Claims Swirl Around The Fate Of Russia’s Last Huge Typhoon Class Submarine

Russian state media reports have offered conflicting details today about the status of the last Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine in active service, the Dmitry Donskoy. Though the fate of this submarine, the largest by displacement of any type in existence, is unclear, by all indications it is moving ever-closer to its retirement.

RIA Novosti, citing anonymous sources, was the first to report that Dmitry Donskoy, also known by its hull number TK-208, had been formally decommissioned and was headed for the scrap yard. Anonymous sources from within Russia’s state-run shipbuilding industry and the country’s security services subsequently told TASS that this news was incorrect and that any final decision about the submarine’s future would not come until December at the earliest.

“Recent reports about the withdrawal of Dmitry Donskoy from the Russian Navy do not correspond to reality,” one of TASS’ sources said, as translated by Newsweek. “The ship is currently performing combat training tasks at sea, participating in combat training activities. It will remain in combat formation at least until the end of the year.”

At the time of writing, there do not appear to be any official statements on this matter one way or the other from any arm of the Russian government.

If Dmitry Donskoy is really out of service for good and set to face the scrapper’s torch, this would absolutely mark an end of an era for the Russian Navy. The Soviet Union built six of these submarines, officially known as the Project 941 Akula class – not to be confused with the Project 971 Shchuka-B class, which the U.S. military and NATO refer to as the Akula class – between 1976 and 1989.

The Typhoons, each one of which is powered by two 190-megawatt-rated OK-650 nuclear reactors, remain the largest submarines ever built from the keel up. The Russian Navy’s highly specialized special mission submarine Belgorod, currently the world’s longest submarine at nearly 604 feet in length, is a converted Project 949A Oscar II class guided-missile submarine, as you can read more about here. But even Belgorod can’t compete with the mass of the Typhoon class boats which displace up to around 48,000 tons when submerged. For comparison, the submerged displacement of a U.S. Navy Ohio class ballistic missile submarine, which is also 14 feet shorter than the Typhoon, is around 20,664 tons, Belgorod is estimated to have a submerged displacement of between 25,000 and 30,000 tons.

Dmitry Donskoy was the first Typhoon to enter service, being formally commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1981. Each Typhoon class submarine was originally designed to carry up to 20 R-39 Rif submarine-launched ballistic missiles, now known as the RSM-52, as its primary armament. Each R-39/RSM-52 can be loaded with up to 10 multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads with estimated yields between 100 and 200 kilotons. These missiles are loaded into vertical tubes in a section of the forward hull with the sail positioned toward the rear, giving the design its distinctive look compared to other Soviet and now Russian ballistic missiles submarines.

The Typhoons quickly became an iconic component of the Soviet Navy. A heavily modified fictional subvariant of this submarine, named the Red October, was the centerpiece of Tom Clancy’s now-famous novel The Hunt For Red October. That book was then adapted into an equally famous film of the same name, starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.

In 1991, one of the real Typhoons, known at the time only by its hull number, TK-17, suffered a harrowing accident during a planned test of an unarmed R-39 missile when the weapon exploded inside its launch tube. The boat’s captain at the time, Igor Grishkov, and its crew were able to prevent it from sinking, as you can read more about here.

Arms control agreements with the United States, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the economic devastation that subsequently befell Russia, led to the steady retirement of the other five Typhoons between 1996 and 2013. The Soviets had also laid down a seventh boat in 1986, which was left unfinished and ultimately scrapped. TK-12 Simbirsk, TK-13, and TK-202 have all now also been disposed of, but TK-17 Arkhangelsk and TK-20 Severstal are still languishing pier side at the Russian Navy’s base at Severodvinsk.

A satellite image taken in September 2021 that shows TK-17 and TK-20 tied to a pier at the Russian Navy’s base at Severodvinsk. The covers to their missile tubes have been notably removed, likely to ensure that the U.S. government can use spy satellites to routinely verify they are not armed as part of various arms control agreements. Google Earth

For years now already, Dmitry Donskoy has been largely used for research and development, test and evaluation, and training purposes. It was notably modified to fire the new RSM-56 Bulava nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missile as part of the development of that weapon. TK-208 conducted the first-ever launch of a prototype RSM-56 in 2005.

More recently, independent naval analyst H.I. Sutton, who focuses primarily on all things military that ride beneath the waves, posted satellite imagery on social media of what he said appeared to be the Dmitry Donskoy sailing together with Belgorod in the White Sea. It wouldn’t be surprising that these two massive submarines might have been conducting test or training activities together, which would also be in line with TASS’s sources saying that TK-208 is still very much in use. The Russian Navy only announced that it had formally commissioned Belgorod into service at the beginning of July.

It is certainly possible that the RIA Novosti and TASS stories about Dmitry Donskoy are both technically correct. The Russian government could now be largely settled on a plan to decommission the submarine, which is certainly very costly to maintain and operate, but could still be ironing out the particulars. The Russian Navy hopes to commission a new Project 955A Borei-A class ballistic missile submarine with the name Dmitry Donskoy in 2029, which could point to that being a hard deadline for the retirement of the last Typhoon. Of course, TK-208 could always just be renamed. Still, that is seven years out for a boat that is already the only of its kind in operation and four decades old.

It is worth noting that another anonymous source told TASS last year that Dmitry Donskoy was unlikely to be decommissioned for at least another five years. However, this was before Russia found itself under a mountain of crippling economic sanctions as a result of its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February. It can only be costly and complex to maintain this sole remaining Typhoon, which has been modified in various unique ways over the years now. The three scrapped examples, along with TK-17 and TK-20, have likely provided more readily available sources of spare parts, but as time goes on even conducting routine maintenance will no doubt become more complicated and costly.

Another potentiality could be that the Russian Navy is waiting until the annual Navy Day celebrations in St. Petersburg, which will take place at the end of this month, to make any public announcement about Dmitry Donskoy‘s future. The submarine took part in the 2017 iteration of the maritime parade that accompanies that event. Warships and submarines, including the advanced Project 885 Yasen class submarine Severodvinsk, are already gathering in the area for this year’s parade.

No matter what, as underscored by the still-undecided final fate of TK-17 and TK-20, which are expected to eventually be scrapped, it’s not clear what would immediately happen to the Dmitry Donskoy after any official decommissioning. It takes significant time and money to actually break down ships and submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones, as you can read more about here.

All told, even though we don’t know yet exactly what the Russian Navy’s current plans for Dmitry Donskoy might be, it seems more likely than not that the submarine is very much in the twilight of its career. Whenever it finally heads into retirement, it will mark the end of the story of these iconic boats.

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