16 Sep 20
Posted by: Richard Sharpe

Why were the Cold War Soviet nuclear submarines so badly designed and operated? This is not a book able to answer that question, not least because it is limited to comments about the early classes of so-called ‘Attack Submarines (SSN)’ but, because like all generalised judgements, the question embraces a range of capabilities.  In any class of operational warships there are always the good, the bad and the ugly.  Successful performance at sea is usually more dependent on the ship’s company than the design. Submariners live a curious existence and none more so than those in nuclear submarines operating at speeds and depths which are potentially instantly self-destructive and driven by a propulsion generator which is a distant cousin to an ‘atom bomb’.

The author, who is reticent about his background, appears to work in the British Naval Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence.  From numerous sources he has itemised the building programme and some in-service details of the first six classes of Soviet SSNs, most of which were decommissioned by the mid-1990s, as Russian naval sea-going activity reduced to a barely sustainable minimum.  It is reported that at-sea deployment has recently returned to near Cold War levels.

Much of the technical information and construction dates may have originated from US involvement and assistance in the breaking up and defueling of the older classes from the late 1980s. Major accidents are listed and there are a lot of them.  Unlike the US and British, the Soviets were much more ambitious and innovative in their designs and, as well as being hugely expensive, not all were successful. It is difficult to keep a straight face when reading of an experimental reactor cooling system which solidified during on-board trials, leading to the abandonment of both the prototype propulsion and the hull in which it was fitted. But the bigger problem was the recruitment, training and manning of these complex machines, which require exceptional operating standards, a lot of time at sea, and complete honesty when problems become evident.  For example, the relationship between engineers and seamen, if the two are not pulling in the same direction.  In the Soviet Union there also seems to have been an inadequate exchange between designers and operators.

Let’s hope there is a follow-up analysis on ballistic missile classes (SSBN). On the whole this is a book mostly about weapons systems design and submarine construction programmes.  It is of much interest to naval historians, but also to NATO submariners who were actively involved in the deep Cold War.