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Russia Has Insane 200 Knot Torpedoes (The U.S. Navy Can’t Match It)

Russia 200 Knot Torpedoes
Image: Creative Commons.

Imagine the sudden revelation of a weapon that can suddenly go six times faster than its predecessors. The shock of such a breakthrough system would turn an entire field of warfare on its head, as potential adversaries scrambled to deploy countermeasures to a new weapon they are defenseless against. While a lull in great power competition delayed the impact of this new technology, the so-called “supercavitating torpedo” may be about to take the world by storm.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union placed a heavy reliance on its submarine fleet to negate America’s advantage in naval forces. The U.S. Navy was not only tasked to help protect the flow of reinforcements into Europe in the event of World War III, it also threatened the Soviet Union directly and would have hunted down and sunk her ballistic missile submarines. The USSR at first used sheer numbers of diesel-electric submarines, then more advanced nuclear attack submarines, to whittle down the odds.

One of the most innovative underwater weapons developed by the Soviet Union was the VA-111 Shkval (“Squall”) supercavitating torpedo. Highly classified, Shkval was virtually unknown before the end of the Cold War and only became common knowledge in the mid-1990s. Powered by a rocket engine, it was capable of astonishing speeds of up to 200 knots an hour. But in a world where physics ensured most ships and underwater weapons topped out at 50 knots, how did Russian engineers accomplish such a breakthrough in speed?

Traditionally, torpedoes use propellers or pumpjets for propulsion. Shkval, on the other hand, uses a rocket engine. That alone is enough to make it fast, but traveling through water creates major drag problems. The solution: get the water out of the path of the torpedo. But how, exactly does one get water of the path of an object in the middle of an ocean?

The solution: vaporize liquid water into a gas.

Russia’s 200 Knot Torpedoes

Shkval solves this problem by diverting hot rocket exhaust out of its nose, which turns the water in front of it into steam. As the torpedo moves forward, it continues vaporizing the water in front of it, creating a thin bubble of gas. Traveling through gas the torpedo encounters much less drag, allowing it to move at speeds of up 200 knots. This process is known as supercavitation.

The trick with maintaining supercavitation is keeping the torpedo enclosed in the gas bubble. This makes turning maneuvers tricky, as a change of heading will force a portion of the torpedo outside the bubble, causing sudden drag at 230 miles an hour. Early versions of Shkval apparently had a very primitive guidance system, and attacks would have been fairly straight torpedo runs.

Considering the warhead would have been nuclear, that would probably have been good enough to destroy the target. It’s clear the Soviet Union believe there were times when torpedo speed was more important than maneuverability.

Shkval was originally designed in the 1960s as a means of quickly attacking NATO nuclear missile submarines, delivering a nuclear warhead at previously unheard-of speeds. The torpedo is of standard 533-millimeter torpedo diameter and carries a 460-pound warhead. It has a maximum range of 7,500 yards. Shkval began mass production in 1978 and entered service with the Soviet Navy that year.

Like any weapon, there are drawbacks. For one, the gas bubble and the rocket engine are very noisy. Any submarine that launches a supercavitating torpedo will instantly give away its approximate position. That having been said, such a fast-moving weapon could conceivably destroy the enemy before it has time to act on the information, as the enemy suddenly has a both an enemy submarine and a 200-knot torpedo to contend with.

Another drawback to a supercavitating torpedo is the inability to use traditional guidance systems. The gas bubble and rocket engine produce enough noise to deafen the torpedo’s built-in active and passive sonar guidance systems. Early versions of the Shkval were apparently unguided, trading guidance for speed. A newer version of the torpedo employs a compromise method, using supercavitation to sprint to the target area, then slowing down to search for its target.

Is there a future for the supercavitating torpedo? The U.S. has been working on such a weapon since 1997, apparently without a deployable weapon. Indeed, the U.S. Navy is currently in the process of upgrading the venerable Mark 48 submarine torpedo for service into the foreseeable future. Then again, the Navy’s requirements were far greater than Shkval’s capabilities, including turning, identifying, and homing in on targets.

In the meantime Russian submarines are the only subs in the world equipped with supercavitating torpedoes, modernized versions of Shval armed with a conventional warhead. Russian industry also offers an export version, Shkval E, for sales abroad. Iran claims to have a supercavitating torpedo of its own it calls Hoot, and which is assumed to be a reverse-engineered Shkval.

In 2004, German defense contractor Diehl-BGT announced the Barracuda, a technology demonstrator torpedo meant to travel up to 194 knots. Barracuda was meant to be launched from submarines and surface vessels, and test models could travel straight and curved paths. However, the program apparently never translated into a marketable weapon.

A noisy—but effective—weapon, Shkval smashes the paradigm of undersea warfare. A 200 knot torpedo is a very attractive capability, and as naval competition heats up in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, we may see even more navies adopting supercavitating designs and adjusting their undersea tactics accordingly. Undersea warfare is about to get a whole lot louder—and deadlier.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.

Written By

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Fransisco. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The National Interest, Car and Driver, Men's Health, and many others. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Jay Patterson

    October 10, 2021 at 4:21 pm

    I think thats a load of bull. You’re talking about a navy that blew the front half off the Kursk with an unmaintained liquid powered torpedo that should have come out of service decades ago.

  2. Hon Robert F Frazier Esq

    October 10, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    “[A] load of bull”?? Let’s hope so, but …

    … What are your FACTS supporting what you think?? Lives depend upon intelligence of rivalries capabilities in war. NATO, the U.S., the UK, AUKUS, etc. depend upon accurate knowledge of the enemy’s capabilities & at least matching &/or defeating such capabilities. On such certainties wars are won & lost.

    So, upon WHAT facts supporting your thinking can we rely to win the next war or to at least avoid a defeat by cause of a nasty surprise &/or surprises??

    Yours, Mr. Patterson …
    …/s/Robert (F. Frazier, Esq.).

  3. Steve

    October 10, 2021 at 11:58 pm

    Most likely supercavitating torpedos would be air launched.
    An exception might be a two stage torpedo, initial launch to target area, then deploy a more conventional seeking or acoustic seeking torpedo.
    Torpedos can have a revolutionary impact when initially deployed, for instance the Japanese type 93, referred to as “Long Lance” by many naval historians was a revolutionary development when first deployed, a 24 inch torpedo with an enormous 1500 lb warhead and range possibly three times that of conventional torpedos of the period. It utilized a pure compressed oxygen system, highly dangerous requiring specialized training and handling but revolutionary in impact and was devastating in the early stages of the Pacific war such as at Guadalcanal and battle of the Java Sea.
    We can expect more developments such as supercavitating torpedos, autonomous guidance, artificial intelligence.
    Developments by the modern Russian Navy are very concerning, such as the long range, autonomous torpedo, I think nuclear powered carrying a very large, multi megaton warhead with the intent to attack coastal cities and harbors of opposing countries.
    These are essentially Armageddon type weapons and certainly there needs to be some defense, possibly incorporating the latest developments in torpedo technology.

  4. THOMAS ZELLEY

    October 11, 2021 at 12:29 am

    There are no such things as Knots per hour. After seeing that in the story, I cannot believe anything else that is being said. What a load of Junk this story is.

  5. D3F1ANT

    October 11, 2021 at 9:27 am

    The US military is too busy learning CRT to develop effective implements of combat!

  6. Mike Morgan

    October 11, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    Given the US and Russia will never be at war with each other, why am I responding to this obvious clickbait?

  7. Cjones1

    October 11, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    There was speculation that that North Koreans used a supercavitating torpedo to take out a South Korean ship about a decade ago. The torpedo was virtually undetected and travelled at astonishing speed which prevented the South Korean ship from deploying countermeasures in time.
    The Russians have likely shared this technology with or had it stolen by other nations.

  8. Remo Williams

    October 11, 2021 at 2:49 pm

    I’d put forth that these types of torpedos are more effect against surface threats. With a range of 4 miles the launch sub would be destroyed along with the target (Nuclear). Under certain threat conditions the target (say SSB) would launch at least 2 ADCAP’s upon detection of a threat torpedo.

  9. Star Pass

    October 11, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    Lies and more lies.

  10. Prester Kahn

    October 11, 2021 at 3:52 pm

    Thomas Zelly

    Since the article is about a weapon developed decades ago, I suspect the draft of this article was assigned to someone junior and the senior writer / editor missed the “knots per hour”, knots being “nautical miles (6000 feet) per hour.”

    And as for using a nuclear warhead, even at max range using a mid US / lower Soviet tactical nuke yield, they better be prepared to receive a shock wave of up to 15% of their hull rating.

  11. Prester Kahn

    October 11, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    Forgot to address the nuke comment to the general readership

  12. William Hall

    October 11, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    This is a load of horse hockey. If you look carefully at the description of how this is supposed to work it defies the laws of physics. Newton’s third law of motion says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you use any rocket force at all out the front of this super torpedo to vaporize the water immediately in front, that would slow the whole weapon down by an amount equal to the force thus diverted. Liquid water itself is incompressible. So what is being described just would not work. The fact is the real maximum speed for an underwater object is really about 50-60 mph because of the need to move the water out of the way. Objects on the surface can move much faster because they can hydroplane to a great extent above the water and reduce friction/drag to achieve much higher speeds. For underwater objects there is just no way technologically to do that in the manner described. I don’t care how many Russian scientists they put to work on the problem, there is no physically possible solution. I have an idea of what could be tried with boundary-layer technology, but even that has severe limitations.

    This is one of those click bait articles written by some Stalin-worshiping ass hat who just wants to scare us by bragging about how wonderfully superior the Russians are to us. Go back and try again Vladimir.

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