The Project 941 class submarine (hereafter referred to as the Typhoon for ease of typing and Western familiarity) is believed to be the world's largest submarine. The class, PLARB, is a Russian acronym standing for Podvodnaya Lodka Atomnaya Raketnaya Ballisticheskaya. This translates roughly into English as "Submarine, Nuclear-powered - Rocket, Ballistic." It is the equivalent of the NATO SSBN.
The first hull was laid down at the 402 Sevmash shipyard by the Soviet Navy on March 3, 1977. It was launched 3.5 years later, on Sept. 23rd 1980. The fleet eventually numbered around six, all based at Polyarnyy, near Murmansk in the North Fleet oparea. This boat is noteworthy both for its capabilities and its dimensions. The Typhoon was the first boat to deploy the Soviet R-39 SLBM (known to NATO as the SS-N-20 Sturgeon). This missile was the first solid-fuelled Soviet SLBM to have long enough range to hit its targets from its home port waters, increasing the perceived threat to NATO.
The Typhoon is notable for having a dual pressure hull structure, with the pressure hulls side-by-side. This is responsible for the sizeable beam of the ship. The bulge around the base of the sail is an escape compartment designed to separate from the ship and carry the entire crew to the surface in the event of an emergency. It is nuclear powered, with twin reactors and steam turbines, producing 190 MW of power. This drives its twin screws with enough power for the ship to attain submerged speeds of approximately 25-27 knots.
This ship class was introduced to the Western public by the work of fiction writer Tom Clancy. His fictional submarine Red October was a Typhoon class boat - if it was the lead boat of the class, its Soviet navy designation would have been TK-208, the actual first hull. It is, however, not propelled by magnetohydrodynamic propulsion, as Clancy's version was. It was a worry to NATO navies for many of the qualities that Clancy described: extremely long range missiles, quieter operation than its predecessors, and generally more modern systems. In addition, it was capable of operating under ice. This, along with its extremely long missile range and self-defense systems likely pushed U.S. Navy planners towards a particular doctrine of 'storming the bastions.' This was (IMHO) a most unwise doctrine, but seemed to drive a great deal of U.S. Navy ASW planning during the 1980s and early 1990s, including the design of the SSN-21 Seawolf, a blue-water pure ASW platform. It was called the Maritime Strategy and its shortcomings can be discussed elsewhere.
In essence, the Typhoon was designed with the weaknesses of the Soviet Navy clearly in mind, and the submarine's primary purpose as well. The Soviets were quite aware that the NATO navies would exert all available force to dominate the Atlantic Ocean and its approaches. This made their missile submarines useless as long-range, wandering assets since they would be heavily outnumbered and up against navies much better trained than they, and trained on the battleground itself in Atlantic NATO exercises. They could and did station some PLARBs on the Pacific, but the situation there was even worse with Japan and the U.S. holding joint naval dominance, plus the lack of access to blue-water ports out of easy reach of Western surveillance and interdiction.
As a result, the likely doctrine of the Soviet (now Russian) PLARB fleet was to run for the polar icecap in the event of war, with accompanying fast-attack boats (SSN) for protection. Operating under ice is not easy; submarines have to be designed to do so (most are) and train to do so (some do). Even then, finding an opposing submarine whose mission is simply to remain undetected, all the while fighting cat and mouse games with opposing attack submarines close to their home turf is not something the NATO submarine forces looked forward to. The Typhoon was able, likely, to surface through ice or at least hide up against the bottom of the icepack, given that it was able to handle 'under-ice operations.' This would have made things even harder.
This whole operation was designed to protect the Soviet PLARBs, in order to preserve their nuclear arsenal as a secure second-strike asset for the Soviet leadership in the event of a confrontation. The Typhoon looked to be very good at this sort of run-and-hide game, and that made NATO a bit nervous.
Some Specs courtesy of the Federation or American Scientists, Jane's Fighting Ships and conversations with crew:
- Length: 171 meters
- Beam: 23+ meters
- Draft: 11+meters
- Max. Speed: 14 kts surface/26 kts submerged
- Number of ships in class: 6 (one to three presently active, likely one)
- Displacement: around 24,000 tons dwt. on the surface, and between 33,000 and 48,000 tons dwt.submerged. For comparison, a modern U.S. Aircraft Carrier displaces just under 100,000 tons; a World War II fast battleship of the U.S. Iowa class displaces approximately 45,000 tons.
- Max. Diving Depth: Unknown, probably around 500 meters
- Crew size: Approx. 145 men