Project 641 (NATO Foxtrot)

The Foxtrot boats were intended as a follow-on to the Zulu class, but only 62 of an anticipated programme of 160 were completed as the change to nuclear boats took effect. These diesel-electric submarines were built at Sudomekh between 1959 and 1983 and formed the bulk of the Soviet submarine force in the Mediterranean in the 1960s and 1970s. These boats were also exported to Cuba, India and Libya.

A Foxtrot attack submarine belonging to the Cuban navy. These boats were intended to replace the earlier Zulu class derived from the German Type XXI U-boat.

A Foxtrot at speed, showing the clean lines of these submarines. The red-and-white buoy recessed into the deck forward of the sail is the tethered rescue buoy. The bow diving planes retract into the hull almost level with the long row of limber holes, which provided free flooding between the double hulls.

In the Cold War era, that commitment began with the massive submarine construction programs initiated immediately after World War II-the long-range Project 611/Zulu, the medium-range Project 613/Whiskey, and the coastal Project 615/Quebec classes. Not only did these craft serve as the foundation for the Soviet Navy’s torpedo-attack submarine force for many years, but converted Zulus and Whiskeys were also the first Soviet submarines to mount ballistic and cruise missiles, and several other ships of these designs were employed in a broad range of research and scientific endeavors.

These construction programs were terminated in the mid-1950s as part of the large-scale warship cancellations that followed dictator Josef Stalin’s death in March 1953. But the cancellations also reflected the availability of more-advanced submarine designs. Project 641 (NATO Foxtrot) would succeed the 611/Zulu as a long-range torpedo submarine, and Project 633 (NATO Romeo) would succeed the 613/Whiskey as a medium-range submarine. There would be no successor in the coastal category as the Soviet Navy increasingly undertook “blue water” operations. Early Navy planning provided for the construction of 160 Project 641/ Foxtrot submarines.

Designed by Pavel P. Pustintsev at TsKB-18 (Rubin), Project 641 was a large, good-looking submarine, 2991/2 feet (91.3 m) in length, with a surface displacement of 1,957 tons. Armament consisted of ten 21-inch (533-mm) torpedo tubes-six bow and four stern. Project 641/Foxtrot had three diesel engines and three electric motors with three shafts, as in the previous Project 611/Zulu (and smaller Project 615/Quebec). Beyond the increase in range brought about by larger size, some ballast tanks were modified for carrying fuel. Submerged endurance was eight days at slow speeds without employing a snorkel, an exceptional endurance for the time. The Foxtrot introduced AK-25 steel to submarines, increasing test depth to 920 feet (280 m). The large size also provided increased endurance, theoretically up to 90 days at sea.

The lead ship, the B-94, was laid down at the Sudomekh yard in Leningrad on 3 October 1957; she was launched-64 percent complete-in less than three months, on 28 December. After completion and sea trials, she was commissioned on 25 December 1958. Through 1971 the Sudomekh Admiralty complex completed 58 ships of this design for the Soviet Navy.

Additional units were built at Sudomekh from 1967 to 1983 specifically for transfer to Cuba (3), India (8), and Libya (6). The Indian submarines were modified for tropical climates, with increased air conditioning and fresh water facilities. Later, two Soviet Foxtrots were transferred to Poland. The foreign units brought Project 641/Foxtrot production to 75 submarines, the largest submarine class to be constructed during the Cold War except for the Project 613/Whiskey and Project 633/Romeo programs.

(Two Project 641 submarines are known to have been lost, the B-37 was sunk in a torpedo explosion at Polnaryy in 1962 and the B-33 sank at Vladivostok in 1991.)

The Soviet units served across the broad oceans for the next three decades. They operated throughout the Atlantic, being deployed as far as the Caribbean, and in the Pacific, penetrating into Hawaiian waters. And Foxtrots were a major factor in the first U. S.-Soviet naval confrontation.

T-5 nuclear torpedo

The Soviet Navy sought to develop a nuclear weapon to use, exactly as the U. S. Navy had. The first of these was the T-5 nuclear torpedo. This weapon had trouble early in conventional performance trials as the detonator tended to go off prematurely due to the effect of ocean turbulence on the torpedo passing through the water. Nonetheless, after the warhead was successfully detonated at the Novaya Zemlya nuclear test center, a trial-firing of the T-5 at the same location in 1957 by S-144 under the command of Captain Second Rank G. V. Lasarev resulted in a 10- kiloton nuclear explosion that destroyed a half dozen target ships. The results pleased the naval high command and provided them with a capability that enormously enhanced the potential effectiveness of their still largely conventional submarine fleet. Between 1957 and 1961, Soviet scientists and engineers rendered the warhead independent, so it could ride with any torpedo then in the navy’s submarine arsenal. Lavrenti Beria, who was also the head of the nuclear industry in the Soviet Union at the time, reportedly referred to the weapon as RDS, an acronym for “Stalin’s Revenge.” (Stalin had died in 1953.) By early 1961 only a final test of the new weapon remained.

To many of the Soviet submariners, proceeding with the tests of nuclear weapons was premature, given that there were already deadly serious problems with Soviet submarines, both diesel-powered and nuclear.

The horrifying rate of Soviet submarine accidents did nothing to slow the command emphasis on nuclear weapons development even though it sometimes slowed or halted the actual tests themselves. The Foxtrot l submarine B-37 received the initial assignment to perform the final tests of the T-5 torpedo, which the Soviet Navy counted on to be able to defeat American aircraft carrier task forces. The B-37 was commanded by thirty-five-year-old Captain Second Rank A. S. Begeba, who seemed a good choice based upon his experience and the respect he received from his crew and colleagues. Shortly before the test date, early in the morning as the crew brought the boat’s systems on line, B-37 experienced a catastrophic explosion while resting at the pier. Eyewitnesses saw flame surge out of the snorkel pipe just before the entire bow ex- ploded. Hydrogen accumulation had likely caused an explosion when the electrical systems came alive and the resulting fire detonated some of the torpedoes. The explosion killed fifty-nine B-37 crewmen, nine- teen men aboard adjacent submarines, and fifty-four more on shore. The force of the blast propelled the vessel’s anchor to the shore 1.2 miles away from the dock. The Northern Fleet now needed another candidate to perform the nuclear tests.

That replacement was Captain Second Rank Nikolai Shumkov’s B- 130 Foxtrot. In October 1961, Shumkov received orders at the Polyarni submarine base to test the torpedo above the Arctic Circle at Novaya Zemlya’s twelve-kilometer firing range. The experimental team governing the test asked the fleet meteorologists for a day that might provide winds blowing toward the North Pole. They wanted to divert the nuclear cloud both for reasons of safety and to avoid any NATO attempts to guess their purpose by means of air sampling. The army’s nuclear weapons program would also mask their event by testing a much more powerful 30-megaton warhead at a site in the eastern Soviet Union.

Shumkov received instructions to aim the torpedo toward the end of the test range at a specific location that would place the warhead in proximity to data collection devices operating for only a few seconds as the explosion took place. The torpedo would detonate by means of a time fuse and not on contact with any test ship or landmass. Just before departing Polyarni, Shumkov had minor difficulties with his vessel’s compass and did not completely trust the device for this sobering and dangerous business. Instead he used his periscope and visual reckoning to make the shot. To assist the commander of the test boat, the staff at Novaya Zemlya placed a huge wooden visual targeting aid at the point where the detonation should take place.

Accompanied by a minesweeper as a monitoring ship, B-130 carried two nuclear torpedoes to the test site through some very rough seas on the morning of October 23. Shumkov had already decided that while he would fire and report as ordered, he would also move his vessel out of line with the target as fast as he possibly could after launch. He did not relish the idea of the shock wave and the deadly nuclear cloud.

Between four and five o’clock on the afternoon of October 23, 1961, B-130 launched the new torpedo and Shumkov briefly experienced the blinding flash of the detonation through his periscope. As he maneuvered his boat to place part of an island between it and the blast, the shock wave struck. The force of the blast transmitted through the water tossed his boat around like a toy. Barely able to keep control, Shumkov felt relieved that at least the ocean would protect his crew to some degree from the resulting fallout. The detonation came in at 10 kilotons, the same as the earlier test with the T-5 prototype.

Four days later B-130 returned to the test site to repeat the process. The first test torpedo exploded well below the surface, providing data on a detonation in the submarine’s natural environment. In this second test, the staff at Novaya Zemlya set the weapon to run and explode at shallow depth, making the blast more of a surface effect than a submerged test. Shumkov did not envy the ground crew at the site charged with cleaning up the first effort and placing a new targeting aid in place for the next test shot. No precautions were taken to protect them from the radioactive fallout. In essence, they sacrificed themselves, whether they knew it or not at the time, to the best interests of the Soviet system.

The second shot went as well as the first. Shumkov’s effort won the applause of admirals and test staff alike. Rear Admiral Yamshikov asked him to prepare a list of those personnel critical to his success because they certainly deserved recognition. The B-130’s commander had the feeling that the admiral had already composed his own list and made the request as a formality. Regardless of the decorations destined for the crew, three months later Shumkov received the Order of Lenin, the highest award then available to a naval officer. This precious symbol of achievement complemented the Ushakov Medal he received from the submarine force after bringing B-130 back to Polyarni. Yet he felt better about having ensured the safety of his boat and crew than receiving the medals and orders resting on his chest. He did not know that the accolades would bring him and his crew a new and even more responsible assignment within the year.


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