Russia dismantles the world's largest submarine, the Dmitriy Donskoy.

The decommissioning of the Dmitry Donskoy brings to an end the history of the iconic Typhoon class, made famous by the book The Hunt for Red October.

According to state media, the Russian Navy has officially decommissioned the Dmitry Donskoy nuclear ballistic missile submarine. This submarine has been the only remaining example of the iconic Typhoon class in service for years. The Typhoon remains the largest submarine of any class, by displacement, ever built.

Russian state media TASS reported the withdrawal of Dmitry Donskoy yesterday, citing Vladimir Maltsev, head of the All-Russian Fleet Support Movement. Also known simply as the Fleet Support Movement or by the Russian acronym DPF, it is a public organization that defends and otherwise promotes the work of the Russian Navy.

Russia dismantles the world's largest submarine, the Dmitriy Donskoy.

According to previously published reports by RIA Novosti, another Russian state media agency, Dmitry Donskoy retired from the Russian Navy in July 2022. Following the publication of that story, TASS reported that it was incorrect, citing information from unspecified people in Russia’s state-owned shipbuilding industry and the country’s security services. However, that second report indicated that the final decision on the future of the submarine could be made around the new year.

According to Maltsev, the Dmitry Donskoy, also known by his hull number TK-208, will join two other decommissioned Typhoons at the Russian Navy base in Severodvinsk. The Arkhangelsk (TK-17) and Severstal (TK-20) have languished in the dock, moored together, for nearly a decade. 

The plan and timetable for the final scrapping of the three ships, a process further complicated by the need to safely dispose of the pair of 190-megawatt OK-650 nuclear reactors each, remain unclear.

Maltsev did not specify whether or if Dmitry Donskoy was expected to have arrived at the base or if it had not when it was expected to do so. According to the satellite pictures provided by Planet Labs, Dmitry Donskoy is not yet in that area and likely won’t be until February 6. The recently available images are not of great quality due to bad weather. The facility is located in northwestern Russia, relatively close to the Arctic Circle.

The fate of Dmitry Donskoy is of great interest, given its status as the last active Typhoon. The Soviet Union only ordered six of these monstrous nuclear ballistic missile submarines between 1981 and 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to work being halted on a seventh ship, and that partially built submarine was eventually scrapped.

Also known as the Project 941 or Akula class by the Soviets – not to be confused with the Project 971 Shchuka-B class, which the US military and NATO refer to as the Akula class – the design is just over 574 feet in length (175 m ) and displaces approximately 48,000 tons when submerged. By comparison, a US Navy Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine has a submerged displacement of about 20,664 tons and is 4 meters shorter.

Since the Russian Navy introduced the 604-foot-long (184 m) Belgorod, the Typhoon class no longer holds the title of the longest submarine in history. However, the Belgorod was not built from the keel up but was instead transformed from a Project 949A Oscar II-class guided-missile submarine. It is a unique submarine for special missions.

The Typhoon’s design is also visually distinguished by its 20 missile tubes, each designed to house a single R-39 Rif submarine-launched ballistic missile, arranged forward-end, and its sail positioned towards the stern. All other nuclear ballistic missile submarines, including those in service with the Soviet and now Russian Navy, have their missile tubes aft of the sail.

The six completed Typhoons, including Dmitry Donskoy, had a fairly uneventful career during the Cold War. In 1991, the Arkhangelsk, then known only by her hull number TK-17, nearly sank after suffering a horrific accident during a planned test launch of an unarmed R-39. The missile exploded in the launch tube, but the ship’s captain at the time, Igor Grishkov, and his crew eventually managed to keep it afloat.

However, the Typhoon class became one of the most iconic ships of the Soviet Navy. Tom Clancy’s famous novel The Hunt for Red October (1984) and the homonymous film adaptation (1990), starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, contributed to public opinion paying attention to him. The story centers on a heavily modified fictional sub-variant of this submarine, the namesake Red October.

The Typhoon fleet began a steady decline after 1991 due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and arms limitation agreements with the United States. Three of the six submarines were decommissioned at the turn of the decade and demolished; their hull numbers were TK-12, TK-13, and TK-202.

As already noted, the Arkhangelsk and Severstal have also been out of service for years, awaiting a similar fate. Dmitry Donskoy has long been relegated to research and development, testing and evaluation, and training activities. 

He has been modified in several unique ways to support this work, including allowing him to fire new RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles to aid in developing that weapon. The submarine appeared at the Navy Day celebrations in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

In 2021, the future of the Dmitry Donskoy as a test and training platform looked promising, with plans to keep it in service at least until 2026. As of June 2022, it appears it was still performing such tasks.

Russia dismantles the world's largest submarine

It’s unclear what changed in the interim, but international sanctions against Russia are severe because of the almost year-long conflict in Ukraine. The Russian military has lost a lot of equipment so far in this fight, and they’ll need to find a way to replace it.

It’s easy to see how this could have prompted doubts about the wisdom of keeping a single example of an extremely costly and complicated submarine in service. Before Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, its government had been willing to delay or cancel large military projects to reallocate funds to higher-priority efforts.

With this in mind, the Russian authorities remain committed to acquiring new Borei-A class ballistic missile nuclear submarines. Fleet Support Movement chief Maltsev told TASS that a future Borei-A-class ship anticipated to join service at the end of the decade will be named Dmitry Donskoy.

In the absence of official confirmation from the Russian Navy or the Russian Defense Ministry, the possibility remains that the fate of Dmitry Donskoy is not yet final. Of course, the sub could technically still be in service but have been decommissioned in all but formal ways.

Be that as it may, with a new Borei-A-class Dmitry Donskoy already on the horizon, the Typhoon era is clearly coming to an end, if not already.

joseph trevithick