During the Cold War, the Soviet submarine program was a force to be reckoned with. The U.S.S.R.’s underwater killing machines captured the imagination of Westerners and Soviet citizens alike. Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel (adapted as a film the following year) The Hunt for Red October depicted a daring attempt by the crew of a fictitious Soviet Typhoon Class ballistic missile submarine to defect to the United States. In the tense years of confrontation between Washington and Moscow, many Americans imagined Soviet submarines lurking off the country’s coastlines. Submarines granted both superpowers the ability to unleash nuclear Armageddon from the quiet sanctuary of the ocean depths.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian submarine program fell into decline along with many other branches of the Russian military. In the past decade, however, Russian officials have undertaken efforts to modernize their armed forces. From upgrading Cold War models to meet present-day challenges, to designing completely new platforms like the Borei and Yasen Class submarines, Russia is clearly determined to renew the status and capabilities of its underwater fleet.
Here are the five submarines that deserve particular attention.
Akula Class Submarine
Built in the Soviet Union as the Bars Class 971, this nuclear-powered attack submarine is better known by its NATO reporting name “ Akula.” While the Akula cannot run as quietly as some of its Western counterparts, it remains a credible threat, especially after a series of upgrades in the aftermath of the Cold War.
The Soviet Navy commissioned seven Akula I models between 1986 and 1992. Between 1992 and 1995, Russia commissioned between two and four upgraded Akula I subs. Moscow had already set about designing a more comprehensive upgrade, dubbed Project 971A—the Akula II. This upgrade featured an extended hull length of 110 meters and an improved displacement of 12,770 tons. The enhanced design also incorporates a quieter engine than its predecessors, making the Akula II Russia’s quietest submarine design. Russia built three such vessels: the Viper (commissioned 1995), the Nerpa (2000), and the Gepard (2001). Moscow is expected to keep the Gepard in its arsenal until at least 2025 while the Nerpa is being leased to India.
For surface cruising, the Akula reaches speeds of up to 10 knots. Once underwater, this submarine can achieve speeds of up to 33 knots while diving as far as 600 meters. Once deployed, the Akula has an endurance of 100 days. The Akula is armed with a variety of anti-ship, anti-sub, and anti-surface weapons, allowing it to complete a range of missions. One Akula class submarine can carry as many as 12 Granit cruise missiles, which come in anti-ship and land attack variants. The Granit missile has a range of 3,000 kilometers. For anti-ship and anti-sub operations, the Akula I has eight torpedo launch tubes, while the Akula I Improved and Akula II have ten. The Strela SA-N-5/8 portable launcher with 18 missiles gives the Akula class an anti-air capability as well.
Kilo Class Submarine
Conceived during the Soviet era at Rubin Central Maritime Design Bureau at St. Petersburg, Russia’s Project 877 Paltus (NATO reporting name “ Kilo”) is a diesel-electric powered attack submarine. First commissioned by the U.S.S.R. in 1982, the Kilo remains in service in Russia and around the world.
The Kilo is a smaller submarine, with the Iranian version boasting an underwater displacement of 3,076 tons and hull length of 70 meters. The basic Kilo model contains six torpedo launch tubes. This platform can be used for systems like the TEST-71MKE TV electric-homing torpedo, which carries a 205 kilogram explosive charge. The Kilo can also release up to 24 mines. Eight anti-aircraft missiles can be fitted to the Kilo, which is compatible with both the Strela-3 and Igla surface-to-air systems. India, which also uses the Kilo, contracted the Russian shipyard Zvezdochka to add anti-ship missiles like the Klub S (range: 220 kilometers) to its models.
The Kilo’s diesel generators give the submarine a speed of up to 10 knots for surface cruising and 17 knots submerged. The Kilo can dive as far as 300 meters below the waves and has an endurance of 45 days. Post-Soviet Russia still uses the Kilo, while the model is also in service in countries like China, India, Iran, and Algeria. Two ex-Warsaw Pact NATO members, Poland and Romania, also use the Kilo.
Type 636.3 Varshavyanka (Improved Kilo)
When Russia’s new diesel-electric Lada submarine failed its sea trials in 2010, Moscow turned to a Cold War classic: the Kilo. To fit the niche for a modern diesel-electric attack sub, Russia set about upgrading the earlier Kilo model.
Enter the Type 636.6 Varshavyanka, also known in the West as the “Improved Kilo.” Originally intended as an intermediate step between the original Kilo and the Lada, the Varshavyanka will have to fill the gap until the new models are deemed seaworthy. The Russian Navy commissioned six such vessels, four of which have been launched. The newest, Krasnodar, was launched in April 2015 .