Key Point: An old sub could make a comeback.
On April 20, 2019, Russia’s TASS Agency reported that Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev announced Russia’s intention to take two of its decommissioned Typhoon-class ballistic submarines and pack them full of hundreds of cruise missiles.
“The dimensions of these submarines allow arming each of them with at least 200 cruise missiles [each],” he said.
The Typhoon ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), famously featured in the film Hunt for Red October, are by far the biggest and most expensive submarines ever built. Cruise-missile-armed Typhoons would give Russia direct analogs of the United States’ four Ohio-class cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), which had their launch tubes for nuclear-armed ballistic missiles replaced with vertical launch systems for 154 conventionally-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Burtsev made the missile-envy issue explicit:
“American Ohio-class submarines can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Chinese Project 055 destroyer is capable of carrying 112 cruise missiles. But our frigates belonging to the Project 22350 can currently carry only 16 of them. Subsequent frigates will get 24 of them. It is still insufficient,” he added.
But there’s a big problem this plan—revamping the two mothballed subs would likely cost more than simply building newer, better submarines for the job.
The Typhoon and Kalibr
The Typhoon-class submarine, officially designated the Project 941 Akula (“Shark”) in Russia, are Cold War behemoths measuring 175-meters in length and displacing 48,000 ton submerged. That amounts to twice the tonnage of American Ohio-class SSBN it was intended to rival. No less than five internal pressure hulls made of ultra-expensive titanium gave the Typhoon’s extraordinary resilience to battle damage—and extraordinary cost to manufacture.
The Typhoons were designed to lurk under the ice of the Arctic Circle, covered by friendly Soviet naval forces, awaiting a very-low-frequency radio signal indicating that World War III had broken out and had gone nuclear. In that event, they’d rise close to the surface, counting on their reinforced sails to smash through the ice if necessary, and launch their twenty R-39 ballistic missiles. Each missile, in turn, would unleash ten independently targeted 100-kiloton yield nuclear warheads on American and European cities and military bases.
Only one Typhoon remains operational today, TK-208 Dimitriy Donskoi, which has been employed on occasional missile tests. Three others, plus another Typhoon which was laid down and never completed, were scrapped between 2005 and 2009, an operation 80 percent funded with U.S. and Canadian money. Smaller, newer and stealthier Borei-class SSBNs, as well as older Delta-class boats, perform Russian nuclear deterrence patrols instead—at half the operating and maintenance cost of the Typhoons.
The two Typhoons being proposed for refit are the decommissioned TK-17 Arkhangelsk and TK-20 Severstal, which have been rusting in an Arctic ship repair center at Severodvinsk since 2006 and 2004 respectively. For over a decade, the Russian Navy repeatedly announced intentions to either scrap or refit the subs as recently as 2018, only to apparently change its mind.
The idea of arming the Typhoons with cruise missiles and mines, instead of new ballistic missiles, has been kicked around for a while. The Typhoons have even been considered for use as submarine cargo ships for circumventing Arctic ice.
Burtsev stated that Kalibr cruise missiles would be the Typhoon SSGN’s principle armament, but also suggested more advanced Zircon and hypersonic Oniks missile currently under development could also be equipped.
The Kalibr is Russia’s analog of the U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile. It comes in a submarine-launched 3M14K land-attack and 3M54K radar-guided anti-ship variants, with ranges of 1,600 and 400 miles respectively. Unlike the subsonic Tomahawk, the anti-ship 3M54 model can dash nearly three times the speed of sound on its terminal approach to evade missile defenses. On at least nine occasions between 2015-2018, Russian Kilo-class submarines have fired subsonic 3M14K Kalibr missile through their torpedo tubes at land targets in Syria.
The P-800 Oniks is a more advanced supersonic anti-ship missile in service on new Yasen-class submarines, while Zircon is a hypersonic weapon with a reported top speed of Mach 9 that has yet to be integrated onto a submarine platform.
Costs Meet Benefits
The idea of a gigantic submarine ripple-firing two hundred cruise missiles at NATO bases or a carrier task force sounds intimidating. But just how realistic is a cruise-missile refit?
Submarine analyst Peter Coates notes in a blog post the major challenges revamping the Typhoons would pose.
The Soviet Navy would have to “treat and/or derust each Typhoon’s massive steel outer hull and Titanium inner hulls. Russia may have lost the highly expensive industrial capability to work Titanium for submarines.”
Russia would also have to develop modernized combat systems and sensors, particularly for targeting the cruise missiles, as well as heavily retrofit the 2.4-meter diameter ballistic missile tubes to pack in twenty cruise missiles each. Then, there is the matter of the Typhoon’s two thirty-three-year-old nuclear reactors, which would likely need to be replaced entirely.
Lastly, cruise missiles like the Kalibr, priced at $1.2 million each, are fantastically expensive even for the U.S. military, and Russia has roughly one-twelfth the defense budget. Concentrating two-hundred missiles on one submarine, rather than dispersing them across Russia’s many Kalibr-compatible launch platforms, may not be a sensible or affordable way to use the limited supply of costly missiles.
In short, Coates, notes that it would likely be cheaper to build two entirely new, modern submarines—say, a modified Borei-class—than to refit the enormous Typhoons.
Michael Kofman, a Russia-specialist at the Center for Naval Analysis, stated the same thing: “It sounds quite unrealistic… the project doesn’t make sense given the cost of refitting an SSGN or a ship to a SSGN is often equal to the price of building an entirely new one.”
Coates points out that Russia already possesses many submarines that can launch smaller cruise missile attacks, and is upgrading several Project 949AM Oscar-class submarines with the capability of lobbing up to sixty-four cruise missiles through their vertical launch cells on their spine.
Thus, while the idea of Russia reviving its cold war leviathans sounds compellingly scary, there’s evidence it makes little practical or financial sense given more cost-efficient and survivable means to achieve the same ends. It could also be the project is being trumpeted for the propagandistic symbolism behind deploying super-submarines that are larger and carry more missiles than their American counterparts.
However, in the last few years, the Russian Navy has had to walk back hyped-up plans to develop nuclear-powered Lider-class destroyers, a new aircraft carrier, and air-independent propulsion systems for its diesel submarines.
Furthermore, in November 2018 the huge PD-50 floating drydock specifically built to maintain the gigantic Typhoons (and then adapted to tend to carriers and missile cruisers) sank in an accident, with significant implications for the sustainability of large naval assets.
Therefore, it’s probably sensible to await more concrete evidence the Russian Navy is ready to follow through with the considerable money and effort necessary to revamp its moth-balled mega-subs.
As Kremlin state news agency RIA Novosti/Sputnik News put it in an article that ran January 2018:
“At first glance, the idea of equipping Akulas with cruise missiles looks attractive... But those [benefits] pale compared to the costs of restoring and operating Severstal and Arkhangelsk…”
“Arkhangelsk” and “Severstal” could be converted to cruise missiles, but the usefulness of this solution at its very high cost is not obvious, says [Russian naval anlalyst] Konstantin Makienko, “we have quite a lot of platforms for cruise missiles that are much cheaper and more mobile.”
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared earlier this year.