Soviet Submarines

Like the U.S. Navy, the Soviet Navy found German submarine innovations of compelling interest. It rapidly built a fleet of fast, modern ocean-going submarines based on German models and continued to build and deploy diesel-electric attack submarines throughout the Cold War. The first Soviet ballistic missile submarines in the late 1950s were also diesel-electric. By 1960, however, the Soviet Navy had launched its first nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines.

It also developed a third type of nuclear-powered submarine (called SSGNs) designed specifically to launch cruise missiles against American aircraft carrier task forces. At its peak in 1980, the Soviet submarine force numbered 480 boats, including 71 fast attacks and 94 cruise and ballistic missile submarines. Because the names of individual Soviet submarines are seldom known abroad, the usual practice is to refer to them only as a member of a submarine class. The most widely known class names are those assigned as code names by NATO, such as Alfa, Charlie, and Kilo.

Soviet Alfa-Class Nuclear-powered Attack Submarine
After the prolonged testing of a 1970 prototype, the Soviet Union built six Alfa-class boats between 1979 and 1983. These highly automated boats require only small, 30-man crews. Combining a liquid-metal cooled reactor propulsion system with a titanium hull, Alfa-class boats achieve exceptionally high underwater performance, a top speed of 43 knots (80 km/hr) and an operational depth of 2,000 feet (600 m).

Soviet Typhoon-Class Nuclear-powered Ballistic Missile Submarine
The largest submarines ever built, the first Typhoon-class ships entered service in 1977. They are 563 feet (172 m) long, have a beam of 81 feet (25 m). Performance figures can only be estimated: speed submerged, 30 knots (56 km/hr) and operational depth, 1,300 feet (400 m). Typhoons carry 20 SS-N-20 "Sturgeon" underwater-launched ballistic missiles.

Soviet Charlie-Class Nuclear-powered Cruise Missile Submarine
This Soviet Charlie-class SSGN in the South China Sea was photographed from the air in 1974. Note the shadow of the aircraft, a U.S. P-3 Orion, on the water. Charlies were the world's first submarines able to launch cruise missiles while submerged. Courtesy Naval Historical Center

Soviet Kilo-Class Diesel-Electric Attack Submarine
Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union continued to build diesel-electric submarines throughout the Cold War. Shown here is one of the most recent, a Kilo-class attack submarine photographed by a NATO aircraft. Kilo-class boats began to enter service in 1979 and are still being built for export. They have a surface speed of 12 knots (22 km/hr) and can make well over 16 knots (30 km/hr) submerged.

Diesel-electric submarines can be effective for missions such as coastal defense, where high speed and long range are not crucial. Operating on virtually silent electric motors underwater, they are inherently quieter than nuclear-powered boats with their coolant pumps. Diesel-electric submarines are also less costly to build and maintain. Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute

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