Russia's Akula-Class Attack Submarines Still Strike Fear Into Sailors' Hearts

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: Despite the Akula’s poor readiness rate, they continue to make up the larger part of Russia’s nuclear attack submarine force.

The Soviet Union produced hot-rod submarines that could swim faster, take more damage, and dive deeper than their American counterparts—but the U.S. Navy remained fairly confident it had the Soviet submarines outmatched because they were all extremely noisy. Should the superpowers clash, the quieter American subs had better odds of detecting their Soviet counterparts first, and greeting them with a homing torpedo. However, that confidence was dented in the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Navy launched its Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. Thirty years later they remain the mainstay of the Russian nuclear attack submarine fleet—and are quieter than the majority of their American counterparts.

Intelligence provided by the spies John Walker and Jerry Whitworth in the 1970s convinced the Soviet Navy that it needed to seriously pursue acoustic stealth in its next attack submarine. After the prolific Victor class and expensive titanium-hulled Sierra class, construction of the first Project 971 submarine, Akula (“Shark”), began in 1983. The new design benefited from advanced milling tools and computer controls imported from Japan and Sweden, respectively, allowing Soviet engineers to fashion quiet seven-bladed propellers.

The large Akula, which displaced nearly thirteen thousand tons submerged, featured a steel double hull typical to Soviet submarines, allowing the vessel to take on more ballast water and survive more damage. The attack submarine’s propulsion plant was rafted to dampen sound, and anechoic tiles coated its outer and inner surface. Even the limber holes which allowed water to pass inside the Akula’s outer hull had retractable covers to minimize acoustic returns. The 111-meter-long vessel was distinguished by its elegant, aquadynamic conning tower and the teardrop-shaped pod atop the tail fin which could deploy a towed passive sonar array. A crew of around seventy could operate the ship for one hundred days at sea.

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