotsk and the Arctic Ocean north of the GIUK Gap. Within these bastions, Soviet submarines, surface ships and land based aviation planned to defeat American ASW forces entering the bastions. This was in contrast to the American practice, which used the longer range of Trident missiles to scatter ballistic missile submarines across the 30 million square miles of water of the World Ocean.
  3. Ultimately, the Soviets hoped that the cover of the Arctic ice pack would defeat American aviation and surface ASW forces, and give excellent Soviet attack submarines a fighting chance of destroying American attack submarines before they could destroy Soviet boomers.

In the 1980s the extent to which the Soviet navy had committed its general purpose forces to a "pro-SSBN" mission aroused controversy. Jan S. Breemer was in the minority that argued that adequate evidence for the wartime existence of the bastions was lacking. But Michael MccGwire pointed out that the plethora of Soviet surface ships built since 1965 through the late 1970s had a strong ASW orientation. MccGwire initially attributed the new generation of ASW combatants to a Soviet "anti-SSBN" mission, but subsequently concluded that the new classes embodied the new "pro-SSBN" protection requirement.

The lack of explicit discussion by the Soviets on their own intentions for their SSBN force precluded definitive conclusions. But on 24 august 1981, Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral Shapiro, reported "A surprising unanimity that the Soviets will utilize a majority of their General Purposes forces to support their SSBNs in protected sanctuaries. This SSBN Bastion strategy and its associated use of SSBNs as strategic reserve forces is becoming widely accepted by key Soviet analysts, both in and out of government".

The American Seawolf class attack submarines were specifically designed to go under ice to seek out and destroy lurking Soviet submarines. The Seawolf features a strengthened sail, designed to permit operations under the polar ice cap for taking the fight to the Soviets in their own front yard. Such nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), with hulls and superstructures strengthened for under-ice operations, are well suited employment in the Arctic. US Navy SSNs based, for example, at the current submarine bases in Connecticut and Washington would have relatively short transit times to the Arctic Ocean they could be on-station in Arctic patrol areas in a matter of days due to their high-submerged transit speeds, and their endurance would enable them to remain on deployment for many weeks.

The Project 941 submarines were designed to covertly patrol under the ice, hidden from all enemies save the Seawolf, and able to punch a hole through the overlying ice and launch apocalypse at the Americans should the need arise.

The ice cover in the Arctic grows throughout the winter, before peaking in March. Melting picks up pace during the spring as the sun gets stronger, and in September the extent of the ice cover is typically only around one third of its winter maximum. First-year ice is sea ice of not more than one winter's growth, developing from young ice, with a thickness of 30 cm to 2 m. Given that older ice tends to be thicker, the sea ice cover has transformed from a strong, thick pack in the 1980s to a more fragile, younger.

Early submarine visits to the surface of the pack could pick and chose their locations to surface, typically through polynyas of open water or thin ice. First-year ice: Sea ice of not more than one winter's growth, developing from young ice, with a thickness of 30 cm to 2 m. Sea ice may grow to a thickness of between 2 to 3 meters in its first winter. Submariners fighting global thermonuclear war would not have this luxury. While their patrols could avoid the thickest zones of pack ice, mainly the Northern coasts of Canada and Greenland, where the ice can range up to 5 meters in thickness, they would have to be able to surface through at least two meters of ice, if not more. On the surface, icebreakers move through such ice by riding up on the surface of the ice, and breaking through by crushing it down. A submarine could do the same, only from the bottom up.

Reserve buoyancy refers to the difference between the surfaced and submerged displacement of a submarine. American submarines typically have a reserve buoyancy of about 10%, which means that even when surfaced, only 10 percent of the submarine is above the surface. In contrast, Soviet submarines had reserve buoyancy of 20% or thereabouts, which meant they they road much higher in the water when surfaced. The Project 941 boats, with a surface displacement of no more than 24,500 tons, and a submerged displacement of upwards of 48,000 tons, had a reserve buoyancy of 50%, which meant that half the submarine was above water when on the surface.

This tremendous reserve buoyancy was the power that the submarine used to force its way to the surface through the overlying arctic ice pack.Each submarine was capable of carrying twenty long-range ballistic missiles with up to 200 nuclear warheads that were once aimed at the United States.

There do not seem to be any photographs of a Project 941 boat operating in the ice pack. Some Russian analysts report that while it seemed like a good idea at the time, upon reaching the surface, the boat's deck remained covered in slabs of pack ice. The missile launch tube doors could not be opened to fire the missiles.

NATO apparently derived the name 'Typhoon' from a 1974 speech by Leonid Brezhnev which mentioned a new SSBN called the "Tayfun". In fact, the Russian name for the class is "Akula" -- "Shark" -- which should not be confused with NATO's "Akula" SSN (which the Russians designate as "Bars").

And the Project 941 also had a Titanium pressure hull. This fact was absent from the contemporaneous Western literature, and it is not clear when or whether Western intelligence learned of this design feature. Indeed, the .mil domain has 15,000,000 and not a single instance of the search string "'Typhoon submarine' titanium". The Amercan Wikipedia is equally innocent of this fundamental fact [ru.wikipedia mentions this in passing without comment]. The Western literature goes into some great detail about the Titanium hull Alfa-class attack submarines, and may mention in passing a few other classes. But the use of Titanium in submarine hulls is generally taken as being an aberration of the early Cold War, rather than an important design element used until the end of the Cold War.

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 16-05-2019 18:42:13 ZULU