Russian Delta-class submarines had only one mission: to start World War III
The Delta class was the backbone of Russia’s submarine-launched ballistic missile forces: Between 1972 and 1992, the Soviet Union built forty-three submarines to a series of designs that NATO has collectively described as the Delta class. These boats would form the backbone of the USSR’s first true maritime nuclear deterrent and change the way the Soviets and Americans thought about warfare at sea. Several of the boats remain in service today, carrying their deadly payloads through the depths of the Arctic Ocean.
The Soviet Union understood the need for sea-based deterrence from the start of the Cold War. Soviet leaders feared that American superiority in delivery systems (initially in numbers and accuracy) would leave them vulnerable to a decapitating first strike, and more generally to nuclear blackmail. As a result, the USSR began experimenting with submarines equipped with strategic nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s. But technical problems made it difficult to achieve the achievements. Generally speaking, the Soviets found themselves a few years behind the Americans in submarine and missile technology.
The American George Washington class, which could carry sixteen missiles and strike targets at a distance of 2,500 miles, was the type of capability the Soviets struggled to obtain, at least initially. But in the mid-1960s, the USSR could boast of nuclear submarines with a similar range and armament. The thirty-four boats of the Project 667A design (NATO code: Yankee) were the first moderately successful Soviet SSBNs. Built between 1964 and 1974, these boats were to patrol the mid-Atlantic in order to plausibly hit the United States. They displaced 9300 tons and could carry between twelve and sixteen missiles with ranges of around 1800 miles.
Unfortunately, geography complicated Soviet deterrence strategy. While the United States (in alliance with NATO) had several bases from which to release SSBNs, the Soviets were forced to send their submarines through several choke points, which allowed the NATO submarines to easily identify and track them. The relatively short missile ranges of early Soviet boomers also made them extremely vulnerable to Western anti-submarine warfare assets, as they would need to pass through a gauntlet of submarines, warships, SOSUS sennets and ground planes in order to reach the launch. posts. The fact that Soviet submarines were relatively noisy compared to American boats compounded the problem.
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The next class of Soviet submarines and missiles would work to solve these problems. Between 1972 and 1992, the Soviet Union built forty-three Delta-class boats (Project 667B) in four separate designs. NATO has designated these subclasses Delta-class I (eighteen boats), Delta-class II (four boats), Delta-class III (fourteen boats) and Delta-class IV (seven boats).
The first set of Deltas were substantially larger than the Yankees, displacing around 10,000 tons and carrying twelve R-29 SLBMs. They could do 25 knots submerged and sported six torpedo tubes as defensive armament. They began to enter service in 1972, when the last 667B boats were still rolling off the line. The Delta IIs were slightly larger than the first batch, displacing 10,500 tons. They carried sixteen R-29D missiles, but had similar defensive armament and similar performance to their smaller cousins. They were generally considered quieter than the Delta Is, including a variety of small modifications that addressed problems discovered in early boats. The Delta III class represented the next real leap in capability. Displacing 18,000 tons, these boats carried sixteen R-29R missiles, each of which could include up to seven independent multiple re-entry vehicles. Fourteen Delta IIIs were built between 1974 and 1982. They remained the core of the USSR’s SSBN force through the 1990s. Six were retired in the late 1990s, but eight others received updates ( one of which was modified to become a minisub tanker) and remained in service well into the 2000s. The Delta IVs represented the final evolution of the design type. Seven of these boats were built between 1981 and 1992, and all seven are still in service. About the same size as the Delta IIIs, the latter carry sixteen R-29RMU “Sineva” missiles, each equipped with four warheads.
Key to the success of the Delta class was the development of the R-29 family of missiles. These missiles could carry payloads of over 4,000 miles, a huge improvement over the Yankee class. Early versions of the missile carried warheads in the 500kt range. Later versions of the missile were MIRV (usually with 100 kt warheads), multiplying the lethal effect of submarines. Powered by liquid fuel, the missiles rely on an astro-inertial guidance system. Later versions of the missile are said to have a circular error probability (CEP) of around 500 meters.
Deltas, and the long-range SLBMs they carried, were central to the Soviet development of “bastion” strategies for deploying SSBNs. Deltas could launch missiles from relatively close to home, eliminating the need to cross close to NATO ASW assets. Instead, SSBNs could do what they were supposed to do best; hide and wait for the nuclear apocalypse. Nevertheless, the Soviets were still very concerned about the threat from Western – and especially American – ASW forces. American attack submarines, aircraft, and surface ships could still hunt Soviet submarines, even those relatively close to their bases. The USSR eventually structured its naval doctrine around the idea of SSBN patrol areas well protected by attack submarines, surface ships, and shore-based aircraft.
The decision to turn to a stronghold strategy helped spark a huge debate in American defense circles, particularly in the US Navy. The United States had long assumed that in the event of war, the USSR would use its submarines to interdict the transatlantic supply chain, just as the Germans had tried to do in both World Wars. As proof of the stronghold strategy appeared, however, it bolstered offensive-minded thinkers who argued that the USN should make aggressive efforts to invade Soviet safe areas and directly threaten Soviet nuclear deterrence.
Some have argued (correctly) that this would risk destabilizing a conflict and create the possibility of an accidental nuclear war, as the Soviets could adopt a “use it or lose it” mentality regarding their strength. SSBN. Others argued that the mere threat of offensive action could alter the Soviet Navy’s force structure in desirable ways, reducing its expeditionary capabilities and ensuring the security of global transit routes.
US naval analysts were relatively confident that attack submarines could seriously attack the Soviet boomer fleet in the event of war, while USN carrier battle groups defeated “bastion” surface elements . Interest in hunting and killing Deltas (as well as the larger Typhoons which began entering service in the 1980s) led to the development of the Seawolf-class SSN. We don’t have a good idea of what the Soviet reaction would have been to a direct, conventional attack on their nuclear deterrent, but there is little reason to believe that it would have been good or helpful to the cause of the NATO.
In any case, arms control agreements with the United States, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Russian economy made it impossible to maintain such a large fleet of boomers. The last Delta I class left service in 1998, with the Delta IIs being decommissioned around the same time. However, the Delta III and Delta IV classes will remain central to Russian nuclear deterrence well into the 21st century. Due to the high cost of operating Typhoon-class submarines, several Delta IIIs were refueled and kept in service well into the 2010s, although the last one now appears to have left service.
Currently, several Delta IVs remain in service (a seventh has been converted into a research vessel and minisub supply vessel, and also remains in service). As modern Borei-class boats come online, the Delta IVs will likely be phased out. The surviving boats of the most successful Soviet SSBN classes remain a Cold War artifact, even as the tensions that led to their construction seem to be re-emerging.
Dr. Robert Farley is an associate professor at the University of Kentucky.