Submarines: Titanium Farewell

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July 15, 2021: In early 2021 the Russian Navy produced and released a TV feature showing off the last of its dozen revolutionary, but too expensive, titanium hulled SSNs (nuclear attack submarines). These subs entered service between 1970 and 1993 and only a few still exist. The last two of these subs are officially known as the Project 945A, or Kondor type boats which, thanks to several overhauls, will remain serviceable into the 2030s. These four SSNs are known as the Sierra class in the West but the Russians called the first two Barakudda and the second two Kondor. The video is part of an effort to get the government to provide the money to refurbish the elderly Type 945 subs.

While these twelve subs were the most technically innovative Russian SSNs to actually enter service, the high-cost of their lightweight and corrosion resistant titanium hulls made them too expensive to build in large numbers. Many of the other successful innovations found in the titanium boats found their way into subsequent classes of more affordable steel-hulled subs. The high cost of the titanium boats made it possible to try out innovative new technologies, a tradition that continued with the last four.

These last four subs had unique wake detection sensors, which Western navies investigated but never found reliable enough to emulate. The last four boats solved the noise problem with new tech and by adopting slower top-speeds as standard. During the Cold War Russia realized their major submarine vulnerability was noise, which the superior passive sonars of Western subs took full advantage of.

While the performance (record high speeds and diving depths) of these subs was always a source of great pride, it was widely known that they were too expensive. Russian sailors nicknamed the titanium boats “Gold Fish”.

In 2010 the first of the twelve titanium hulled SSNs was scrapped, after being idle since 1980, when the nuclear reactor was damaged during shipyard maintenance and there never enough money or justification for fixing the problem. The only ship of its class, the K-222 entered service in 1970, and was referred to by NATO as the Papa class. This 5,200-ton nuclear boat had a record- breaking top speed of 82 kilometers an hour. But it was very noisy at this speed, and uncomfortable for the crew as well. In other words, not very useful as a combat boat. The K-222 did, however, serve as a test bed for two other classes of subs; the smaller (2,300 ton) Alfa class SSNs, and larger missile-carrying SSNs. Because of their high cost, because of the titanium hull, only seven Alfa's were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and by 1994 all seven had been sent to the scrapyard because of reliability issues and high operating costs.

The K-222 also carried ten anti-ship missiles, and this feature taught the Russians that silence, more than speed, was needed for these weapons to work in combat. The 4,300-ton steel-hull Charlie class appeared a few years before the K-222, but these only had a top speed of 43 kilometers an hour.

The K-222 has been laid up since 1980 because problems with its reactor proved too expensive to repair. Actually, the K-222 cost about twice what a Charlie class boat cost to operate, and was less effective as a "carrier killer" This is a sub equipped primarily with anti-ship missiles. There was no incentive to get the K-222 back into service. Age finally caught up with the K-222, and in 2008 it was announced that it would be cut up for scrap. K-222 technically remained in commission (part of the active navy) until 1998. Old triumphs die hard.

 


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