As part of the nuclear triad, submarines represent one of three nuclear deterrent forces for a modern nation, the first two being land-based ICBMs and nuclear-capable bombers. Their ability to cruise the world’s oceans undetected, and- if nuclear-powered- stay submerged for months, makes them the most survivable element of the nuclear triad, almost completely immune to a pre-emptive first strike.
Thus, it’s no surprise that both the Soviet Union and the United States invested heavily into their underwater forces. Getting wind in the early 70s of the United States’ plans to build a new fleet of ballistic missile subs, specifically the Ohio class, Soviet military planners began drawing up their own plans for an even more formidable nuclear missile submarine of their own.
With the US’s advantages in anti-submarine warfare and more advanced submarine technology, the Soviets decided that it would be best to build a sub that could operate relatively close to home where it could be protected by friendly air and naval power. Thus plans were laid down to build a sub that could operate under the Arctic Circle- still within range of other Soviet military assets- and break through the ice to deliver its nuclear payload.
Yet this presented several challenges, as the sub itself would need to be robust enough to break through thick winter ice, and would need extra ballast in order to float the added mass. Being so far from the continental US, the missiles this sub would carry would also need to be larger than average to accommodate for the extra stages and fuel to reach targets as far south as New Orleans from the frigid north pole.
What was the most powerful submarine ever built by USSR?
Thus the Akula submarine, or Typhoon-class submarine was born. An absolute monster of a submarine, the Akula submarine featured reinforced double hulls that could punch through several feet of solid ice, and huge ballast tanks to allow it to raise and lower its heavy bulk through the water.
At 564 feet (172 meters), the Akulas were only four feet longer than the American Ohio-class, but with a beam of seventy-four feet versus the Ohio’s forty-two feet, each Akula was nearly twice as wide as their American counterparts! The massive bulk of the Akula submarine displaced a whopping forty-eight thousand tons, or almost half of the United States’ modern USS Gerald R. Ford Supercarrier, the largest warship ever built.
Why was this submarine the deadliest?
Each Akula needed all of that extra space in order to fit the massive R-39s, or as NATO designated them, the Sturgeon ballistic missiles. At a whopping 84 tons, each 53 foot (16 meters) long missile carried up to ten independently targetable warheads with a variable yield of 100-200 kilotons each. With each Akula submarine carrying twenty of these missiles, it gave them a warhead count of 200 versus the Ohio-class’s 192.
In just one volley of ten missiles, a single Akula submarine could strike at 100 targets, delivering a nuclear blast to each four to six times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Though ultimately the Soviet Union ended up building just six Akulas, these submarines alone could have devastated every single major American city with bombs left over.
With the Americans building 18 Ohio class subs of their own, if they had partnered with their Akula rivals for a global strike, these 24 submarines working together could have brought the entirety of the world to nuclear ruin, delivering 4,656 nuclear bombs, or between 400,000 to 900,000 kilotons of explosives.
How long could it stay at the sea?
Like most nuclear subs, an Akula could technically stay submerged for decades, needing to refuel only once every twenty years or so. Yet the needs of a human crew make this impossible, thus limited by food supplies, an Akula sub could stay under the waves for up to 120 days. By comparison, their Ohio counterparts with a smaller larder have a maximum endurance of 90 days before needing resupply.
Depth was another area Soviet subs exceeded their American counterparts in, and while this is still a classified figure, it is well known that Soviet subs on average could dive 100-200 meters deeper than American subs. Yet while they may have been able to dive deeper, and the Akula could have stayed out at sea for longer, Soviet subs were notoriously noisy and relatively easy for their American counterparts to identify, with one American sonar tech describing an Akula sub as sounding “like two metal trash cans being dragged through the water”.
Deadliest submarine was also the most comfortable submarine
While it was noisier than its American counterparts, it would certainly have been a far more comfortable ship to serve aboard. On any American sub, space is an absolute premium, and a luxury rarely afforded to the crew. Yet the massive Akulas afforded their crews many luxuries absolutely unheard of in the American navy, including arcade games, a small pool, solarium, sauna, gym, and common area complete with various plants to help the crew relieve stress.
While American submariners often engage in ‘hot bunking’, with one crewman sleeping for 12 hours and then giving his bed to another sailor for the next 12 hours, their Russian counterparts were enjoying hot saunas and refreshing dips in a temperature-regulated pool.
How did people find out about the deadliest submarine?
Most people would have never heard of the Akula-class, however, had it not been for Tom Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October. In the novel, a disillusioned Soviet captain attempted to defect to the United States, bringing with them his modified Akula sub submarine, the Red October. Yet the fictional Red October was less famous amongst elite Soviet military circles than a real Akula-class sub that nearly created a global nuclear disaster.
Only recently unclassified, TK-17, one of the first Akula subs built, was ordered out to sea on September of 1991, with the goal of test-firing one of its nuclear ballistic missiles. With the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse, the test firing of the monster nuclear missile was meant to signal to the world that the Soviet Union was still powerful and a force to be reckoned with. Yet what followed would mirror the reality of the USSR’s political situation…
A test missile with inert warheads was loaded onto the TK-17, and the sub made for Arctic waters with the goal of firing the missile so as to impact on Russia’s missile range on the Chukotka Peninsula. On September 27th, 1991, the sub moved into launch depth and prepared to fire; yet, instead of boosting clear of the sub and towards the surface, the missile experienced a catastrophic failure of its first stage rocket motor and exploded in its launch tube.
With the silo door blown completely off, the launch compartment began to flood, threatening to sink the submarine. Captain Igor Ghriskov reacted immediately, ordering the crew to blow the sub’s ballast tanks and thus send the boat speeding to the surface. Once above the waves however, the crew discovered that the test missile’s solid fuel propellant had scattered across the upper surface of the sub’s missile farm, threatening to explode the 19 live nuclear missiles just inches underneath the hull.
Despite the crippling damage already sustained, and not knowing if he would be able to resurface the submarine, Captain Ghriskov ordered his crew to dive in an attempt to starve the fire of oxygen. Luckily for them, his plan succeeded, and the sub, along with her 180 nuclear warheads, returned to port safely.
Kept secret for over two decades, Captain Ghriskov never received a medal or other commendation for his extraordinarily brave actions. His quick thinking and willingness to sacrifice himself and his crew prevented what could have become the worst ecological disaster in human history.
Unfortunately, Soviet technical expertise did not always match Soviet ambitions, but as the largest submarine ever built, the Akula was an undersea leviathan, and several of its class remain in service. It’s deployment in the early 80s took Western military observers by surprise, as they had not expected the USSR to have the ability to build and launch such an ambitious vessel for another decade.
With enough firepower to destroy a small country, each Akula still in service remains a formidable deterrent to anyone who would threaten Russia with their own nuclear weapons.
Featured image: Submarine Akula-class, by Курганов Илья Сергеевич, cropped by Vlsergey, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0