Largest ever submarine heads for Russian scrapyard
A Cold War story has come to an end as the largest ever submarine is put out to pasture. According to the Russian state news agency TASS, the Dmitry Donskoy, the first of the gigantic Typhoon submarines and the last still in service, has been officially decommissioned.
There are engineering feats that are record breakers and those that break records by a ridiculous margin. With a displacement of 48,000 tons, Russia's Typhoon-class submarines were so big that they were not only monsters by submarine standards, but their tonnage approached that of the WWII German battleship Bismarck.
With its wide, bulky lines, a length of 574 ft (175 m), and a beam of 75 ft (23 m), the Typhoon was unmistakable. It was also an enigma since it entered service in 1981, with many of the boat's secrets not being revealed until the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. In the meantime, it inspired the thriller The Hunt For Red October, which was made into a film in 1990 and filled the gap about what was known by filling the fictional boat with fanciful technology.
The real Typhoon was born in the 1970s as the Soviet Union reacted to the US Navy's new Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which upped the weapon load of the old Polaris submarines from 16 to 24 tubes that now carried the new Trident II missiles with multiple warheads.
In addition, the Soviet Navy's missile submarines were being boxed in by NATO's increasingly efficient submarine hunting forces, leaving them hiding in the Arctic Ocean under the ice cap.
To meet these challenges, the Project 941 Akula submarine, the NATO code name Typhoon, was conceived. Its purpose was not to strike the first blow in a nuclear war between East and West, but to act as a massive nuclear strategic reserve that the Soviets could use in a second strike.
The problem was this required a boat that could operate under the ice thousands of miles from its targets and let loose 200 warheads and decoys on command. This meant carrying another record breaker, the R-39 SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile), which weighed 84 tonnes and carried 10 warheads with an explosive yield of up to 200 kt.
These requirements meant a very large submarine indeed, with a lot of strength in its construction. The result was the Typhoon. Its broad, flat outer casing hid an innovative design. Instead of a single pressure hull, the Typhoon had several. On the sides were two parallel hulls. On top of these and jutting under the huge sail was a third hull that contained the command center and in the bow was a fourth, which was the torpedo room. In the forward section between the parallel hulls were 20 missile tubes. All of these were braced tightly together and incorporated titanium into the design for extra strength.
Powered by two OK-650 pressurized-water nuclear reactors located in the aft section, the Typhoon carried a complement of 160 and could stay at sea for over 120 days before needing to return to port for supplies and to rotate the crew.
Despite the number of people aboard, the Typhoon was remarkably comfortable, with roomy lounges, wood laminates, and even a swimming pool. However, the sail is so packed with retractable masts and gear that there's hardly room for the bridge outside.
One puzzling fact about the Typhoon was that it carried fewer missiles than Ohio-class subs. This was because the Soviet leadership was anticipating arms control treaty restrictions while the boats were being built and had no desire to deal with last minute changes.
Though it was impressive to look at, how effective the Typhoon would have been in the event of war is open to question. It was given enough reserve buoyancy while surfacing to break through relatively thin ice, but thin ice in the Arctic is still very thick. This created a major problem, with reports that surfacing left the deck covered with huge ice slabs so the missile hatches couldn't be opened.
Perhaps it's just as well that the Typhoon included an escape pod in the keel.
The Dmitry Donskoy is the last of six Typhoons that were built, with a seventh canceled while still under construction. After the end of the Cold War, the Typhoon fleet became something of a relic – a weapon system without a mission. The submarines also proved to be so expensive to maintain and refit that the Russian government concluded that it would be cheaper to simply build new, more modern boats.
So far, three Typhoon-class subs have been scrapped with the help of the United States and two more along with the Dmitry Donskoy await disposal.
"The Dmitry Donskoy submarine cruiser has been decommissioned from the Russian Navy," said Head of Russian Movement for Navy Support, Vladimir Maltsev. "It will await utilization at a naval base in Severodvinsk together with two other units of this project."