Claims swirl over the fate of Russia’s last massive Typhoon-class submarine

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Russian state media today offered conflicting details about the status of the latest Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine in active service, the Dmitry Donskoy. Although the fate of this submarine, the largest by displacement of any existing type, is unclear, by all indications it is getting ever closer to retirement.

RIA Novosti, citing unnamed sources, was the first to report this Dmitry Donskoy, also known by its hull number TK-208, had been officially decommissioned and was heading for scrap. Anonymous sources within Russia’s state-run shipbuilding industry and the country’s security services then told TASS that this news was incorrect and that any final decision on the submarine’s future would not be made until December at the earliest.

“Recent reports of the withdrawal of Dmitry Donskoy of the Russian Navy do not correspond to reality,” said one of the TASS sources, as translated by Newsweek. “The ship is currently performing combat training duties at sea, participating in combat training activities. It will remain in combat training at least until the end of the year.”

As of this writing, there do not appear to be any official statements on this issue one way or the other from any branch of the Russian government.

Whether Dmitry Donskoy is truly out of commission for good and ready to take on the torch of the scrapyard, it would absolutely mark the end of an era for the Russian Navy. The Soviet Union built six of these submarines, officially known as Project 941 Akula class – not to be confused with Project 971 Shchuka-B class, which the US military and NATO call the Akula class – between 1976 and 1989.

The Typhoonseach powered by two 190 megawatt motors OK-650 nuclear reactors, remain the largest submarines ever built from the keel. The highly specialized special mission submarine of the Russian Navy Belgorodcurrently the longest submarine in the world at nearly 604 feet long, is a converted Project 949A Oscar II class missile submarine, as you can read more about here. But even Belgorod cannot compete with the mass of the Typhoon class boats that displace up to about 48,000 tons when submerged. For comparison, the submerged displacement of a US Navy Ohio class ballistic missile submarine, which is also 14 feet shorter than the Typhoonis about 20,664 tons, Belgorod is estimated to have a submerged displacement of between 25,000 and 30,000 tons.

Dmitry Donskoy Was the first Typhoon to enter service, being officially commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1981. Each Typhoon class submarine was originally designed to carry up to 20 R-39 Ref submarine-launched ballistic missiles, now known as RSM-52, as primary armament. Each R-39/RSM-52 can be loaded with up to 10 Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads with estimated yields between 100 and 200 kilotons. These missiles are loaded into vertical tubes in a section of the forward hull with the sail positioned, giving the design its distinctive look compared to other Soviet and now Russian ballistic missile submarines.

The Typhoons quickly became an iconic part of the Soviet Navy. A heavily modified fictional sub-variant of this submarine, named the Red Octoberwas the centerpiece of Tom Clancy’s now famous novel The Hunt for Red October. This book was later adapted into an equally famous film of the same name, starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.

In 1991, one of the real Typhoons, known at the time only by its hull number, TK-17, suffered a harrowing accident during a planned test of an unarmed R-39 missile when the weapon exploded inside its tube launch. The boat’s captain at the time, Igor Grishkov, and his crew were able to save it from sinking, as you can read more about here.

Arms control agreements with the United States, associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, as well as the economic devastation that subsequently befell Russia, led to the regular retirement of the other five Typhoons between 1996 and 2013. The Soviets had also laid down a seventh boat in 1986, which was left unfinished and eventually scrapped. TK-12 SimbirskTK-13 and TK-202 were also eliminated, but TK-17 Arkhangelsk and TK-20 Severstal still languish at the dock at the Russian Navy base in Severodvinsk.

A satellite image taken in September 2021 that shows TK-17 and TK-20 tied to a pier at the Russian Navy base in Severodvinsk. Notably, their missile tube covers have been removed, which should allow the US government to use spy satellites to regularly check that they are unarmed under various arms control agreements. Google Earth

For years now, Dmitry Donskoy has been widely used for research and development, test and evaluation, and training purposes. In particular, it was modified to fire the new ballistic missile launched by nuclear submarine RSM-56 Bulava as part of the development of this weapon. TK-208 performed the first-ever launch of an RSM-56 prototype in 2005.

More recently, independent naval analyst HI Sutton, who primarily focuses on anything military below the waves, posted satellite images on social media of what he said appears to be the Dmitry Donskoy navigate with Belgorod in the White Sea. It would not be surprising if these two massive submarines conducted testing or training activities together, which would also be in line with TASS sources saying the TK-208 is still in heavy use. The Russian Navy only announced that it had officially commissioned Belgorod put into service at the beginning of July.

It is certainly possible that the stories of RIA Novosti and TASS on Dmitry Donskoy are both technically correct. The Russian government could now be largely settled on a plan to dismantle the submarine, which is admittedly very expensive to maintain and operate, but could still iron out the details. Russian Navy hopes to field new Project 955A Borei-A class ballistic missile submarine with the name Dmitry Donskoy in 2029, which could indicate that this is a difficult deadline for the retirement of the last Typhoon. Of course, TK-208 could always be simply renamed. Still, that’s seven years for a boat that’s already the only one of its kind in operation and four decades old.

It should be noted that another an anonymous source told TASS last year that Dmitry Donskoy it was unlikely to be decommissioned for at least five years. However, that was before Russia found itself under mountain of crippling economic sanctions following its full invasion of Ukraine in February. It can only be expensive and complex to maintain this only remaining Typhoon, which has been modified in various unique ways over the years now. The three scrapped examples, along with TK-17 and TK-20, probably provided more readily available sources of spares, but over time even routine maintenance will no doubt become more complicated and expensive.

Another possibility could be that the Russian Navy will wait until the annual Navy Day celebrations in St. Petersburg, which will take place at the end of this month, to make a public announcement on Dmitry Donskoythe future. The submarine participated in the 2017 iteration of the maritime parade that accompanies this event. Warships and submarines, including Advanced Project 885 yasen class submarine Severodvinskare already gathering in the region for this year’s parade.

Either way, as underlined by the still undecided final fate of TK-17 and TK-20, which should to eventually be scrappedit is unclear what would immediately happen to the Dmitry Donskoy after any official dismantling. It takes a lot of time and money to destroy ships and submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones, as you can read more about here.

All in all, although we don’t yet know exactly what the Russian Navy’s current plans are for Dmitry Donskoy perhaps, it seems more likely than not that the submarine is at the twilight of its career. Whenever he finally retires, it will mark the end of the history of these iconic boats.

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