Why Russia's Victor III Nuclear Submarines Were So Good
The Victor III line formed the backbone of the Soviet Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine force.
One of the most underrated successes of the Soviet submarine industry, the Victor III line formed the backbone of the Soviet Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarine force.
The initial line of Project 671 submarines, NATO reporting name Victor I, entered service in the late 1960’s. The submarine’s “teardrop” hull design promised several key hydrodynamic benefits, including higher top speeds and lower noise signature. At a submerged top speed of 32 knots, the former advantage was on clear display. But not so much the latter; Project 671 fell into the longstanding trend of Soviet submarines that eschewed acoustics for speed and offensive capabilities. The subsequent Project 671RT, or Victor II, took limited steps to reduce the submarine’s noise signature, but it was later deemed that the prospective changes were too insignificant to warrant their own submarine line. The project was rolled into the later Victor III class, which boasts a more robust set of across-the-board improvements.
The lead ship, K-524, was transferred to the Soviet Navy in 1977. Reportedly built with information provided by U.S. naval officer and Soviet spy John Anthony Walker, the Victor III line boasted substantial improvements in acoustic performance and featured an endurance of eighty days. As with the other entries in the Project 671 series, it is powered by VM-4A nuclear fission reactors. The submarine is compatible with a healthy diversity of weapons, including Soviet Type 53/65 torpedoes, the RPK-2, torpedo tube-launched, anti-submarine missile system, featuring an operational range of up to 45 kilometers at a maximum speed of just under 700 miles per hour. Alternatively, the Victor III line can also carry up to thirty-six mines. Though it widely shared its onboard sensors with prior Project 671, it did offer a new passive linear array.
In an interesting footnote to an otherwise uneventful service record, five Victor III submarines tried to reach the U.S. coast in 1987 as part of Operation Atrina— the goal, apparently, was to test how easily the submarine can slip back into obscurity after being detected by SOSUS, the U.S. submarine tracking system.
Widely regarded by Soviet sailors as an elegant design, Victor III has proven popular with contemporary submarine model collectors. While not quite rising to the pop culture fame attained by the Soviet Typhoon class following the film Hunt for Red October, the Victor III was prominently featured in the 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough.
As many as twenty-one Victor III units were built through 1991—almost all of them have since been retired. Rumors floated in 2015 of a potential Victor III modernization project, but any such efforts were promptly abandoned due to cost-benefit concerns. It was reported several years ago that three Victor III submarines remain in service in Russia’s Northern Fleet. That number may have further dwindled in late 2020, though precise details are elusive. The final Victor III model to be laid down, Tambov, is set to return to service in 2021 following six years of repairs and partial upgrades.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.