An Alfa on the surface, showing how her sail blends
into her hull. A mast is raised forward of the windshield. When the masts were
retracted they were covered over to minimize water flow disturbance over the
sail structure. Although a titanium-hull submarine, the Alfa-like the Papa
SSGN-was not a deep diver. (U. S. Navy)
There was a growing sense of unease in the West.
Russian maritime power was fast evolving into a giant whose
intentions were an enigma, providing endless hours of debate for NATO
intelligence analysts, but no definitive answers.
By 1973, the Soviet Navy was rapidly gaining on, if not
edging ahead of, the Americans. A quarter of its 400 submarines were by now
nuclear-powered. The USSR was building up to 15 nukes a year, while the USA
could manage only an average of 4.5. It was estimated the Soviets would soon
field more SSBNs than the USA.
American submarine construction yards declined while the
Russians expanded theirs; the variety of Soviet boats increased rapidly.
They had managed six new designs of nuclear-powered
submarine since 1963. The USA had sent only two new types to sea in the same
period. Observing all this, a former Royal Navy officer tried to divine exactly
why the Soviets were building so many. Commander Nicholas Whitestone, who at
one time served in the Naval Intelligence Division, suggested there were three
• the Soviets were preparing to refight the Battle of the
Atlantic. In any war they would send out submarines to sink troop ships and
supply vessels, depriving NATO of reinforcements and starving the West’s civilian
• They wanted to have enough submarines to match and kill
the Polaris boats (and also to attack American and British aircraft carriers).
• The Soviet Navy was a political weapon, to exert pressure
on the West. Its burgeoning might was a means of underwriting Russia’s
The likely answer was that it was a mix of all three – ready
to attack shipping, seek out enemy submarines, and intimidate the capitalists
with its numbers and growing firepower.
While Whitestone pondered the big picture of the stand-off,
other professional analysts scrutinised the boats themselves. What exactly was
the Charlie Class cruise missile-armed submarine for? Attacking carriers? Or
land targets? How exactly were the Charlie’s weapons guided to target? Until
the day hostilities erupted, nobody in the West would know for sure, though
efforts to provide answers would be made by submarines on
The Soviet predilection for continuing investment in
submarines that bordered on the obsolete puzzled a former British submarine
captain, turned writer, Capt. J. E. Moore; he remarked sarcastically that it
showed yet again how indifferent the Soviet Union is to heavy arms expenditure
. . .’
The Soviets were also fielding the Delta II SSBN, with a
submerged displacement estimated by Western sources to be 16,000 tons, as large
as a small aircraft carrier. Such leviathans were sliding down the slipways in
the early 1970s at a rate of seven a year.
Captain Moore issued a warning: ‘All these monster ships are
being built at the vast complex at Severodvinsk [on the shores of the White
Sea], which has a greater construction potential than all the submarine yards
in the USA combined. The Deltas are in most respects the most potent warships
When it came to surface ship killers, by 1973 there were 15
Echo IIs in the Northern Fleet alone. While unsophisticated, they had their
uses. Like other Soviet submarines that did not pass the West’s quality test,
the Echos offered Admiral Gorshkov the benefit of decoying NATO away from the
key units, such as SSBNs. Each Echo II would, he hoped, require thinly
stretched NATO forces to exert themselves on the hunt. The most feared of the
Soviet hunter-killers (at this time) was the Victor.
Around 20 of them were in service by the mid-1970s – thought
to be capable of at least 33 knots dived. With their eight 21-inch tubes, a
submerged displacement of 4,200 tons and a length of 285ft, it was reckoned
their torpedoes were equal to Western tinfish.
The Achilles heel of the Victors, despite a highly
streamlined, broad hull – indicating deep diving ability – was free flood holes
in the outer casing. Water constantly flowing through them made a Victor much
noisier than NATO hunter-killers, particularly when it became a burbling rush
at speed. Still, Capt. Moore pointed out, ‘they are extremely fast and
dangerous craft, able to sink virtually any kind of surface vessel’.
Across the Atlantic, Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the
US Navy’s nuclear submarine force, reckoned the West had a lot to be worried
He believed the Soviets were creating other types of boats
that were faster, could dive deeper and were quieter than ever. In 1969 the CIA
received intelligence from what it described as ‘strollers’ who had spotted an
intriguing new super-streamlined submarine taking shape in Leningrad, at the
Sudomekh Yard on the banks of the River Neva.
American naval attachés twice made forays into forbidden
areas around the shipyard. Somehow they managed to retrieve material, which
they would later claim fell off the back of a lorry. It was sneaked back to
laboratories in the USA for analysis.
Ironically, the most tantalising clue would ultimately be
retrieved on American soil. A naval analyst working for the CIA teamed up with
a US Navy researcher to call on a scrapyard in Pennsylvania that specialised in
purchasing unusual scrap metals from the Soviet Union. After painstakingly
examining every potentially relevant item on the site, the two men discovered a
piece that seemed promising.
Etched into it was a series of numbers that began ‘705’. To
expert eyes this was something very intriguing indeed. Analysis of the machined
metal soon revealed it to be titanium and, as would subsequently be discovered,
the mystery boat was known in the Soviet Navy as the Project 705 Lira.
At first, it was believed to be a new form of diesel boat.
A senior US Naval Intelligence submarine analyst named Herb
Lord suggested, after studying photographs and other data, that it was a
radically new form of SSN.
Lord maintained it was a ‘super submarine’ made from
With advanced weaponry and sensors, it could pose a serious
threat to Western naval operations. He told colleagues and superiors the
Soviets had – at least in this case – abandoned their cautious approach to
submarine design – the incremental, career-preserving way of doing things. This
boat was different.
Lord’s claims did not immediately take root. According to a
recently declassified CIA case study, the sceptics in US naval intelligence
circles maintained ‘the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull sections,
especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was impractical, if
The idea of creating whole sections of a titanium submarine
in the open air was too ridiculous – usually when titanium was welded it had to
be carried out in specially enclosed areas filled with fire-retardant argon
Nothing this big could be made from it, they said.
An entire submarine hull made from titanium?
Regardless of its powerplant or hull composition, a single
unit of what would be labelled the Alfa Class by NATO was completed in 1970.
What was her precise role?
It took several more years for Herb Lord’s analysis to
prevail over the sceptics – and he actually retired before his views became
accepted. The CIA analyst Gerhardt Thamm ultimately took up Lord’s cause and he
confessed: ‘it became my mission to convince the US Navy that the Soviets were
building high-threat submarines using advanced construction technology’.
While Rickover’s team believed the Soviets were improving
submarine construction they, and others in the USA, remained very dubious about
the Alfa being an SSN. They refused to believe it would be anything more than a
dead-end experiment, whatever it was.
In reality one of the most revolutionary submarines ever
constructed, the Alfa spotted moored at a fitting-out quay on the banks of the
Neva in 1969 was merely a one-off prototype. There would ultimately be a class
of six commissioned examples, whose capabilities chilled the blood of NATO
commanders. The fastest and deepest-diving attack submarine the world had ever
seen, the first Alfa was a rare and mysterious beast.
She was a product of the most brilliant minds in the Soviet
submarine design world. Latter-day Norse gods had applied their knowledge of
metallurgy to try and secure mastery of inner space for the Kremlin. Russian
naval architects, scientists and mathematicians were brilliant, their products
With the Alfa – because they were hoping to achieve a
massive leap ahead of the West – the Russians took their time about pushing the
prototype to the limits. The roots of what would become the Alfa programme went
back to the early 1960s, when the Holy Grail was the so-called Interceptor
A type of hunter-killer tailored to the flash-bang nature of
any likely war, it would be able to hit hard and fast, then disappear. The new
Delta Class SSBNs, armed with the SS-N-8 (Sawfly) missile, could bombard
America from the comparative safety of the Greenland and Norwegian Seas. Any
hunter-killer riding shotgun would not need long endurance, for the Bombers
would be relatively close to home.
Such a fast deep-diving submarine could make quick forays in
the hunt for surface and submerged targets. The Interceptor submarine could be
small, with a modest crew, and also a minimal fit for sonar. Detection
abilities of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters, or other elements of
detection equipment (including seabed sensors), would aid the mission.
Generally the reason nuclear-powered submarines were so much
bigger than diesels was the need for complex and extremely powerful machinery
and powerplant. That in turn increased weight, which decreased speed. The
answer was to keep the propulsion plant as small as possible while constructing
the boat from lightweight material. The Soviet solution was a liquid-metal
reactor while using titanium for the boat’s hull.
Titanium offers huge advantages, for not only is it much
lighter than steel, but it is also extremely strong. It has a very low magnetic
signature and is not so vulnerable to corrosion. Hard to obtain, and expensive,
it does not have the same give as steel. This lack of elasticity under the
extreme pressures experienced by deep-diving submarines meant it could crack
more easily. Aluminium and manganese alloys were introduced to try and restore
elasticity. Titanium was also difficult to bend into the radical, streamlined
shape the Soviet naval architects devised for the space age Alfa. With an
ultra-streamlined exaggerated hump for a fin, she looked like something
conjured up by Arthur C. Clarke.
One Russian submarine officer who saw an Alfa under
construction thought her lines stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art
rather than a product of industry. On joining the Alfa’s crew, composed of the
best and brightest the Soviet Navy could assemble, he was overcome with pride.
He exulted: ‘I felt as if I had just discarded my tractor and boarded a
With six tubes and packing a maximum of 18 ASW missiles or
torpedoes, the acceleration of the new wonder submarine was incredible. It
could go from 6 to 42 knots in just 120 seconds. The Alfa had a remarkably
small crew of just 45. Thanks to high levels of automation, it could be reduced
to as few as 31.
The use of liquid metal for reactor coolant was extremely
radical – and very dangerous. The US Navy had commissioned USS Seawolf in 1957
with a liquid-metal reactor. Not much more than a year later she was brought
into a dockyard to have it removed and replaced with a pressurised-water
A major challenge was ensuring the liquid metal did not
actually solidify, bringing the system crashing to a halt.
The Alfa had two compact reactors to offset that annoying
A major advantage of using liquid metal was that it did not
become radioactive, so it wasn’t necessary for the steam-generating machinery
it passed through to be clad in heavy (bulky) and expensive radiation shields.
The top turn of speed achieved by the Alfa with a
five-bladed screw was phenomenal – up to 45 knots. Maximum diving depth was
2,460ft. This was more than twice any other contemporary Western or Soviet
boat. The problem with such a high turn of speed – the fastest ever achieved by
an SSN – was the noise, which was likened to a jet engine roar.
The prototype was worked hard, frequently clocking up those
impressive high speeds, under huge pressure at great depth. There were several
problems with hull cracking and reactor ‘freezes’. Pipework, torpedo launch
equipment and even the compressed-air system were subjected to extreme stress.
In 1974 the exhausted prototype was cut to pieces, allowing a full autopsy. The
results were studied and adjustments made to both design and construction
methods before a limited production run went ahead.
Admiral Gorshkov lavished attention and money on the Alfas –
so expensive but highly capable, they were dubbed golden fish’. They were the
elite of Russia’s submarine force. No wonder, for the Alfas appeared to offer
technological parity and even superiority over the West.
The CIA’s Gerhardt Thamm eventually won his battle to
convince the US Navy the titanium SSN was reality, confirming that Herb Lord
(who had passed away in the meantime) was right. Thamm felt he proved ‘that the
Soviets had indeed built a submarine that was “better than good enough’”.
Despite huge costs, ‘the Soviets continued the Alfa project with tenacity
unmatched by Western navies’.
The Americans were working on their 688 Class attack
submarines (also known as Los Angeles Class). The first of these would be
launched in 1974 and enter service in 1976, with another 37 commissioned by
A major part of Britain’s attempt to respond would depend on
safely proving and bringing into service another brand-new kind of SSN.