The world’s largest and, in several respects, most innovative undersea craft is the Russian AKULA (Shark). No, not the high-speed attack craft that surprised western intelligence in the 1980s with its low noise levels, bul the giant SSBN known in the West as the TYPHOON. AKULA is the Russian class name for this undersea behemoth.
Probably the first specific indication that the West had of a new Soviet SSBN being constructed came in November 1974, when Communist Party Chairman Leonid Brezhnev revealed to President Gerald Ford, at their summit meeting in Vladivostok, that the Soviet Union was building a giant strategic missile submarine. Brezhnev — using the term Tayfun (typhoon) to refer to the new undersea craft – declared that the new SSBN was a response to the U.S. TRIDENT submarine program. Brezhnev tried unsuccessfully at the meeting to get Ford to halt production of U.S. TRIDENT submarines and to cancel the B-1 bomber.
Collaborative information was coming from U.S. reconnais-sance satellites, which showed expansion at the Soviet subma-rine building yard of Severodvinsk in the Arctic. Erected by Stalin in the 1930s, the original battleship building hall at Severodvinsk had since been supplemented with two other, large submarine building halls, making it unquestionably the world’s largest submarine construction facility. At the same time, Soviet missile test flights and other sources of information gave evidence of intensive efforts underway in the development of another large Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).
The lead submarine of the new class — given the Soviet project designation No. 941- was laid down in 1975 at building hall No. 3 at Severodvinsk and launched in September 1980. Western intelligence assigned the code name TYPHOON to the craft, based on Brezhnev’s comment about the Tayfun made at Vladivostok. The new submarine was, by a significant margin, the largest undersea craft yet constructed by any nation — publicly estimated by western intelligence at 18,500 tons surface displacement and 25,000 tons submerged; the latter number (in metric tons) is also used by some Soviet sources. However, a number of U.S. analysts have estimated that the TYPHOON’s. true displacement is much greater, possibly 30,000 to 35,000 tons submerged.
As impressive as the submarine’s size, the TYPHOON SSBN revealed an innovative trimamn pressure hull design. The submarine has twin, longitudinal pressure hulls constructed of titanium with a diameter of 32 5/6 feet. Between them are three identical pressure modules: the bow module is fitted with six torpedo tubes and holds reload torpedoes, “several dozen” according to Russian sources; the central module contains the command center; and the stem module houses the submarine’s steering gear.
(Russian sources cite the titanium pressure hulls. Signifi-cantly, the TYPHOONs were built in Severodvinsk building hall No.3 while the titanium-hull ALFA, PAPA, and MIKE, subma-rines were built in hall No.2 Thus, the Russian report may have been in error, or a new titanium welding procedure that does not require the argone-gas environment of hall No.2 has been developed.)
This unique configuration was selected, according to a Russian submarine commander, because it was not possible to fabricate a larger pressure hull to accommodate the missile tubes within a conventional SSBN design. Thus, once again, the Soviets showed a highly innovative approach to meeting performance requirements. The submarine’s 20 large missile tubes are thus fitted forword of the sail, between the main pressure hulls, aft of the torpedo room module and ahead of the command center.
The TYPHOON’s outer hull measures 5571/.z feet in length with a beam of 82 feet, and a draft of about 37 3/4 feet; the distance from top of the sail to keel is 85 1/4 feet — truly a giant undertaking.
Within each large pressure hull the submarine has a pres-surized-water reactor with a capacity of 190 megawatts; a steam turbine within each hull generates 45,000 horsepower — a total of 90,000 to turn the two, six-blade propellers. Western estimates of speed for the TYPHOON vary from about 25 knots to in excess of 30 knots; the latter appears more likely, with some credible sources estimating about 35 knots. Special quieting features have been incorporated in the submarine.
The TYPHOON, according to the chief designer of the class,
Academician Sergei Kovalev, was totally innovative:
“She had no prototypes. We couldn’t even use our own experience in fuJI measure. Many things had to be done from scratch.
“We had developed and discussed in detail 200 versions of this submarine before choosing the optimum model. Incidently, every version is not just a blueprint; it involves most complex computations and experiments.”
Beyond the unprecedented size and unique design, the TYPHOON is impressive for the ship’s under-ice features and ballistic missile battery. The TYPHOON is likely the first submarine built from the outset for Arctic operations. The submarine rides high when on the surface, a result of at least a 30 to 45 percent reserve buoyancy, which can be expected to clear the ice from the missile batches after surfacing. The sail is heavily armored for breaking through the ice; and the propellers appear to be partially protected. Unlike the previous YANKEE and DELTA SSBNs, which have sail-mounted diving planes, the TYPHOON has bow planes that retract into the hull, a means of avoiding ice damage.
Beyond standard torpedoes – both 21-inch and 25.5-inch diameter — the TYPHOON appears to carry the rocket-propel1ed torpedo, a underwater weapon reputed to have a very high speed and possibly a nuclear warhead. It may be intended for a quick reaction snap-shot against an attacking SSN.
The TYPHOON has a main battery of 20 RSM-52 missiles, known in the west by the NATO designation SS-N-20. It is the first Soviet solid-propellant SLBM to be deployed in significant numbers. With an estimated launch weight of 132,000 pounds, the SS-N-20 is the world’s largest SLBM. The SS-N-20 is rated by Western inteUigence as having a range of 4,480 n.miles while Russian writings indicate a range of over 4,800 n.miles while armed with up to ten nuclear warheads that can be aimed at separate targets within a given footprint. The Russian warheads are unofficially estimated to be approximately the same size as U.S. warheads– 100 kilotons for each re-entry vehicle.
Manning each TYPHOON SSBN are 170 men — 50 officers,
80 warrants or specialists (similar to senior U.S. petty officers), and some 40 conscript sailors and petty officers. The officers live in two- and four-man paneled cabins, each of which has a wash basin, television set, table or desk, bookcase, wardrobe, and bunks. There are also similar smaJl cabins for warrants and enlisteds. The submarines also have a sauna, dip pool, green-house, and an aviary.
But working and living conditions for TYPHOON submarin-ers are major problems. According to Kovalev, “From the outset, the TYPHOON was conceived as a system of ships, their main armament (missiles) and all necessary coastal and sea support, including cantonments for submariners. Relative design work was duly done. However, items bearing on base support of the TYPHOON systems leave much to be desired.”
The TYPHOON SSBNs are based in the Bolshaya Litsa Fjord on the Kola peninsula, about equal distance from the ports of Petchenga and Polyamy, and only some 35 miles east of the Norwegian border. There are four harbors at Bolshaya Litsa: Litsa north is a submarine maintenance area, Litsa south is a base for nuclear attack submarines, and Litsa southwest is used for TYPHOON and other SSBNs. These facilities are on the western side of the fjord; on the eastern side is another submarine support facility. Norwegian specialists, working from commercial satellite photography, estimate that there are a total of 67,570 feet of piers in the fjord.
By 1984 the Soviets had completed the construction of several large, underwater tunnels for strategic missile submarines in the fjord. The tunnels, in which SSBNs can be rearmed during a conflict, are said to be large enough to accommodate the TYPHOON-class SSBNs, apparently giving them protection from conventional and nuclear attack when they are undergoing maintenance or are being rearmed.
Discussing problems at the TYPHOON base, Russian journalists have written: “transport is a particular worry at the base. The submariners live 8V2 miles from Nerpichya — in Zapadnaya Litsa. There is practically nothing to take them to and from their work, and you cannot go on foot in blizzards and ice. In 1987 the then Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov visited the garrison. He gave an order for the submariners to be allocated eight Ural trucks with cabs. Thereafter they were nicknamed Yaziks.”
But the transport problems continued – more than 1,500 personnel manning and supporting the TYPHOONs have to be transported every day. Commercial buses have been hired, being paid for by the officers and warrants!
These and other personnel·related problems, especially pay, plague the TYPHOON program as well as most other aspects of the Russian armed forces. For example, the captain 1st rank commanding a TYPHOON earns about 5,000 rubles per year, including his Arctic bonus, submarine pay, nuclear pay, etc. His senior engineer officers, captains 3rd rank, each earn 3,600 rubles. But the commercial bus drivers at the base earn 5,600 rubles!
While the submariners have certain privileges and receive food and services not available to the bus driver, the pay situation is critical. The cheapest cigarettes in the area cost 20 rubles per pack and a 2.2·pound package of crackers costs 37 rubles. It is a bad situation and cannot be expected to endure.
The lead TYPHOON began sea trials in June 1981 and entered service in 1983. The period from keel laying to completion was about eight years; this compared to just over 5112 years for the first U .S. TRIDENT submarine (which was considerably smaller). Series production of the TYPHOON SSBN followed, with additional underwater giants being completed at a rate of almost one per year, the sixth being launched in 1989 and completed the following year.
Western intelligence anticipated that a total of seven or eight TYPHOON SSBNs would be built by the early 1990s. However, there appears to have been a conscious Soviet decision not to continue TYPHOON construction beyond six units, although other SSBNs were being built.
The six TYPHOON submarines remain in service and are apparently undergoing modernization, being rearmed with an improved missile. It is not clear if they are continuing to conduct SLBM patrols, as are DELTA.class submarines and, as recently as 1991, the single YANKEE II SSBN.
According to Captain 1st Rank Sergei Yefimenko, the commanding officer of a TYPHOON, the submarine’s missiles are normally targeted “nowhere.” He explained, “‘The flight program, which is recorded on punched tape, is only entered into the ship’s computer complex during the performance of combat service at sea (on patrol). The rest of the time it is kept sealed in my safe.”
Further, the submarine commander cannot himself make the decision to launch a missile. This can be done only upon receipt of a coded signal from one of the briefcases or footballs held by the top Russian officials. (See Ensign Kate Woodruff, USNR, “Who’s Carrying the Commonwealth Ball?” Naval Institute Proceedinw;, April 1992, p. 47.)
Does Yefimenko know where his tapes will guide his 20 missiles? Have the tapes been changed since the breakup of the Soviet Union? “My tapes have not been amended by anyone, yet, and I do not know where my missiles are targeted; this information is held only by the General Staff where the program is written,” he recently told journalists. He added, “I suspect that they are targeted at the military installations of one of the countries that (i.~) now supplying us with humanitarian aid.”
Yefimenko is 37 years old and has held command for five years. He is approximately the equivalent of a U.S. one-star admiral, reflecting the Russian belief that the submarine is the capital ship of the fleet. The youngest TYPHOON commanding officer, Yefimenko bas carried out 11 training missile launches, although it is not clear how long his submarine has been operational.
All SSBN construction in Russia has apparently ceased. The TYPHOON, however, was not the last SSBN built at Severodvinsk. Concurrent with the TYPHOON production, the Soviets produced the DELTA IV-series SSBN, with the first DELTA IV being launched in February 1984 and completed in 1985. The seventh and probably last DELTA IV was launched in 1990.
Sources: Interviews with Soviet submarine and engineering officers; Viktor Litovkin, -ntree Days on the TYPHOON,” Izvestiya, 29 February 1992, p.3, and 2 March 1992, p.3; and Sergei Ptichkin, “The Birth of the TYPHOON,” Soviet Soldier. No. 10, 1991, pp. 32-35.
Nonnan Polmar is coauthor of the controversial Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies. 1714-1990. (published in 1991) and the best-selling biography Ric/cover: Controveav and Genius (1981)