For the 46 years of the Cold War, the most feared Soviet naval weapon was the submarine. Initially, it was looked at as a threat to Western use of the Atlantic shipping lanes to reinforce and support Western Europe in the event of an assault. Subsequently, the development of Soviet submarines armed with strategic missiles became the number one naval threat to the West. How many submarines did the USSR build during the Cold War?
The Soviet emphasis on submarine development and construction predated the Cold War.1 In the late 1940s, Western military leaders feared that this interest, coupled with German U-boat technology made available to the Soviets and the very high priority given to rehabilitating Soviet shipyards, would lead to a massive force of Red submarines. U.S. Navy estimates indicated that by the 1960s the Soviets could have 1,200 or even 2,000 submarines of all types at sea. In 1948, a U.S. Navy admiral presented two assumptions in discussing these numbers:
. . . first, an assumption that the Russians will maintain their numbers of submarines in approximately the same amount that they have now but improve their types and replace older types with new ones, and the second assumption, that by 1960 or within ten years, 1958, that the Russians could have two thousand up-to-date submarines. I have chosen that figure because I believe it is within their industrial capability of producing that number and I believe if they really intend to employ the submarines as a means of preventing the United States and her Allies from operating overseas that two thousand would be the number they would require for their forces.2
A U.S. Navy intelligence estimate stated that "it is, however, unlikely that they will be able to maintain an active submarine force of more than 400 units, even during a protracted ‘Cold War.’"3 That number was based on U.S. estimates of available dock space, fuel, battery water, and other resources that would be needed to support a fleet with approximately one-third of the force (400 boats) at sea on patrol, one-third in transit, and one-third undergoing trials, training, and maintenance. (The Soviet submarine force was reported by U.S. Naval Intelligence to have peaked at some 450 active units about 1957.)
Western knowledge of Soviet submarine construction and force levels was almost nonexistent in the early stages of the Cold War. In the 1950s the United States began launching camera-laden balloons over the Soviet Union. Then came spy plane overflights, initially by British Canberras and U.S. B-47 Stratojets, followed from 1956 to 1960 by 24 flights of U.S. U-2 aircraft. But relatively little intelligence about Soviet shipbuilding and submarine forces was revealed by their cameras.
Massive amounts of intelligence began to flow from 1960 onward, as cameras and other sensors were carried over the Soviet Union by satellites. For example, until 1961 the only photographs available to U.S. Navy intelligence analysts of the massive Soviet shipyard at Severodvinsk on the White Sea, which built the first Soviet nuclear-propelled submarines, were German high-altitude aerial photos taken in 1941 and 1943. The Discoverer 25 satellite in June 1961 provided updated and highly detailed photos of the yard, as did subsequent spy satellites in the Corona and later series.4
More information on Soviet naval programs became available in the late 1970s, when, for about five years, the United States obtained a "special" intelligence source—officers on the Soviet General Staff. This source, however, was destroyed by Aldrich H. Ames, the CIA counterintelligence officer who spied for the Soviet Union. (Because of Ames, numerous "tainted" intelligence reports were provided to the White House and Pentagon, some confusing existing intelligence material.)
Even satellite photos and General Staff papers left questions about precisely how many submarines were produced in Soviet shipyards, their building dates, and some details of their configuration. For example, for decades it was believed by Western naval analysts that the first Soviet nuclear submarine—called "November" by NATO intelligence—had been lengthened during extensive overhauls. Apparently, satellite photos showed one or more Novembers to be slightly longer than the earlier units. In reality, there was but one lengthened November—the Project 645 submarine that, while externally resembling the November, internally was quite different and was propelled by a nuclear plant employing two reactors with a liquid-metal (lead-bismuth alloy) as the heat-exchange. medium.
Now the details of the massive Soviet submarine construction program—and most of their characteristics—are accessible. The recently published fifth volume of the comprehensive history of Russian-Soviet shipbuilding plus discussions with senior officials of the two remaining Russian submarine design bureaus, Rubin and Malachite, have provided detailed data on Soviet submarine programs of the Cold War.5
From 1945 through 1991, the Soviet Union produced 727 submarines—492 with diesel-electric or closed-cycle propulsion and 235 with nuclear propulsion. This compares with the U.S. total of 212 submarines—43 with diesel propulsion (22 from World War II programs) and 169 nuclear submarines (including the diminutive NR-1). Not included are Soviet midget submarines or the single U.S. midget, the X-1 (SSX-1).
The building rates averaged almost 16 submarines per year for the Soviets compared with 4.6 for the United States, demonstrating the difference in naval warfare emphasis between the two countries. Not included are submarines built in both countries for foreign navies—about 50 by Soviet shipyards and 4 (for Peru) by the U.S. Electric Boat yard.
But Soviet achievements in submarine construction went far beyond numbers. They included the largest submarine ever constructed (the Typhoon SSBN), the world's fastest (the Papa SSGN and Alfa SSN), the deepest-diving combat submarine (the Mike SSN), several classes of titanium-hulled boats (the Mike, Papa, Alfa, and Sierra SSNs), the world's largest nonstrategic submarine (the Oscar SSGN), and the only specialized rescue-salvage submarine (the India AGSS).
Immediately after the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation completed several additional submarines of seven classes: Paltus AGSSN; Kilo SS; Typhoon SSBN; Oscar II SSGN; Victor III SSN; Akula I/II SSN; and Sierra II SSN.
Submarine construction now has slowed considerably in Russia. Today, the number of hulls actually under construction may be counted on one hand. The lead submarines of two classes begun after the Cold War, the Severodvinsk SSN, laid down on 21 December 1993, and the Yuri Dolgorykey SSBN, laid down on 2 November 1996, are far behind their original construction schedules.
Still, analyses of Soviet defense expenditures and statements by officials demonstrate that submarine/antisubmarine warfare, along with space and tactical aviation, continue to have the highest priority among military forces.
1 See N. Polmar and J. Noot Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies, 1718-1990 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. 1991).
2 RAdm. C. B. Momsen, USN. statement to the Navy General Board, 8 November 1948. At the time, Momsen was in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Operations).
3 Office of Naval Intelligence briefing to the Navy General Board on "Shipbuilding Program, F.Y. [fiscal 1951-1960." 19 November 1948.
4 See Curtis Peebles, The Corona Project: America's First Spy Satellites (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), pp. 221-22.
5 V. P. Semyonov, ed., Istoriya Otechestvennogo Sudostroenie, vol. 5 (1946-1991) (St. Petersburg: Sudostroenie, 1996).