Russia's Foxtrot-Class: The Submarine That Nearly Started World War III
History shows even obsolete weapons can be the spark that could kill millions.
The Foxtrot-class of Soviet submarines were nothing remarkable. Built upon obsolete design principals which favored surface sailing, the Foxtrot-class was optimized for travel on the surface.
Consequently, the Foxtrot-class was remarkably slow, and sailed at a modest 16 knots, just over 18 miles per hour. It can be identified by its large bow bulge and World War I-Esque prow. It was also quite cramped. The submarines were diesel-electric, and as such had to reserve an outsize amount of space for their batteries, which were quite large.
Cuban Missile Crisis
The Foxtrot-class had its most well known (or rather infamous) moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis, considered by so as the closest the world has ever come to World War III and thermonuclear war.
A number of the Foxtrot-class hulls had been sent to Cuba from their base on the Kola Peninsula and were patrolling in the Caribbean. A group of American surface ships observed the submarines and pursued them.
Although the Foxtrot submarines dove into the waves to avoid detection they had been spotted. In an effort to alert the submarines that they had been spotted, and to corral them away from the area, several U.S. ships dropped signaling depth charges, hand-grenade size charges intended for signaling rather than for causing any damage.
Too deep to establish radio contact, B-59, the commanding ship of a small Soviet submarine flotilla, and the only hull that had not surfaced in response to the U.S. Navy signaling charges, believed that war had broken out.
In addition to its normal torpedos, the B-59 also had a nuclear-tipped torpedo onboard. This torpedo was designed as more of an area weapon, with a force estimated at 4.8 kilotons.
Under normal circumstances, both the commanding officer of the B-59 as well as the ship’s political officer had to jointly agree to use the nuclear-tipped torpedo. Firmly convinced that the signaling charges were actual depth charges and that the flotilla, and by extension the Soviet Union was under attack, the Capitan and political officer strongly advocated for arming and firing their nuclear-tipped torpedo.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the flotilla admiral, Vasily Arkhipov, was also on board the B-59 and refused to give his consent, overruling the other two officers. Nuclear war had been averted.
Last of its Kind
During the annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian Foxtrot-class submarine (the Zaporizhzhia, named after a town along the bank of the Dnieper River) was surrendered to the Russian navy.
The submarine, by then completely obsolete, had reportedly been surrounded by Russian surface ships. Its Ukrainian insignia was removed from the ship, and the captain reportedly flew the Russian flag from the submarine’s tower, at which point it was boarded by Russian sailors.
The Zaporizhzhia is so dated and ineffective, Russia didn’t want it and attempted a return. Perhaps the Foxtrot-class can now, finally, be permanently retired.
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.