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Unconventional Soviet Submarines

By Bruce Rule - July 7, 2013

Those who were in the System during the early- to mid-1960s period may recall that initially HOTEL, ECHO and NOVEMBER Class Soviet submarines were called “unconventional” because Naval Reactors – then NAVSEA 08 – would not then acknowledge the Soviets could successfully design, build and operate nuclear submarines; hence, NAVSEA 08 dictated how those platforms were to be described by the US intelligence community..

Only after those submarines demonstrated speeds and endurances that made any alternative to nuclear power essentially impossible was ONI permitted to use the term “nuclear” when evaluating relevant acoustic data. Even then, ONI was directed to estimate speeds no higher than 22 knots based on the assumption that the Soviets would be unable to install more than 15,000 shaft horsepower in the NOVEMBER. That estimate was based on the erroneous assessment that the Soviets could not achieve “packaging densities” (horsepower per cubic-foot of engineering space) superior to NAUTILUS.

In 1965, NAVSTIC released a message – without prior approval from NAVSEA 08 - that stated the NOVEMBER had a near 30-knot capability. NAVSEA 08 threatened to have the NAVSTIC officer who released that message fired, an action they did not execute.

We now know – thanks to extensive discussions by post-1991 Russian sources – that the NOVEMBER had a 37,000 horsepower power plant and a maximum speed of almost 30 knots. That packaging density was achieved at severe cost in terms of reliability and noise (acoustic detectability). Note that the Soviets were so concerned with the reliability of their first-generation nuclear submarines for extended out-of-area operations that none were deployed into the Atlantic during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 even though a NOVEMBER had made a short excursion south of the GIUK Gap in July 1962 - almost 50 years ago to the day – and was nailed by Barbados at speeds between 21 and 24 knots at a range of 3,000 nm.

What extensive open source discussions – including MORSKOI SBORNIK (MB), a Soviet/Russian shipbuilding journal – revealed in the 1990s was that while NAVSEA 08 was unwilling to acknowledge any packaging density better than NAUTILUS, the Soviets were building the PAPA Class SSGN with 80,000 shaft horsepower shoe-horned into a 7,000 ton submerged displacement hull which also accommodated 10 SS-N-7 Starbright missiles.

On 31 December 1969, the PAPA conducted Soviet State Commission acceptance trials in the ice-covered White Sea in 200m (656 feet) of water. The trial included running a race-track pattern for 12 hours at 42 knots, a speed calculated to have been achieved on only 80-percent of full power. Later, the PAPA achieved 44.9 knots on 97-percent power. The PAPA was built to close US aircraft carriers operating at maximum speed in the open ocean.

In fact, this actually occurred. An MB article stated that while deployed into the Atlantic between 25 Sep and 4 Dec 1971, the PAPA operated at sustained speeds of 40 knots to intercept a US carrier group returning from the Med. At that time, PAPA was equipped with “special 8-bladed propellers.” according to the MB article.

By the time this article was published, no System records still existed for the 1971 time period; however, if recognized, such an operation would have have been remembered as a signal event by anyone involved in the analysis.

So what happened? It is highly probable detections were made but were so strong and unusual they were not recognized as a submarine.

In the mid-1970s, the writer – using analysis by George Milller – briefed ADM Rickover, Head of Naval Reactors, that the PAPA was assessed to be capable of speeds as high as 39 knots. Without comment or question, the ADM listened to the brief and then said: “I don't believe you but I can use the information” (reportedly during testimony to Congress related to funding).

The writer has often conjectures what might have transpired had I told the ADM PAPA was capable of 45 knots; I'd probably have been thrown out of his office.

In the late 1970s, using analyses by Ron Smith, the writer made the rounds of the Pentagon briefing that the ALFA had a 40-knot speed capability. That assessment appeared on the front page of the WASHINGTON POST several days later.

The timing of that assessment was not propitious. Several weeks earlier ONI had reduced their estimate of the ALFA maximum speed from 32-knots to 28-knots because it was not thought possible to install the horsepower required for 32 knots in a hull with the ALFA's volume – another packing density issue. What was not then known was that ALFA used a liquid-metal (lead-bismuth eutectic) reactor to provide 40,000 shaft horsepower in a 3,200 ton submerged displacement hull. The ALFA design was first proposed in 1957; construction began in 1960 using titanium for the pressure hull and a 400-Hz electrical power system, design features that saved weight and space.

Obsessed, as with so many others systems – including the Kama River truck plant that produced 629,000 trucks in 1973 – the Soviets followed the doctrine of “Gigantomania:TRJB” the biggest (TYPHOON), the fastest (PAPA) and deepest diving (MIKE with a “never exceed depth” of 4100-feet) submarines; however, the early examples of this obsession had severe problems: reliability, noise and, in the case of the ALFA, a main coolant liquid that solidified (essentially “froze”) at 255 degrees (F).

Apologies if some of the above has been posted before.