And the rocket’s “Red” glare – Soviet Submarines (Part 2)

(Part Two of the Soviet Union Submarine series)

In April 1972, I raised my right hand swore allegiance to the United States of America as a brand new member of the United States Navy. It would be the first of many times I repeated the oath. During that time, the War in Vietnam had been underway for many years and was beginning its death spiral. My war was somewhat different and had been going on much longer all around the world. The domination and control of the sea lanes was still one of the nation’s top priorities and we were a significant part of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. Submarines played a key role in this continuing struggle and my whole purpose once I joined was to support that effort.

The Soviets had long been a threat to the world’s stability but the American Navy had emerged from World War 2 with no peers. Even our allies had to dismantle their massive fleets because of post-war economic pressures. While the English and French still had navies, they paled in comparison to the American Fleet and eventually became shadows of their former selves.

America continued its growth and scientific achievements in propulsion and weapons systems but the Soviets were also working to achieve parity. The 1950’s and 1960’s were spent building new ships and submarines on both sides. The Soviets were well aware of the technological superiority of the Americans and tried to mimic the progress by building more ships and boats to overwhelm the west by numerical superiority.

By the late 1970’s the Soviets had achieved much. The American Navy was already beginning to feel the pinch of a post-Vietnam era drive for a global pullback. America was weary of never ending wars and the peace movement was showing its strength in Congress as well as the streets of the country. The Soviets had no such hindrances. They were preparing for a time when the Soviet flag would truly be seen in every corner of the world including the world’s oceans.

This is part of a report given in 1978 that highlighted where they were at that point in the eyes of the Navy:

Understanding Soviet naval developments. / Prepared at the direction of the Chief of Naval Operations by the Director of Naval Intelligence (OP-009) and Chief of Information (OP-007).(1978)

Strategic Offense

The priority development given to ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) over the past decade makes it clear that the strategic nuclear strike capability has become the Soviet Navy’s primary mission. From 1967 through 1977 Soviet shipyards have completed 61 nuclear-propelled strategic missile submarines of the YANKEE and DELTA classes.

Construction of the enlarged, DELTA II sub marines are continuing while a still larger SSBN, referred to by a Soviet official as TYPHOON, is reported to be under construction. The DELTAs, at about 10,000 tons submerged displacement, are the world’s largest submarines now in service; the TYPHOON design is unofficially reported to approach the size of the still-building U.S. TRIDENT submarines, which will displace more than 18,000 tons submerged.

Accompanying this intensive strategic submarine development has been a succession of improved Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). The 1,300-nautical mile missile originally carried by the YANKEEs is being replaced with slightly longer- range weapons, some carrying multiple warheads. The SS-N-8 carried by the DELTAs has a range of over 4,000 nautical miles, and the SS-NX-17 and SS-NX-18 missiles now entering the fleet for the YANKEE and DELTA classes, respectively, provide increased range, more accuracy, and, in some models, advanced multiple warheads.

In mid-1977 the relative strengths of the U.S. and Soviet fleets in numbers of modem ballistic missile submarines and submarine-launched missiles were:


Modern Submarines (Nuclear) US – 41 USSR – 61

Older Submarines (Nuclear) US – 0 USSR – 8

Older Submarines (Diesel) US – 0 USSR – 22

SLBMs US – 656 USSR – 900+

In 1977, U.S. submarines and strategic missiles were qualitatively superior to the Soviet weapons in several key categories; however, that qualitative advantage is being reduced as Soviet development efforts continued at a rapid pace.

When the lead TRIDENT submarine, the USS OHIO, becomes operational in 1980, the U.S. Navy will add the first strategic missile submarine to the fleet since 1967. With current building rates, by that time the Soviet Navy could have 70 modern SSBNs compared to 42 U.S. submarines.

In addition, 22 older GOLF (diesel) and eight HOTEL (nuclear) ballistic missile submarines are operational in the Soviet Navy. Although most of these submarines have shorter range and less-sophisticated missiles, they do pose a threat to the West, especially in the European theater.

The large commitment of resources which the Soviet leaders have allocated to their sea-based nuclear strike forces is indicative of the vital importance of that force.


The above review of Soviet naval activity considers primarily surface ship movements. From the 1960s onward there have also been a marked increase in submarine activities. These have included both torpedo and cruise missile attack submarines, and strategic missile submarines. The latter has particular significance because of the greatly reduced flight time of submarine-launched ballistic missiles compared to the 30-minute flight time of intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from the Soviet Union, or the several-hour flight time of manned bombers from the Soviet Union if attacking targets in the United States. The Soviet SLBM capability could threaten U.S. bomber bases and Minuteman ICBMs as well as national command centers, possibly destroying bombers and “pinning down” missiles before they could be launched. (SLBMs generally are considered to lack the accuracy to destroy Minuteman ICBMs in underground silos.)

The earliest Soviet strategic-missile submarines constructed in the late 1950s posed little threat to the continental United States. These submarines had a limited underwater endurance, could only fire their missiles while on the surface, and were armed with only two or three SARK (SS-N-4) missiles which had a range of about 350 nautical miles and poor accuracy. These submarines also had operational problems with one GOLF-class SSB having been lost in the North Pacific in 1968, and one HOTEL- class SSBN experiencing serious engine trouble in the North Atlantic early in 1972. (The HOTEL was towed back to the Soviet Union on the surface.)

The Soviet SLBM situation changed radically in 1967 when the Soviets sent to sea their first YANKEE- class submarine. This submarine, nuclear propelled and armed with 16 SS-N-6 missiles with an initial range of 1,300 nautical miles, was more difficult to detect and had a potent strike capability. During 1968 the YANKEE-class SSBNs began patrols in the Atlantic, periodically coming within range of U.S. cities. In 1971, YANKEE SSBN patrols also began off the Pacific coast. The later DELTA-class SSBNs, with a missile range in excess of 4,000 nautical miles, are within striking distance of New York City or the nation’s capital of Washington while still in their home port areas on the Arctic coast. This same situation applies in the Pacific with DELTA-class SSBNs at their base of Petropavlovsk on the Siberian coast being within missile range of most western U.S. cities such as Seattle and San Francisco.

Whereas just over a decade ago the Soviets had a relatively small strategic submarine force with a few short-range missiles, today’s Soviet SLBMs provide a significant and increasing percentage of the Soviet strategic nuclear strike.

The massive SSBN effort, which has produced over 60 nuclear -propelled submarines in ten years, has not detracted from the Soviet attack submarine programs. Several classes of nuclear and diesel submarines armed with torpedoes and guided missiles are also under construction.

The modernization of the Soviet submarine force, despite a reduction of overall numbers of submarines, has resulted in significant increases in submarine operations in many areas of the world.

The Soviet Navy long has been a world leader in operating submarines. Beginning in the late 1930’s, the Soviet Navy generally has had more undersea craft than any other navy.

Today, the Soviet submarine force numbers about 330 units. In discussing them one must address three specific categories:

  • Torpedo attack submarines-submarines that attack an enemy surface ship or submarine using only torpedoes.
  • Cruise missile submarines-submarines that fire anti-ship missiles as well as torpedoes.
  • Strategic ballistic missile submarines— sub marines armed with long-range, nuclear missiles for striking strategic land targets.

The Soviet Navy is operating a total of about 150 nuclear powered submarines compared to some 110 in the U.S. Navy.

Attack Submarines

The Soviet Navy operates about 190 attack submarines. Most are diesel-electric powered and many are of recent construction. About 40 of the torpedo attack submarines are nuclear powered, being of the NOVEMBER, ECHO, and VICTOR classes. The last is believed to be among the fastest submarines in service today. An improved VICTOR II class is now in production while prototypes for what may be more-advanced classes have been observed. The Soviet Navy continues to build diesel powered submarines, the FOXTROT class for overseas sale (India and Libya) and the new TANGO class. Soviet writers have noted that diesel-electric submarines offer a quiet-running, highly capable platform which can operate in shallower waters than the nuclear powered boats and at a fraction of the construction cost.

The prime weapons of these attack submarines are anti-submarine and anti-ship torpedoes, but mines also can be carried. The newest submarines have a rocket-propelled ASW weapon as well.

Cruise Missile Submarines



Building on German experiments during World War II, both the U.S. and Soviet navies experimented Aircraft and submarines armed with cruise missiles are the principal anti-ship forces of the Soviet Navy. At top is a CHARLIE- class submarine which has eight submerged-launch SS-N-7 missiles and, below, an ECHO II with eight SS-N-3 missiles fired from the surface. Both of these classes are nuclear propelled and can operate in virtually any ocean area with missile-launching submarines after World War II. In the U.S. Navy this effort evolved into the REGULUS cruise missile program. Although the REGULUS could be used against ships, the lack of a Soviet surface fleet in the 1950s led to American development of the REGULUS as a strategic weapon for strikes against Soviet ports and cities.

The Soviet Navy developed cruise missile submarines in the 1950s for strategic attack and as part of a strategy to counter U.S. aircraft carriers. Initially, existing submarines were converted to fire the long- range SS-N-3 missile. Then, newer submarines designed to carry the SS-N-3 joined the Soviet fleet, the diesel-powered JULIETT class and the nuclear- powered ECHO I and II classes.

After producing 50 submarines of the JULIETT and ECHO classes, the Soviets completed the first CHARLIE I-class SSGN in 1968 with the improved CHARLIE II following several years later. These nuclear powered submarines can fire eight short range, 30-mile anti-ship cruise missiles while remaining submerged. Although the CHARLIE missile range is less than that of submarines armed with the SS-N-3, the latter submarines must surface before firing their missiles. The underwater launch capability of the CHARLIE makes this craft one of the most potent anti-ship submarines in service today. All of these cruise missile submarines also have conventional torpedo tubes.

The Soviet Navy’s cruise missile submarine and their missile-armed bombers form the most potent threat to Allied naval forces, especially when within range of Soviet land bases where the Soviets can launch coordinated attacks using reconnaissance aircraft to provide the guidance for submarine- launched missiles.

Ballistic Missile Submarines

The development of nuclear weapons led to another role for the submarine that of strategic or ballistic missile attack against land targets. Submarines are valuable in this role because the difficulty of their detection in the ocean depths makes them highly survivable against hostile attack.

As discussed earlier, the Soviets began converting existing diesel-powered submarines in the mid-1950s to fire short-range Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). Then, in the early 1960s the GOLF- class diesel and HOTEL-class nuclear SLBM sub marines were completed. These submarines were limited by mechanical difficulties, short-range missiles, and the requirement for surfacing to launch their missiles. (Most of these submarines were later provided with a submerged missile launch capability and improved weapons.)

Today, the Soviet Navy has an SLBM force that already exceeds that of the U.S. Navy in numbers of submarines and in missiles. By the end of 1974 the Soviet Navy had 34 of the YANKEE-class SSBNs in service, each carrying 16 nuclear -tipped missiles with a range of at least 1300 nautical miles (later increased to about 1,600 miles). During 1973 the first of the larger DELTA-class submarines was completed. The early DELTAs displace some 9,000 tons submerged and have an overall length of about 450 feet. The DELTA I has 12 tubes for the SS-N-8 missile with an estimated range of over 4,000 nautical miles, the longest-range submarine weapon in existence. The DELTA II carries 16 SS-N-8 SLBMs and is about 50 feet longer than the DELTA I. The DELTA class is the largest submarine ever built.

The Soviets have produced an advanced version of the SS-N-8, designated the SS-NX-1 8, which probably is being provided to some of the DELTA-class SSBNs. This missile is the first Soviet SLBM to have Multiple Independently targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV), carrying as many as three warheads which can be armed at separate targets. The SS-NX-18 is more accurate, if not longer ranged than its predecessor. The SS-NX-17 is another advanced missile, apparently developed as a replacement for the SS-N-6 in the YANKEE class. It is the first solid propellant SLBM built by the Soviets. The SS-NX-17 uses a post -boost vehicle which would allow it to carry a MIRV package. This new missile will probably have increased accuracy and range capabilities compared to the SS-N-6.

The rumored TYPHOON-class missile submarines, if constructed, could be larger than the DELTAs, and possibly will carry SS-NX-18 or more advanced missiles.


The 34 YANKEE-class strategic missile submarines completed since 1967 were the “second generation” Soviet SSBNs. More than 20 later DELTA l/ll submarines are now at sea, with some sources indicating a still more advanced SSBN, the so-called TYPHOON class, also being under construction. An intensive submarine missile development effort has accompanied their construction.

The Typhoon and Ohio would each represent a quantum leap in submarine and strategic missile warfare. When the cold war ended, only one, the Trident, would emerge as an ongoing and viable threat.

Or is it?

Mister Mac




6 thoughts on “And the rocket’s “Red” glare – Soviet Submarines (Part 2)

  1. With the Soviet current superior numbers and probably at least as capable crews, do you think the Soviets would/should resort to 2-3-4 coordinated “Wolfpack” attacks against a “more capable” US submarine?

    1. I would say that anything was imaginable during the day. Even their less capable ships could have acted together to create problems. I am glad we never had to find out.

  2. I love the history lessons about nuclear boats. I was the medical department on the USS GEORGE C MARSHALL SSBN 654 GOLD

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