The World’s Largest Submarine

5 of 6. Project 941 Akula “Shark”. NATO designation: Typhoon. 172m long, 23m wide. 24,500 ton displacement (surfaced). Test depth 400m (1300ft).

Line drawing showing the starboard side of the Project 941 (Akula) Soviet ballistic missile submarine. The vessel’s waterline is marked in red.

The massive “sail” of a Project 941/Typhoon SSBN. A single periscope is raised; the other scopes and masts are recessed and protected. The anechoic tiles are evident as is (bottom center) the outline of the top of the starboard-side escape chamber (with exit hatch).

Four hatches of this Typhoon’s 20 missile tubes are open. The safety tracks that are fitted over the tubes are evident in this photograph. The Soviets developed a scheme to rearm SSBNs from supply ships. The U. S. Navy had provided that capability for its Polaris submarines.

Drydock..note worker near propulsion.

The American pursuit of the Trident program caused an acceleration of the third-generation Soviet SSBN. During their November 1974 meeting at Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford agreed on a formula to further limit strategic offensive weapons (SALT II). In their discussions Brezhnev expressed his concern over the U. S. Trident program and declared that if the United States pursued deployment of the Trident system the USSR would be forced to develop its Tayfun strategic missile submarine.

Although Soviet naval officials and submarine/missile designers believed that liquid-propellant missiles “had irrefutable merit,” and those SLBMs were used in the first- and second-generation SSBNs, research continued on solid-propellant SLBMs at V. P. Makeyev’s SKB-385 design bureau. In 1972 work had began on the missile submarine, Project 941 (NATO Typhoon), and the following year on the solid-propellant RSM-52/R-39 missile (later given the NATO designation SS-N-20 Sturgeon).

The Project 941/Typhoon SSBN would be the largest undersea craft to be constructed by any nation. The submarine was designed by S. N. Kovalev at the Rubin design bureau. Kovalev and his team considered numerous design variations, including “conventional” designs, that is, a single elongated pressure hull with the missile tubes placed in two rows aft of the sail. This last approach was discarded because it would have produced a submarine more than 770 feet (235 m) long, far too great a length for available dry docks and other facilities.

Instead, Kovalev and his team developed a unique and highly innovative design-the 441st variant that they considered. The ship has two parallel main pressure hulls to house crew, equipment, and propulsion machinery. These are full-size hulls, 4883/4 feet (149 m) long with a maximum diameter of 232/3 feet (7.2 m), each with eight compartments. The 20 missile tubes are placed between these hulls, in two rows, forward of the sail. The amidships position of the sail led to the submarine’s massive diving planes being fitted forward (bow) rather than on the sail, as in the Project 667 designs.

The control room-attack center and other command activities are placed in a large, two-compartment pressure hull between the parallel hulls (beneath the sail). This center hull is just over 98 feet (30 m) in length and 192/3 feet (6 m) in diameter. The sail structure towers some 422/3 feet (13 m) above the waterline. An additional compartment was placed forward, between the main pressure hulls, providing access between the parallel hulls and containing torpedo tubes and reloads. Thus the Typhoon has a total of 17 hull compartments, all encased within a massive outer hull 5641/6 feet (172 m) long. This arrangement gives the Project 941/Typhoon a surface displacement of 23,200 tons. Although the submarine is approximately as long as the U.S. Ohio class, it has a beam of 743/4 feet (23.3 m). With a reserve buoyancy of some 48 percent, the submerged displacement is 48,000 tons, about three times that of the Ohio (which has approximately 15 percent reserve buoyancy).

The large reserve buoyancy helps decrease the draft of the ship. In addition, it contributes to the ability of the submarine to surface through ice to launch missiles. (On 25 August 1995 a Typhoon SSBN surfaced at the North Pole, penetrating about eight feet [2.5 m] of ice, and launched an RSM-52 missile with ten unarmed warheads.)

Beneath the forward hull is the ship’s large Skat sonar system, including the MGK-503 low-frequency, spherical-array sonar (NATO Shark Gill).

There are crew accommodations in both parallel hulls, and in the starboard hull there is a recreation area, including a small gym, solarium, aviary, and sauna. The crew is accommodated in small berthing spaces; the large number of officers and warrants have two- or four-man staterooms. Above each hull there is an escape chamber; together the chambers can carry the entire crew of some 160 men to the surface.

Within each of the parallel hulls, the Typhoon has an OK-650 reactor plant with a steam turbine producing about 50,000 horsepower (190 megawatts) and an 800-kilowatt diesel generator. The twin propellers are housed in “shrouds” to protect them from ice damage. The ship also has two propulsor pods, one forward and one aft, that can be lowered to assist in maneuvering and for hovering, although missiles can be launched while the Typhoon is underway.

The design and features of the Typhoon SSBN were evaluated in a one-tenth scale model built at Leningrad’s Admiralty shipyard. The model was automated and provided an invaluable design and evaluation tool.

The keel of the lead Project 941/Typhoon-the TK-208-was laid down on 30 June 1976 at Severodvinsk, by that time the only Soviet shipyard constructing SSBNs. 56 A new construction hall-the largest covered shipway in the world-was erected at Severodvinsk, being used to build the Typhoon SSBNs and Project 949/Oscar SSGNs. Most U.S. intelligence analysts had been confused by Brezhnev’s reference to a Tayfun missile submarine. Not until 1977-when U.S. reconnaissance satellites identified components for a new class of submarines at Severodvinsk-was it accepted that an entirely new design was under construction. The TK-208 was put into the water on 23 September 1980; trials began in June 1981, and she was commissioned in December 1981. Series production followed.

The D-19 missile system, however, lagged behind schedule with failures of several test launches of the RSM-52/R-39 missile. The Project 629/Golf submarine K-153 was converted to a test platform for the RSM-52/R-39, being provided with a single missile tube (changed to Project 619/Golf V). That missile became operational in 1984. It carried a larger payload, had greater accuracy than any previous Soviet SLBM, and was the first Soviet solid-propellant SLBM to be produced in quantity. The missile is estimated to have a range of 4,480 n. miles (8,300 km) carrying up to ten MIRV warheads of approximately 100 kilotons each. Their firing rate is one missile every 15 seconds (the same firing rate as the U. S. Trident submarines). Still, the use of solid propellant in the R-39 led to a sharp increase in the dimensions of the missile, with the launch weight reaching 90 tons.

Six Typhoon SSBNs were completed through 1989. Eight ships had been planned, with the seventh, the TK-210, having been started but then abandoned while still in the building hall. The six-Typhoon SSBN division was based at Nerpichya, about six miles (ten km) from the entrance to Guba Zapadnaya Litsa on the Kola Peninsula, close to the border with Finland and Norway. The Typhoon base was distinguished by the extremely poor facilities ashore for the crews as well as for the base workers and their families.

At sea the Typhoon SSBN had some difficulties with control and seakeeping. Still, the ships could be considered highly successful and provided a highly capable strategic striking force. Their Arctic patrol areas made them immune to most Western ASW forces, and simplified Soviet naval forces providing protection, if necessary. On 9 September 1991, during a missile test launch by one of these SSBNs of this type, a missile did not exit the tube and exploded and burned. The submarine suffered only minor damage.

The TK-208 entered the Severodvinsk shipyard in October 1990 for refueling of her reactors and for modernization to launch the improved R-39M missile (NATO SS-N-28 Grom). The other ships were to follow, but the end of the Cold War brought an end to the Project 941/Typhoon program. The TK-208, which was renamed Dmitri Donskoi in 2000, did not emerge from the Severodvinsk yard (renamed Sevmash) until 2002. She sailed for her home base of Guba Zapadnaya Litsa on 9 November 2002. She had been refueled but instead of the R-39M missile, which had encountered development problems, she was refitted to carry the smaller, solid-propellant RSM-52V Bulava, a variant of the land-based Topol-M (SS-27).

Meanwhile, of the five other Typhoon SSBNs, the TK-12 and TK-202 were taken out of service in 1996, and the TK-13 in 1997. They are being scrapped. When this book went to press the TK-17 (renamed Arkhangel’sk) and TK-20 were also to be refueled and rearmed with the RSM-52V missile, although such planning was considered tentative in view of the continuing Russian fiscal problems. The three modernized Typhoon SSBNs would be expected to remain in service at least until 2010-2012. The Russian Navy canceled its Typhoon modernization program in March 2012, stating that modernizing one Typhoon would be as expensive as building two new Borei-class submarines. With the announcement that Russia has eliminated the last SS-N-20 Sturgeon SLBMs in September 2012, the remaining Typhoons have reached the end of service

There have been proposals to convert some of the giant submarines to cargo carriers; this could be done expeditiously – albeit at considerable cost-by replacing the missile tubes with a cargo section. Ironically, an earlier analysis of the Typhoon by the Central Intelligence Agency addressed the possibility of using submarines of this type to (1) carry mini-submarines; (2) support other submarines in the milch cow replenishment role; (3) carry troops for special operations; and (4) serve as major command ships.

Discussing Project 941/Typhoon on the macro level, Viktor Semyonov, the deputy chief designer of the Typhoon, stated that the program had encountered “No technical problems-the problems are all financial.” But Soviet views of the submarine and her D-19 missile system were not unanimous. One submarine designer wrote:

To my mind the creation of the D-19 missile system and the Project 941 was a great mistake. A solid-propellant SLBM had no appreciable advantages [over] a liquid-propellant SLBM. . . . Such an expensive project like the D-19 missile system and the Project 941 which had been [developed] parallel with D-9RM and Project 667BDRM were the ruin of the USSR. Such ill-considered decisions, which were lobbied by the definite industrial circles, undermined the economy of the USSR and contributed to the loss [of] the Cold War.


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