In the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Soviet entities and individuals alike were strapped for cash. Enterprising and ruthless financiers snapped up many formerly state-owned businesses at cutthroat rates, while the new Russia state itself responded to the cash crunch in a variety of ways.
One of the ways in which Moscow raised badly needed capital was by selling off some of their military equipment to countries desperate for superior Soviet technology. Iran was among Russia’s customers, buying three Kilo-class submarines in the early 1990s. Submarines proved to be a popular export, though one of the more hare-brained ideas involving Soviet submarines would have retrofitted Russia’s enormous Typhoon-class submarines into oil tankers.
It is hard to overstate just how enormous the Typhoon-class is, and though they hold the title of the largest submarines ever built, that fact is hard to put into perspective. A quick comparison helps. The United States’ mighty Ohio-class submarines are the largest subs in American service. They’re nuclear powered, 560 feet long, and displace nearly 19,000 tons. The Navy originally configured them for long-range strategic deterrence patrols and equipped them with twenty-four Trident nuclear tipped ballistic missiles. Though indeed enormous, they pale in comparison to the Soviet Typhoons.
Displacing 48,000 tons, the Typhoons are roughly 2.5 times the size of their American Ohio-class counterparts. A unique three-hull design, built around the R-39 Rif intercontinental ballistic missile is partly responsible for their enormous size—one that some thought could be adapted to transporting cargo like oil and gas underneath polar ice.
Like many of Russia’s ice breakers, the Typhoons are nuclear powered, and can therefor remain underwater for long periods of time. Rather than chugging slowly on the surface against ice that can be ten to fifteen feet thick, why not simply sail underneath the ice? Removing the Typhoons prodigious ICBMs and making other adjustments to their hull could in theory have freed up quite a bit of valuable cargo space. There were however two not-insignificant challenges.
In the case of transporting non-liquid cargo like foodstuffs or consumer products, one logistical issue becomes quickly obvious: submarine hatches are tiny. Loading and unloading a submarine is a logistical nightmare that has to be overcome every time a sub is docked and at port. Small hatches, generally on submarine topsides, have to facilitate everything that goes into the submarine, be it food, personnel, equipment—even long and awkward torpedoes. An absolutely fascinating video from inside an American submarine explains this process in more detail. The logistical bottleneck presented by submarine hatches just simply couldn’t be overcome for rapid cargo loading and unloading.
Liquid cargo like gas or oil however, doesn’t present this problem, as it can simply be pumped in and pumped out, similarly to how oil tankers take on massive amounts of crude. However, oil tankers are by nature, massive. Some of the smaller general purpose tankers have a capacity of about 10,000 to 25,000 tons, whereas so-called Ultra Large Crude Carriers can transport anywhere from 320,000 to 550,000 tons of product, dwarfing their smaller counterparts many times over. The Typhoon’s potential carrying capacity? A measly 10,000 tons.
In addition, the risk presented by using a nuclear-powered vehicle for cargo transport remained high—an accident might not only leak environmentally destructive oil or gas into the environment, but radiation as well. This potential problem coupled with the obstacles that had to be overcome to turn the once-mighty Typhoons into tanker transports proved to be unsurmountable, and the idea was eventually abandoned.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.