AKULA!  The Soviet Shark
Original article for SUBSIM Review
by Neal Stevens   Nov. 1999

akulaThe shark. The most feared creature in the sea. Silent and lethal, this killing machine of nature can strike at a moment’s notice. The Russian word for shark is akula. In NATO, Akula is the designation given to the newest and most technologically advanced attack submarine of the Russian Navy. The Akula class submarine is Russia’s answer to the American Los Angeles class fast attack subs. Common opinion holds that Russian submarines are noisy and technologically inferior to their American and British counterparts. Expert opinion, however, knows what lies behind the traditional Russian veil of secrecy. With the Akula, the former Soviet Union has caught the US in the undersea arms race.

Construction History

The Akula class nuclear submarine is officially deemed Project 971 Shuka B (shuka is an aggressive breed of fresh water pike). Soviet naval engineers designed Akula as the follow-up to the Victor and Sierra classes to set a new standard in stealth and serve as the vanguard of the modern Russian Navy. First of her class, the K-480 (named Bars, Russian for panther) was laid down in 1982 at the Komsomol'sk Shipyard on the Amur River (Eastern Russia) under the authority of the Malakhit Design Bureau. The Soviet Navy launched Bars in 1983 and commissioned her in December 1984. Most of the first eight Akula class submarines were built in Komsomol’sk until activities there ceased in 1993. The remaining submarines have been built or are under construction at the Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk (Northern Russia near Arkhangel’sk), now the primary shipyard for the Russian Navy.

Common opinion holds that Russian submarines are noisy and technologically inferior to their American and British counterparts. Expert opinion, however, knows what lies behind the traditional Russian veil of secrecy.

With the Russian economy presently in disarray, shipyard activities face spiraling uncertainty. Production of most surface ships has halted. Output of Akula submarines remained steady at one-to-two a year until 1995. Funding delays and shipyards strikes have delayed completion of additonal units. To illustrate this, consider the Akula submarine Gepard. Her keel was laid down in 1991 with the sub scheduled to enter active service in 1996. According to the Severodvinsk daily Severny Rabochy, Gepard is still in the yard. The sub's crew was scheduled to arrive on board in early 1998 while the Gepard is still under construction. Western experts puts the total number of Akulas at around 13~14. At current building rates, perhaps one new nuclear submarine will be delivered every three years.

 

Unique Design

akulaWhen discussing the actual physical characteristic of a piece of Russian military hardware, one must always keep in mind the degree of security the government imposes on information. It is generally believed that an Akula displaces an estimated 7500 tons surfaced, 9100 tons submerged, with a length of 108-113 meters and a beam of 13.5 meters. Intelligence believes propulsion is derived from a pressurized water reactor with a model OK-650 b high-density reactor core, generating a total of 200 MWt and a shaft power of 43,000 hp. The uranium fuel is highly enriched, producing substantially more power than American submarine reactors. Some sources credit Akula with two reactors. Thomas Jandl, director of Bellona USA (a Norwegian-based environmental group), says, "My colleagues tell me that the Akula has only one reactor, as opposed to older Russian subs, which had two. The Akula does not follow the two-reactor tradition." Whichever the case may be, the Akula is capable of underwater speeds of 35 knots (claimed) and this, too, may be a conservative rating.

 

The Akula uses a double hull construction. The living spaces, torpedo tubes, and most of the machinery exists within the stronger inner hull. The ballast tanks and specially adapted gear are located between the inner and outer hulls. Double hull construction calls for greaterakula propulsion requirements and includes limber holes for the free-flooding sections between the hulls. These holes are an inherent source of unwanted noise. Akula class submarines, however, incorporate limber hole covers that can be closed to reduce or eliminate this tattletale. Offsetting the extra weight, double hull construction dramatically increases the reserve buoyancy of a submarine by as much as three times over that of a single hull craft. The greater capacity for absorbing enemy fire and still being capable of reaching the surface must have a very good effect on the morale of the 80 crewmen.

An Akula has a very distinctive profile; a broad beam, sleek lines, and the conspicuous stern pod which houses a hydrophonic towed array. Hull material is high strength steel. The Akula does not have a titanium hull after many problems with that material during early construction. Diving depth approaches 500 meters, possibly ten percent more, placing the Akula ahead of the American Los Angeles class. The engineers have taken great care to blend the sail into the hull producing superior hydrodynamic qualities. The result makes American submarines look blocky and piecemeal in comparison. Decreased water resistance adds knots to an already potent powerplant.

One American submarine captain described the acoustic profile of a seventies Russian sub as similar to a "threshing machine".

The combination of a high-density reactor and streamlined hull contours make the Akula class capable of speeds that outperform NATO submarines. Careful study of Akulas captured on film reveals another velocity weapon. Parallel sections of small-diameter tubing running down the hull are thought to be a system that, when the need arises, can emit a polymer substance that may greatly enhance underwater speeds under combat conditions.

The Akula is quite capable of gunning as well as running. Armed with four 533mm and four 650mm torpedo tubes, Akula deploys twice as much ordnance as the Los Angeles class. Loadout consists of twenty SET 53 torpedoes, four SS-N-21 nuclear cruise missiles, four SS-N-15 nuclear torpedoes, and ten ultra-heavyweight SET 65 ASUW torpedoes. Both the SET 53 and SET 65 torpedoes are wireguided and possess active, passive, and wake-homing capabilities. The SET 65 pack a 900kg punch, enough to take out a carrier with one unit.

Significant modifications were made to the original Project 971 Akula design beginning with the fifth unit. Classified as "Akula II", these modifications include a four-meter extension that may accommodate VLS tubes and advanced technology sensors.

 

Tactics and Defense

akulaKnown countermeasures are the standard gas-producing decoy units, a holdover from the German Pillenwaffer, sonar jamming, and an ingenious acoustic decoy commonly referred to as the nixie. The nixie is a small torpedo that emulates the sound signature of the parent sub. Once launched, the nixie veers from the submarine’s track at three knots. The emissions coming from the nixie obscures the actual noise generated by the creeping submarine. While the tracking submarine is deceived into tracking and launching on a decoy, the Akula may silently alter course and counterattack. At the very least, a nixie will force the NATO submarine to track multiple targets, uncertain which is the Akula.

However, even more intriguing is the layman’s theory that the newer Russian subs can actually operate at lower sound levels than documented. Learning of the spectacular achievements of US sub quiteness from the Walker revelations (see below), Soviet military doctrine may dictate that all submarines routinely emit a level of noise that exceeds their minimum capability. The theory follows that NATO submarines track, record, and catalogue the Akulas at these artificial sound levels and US naval intelligence may be misled into believing that the profiles represent the best the opposition can do. In the event of actual conflict, doctrine would then direct the Russian submarines to shift into a combat mode of silent running and eliminate the false noise levels, effectively disappearing from NATO’s view. "The submarine versus submarine engagement profile is a lot more complicated than the simple comparison of radiated noise, which is too often used to oversimplify relative effectiveness," a Navy expert said. "Other equally important factors include tactical handling and sonar performance, and even non-acoustic sensors must be taken into account."

 

Gains Through Borrowed Technology

As we have seen, the Russian naval mindset stresses performance over stealth. The Akula follows a line of boats that can outdive, outrun, and outshoot American subs in most categories. The notable exception is quietness. One American submarine captain described the acoustic profile of a seventies Russian sub as similar to that of a "threshing machine". American submarines are capable of a highly touted degree of akulastealth that no Russian sub can match. That is, until Akula. Western intelligence experts had expected the US lead in submarine acoustics to last well into the 21st century. The advent of the Akula class has many NATO military planners convinced that US subs have lost the advantage they enjoyed since the end of the Second World War.

Originally, the Soviet fast attacks (Victor class) were deployed in the sixties off the US coasts to shadow US boomers. When this strategy failed because the boomers were too quiet, the Soviet fast attacks received reassignments to escort their own boomers and provide retaliation deterrent against US fast attacks. To overtake the Americans, Russian engineers adopted and improved the machinery rafting designs that had proven successful in damping the turbine noise on American nuclear submarines. However, as one high-ranking American officer cautiously stated during an interview, the Russian technology may achieve a high level of noise suppression initially but degrades after service. The signature of an Akula grows more prominent with age, whether through inferior design, materials, or maintenance.

"It is difficult to find the most advanced Russian Akula class submarines when they operate at tactical speed or less," Admiral Jeremy Boorda said.

Other reported Russian design innovations included three separate anechoic coatings on the hull. The most significant achievements in reducing radiated noise were obtained through espionage. The spying efforts of American naval personnel John Walker and radioman Jerry Whitworth made the Soviet Union’s military chiefs aware of how far advanced American submarines were. Substantial efforts to marginalize the sound profile of the Akula can be traced to intelligence gained from the Walker spy ring. A separate but equally empowering sequence of events for the Russians was the illegal sale of propeller milling technology by the Japanese firm Toshiba and the Norwegian firm Kongsberg. The combined results generated a steep drop in broadband acoustic noise profiles.

 

Leading the Undersea Arms Race

Rapid gains are not won without some setbacks. Four Soviet-era submarines have been lost with the loss of over 500 men. There have been ten known nuclear accidents and many lesser accidents involving fires. Some of the blame, no doubt, is due to the acquisition of technology through espionage rather than painstaking research that includes thorough comprehension. There have been no known accidents of the Akula class boats operating from the Northern and Pacific Fleets, which leads one to believe the Russians have survived their lengthy trials and have produced a world-class product. Although Western military buffs are often quick to dismiss the former Soviet Union as technologically inept, the Akula class has raised serious doubts of who is leading whom.

akulaThis turnaround was painfully evident when US officials recently acknowledged for the first time that US submarines could not readily locate an Akula submarine operating off the coast of the USA. "It is difficult to find the most advanced Russian Akula class submarines when they operate at tactical speed or less," Admiral Jeremy Boorda said. Other military experts sounded the alarm as early as 1988. Anthony Batista, senior staff member of the Armed Forces Committee declared, "The Akula is the best submarine in the world today." A recent report from the Office of Naval Intelligence noted that the improved Akula submarines could indeed surpass the quieting of the Los Angeles class at tactical speeds. On August 9, 1995, during a lobbying effort on behalf of the Seawolf and the following Virginia class submarines, retired Vice Admiral E.A. Burkhalter announced that the $7 billion-per-year Russian program had produced "the Akula submarine, which is quieter than Seawolf." In an effort to raise public awareness, Martin Marietta, a leading defense contractor, ran ads featuring the Akula class in a number of newspapers including the San Diego Union-Tribune. While it may be difficult to separate the hype military supporters chronically use to "talk up a potential threat, in order to justify their own building programs" from the actual capabilities obscured by Russian secrecy, one impression remains: America can no longer claim uncontested dominance of the oceanic strata.

 

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1999 SUBSIM Review

Sources cited: The Bellona Foundation; Sherry Sontag - author Blind Man's Bluff. Roger Dunham - author Spy Sub; Michael DiMercurio - author Attack of the Seawolf, Voyage of the Devilfish; Russian and American naval officers.