Typhoon class: why Russia built the largest submarine ever


The Typhoon class, a brief history – fans of The Hunt for Red Octoberif the original bestselling novel by the late great Tom Clancy (RIP) and/or the blockbuster film adaptation featuring the late Oscar winner Mr. Sean Connery (RIP again) are bound to be at least somewhat familiar with the enormous Soviet-designed “Typhoon” class killer submarine. The Typhoon-class boat also features prominently in a Clancy’s lesser-known novel, SSN – co-authored with Martin Greenberg in 2000 – in which Mr Clancy insisted on the difficulty of sinking this particular brand of Russian submarine due to its double pressure hulls constructed from titanium. However, as factual as Tom Clancy’s novels are, they’re still fiction, so now let’s dive deeper (yes, bad underwater pun) into the true facts and history of this submerged monster.

Typhoon class: the whale shark of the Soviets

The Soviets officially designated this ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) as Project 941 Akula (“Shark”), “Typhoon-Class” is the NATO code name. To make things more semantically confusing – especially for submarine cinephiles – NATO, for its part, applied “Akula” as a code name for the various classes of Soviet submarines, the Project 971 Shchuka-B (“Pike”) nuclear hunter-killer submarine (SSN); just to clarify, it’s this last type of “Akula» submarine that fights with the fictional crew of the USS Alabama (SSBN-731) in the 1995 movie Crimson Tide with Oscar winners Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington. For further differentiation, the Typhoon class is the older of the two classes, first built in 1976 while the “Pike” was first built in 1983.

Project 941 was designed as the successor to the Delta-class submarines (Project 667B series consisting of four variants). A total of six Typhoons were built between 1976 and 1989, with a seventh specimen planned but ultimately cancelled. It ended like largest class of submarines ever built, tipping the proverbial scales at 48,000 tons of displacement. The class of submarines are almost two football fields long at 174.9 meters (574 feet), best to house its 160-man crew while remaining submerged for up to 120 days at a time. The huge boats could cross water at a speed of 12 to 16 knots on the surface and 25 to 27 knots when submerged.

Weapons payload was also impressive: four 533 mm (21 in) torpedoes forward and two 650 mm (26 in) torpedoes aft, and most importantly, a capacity of 20 RSM-52 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Typhoons were built in response to the United States Ohio-to classify guided missile submarines (SSGN), which weighed only a displacement of 19,000 tons. This greater than 2:1 size disparity is explained by my 19FortyFive colleague Caleb Larson:

“According to the US Naval Institute, this huge disparity in size between US and Soviet/Russian missiles is due to differences in plastics maturity of the industry, which in the United States was able to create both plastic toys for children, as well as important binders for components of solid-fuel missiles.

Party privileges?

Submarine duty is not for the faint of heart or the claustrophobic, like any submariner worth their salt its salt knows. For U.S. submariners, one of the main incentives in place to at least partially alleviate these difficulties is what would be the best US Navy chow. But the Soviet typhoon/Akula took incentives and conveniences to a whole new level, downright shocking to the military of a country that boasted of so-called proletarian egalitarianism (not to mention the Party privileges “Do as we say, not as we say let’s do Elite Nomenklatura of the USSR of course): not only a gym but a swimming pool and even a sauna! Be warned, the pools are only 2 meters (6.5 feet) deep and preclude diving and swimming laps, but hey, beggars can’t choose, especially when the host boat is submerged to the maximum depth of 500 meters.

The Typhoon class towards retirement?

Alas, for today’s aspiring Russian submariners, the opportunities to take advantage of these additional underwater perks are becoming increasingly rare. Only one Typhoon/Akula remains in active service, i.e. the Dmitry Donskoy (named after a 14th century Moscow prince), with two others in a state of immobilization and three completely disused. Since 2008, these mechanical sea monsters have been slowly but steadily replaced by Borei-class submarines.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (Terrorism Studies Concentration) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of United States Naval Order (WE).

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