The Buzz

Russia's First Nuclear Attack Submarine Was a Real Killer (Of Lots of Russian Sailors)

The United States launched the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954, revolutionizing undersea warfare. The Nautilus’s reactor allowed it operate underwater for months at a time, compared to the hours or days afforded conventional submarines. The following year, the Soviet Union began building its own nuclear submarine, the Project 627—known as the November class by NATO. The result was a boat with a few advantages compared to its American competition, but that also exhibited a disturbing tendency to catastrophic accidents that would prove characteristic of the burgeoning Soviet submarine fleet during the Cold War.

The original specifications drafted in 1952 for a Soviet nuclear submarine had conceived of employing them to launch enormous nuclear torpedoes at enemy harbors and coastal cities. At the time, the Soviet Union lacked the long-range missiles or bombers that could easily hit most of the continental United States. However, as these capabilities emerged in the mid-1950s, the Project 627 design was revised to reflect an antiship role, with eight torpedo tubes located in the bow and combat systems taken from Foxtrot-class diesel submarines.

The first Project 627 boat, the K-3 Leninsky Komsomol, launched in 1957 and made its first voyage under nuclear power in July 1958 under Capt. Leonid Osipenko, using a reactor design supervised by renowned scientist Anatoly Alexandrov. The large, torpedo-shaped vessel displaced more than four thousand tons submerged and was 107 meters long. Its double-hulled interior was divided into nine compartments, housing a crew of seventy-four seamen and thirty officers.

K-3 rapidly demonstrated the extraordinary endurance of nuclear submarines, embarking upon two-month long cruises while submerged. In 1962, it became the first Soviet vessel to travel to the North Pole, while a sister ship, K-133, was the first submarine to traverse the Drake Strait submerged in a twenty-one-thousand-mile cruise that lasted fifty-two days.

K-3 was soon joined by twelve additional November-class vessels of a revised design designated the Project 627A, distinguishable by a bulbous sonar dome under the bow, as well as a single Project 645 prototype powered by an experimental VT-1 liquid metal reactor with greater power efficiency. The fourteen November-class boats were deployed to the Third and Seventeenth Divisions of the Northern Fleet, though later four were transferred to the Pacific Fleet by transiting under Arctic ice.

The 627’s VM-A reactors were more powerful than their American contemporaries, speeding the Project 627s along up to thirty knots (34.5 miles per hour). However, the 627 lacked another quality generally expected of a nuclear submarine: the reactors were extremely noisy, making the Project 627 boats easy to detect despite the use of stealthy propellers and the first anti-sonar coating applied to a nuclear submarine. This lack of discretion, combined with its inferior sonar array, made the November class ill suited for hunting opposing submarines.

Nonetheless, the 627s still dealt the U.S. Navy a few surprises. In 1965, K-27 managed to sneak up on the antisubmarine carrier USS Randolph off of Sardinia and complete a mock torpedo run before being detected. In 1968, another November-class boat proved capable of matching pace with the carrier USS Enterprise while the latter moved at full power, causing a minor panic in the Navy leadership that led to the adoption of the speedy Los Angeles–class attack submarine, some of which remain in service today.

However, the power of the November class’s reactors was bought at the price of safety and reliability. A lack of radiation shielding resulted in frequent crew illness, and many of the boat suffered multiple reactor malfunctions over their lifetimes. This lack of reliability may explain why the Soviet Union dispatched conventional Foxtrot submarines instead of the November-class vessels during the Cuban Missile Crisis, despite the fact that the diesel boats needed to surface every few days, and for this reason were cornered and chased away by patrolling American ships.

In fact, the frequent, catastrophic disasters onboard the Project 627 boats seem almost like gruesome public service announcements for everything that could conceivably go wrong with nuclear submarines. Many of the accidents reflected not only technological flaws, but the weak safety culture of the Soviet Navy.

K-8 started the trend in October 13, 1960, when a ruptured steam turbine nearly led to a reactor meltdown due to loss of coolant. The crew was able to jury-rig an emergency water-cooling system, but not before radioactive gas contaminated the entire vessel, seriously irradiating several of the crew. K-14, which would distinguish itself in the medical evacuation of an Arctic expedition in 1963, also experienced a reactor breakdown in 1961, necessitating its replacement the following years.