Here's What You Need to Know: Submarine design and construction is a notoriously tricky business—these projects often don’t pan out for a wide range of technical, logistical, and even political reasons
For decades, the Soviet Union has been one of the world’s leading producers of cutting-edge submarine technology. The Russian Federation has since picked up its predecessor’s mantle, challenging its NATO rivals with two formidable newsubmarine classes. But submarine design and construction is a notoriously tricky business—these projects often don’t pan out for a wide range of technical, logistical, and even political reasons. Here are the five worst Russian and Soviet submarines.
The November-class was the USSR’s first line of nuclear-powered attack submarines, inaugurated in 1958. The class suffered from serious safety and reliability issues stemming from its experimental reactor implementation, resulting in a series of catastrophic accidents that earned the November boats the reputation of bonafide underwater coffins among the Soviet sailors unfortunate enough to be assigned to them. The 1970 sinking of the K-8 November-class submarine during Naval exercises is remembered as one of history’s greatest submarine disasters, costing the lives of fifty-two servicemen.
The Victor I-class nuclear-powered attack submarines brought a revolutionary leap in postwar Soviet submarine design, but the Victor II revision did little to build on these advancements. The Victor II update sought to reduce the class’ noise generation, but the changes were too little, too late. The Soviets soon discovered, in part through information collected by the Walker spy ring, that the Victor II vessels still lagged far behind their American counterparts in acoustics. Seven Victor II submarines were built from 1972 through 1978—the line was then cut short and replaced by the markedly more successful Victor III-class.
Designed around a unique implementation of air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology, the new Project 677 Ladasubmarines were meant to provide the Russian navy with a modernized, cost-efficient complement to nuclear-powered submarines. But the Lada project stalled amid technical difficulties, leading the manufacturer to abandon AIP propulsion altogether in favor of a traditional diesel-electric system. Project 677’s place on this list is a reflection of the fact that the Russian shipbuilding industry has failed to implement the submarines’ core defining feature, dooming what was a potentially innovative class to long-term technical irrelevance.
The only submarine of her class, the K-278 Komsomolets was intended as a testbed for new naval technologies. A fire broke out aboard the Komsomolets in 1989, setting off a series of events that caused the submarine to sink and led to the deaths of forty-two crew members. The damage wrought by Komsomolets has managed to outlive the submarine itself: further investigations discovered plutonium leakage from the wrecked, sunken submarine’s nuclear torpedoes, prompting ongoing concerns of environmental contamination.
Introduced in 1935, the three Pravda-class submarines were used by the USSR during the Second World War as transport boats. But the Soviet military quickly realized that the Pravda class was woefully underpowered for its role. The Pravda-class was crippled by its poor maneuverability, unacceptably long diving time, and small crush depth, making it one of the least successful submarine lines ever to serve in the Soviet navy.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.
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