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The Soviet Navy - SLBM

Written by Sakhal

The submarines which carry intercontinental ballistic missiles constitute the main threat against those strategic targets deemed as unprotected, namely, cities and industrial areas of a potential enemy. However, the precision of these missiles is inferior than that of those which are based in land due to the problem of determining with exactitude the position of the submarine in the moment of launching the missile. The NATO had advantage over the Warsaw Pact regarding the reliability of their navigation systems and, hence, the precision of their missiles.

Ballistic missiles launched from submarines (SLBM)

The first Soviet ballistic missile submarines were those of the Golf class, propelled by Diesel engines. In the early 1980s only remained in service one Golf III armed with three SS-N-8 missiles, one Golf IV armed with three SS-N-6 missiles and one Golf V armed with three SS-N-20 missiles. The first submarines of nuclear propulsion were those of the Hotel class, of which six Hotel II and one Hotel III remained in service. The SLBM installed in the submarines of the Golf and Hotel classes were computed with regard to the SALT II Treaty, albeit then the Golf were not counted as launching platforms.

The Yankee class appeared in 1968 and 34 units had been built in 1976. These were the first Soviet submarines built with a hull prepared for SLBM missiles and they entered service one decade after the North American counterparts. The sixteen SS-N-6 missiles were arranged in two rows of eight vertical silos, behind the sail, similarly as the North American submarines armed with Polaris missiles. Much more formidable than the Golf and Hotel classes, the Yankee class operated a rather voluminous missile with a range lesser than that of the Polaris. This means that the Yankee class could approach the North American coasts to obtain a good coverage on targets such as posts of the Strategic Air Command, with the additional advantage that the flight time for an attack of this nature would be from six to ten minutes, avoiding so the defense measures against surprise attacks that bomber bases have.

The Yankee class was initially armed with the SS-N-6 Model 1, which had a single warhead with a range of 1100 nautical miles. In 1971 this missile was replaced by the Model 2, which had a single warhead with a range of 1400 nautical miles. In that same year it was introduced the Model 3, which had the same range than the Model 2 but was fitted with three MRV (Multiple Reentry Vehicle) warheads. The relatively short range of the SS-N-6, including its later variants, meant that the submarines of the Yankee class would have to approach the North American coasts before launching their missiles, albeit the capability of the SS-N-6 of being launched under water made these submarines to be less vulnerable than the former Soviet SSB(N). However, like all the Soviet submarines, these were noisier than their western counterparts and hence they could be detected more easily.


Yankee I class SSBN compared to Charlie I class SSGN and Echo II class SSGN.


The Soviet began to transform their old ballistic missile submarines into the new Yankee Notch class, able to threaten Europe or North America with their nuclear cruise missiles of 3000 kilometers in range.

From 1973 the North American attained a considerable advantage regarding the quality of their SLBM, even if that same year the Soviet introduced the SS-N-8. The first trials were effectuated on submarines of the Hotel III class and the new missile was later installed in the new submarines of the Delta I and Delta II classes. The SS-N-8 Model 1 carried a single warhead of one to two megatons, the Model 2 had three MRV warheads and the Model 3 was tested with three MIRV (Multiple Independently targeted Reentry Vehicle) warheads. The Delta I class carried twelve SS-N-8 missiles arranged in two rows of six vertical silos but the production of this variant was replaced by the somewhat larger Delta II class, which carried sixteen missiles of the same type arranged in two rows of eight. This allowed the Soviet Navy to match the capability of the US Navy regarding seaborne ballistic missiles.

In 1975, the shipyards at Severodvinsk added a second dock to accelerate the production of the Delta class. However, only four units of the Delta II class were completed, due to the apparition of the Delta III class, armed with sixteen SS-N-18 missiles, the first Soviet SLBM fitted with MIRV warheads. These submarines constituted a great threat for United States because they could reach targets in the interior of the country from launching areas in the western Pacific or in the Barents Sea, rather outside the reach of effective countermeasures. To stay within the limits of the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty, the units of the former Yankee I class were withdrawn from service as units of the new Delta III class were being incorporated into the fleet. Another five units of the Yankee I class were modified as nuclear attack submarines and another one was armed with experimental SS-NX-17 missiles. In 1980 the submarines of the Delta III class were the largest in service in the world, but they would be soon superseded while remaining active for many years.


During the 1980s the Soviet built submarines of the Delta IV class armed with SS-N-23 missiles and in 1988 they deployed a modified version of this missile for those submarines; the purpose was to increase the precision of the SS-N-23 as well as its capability for destroying highly protected targets.

The first submarine of the Typhoon class was launched in Severodvinsk in September 1980. She was a monster with a displacement of 30000 tonnes (three times heavier than the Delta III class and a 40 percent heavier than the Ohio class of the US Navy, the only one which was roughly comparable in terms of size and power) and was armed with twenty missiles of a new model, the SS-N-20. Each of these had a range beyond 6500 kilometers and could carry from three to six MIRV. However, these superb submarines were victims of their own exceptionality; too expensive to maintain after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were relegated in favor of several units of the Delta IV class.


North American illustration which shows the spectacular launching of an SS-N-20 nuclear ballistic missile from a submarine of the Typhoon class. The longer range of the SS-N-20 and the SS-N-23 allowed the last Soviet SSBN to patrol within or very close to their own territorial waters, which increased their survivability.

Vulnerability to detection

Despite having about 70 SSBN in service (besides three SSB, ballistic submarines of conventional propulsion), the Soviet Navy kept only thirteen of these units in navigation, probably distributed as this: three in the Pacific, five in the Barents Sea and five in the North Atlantic. United States had in development very sophisticated methods for spotting and tracking these submarines. This task was eased by the generally poor hull design of Soviet submarines, which emitted considerable levels of noise. However, this defect was being gradually corrected.

The SS-N-18 had such a range that the submarines of the Delta III class could threaten targets in United States from the Barents Sea to the Okhotsk Sea, which granted them a very increased self protection. The Barents Sea became a sort of dock due to its proximity to the Soviet Union, its large distance from the bases of the NATO and the unhospitable nature of its waters. Its scarce depth difficults the effectiveness of long-range anti-submarine warfare, while the areas covered by ice prevent the utilization of sonobuoys and other sensors.


Soviet sources made public little data about strategic communications, but the USSR faced the same problems and applied the same solutions than the operators of the NATO. There existed a national command with underground and alternative command posts, along with airborne national emergency command posts. Seemingly, the main communication means with the SSBN were five VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio transmitters of over 500 kilowatts. The USSR had a large number of communication satellites, but none had been identified which were specifically intended for communication with the SSBN. The Volna satellite launched in 1980 was very similar to the communication satellites of the US Navy. One of them was located over the Atlantic, another one over the Pacific and the third one above the Indian Ocean. This made evident its potential utilization by the SSBN. As a last resort HF (High Frequency) radio transmitters would be undoubtedly used, albeit the SSBN would have to get close to the surface for catching such emissions, which besides are particularly sensitive to atmospheric perturbations like those that would take place just after a first nuclear attack.

Once again, there existed little information about the navigation methods of the Soviet Navy and the precision of its missiles. Its main navigation system was one based in satellites, similar to the Transit used by the US Navy, albeit it was believed to be relatively inaccurate, besides lacking the security duplication present in its North American counterpart. Lacking a complete precision in the moment of setting the launching position, the Soviet Navy seemed to have chosen mid-course corrections which allowed the SS-N-18 missile to have a CEP (Circular Error Probable) of 1410 meters, which was rather lower than the CEP of 1853 meters of the former SS-N-6, but still much higher than the CEP of 550 meters of contemporary North American SLBM. Still, there was no reason for the Soviet to not continue perfecting their systems and eventually be able to attain the same level of precision.

The Soviet Navy seemed to have more problems with its SSBN fleet than the US Navy had with its own. By keeping in navigation no more than ten to fifteen units simultaneusly, the Soviet would send a clear declaration of intentions to the West if a large number of their SSBN were put to sea in a short time. Besides, the many SSBN staying in their docks could be easily caught and destroyed by a nuclear attack. By last, it was much easier for United States and its allies to track ten or fifteen SSBN in the high sea rather than thirty or forty. The bigger drawback of the Soviet SSBN was their relatively scarce precision regarding navigation, which would automatically cause a higher CEP. This would restrict them to play a role of counter-value weapon, namely, one limited to cities and unprotected military or industrial targets. The other big drawback of the Soviet SSBN was the noise that they produced, in comparison with their western counterparts.

SLBM OF THE SOVIET UNION (Deployed until January 1981)

Missile type Number deployed Range (in kilometers) Launching weight (in kilograms) Nuclear warheads CEP circular error Total brut mega tonnage (1) Total equivalent mega tonnage (2)
SS-N-5 18 1600 ? 1 x 0.8 MT 3700 14 16
SS-N-6 Mod 2 234 3000 900 1 x 0.65 MT 1856 153 176
SS-N-6 Mod 3 234 3000 900 2 x 3.5 MT MRV (3) 1856 164 184
SS-N-8 280 9000 1800 1 x 0.8 MT 1560 224 241
SS-NX-17 12 5000 7500 1 x 1 MT 1410 12 12
SS-N-18 Mod 1 144 16000 ? 3 x 0.2 MT (MIRV) 1000 86 148
SS-N-18 Mod 2 32 8000 ? 3 x 0.45 MT 1000 14 19

Total brut megatonnage: 666
Equivalent megatonnage: 706

(1) Total brut megatonnage = megatonnage x warheads x missiles
(2) Equivalent megatonnage = megatonnage to the 2/3 power
(3) The MRV (Multiple Reentry Vehicle) is considered like a 0.7-megaton warhead


First Generation

-- Golf II SSB (Units: 12) (Armament: 10 x TT; 3 x SS-N-5 SLBM)

-- Golf III SSB (Units: 1) (Armament: 10 x TT; 6 x SS-N-8 SLBM)

-- Hotel II SSBN (Units: 6) (Armament: 8 x TT; 3 x SS-N-5 SLBM)

-- Hotel III SSBN (Units: 1) (Armament: 8 x TT; 3 x SS-N-8 SLBM (trials))

Second Generation

-- Yankee I SSBN (Units: 26) (Armament: 6 x TT (18 T); 16 x SS-N-6 SLBM)

-- Yankee II SSBN (Units: 1) (Armament: 6 x TT (18 T); 12 x SS-N-17 SLBM)

-- Delta I SSBN (Units: 18) (Armament: 6 x TT (18 T); 12 x SS-N-8 SLBM)

-- Delta II SSBN (Units: 4) (Armament: 6 x TT (19 T); 16 x SS-N-8 SLBM)

Third Generation

-- Delta III SSBN (Units: 13) (Armament: 6 x TT (12 T); 16 x SS-N-18 SLBM)

-- Typhoon SSBN (Units: 1 (?)) (Armament: 6-8 x TT; 20 x SS-N-20 SLBM)

Related articles

The Soviet Navy - Aircraft carriers

The Soviet Navy - Surface ships

The Soviet Navy - Submarines

Categories: Submarines - Missiles - Cold War - 20th Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2020-10-04

Article updated: 0000-00-00

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