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Atomic research was underway in several countries before ~World War II, including in the Soviet Union where scientists are known to have been conducting research in this field as early as 1932 In 1939 or 1940, the USSR Academy of Sciences established a senior research committee to address the “uranium problem, ” which included the potential results of nuclear fission. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 curtailed nuclear research efforts if not interest, because the major laboratories conducting research into nuclear physics were in Leningrad and Kharkov and were evacuated eastward from the war zone.

Early in the war, academicians Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov and Anatoliy Petrovich Aleksandrov, the leading Soviet nuclear scientists of the 1940s, worked primarily on the protection of ships against magnetic mines at the Leningrad Physico-Technical Institute; subsequently, Kurchatov went to Sevastopol and Aleksandrov to the Northern Fleet to work in the mine counter-measures area. Late in 1942, however, they were reassigned to the development of nuclear weapons. There is ample evidence that the Soviets were by then aware of nuclear developments in the United States as well as in Germany. The Soviets correctly concluded that the United States was making an atomic bomb when American physics journals ceased publishing material about uranium fJSSion and chain reactions; similar indications from Germany were confirmed by a notebook containing calculations related to nuclear weapons taken from the body of a dead German officer. The Soviets were also aided by an atomic espionage ring in the United States and Canada.

By late 1942 the Soviet State Defense Committee had established a military nuclear program, only a few months after the U.S. Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb had been initiated in the United states. In early 1943 research was resumed in Moscow under the leadership of Kurchatov, with scientists and engineers being recalled from the front, other research institutes, and industry to develop the atomic bomb. This wartime effort was under the overall direction of Lavrenty Beria, the head of state security and one of Stalin’s principal lieutenants. Immediately after the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945, the Central Committee of the Communist Party “outlined the primary state task – to eliminate in the shortest period of time the monopoly of the United States in nuclear weapons … ”

The secret Laboratory No. 2 of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow was the focus for basic scientific research into nuclear weapons. (Nuclear Laboratory No. 1 was in Kharkov.) The scale of the Soviet laboratory effort was, however, much smaller than the analogous U.S. activity at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The first Soviet atomic reactor, the F-1 (Physics-1) was started up on 25 December 1946, and the first Soviet atomic bomb was detonated in August 1949 – several years before U.S. scientists had predicted that such an event would occur.

Soviet sources indicate that the initial work on nuclear propulsion began shortly after World War ll. Apparently even during the war there was some discussion of the use of nuclear energy for ship propulsion but, according to Soviet scientist Aleksandrov, ” … in 1945 it was Beria who imposed a ban on the idea of atomic ships: First the bomb, all else later. You see, back then we at the Institute … had begun designing an atomic plant for ships.”

In 1947, B. M. Malinin, the dean of Soviet submarine designers wrote:

A submarine must become an underwater boat in the full meaning of the word. This means that it must spend the greater and overwhelming part of its life underwater, appearing on the surface of the sea only in exceptional circumstances …. The submarine will remain the most formidable weapon in naval warfare …. If. .. it is considered that the appearance of superpowerful engines, powered by intranuclear (atomic) energy is probable in the near future — then the correct selection of the direction in which the evolution must go is … the basic condition for the success of submarines.

Malinin, however, did not live to see the realization of an atomic submarine. One of his assistants, Engineer-Captain 1st Rank Vladimir Nikolayevich Peregudov, became the chief designer of the first Soviet nuclear submarines. Peregudov was a graduate of the (Dzerzhinsky) naval engineering school in Leningrad, had worked on various submarine designs in the 1930s, and had been imprisoned during the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s (which thoroughly ruined his health). At the end of the war Peregudov was engaged in designing the new generation of Soviet diesel-electric submarines.

In 1952, probably at Malinin’s behest, Peregudov was named chief designer of the first soviet nuclear-propelled submarines. Work on a submarine nuclear plant had been underway for several years when construction of the first nuclear submarine was initiated in 1953. Peregudov’s efforts were under the aegis of design bureau TsKB No. 143, one of the central design bureaus for submarines.

With Stalin’s death in 1953 the ban on open discussion of nuclear issues was lifted and in 1954 the newspaper Krasnya Zvezda, the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, broke the seven-year press silence on the subject of atomic energy and atomic power. During 1954-1955 approximately 50 articles on the military aspects of atomic energy appeared in that publication alone, some of which dealt with nuclear propulsion for ships. Most articles were guarded in their discussion of nuclear propulsion, with some favorable and some openly hostile. Discussions were being held at the highest level of Soviet government on the role of nuclear weapons. These discussions involved Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov, the Minister of Defense from 1955 to 1957. His indifference — and possible opposition — to naval programs, including nuclear submarines, was later cited as one of the reasons for his dismissal from the ruling presidium (politburo). Other factors, however, were more significant in Zhukov’s dismissal by the presidium under Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership.

The presidium approved nuclear propulsion and several submarine projects were begun in the mid-1950s. The first Soviet nuclear-propelled submarine was Project 627, being given the U.S./NATO code name NOVEMBER. The first NOVEMBER SSN was completed in 1958. The completion of the first Soviet nuclear submarine thus lagged about four years behind her U.S. counterpart. The senior assistant (executive officer) of that first nuclear submarine, Captain 2nd Rank L M. Zhiltsov, recalled:

When in the tests the reactor drove the submarine to standard speed, everyone on the bridge was shaken … by the quietness. For the [ust time in all my duty on submarines, I heard the sound of the waves near the bow end. On conventional submarines, the sound of the exhaust from the diesel engines covers everything else. But here there was no rattling and no vibration.

The first commanding officer of that first Soviet nuclear submarine, later named LENINSKY KOMSOMOL, was Captain 1st Rank L. G. Osipenko.

In 1960 Khrushchev asserted that the Soviet Navy bad nuclear-propelled submarines and that they were capable of firing rockets with nuclear warheads. Khrushchev’s announcement of 20 October 1960, was the first official Soviet claim that such submarines existed. A year later, on 14 October 1961, the newspaper Izvestia published what was purported to be a photo of a Soviet nuclear submarine and cited Khrushchev for his decision to proceed with nuclear submarine construction, as “the father of the nuclear fleet which today guards our Soviet state.”

In July 1962 the Chief of the Main Naval Staff, Admiral F. V. Zozula, was quoted in the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda as declaring that nuclear-propelled submarines anned with missiles were “the main shock force” of the Soviet Navy. This statement — soon followed by similar declarations from other Navy officials -indicated still another dimension of the Soviet undersea threat to the West (That same month, in conjunction with Soviet Navy Day, Nikita Khrushchev reportedly observed an underwater firing of a ballistic missile from a submarine in the Baltic.)

The United States had begun its nuclear propulsion program with two prototypes for torpedo-attack submarines (SSN), to be followed by series production of the torpedo-attack type. The Soviet program simultaneously initiated three production designs: the NOVEMBER SSN, HOTEL SSBN, and ECHO SSGN. All three classes shared certain design features and all bad the same two-reactor propulsion plant, which was referred to by Western intelligence as both the Type 1 and the HEN (for the three submarine classes in which it was employed). The NOVEMBER plant, using pressurized-water as the heat exchange medium, is believed to have produced approximately 35,000 horsepower compared to 15,000 horsepower for the NAUTILUS and only 7,500 horsepower for the subsequent SKATE (SSN 578), the first U.S. series-produced nuclear submarine and a near-contemporary of the NOVEMBER.

Early Western intelligence analysis had underestimated the NOVEMBER’s propulsion planL When the NOVEMBER first went to sea the submarine was thought in the West to have a submerged speed of under 25 knots (the NAUTILUS was rated at 23.3 knots). Then, on 5 January 1968 a NOVEMBER was trailing the U.S. nuclear-propelled carrier ENrERPRISE (CV AN 65) off the coast of California. The carrier accelerated, expecting the submarine to drop away in her wake, but the NOVEMBER kept pace with the ENTERPRISE. Finally, the carrier reached 31 knots, about her maximum speed.

The NOVEMBER reached a speed of about 28 knots. The Western intelligence community was surprised and concerned. (The follow-on VICI’OR SSN, which was about to go to sea, was a still faster attack submarine.) The NOVEMBER had an unusual hull configuration, somewhere between an advanced conventional (Type XXI) submarine design and the tear-drop or ALBACORE (AGSS 569) design. Incorporating the large two-reactor propulsion plant with a full armament, the NOVEMBER displaced approximately 4,500 tons surfaced and 5,300 tons submerged (i.e., it was 20 percent larger than the NAUTILUS). The Soviet submarine had an armament of eight standard 21-inch (533-mm) torpedo tubes forward and carried 24 torpedoes. No stem tubes were fitted (although most Western references list them).

The early nuclear-propelled submarines suffered engineering problems. There were continuous leaks in the propulsion plants, especially the steam generators, with the crew having to periodically don respirators while they searched for the leaks. The early generators were found to have an extremely short service life; those initially installed in Soviet nuclear submarines began to leak after some 800 hours of operation. “We felt like heroes,” recalled one commanding officer of a NOVEMBER SSN when his engineers were able to extend the failure time to 1,200 hours. (Tests ashore had demonstrated that the operating time before failure should have been 18,000 to 20,000 hours. The long-term solution was to change the material in the generators, the design itself having been found sound and providing benefits over the similar U.S. system, such as higher operating temperatures and hence greater power.)

Reliability problems continued to plague Soviet nuclearpropelled submarines, and would cause several major casualties.

The first few NOVEMBER SSNs may have encountered engineering difficulties. According to German reports, after the first five submarines went to sea the successive units were modified during construction (or possibly just after completion). The hull was extended by a section – possibly as much as 36 feet (11-m) long – being added aft of the sail structure, to enlarge the submarine’s engineering spaces. The modifications to the propulsion plant provided in this space resulted in the later submarines being slightly faster (and possibly quieter).

While the NOVEMBER was faster than contemporary U.S. submarines, her 35,000-horsepower plant still could not propel her as fast as the later-design U.S. SKIPJACK (SSN 585), which bad an SSW reactor plant generating only 15,000 shaft horsepower. Several factors caused this situation, among them (1) the length-to-beam ratios of the submarines with the NOVEMBER having more wetted surface, (2) drag caused by the NOVEMBER having two propellers and the SKIPJACK one, (3) the revolutions per minute of the turbine, approximately 500 for the NOVEMBER and 150 in the more efficient SKIPJACK, which bad improved gearing, ( 4) the NOVEMBER having fiXed horizontal stabilizers ahead of the stem diving planes, and (5) the much greater reserve buoyancy of the NOVEMBER (in excess of 30 percent).

Not only was the NOVEMBER faster than contemporary U.S. nuclear submarines, but she could dive deeper. The NAUTILUS and the SKATE-class boats bad an operating depth of 700 feet (213 m). While little definitive information on Soviet submarine operating depths is available in the West, the NOVEMBER and the other HEN-series Soviet nuclear submarines are believed to have been able to reach at least 1,000 feet (305 m). The NOVEMBER and her contemporaries in the Soviet undersea fleet, however, were noisier than their U.S. counterparts. Submarine noise is produced by three primary sources: internal machinery, propellers, and the flow of water over the submarine (hydrodynamic noise). In all three categories the early Soviet nuclear submarines appear to have produced higher noise levels.

The Severodvinsk Shipyard No. 402 built all 13 of the NOVEMBER-class SSNs. Construction of the first unit began in 1954, and that submarine was commissioned into the fleet in August 1958; the last NOVEMBER went to sea in 1964. The NOVEMBER marked the beginning of a nuclear submarine program that has overtaken the West in quantity and, some will argue with considerable evidence, in quality as well.

[This description of Soviet nuclear submarine development is adapted from Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718 to 1990 by Nonnan Polmar and Lt.Comdr. Jurrien Noot, Royal Netherlands Navy, published by the U.S. Naval Institute.]

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