Russian Navy Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev announced the service’s intention to refit two of its decommissioned Typhoon Class ballistic submarines and equip each with two hundred modern cruise missiles – with the possibility for application of similar modifications to other decommissioned submarines in future.
The Soviet Union constructed six of the Typhoon Class for its fleet, which were commissioned into service from the early 1980s, and the Russian Navy currently operates a single one with a further five reserved.
The retirement of the ships from active service came as part of a massive retirement of Soviet hardware inherited by the Russian military due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation and the high operational costs of such large quantities of high end assets.
The ships displace up to 48,000 tons submerged and are 175 meters long – each with a complement of 160 crew. While they were designed to carry 20 nuclear armed ballistic missiles, new plans to equip the warships with ten times as many cruise missiles would allow them to play a key tactical role for Russia’s armed forces – if the missiles are either conventionally armed or armed with low yield nuclear warheads.
Equipped with 200 cruise missiles each, the Typhoon Class would be the most heavily armed submarine in the world – more than the American Ohio Class ships which carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Vice Admiral Burtsev stated regarding the plans for the Typhoon Class, which would outgun all rival warships including the latest surface destroyers:
“American Ohio Class submarines can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and Chinese Type 055 destroyer is capable of carrying 112 cruise missiles. But our frigates belonging to the Project 22350 can currently carry only 16 of them. Subsequent frigates will get 24 of them. It is still insufficient.”
The Typhoon Class’ design is one of the most impressive of any serving submarine, with five internal pressure hulls made of titanium providing a remarkably high resilience to damage – though they are also quite possibly the most expensive Soviet or Russian ships ever manufactured.
Equipping the warships with cruise missiles could well be an effective means for the Russian Navy to play to its strengths in conventional warfare – as while Russia has been unable to manufacture destroyers since the USSR’s disintegration it inherited the Soviet Union’s vast submarine building apparatus.
This led to a skewed development which saw the submarine fleet modernise and grow while the surface fleet saw few new additions. While Russia is unlikely, therefore, to deploy a new destroyer in the near future capable of going head to head with the Chinese Type 055 or South Korean Sejong the Great Class – considered the world’s foremost destroyers at present – they can potentially minimise the need for such ships by developing larger and more heavily armed vessels from the hulls of powerful Soviet era submarines.
While the Russian Navy may well struggle to afford vessels weighing 48,000 tons today, it can expand its active combat fleet with such heavy high end platforms by repurposing Soviet built vessels. Nevertheless, the operational costs of the warships will be high.
According to Vice Admiral Burtsev the primary armament of the Typhoon Class vessels once they were refitted for a tactical role would be the Kalibr cruise missiles – and possibly the Zicron and Oniks platforms.
The Kalibr is available in a number of variants configured for specialised roles including the radar guided anti ship variants and land attack variants. Anti ship variants of the Kalibr can travel at up to three times the speed of sound, making them extremely difficult to intercept and allowing them to disable most warships with a single strike.
With up to 200 of these missiles equipped, a single Typhoon Class can quite realistically neutralise an entire carrier strike group of the U.S. Navy – assuming it can fire a full salvo before being detected and neutralised.
Its ability to do so remains in serious question. Anti ship variants of the missiles have a maximum engagement range of almost 700km, while subsonic land attack variants can strike targets at up to 2,500km. The P-800 is an older platform which also retains a 600km range, and is also capable of striking targets at Mach 3.
The Zicron missile is currently in the late testing stages, and would provide an estimated range of 1000km and impact enemy warships at speeds of between Mach 8 and Mach 9. This faster, more precise and more manoeuvrable missile would make the Typhoon Class a far more credible threat to enemy warships – and allow it to engage them at far greater ranges at which it would be relatively safe from retaliation.
The cost of a large complement of these missiles, however, may well exceed that of many large warships. Indeed even the Kalibr, estimated at $1.2 million each, would be costly to acquire in such large numbers – let alone a state of the art hypersonic platform which is expected to cost many times more per missile.
Equipping the Typhoon Class with new missiles, while a potential game changer for Russia’s tactical capabilities equivalent to or greater than inducting a contingent of high end new destroyers, would be far from a simple task.
The massive hulls of the warships, out of service for decades, would require extensive treatment to be made ready for combat operations. A retrofit of the 2.4 meter diameter ballistic missile tubes – replacing each with the space for 20 cruise missiles – could also prove difficult.
The submarines’ nuclear reactors would also very likely require complete replacement – possibly with simpler conventional propulsion systems which would considerably reduce operational costs by also lead to a significantly lower endurance.
The viability of such a replacement remains uncertain however. Modern combat systems and sensors needed to target and guide cruise missiles would also be vital. Whether this project will go ahead given the costs and engineering difficulties remains to be seen, but if it does it would represent a major game changer for Russian power at sea which would heavily compensate for its lack of modern destroyers.