The largest submarines ever built were not built in American shipyards, but Soviet ones. Named after sharks, these Cold War leviathans could devastate up to two hundred targets with warheads six times as powerful as those that exploded over Hiroshima. The Akula-class submarines were some of the most terrifying weapons ever created.
The Akula (“Shark”) class, or Project 941 as it was known during development, was designed to form the basis of the Soviet Union’s nuclear deterrent forces at sea. The Soviet Union had gotten wind of the U.S. Navy’s impending Ohio-class fleet ballistic-missile submarines, which would be 564 feet long and pack 192 nuclear warheads. The Soviet leadership decided it needed a submarine of its own to respond to the looming threat, and the Akula class was born.
The Akulas were designed to launch their missiles from relatively close to the Soviet Union, allowing them to operate north of the Arctic Circle, where Soviet air and naval forces could protect them. As a result the submarines were designed with a reinforced hull that was capable of breaking through polar ice, a large reserve buoyancy to help it surface through ice and a pair of shielded propellers to protect them from collisions with ice.
Another result was the development of a new nuclear-tipped missile with a long enough range to strike the the United States from arctic bastions. The R-39 Rif (NATO code name: SS-NX-20 “Sturgeon”) was a huge three stage ballistic missile fifty-three feet long and weighing eighty-four tons. With a range of 4,480 nautical miles, the R-39 could strike any point in the continental United States.
The Cold War arms race was above all a competition, and warhead count was important. Because the Akulas carried only twenty missiles to the twenty-four missiles of the Ohio class, each Soviet missile had to carry more nuclear warheads than the American Trident C-4. A single R-39 packed ten one-hundred-kiloton warheads, each independently targetable so that a single missile could strike ten different targets within reasonably close range of one another. This drove up the size and weight of the missile, but it also meant that each Akula had a grand total of two hundred warheads—eight more than the Ohio class.