In the fall, the Soviet-built K-3 Leninsky Komsomol submarine was paraded through the streets of Russia in its final moments before retiring in a St. Petersburg museum. The 30,000-ton vessel served as the USSR’s first ever nuclear submarine for many years. Dubbed as “The Whale,” the hefty 352 foot ships that made up the Soviet’s November-class SSNs were constructed similarly to many other USSR military equipment at the time.
While the Soviets were great at pushing out large quantities of weaponry and other war equipment, quality was perhaps not their greatest strong suit. The November-class submarines hosted some serious design flaws, rendering them unsafe by some industry experts.
The Soviet Union’s submarine trajectory
In the second half of the last century, the USSR and the Russian Federation developed the largest nuclear-powered navy across the globe. According to Popular Mechanics, Moscow and its predecessor created more nuclear-powered vessels than all other nations combined. In fact, Moscow possessed 245 atom-powered submarines by the mid-1990’s, 180 of which sailed with dual reactors. Russia’s aim to develop large quantities of submarines bore from the grueling arms race it participated in with the United States.
The U.S. Navy launched its first nuclear-powered submarine in 1954. The USS Nautilus stood out from its peers as its advanced reactor allowed the vessel to operate underwater for months at a time. In an effort to counter America’s new naval ability, Soviet engineers went to work to develop a near-peer nuclear submarine. Project 627- dubbed as the November-class by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), emerged from this effort.
Throughout the rest of the 1950’s, dozens of Soviet organization ranging from research institutes to design bureaus participated in the development of the November-class submarines. The K-3 Leninskiy Komsomo lwas the first vessel in its class to launch in 1958. All other members of the November-class belonged to project 627A- a modified version of the original program. The K-3’s sister ships featured a bow sonar dome in the keel and a hydrophone antenna over its torpedo tubes. Renowned Soviet scientist Anatoly Alexandrov oversaw the development of the K-3 submarine.
The torpedo-shaped boat displaced more than 4,000 tons submerged and more than 100 meters long. Seventy-four seaman and thirty officers were divided in the K-3’s nine compartments.
A litany of serious incidents have plagued the November-class vessels
The November-class subs made excellent attack vessels. Once in range, one of these ships could strike with 533mm SET-65 or 53-65K torpedoes. Although the November-class submarines were technically more powerful than their American near-peers, the Soviet ships were extremely noisy. Unlike their American counterparts, the Project 627 vessels were easily detected and could therefore not be used for submarine hunting operations.
Another major flaw the boats possessed was the overall lack of safety measured. Crew members were often sickened by the ship’s lack of radiation shielding. Multiple incidents plagued the various November-class submarines over the years.
In 1960, a ruptured steam turbine almost led to a reactor meltdown aboard the K-8 submarine due to loss of coolant. Although the vessel was ultimately saved, radioactive gas contaminated the entire ship, seriously injuring many crew members. A few years later, the K-14 submarine would experience a similar tragedy in the Arctic when its own reactor broke down.
In 1967, a fire erupted on the K-3 in the Norwegian Sea in the vessel’s torpedo room. The submarine was ultimately salvaged when the commander of the ship’s second compartment managed to prevent the flames from spreading. Although the boat did not fully sink, more than three dozen sailors were killed in the blaze, as carbon dioxide emitted from the automatic extinguishers suffocated the crew trapped in the first two compartments in the ship.
A full investigation of the incident was only launched less than a decade ago. Despite the lack of understanding the origins of the fire back in 1967, the K-3 was put back into service. According to Polar Journal, the investigation found that “the cause of the accident had been of technical nature. Liquid from the hydraulic system had spilled onto an electric lamp…Instead of a copper seal, a paronite-fabricated seal had been used, which was not designed for higher pressures.”
Although the November-class submarines suffered from weak safety protocols, the entire Soviet submarine scrapping process was no different. Instead of carefully deconstructing the vessels’ reactors and other radioactive materials once ships are decommissioned, Soviets left the submarines to dangerously rot in many cases.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.