Conceived in the late Cold War, Project 941 Akula (North Atlantic Treaty Organization reporting name Typhoon) was meant to compete with the prodigious submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) payload capabilities of the rival U.S. Ohio-class. The Akula class in question is not to be confused with Project 971 Shchuka-B, a line of attack submarines also with the NATO reporting name Akula that is sometimes also referred to as the Akula-class.
Typhoon was to be larger than the Ohio-class, in order to account for its much heftier R-39 Rif missiles. But why were the Typhoon’s missiles so big in the first place? As previously noted by The National Interest, the answer surprisingly stems from differences in the ways that the U.S. and Russian plastics industries developed.
At a submerged displacement of around 48,000 tons, the Typhoon class remains the largest submarine in the world—for a sense of scale, consider that the largest U.S. submarine, the Ohio-class, comes in at just over 18,000 tons. With five internal pressure hulls of premium titanium construction, the Typhoon isn’t just big but also highly resilient. Some of the submarine’s other design features are considerably less practical. In what one can only imagine was a boost for crew morale, the Typhoon’s immense size enabled the addition of a swimming pool, sauna, and even a bird aviary.
As with any strategic submarine, the Typhoon’s core feature is its nuclear-capable arsenal. The Typhoon boasted as many as twenty R-39 Rif SLBM’s, each capable of delivering ten 100-kiloton nuclear warheads. The operational doctrine for Typhoon submarines was fairly straightforward: they would linger beneath the arctic ice cap, where they are much harder to detect and track, before surfacing to launch a devastating nuclear strike on U.S. or Western European infrastructure. But this plan proved difficult, not to mention highly expensive, to fully realize. For one, the submarine had to be of a strong enough construction to readily surface through ice—that’s where the titanium hulls came in. Special design accommodations also had to be made in order to support the massive, ninety-ton R-39 missiles and insulate them from shock.
Typhoon’s unique design had its drawbacks. Precise monetary values are difficult to come by, not to mention somewhat meaningless in the context of the Soviet military-industrial sector, but there is little question that Typhoon’s cost per model was astronomical. The process of extracting and handling titanium is extraordinarily costly, let alone all of Typhoon’s other complex design considerations.
The lead Typhoon submarine, Dmitri Donskoy, was commissioned and transferred to the Northern Fleet in 1981. The Typhoon series was to consist of seven models, six of which were completed over the course of the 1980’s; the last Typhoon entry was scrapped prior to completion. In the decades following the Soviet collapse, all except one—the Dmitri Donskoy, which serves as a testbed for the new Bulava submarine-launched nuclear missiles—were scrapped or decommissioned. Rumors have long swirled of a potential refit that could see several Typhoons turned into cruise missile carriers, but it seems increasingly unlikely with each passing year that the aging Typhoon class will get a new lease on life.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.