Key point: But it didn't stop them from losing the Cold War.
In 1969, the Soviet navy shocked the U.S. and NATO militaries with a new and incredibly capable submarine—one that could swim faster and dive deeper than could anything else under the sea.
But the seven high-tech Alfa-class submarines—each able to reach 45 knots of speed and 2,400 feet of depth—actually were inferior where it really mattered. Their speed and depth-resistance came at the cost of noisy internal machinery that made them easy to detect … and destroy.
“The Alfa was a huge step forward in submarine design,” retired Royal Navy sub commander Doug Littlejohns told naval expert Iain Ballantyne. But considering all of the sub’s limitations, “what is the point?” Littlejohns added.
Ballantyne describes the Alfa’s revolutionary features in his books Undersea Warriors and Hunter Killers—starting with the boat’s streamlined all-titanium hull, which one Soviet officer compared to an expensive work of art or a spaceship. An Alfa was relatively small at 240 feet long and carried a crew of just three dozen.
The CIA was able to determine the new boat’s abilities fairly quickly by studying scrap metal from the Soviet Sudomekh shipyard that somehow wound up at a recycler in Pennsylvania, and by recruiting “stroller” spies along the Neva River waterfront, where the Sudomekh yard was located and where the prototype Alfa was taking shape in 1969.
According to Ballantyne in Undersea Warriors, some U.S. intelligence officials were skeptical at first that the Alfa really was meant to be an operational attack submarine, one that Soviets would build in meaningful numbers.
“According to a recently declassified CIA case study, the skeptics in U.S. naval intelligence circles maintained ‘the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull sections, especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was impractical, if not impossible.”