The Russian Typhoon-class nuclear-powered submarine, also known as the “Akula,” is the largest submarine ever built. Despite being close in length to the United States’ Ohio-class submarine at around 175 meters, the Typhoon is significantly wider: Ohio-class subs come in at roughly thirteen meters wide, with the Typhoon with a beam of twenty-three meters.
Mostly a Cold War relic, this underwater behemoth was developed and built in the 1970s in an attempt to match the then-nascent Ohio-class subs being built by the United States. With news of the Ohio-class’ ability to pack up to 192 nuclear warheads on its set of Trident ballistic missiles—and given the serious attention in the Cold War paid to warhead numbers—the Soviets built the Typhoon to carry twenty R-39 Rif ballistic missiles, each equipped with ten one-hundred kiloton nuclear warheads and each able to seek individual targets within a range of the original missile’s strike location.
Typhoon: Big Firepower
These multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) could travel up to 8,300 kilometers and would be launched in the event of an outbreak of nuclear hostilities between the Soviet Union and the United States. In such an instance, the Typhoon – which was designed to hide beneath the thick ice of the Arctic Circle and thus under the cover of Soviet naval forces – would utilize its reinforced hull to break through the ice and rise for a launch.
The Typhoon itself was popularized in the Tom Clancy novel-turned-film, The Hunt for Red October, which featured a super-Typhoon equipped with additional missile capabilities and nearly-silent pump-jet propulsion. Such an engine would allow the sub to stealthily linger off the East Coast of the United States with first-strike capability.
However, the Typhoon never exhibited such features in practice, especially the engine. Rather, each Typhoon was equipped with two OKB-650 nuclear reactors to propel the behemoth around and beneath the icy waters of the Arctic.
Today, all but one of the original six built Typhoons have either been scrapped or laid up, oftentimes with U.S. and Canadian financial assistance. The only remaining unit, the Dmitri Donskoy (TK-208) of Russia’s Northern Fleet, saw roughly a decade’s worth of retrofitting from the early 1990s to 2002. The refitted ship has been used primarily for testing the RSM-56 Bulava ballistic missile, capable of reaching targets over 8,000 kilometers away.
Despite its recent use, the Typhoon’s future is still largely unclear. Now that the Bulava has been successfully tested, it is likely that the Russian Navy will come to rely on newer Borei-class submarines for its nuclear deterrent. These subs, much smaller and more space-efficient, can carry up to sixteen Bulava missiles with a total explosive yield of 7,200 kilotons. Russia is currently planning to build eight more Borei submarines, splitting its units between the Northern and Pacific fleets.
Reviving Submerged Submarines
Recent attention has been given, however, to statements by Russian Navy Vice Admiral, Oleg Burstev, indicating the Dimitri Donskoy and two laid-up Typhoons might be retrofitted with up to 200 cruise missiles apiece. This would match the similar capabilities of today’s Ohio-class submarines, which had their launch tubes for nuclear-tipped missiles replaced by systems for conventionally-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Yet most analysts agree that such a move would make little sense. It would require lots of refitting, including replacing the Typhoons’ aging nuclear reactors. Additionally, the Kalibr cruise missiles with which the sub would likely be equipped are rather expensive and other submarines in the Russian arsenal can already launch cruise missiles. Indeed, building new submarines would almost certainly be more cost-efficient than renovating rusting, old Typhoons.
Despite the talk, it is most likely that the Typhoon will end up seeing its final days in the coming decade.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.