The Russian Navy’s Typhoon Class is the undisputed king of submarine designs. It is much larger than anything else ever built. For context, the 33,800 ton monster is almost twice as large as the U.S. Navy’s Ohio Class ballistic missile sub. And while no submarine is immune to criticism, it is regarded as an engineering marvel even among Western analysts. But despite its fame, immortalized in Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October, there is a mystery. Analysts appear uncertain about the armament and capabilities of the last remaining Typhoon, TK-208 Dmitry Donskoy.
Internet sources, both Russian and Western, are unclear on how the Dmitry Donskoy is armed. Is it equipped with a full load-out of ballistic missiles? If so this single submarine packs enough firepower to obliterate any country. Or is it just a test bed used for trials, armed with a single missile? Said another way, we don’t actually know whether Dmitry Donskoy still packs the nuclear punch it once did. And that also means that we do not know for sure how many fully operational ballistic missile submarines Russia has.
As originally built the Typhoon Class were armed with twenty R-39 ‘Rif’ intercontinental ballistic missiles. These massive missiles, known to NATO as the SS-N-20 Sturgeon, were about 53 feet long and nearly 8 feet across. Again for comparison, that is much larger than the Trident-II missiles carried by equivalent U.S. Navy and Royal Navy boats. It was partly because the missiles were so huge that the submarine to carry them had to be the world’s largest.
But the R-39 missiles were solid fueled. This means that the rocket motor uses a solid block of propellant instead of liquid propellants. Western submarine launched missiles also use solid propellants (some other Russian ones are liquid fueled) and it is widely considered safer than liquids. But it does have one relevant drawback. The solid fuel itself has a shelf life after which it becomes too unreliable. For the Typhoons the missiles expired about 20 years ago. And due to the end of the Cold War, Russia decided not to spend the many millions needed to replace the motors. At the same time the improved R-39M missile was abandoned. Instead the Typhoons were slowly withdrawn from service, and now only Dmitry Donskoy remains.
Dmitry Donskoy is now armed with the more modern RSM-56 Bulava missile which replaced the R-39M project. This has a range of around 5,000 miles and can rain down 6 or more MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles). But it is unclear whether all of her missile tubes were modernized to carry the new missile.
Officially, per the Russian Ministry of Defense website (in Russian), it has a capability for 20 of the missiles. But there have been persistent rumors that only one or two tubes were upgraded to allow it to act as a test bed. The difference to the Russian Ministry of Defense information may reflect their status under New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Under this all of the tubes have to be counted even if not used.
Even if it only has one missile tube ready there is no denying that the giant submarine is still active. It frequently joins other Russian Navy vessels on exercises. And it has been observed at a weapons pier specially designed for loading and unloading nuclear missiles.
So whether or not Dmitry Donskoy currently carries part of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, it seems that it could if called upon. Possibly some modernization work would be required if not all of the missile tubes are currently active. If so (and it seems likely), then it could involve major renovations. But that is not to say it couldn’t be done. Like so many aspects of the Russian Navy submarine fleet we are kept guessing.
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