Alfa class submarine

Alfa class submarine

The Soviet Union/Russian Navy Project 705 ("Лира"/"Lyra") was a submarine class of hunter/killer nuclear powered vessels (abbreviated PLA: "Podvodnaya lodka atomnaya", nuclear hunter/killer submarine). The class is also known by the NATO reporting name of "Alfa". They were the fastest and one of the deepest diving military submarines built, with only the K-278 Komsomolets competing in crush depth.


The initial design work began in 1957 and was highly innovative, necessarily so to meet the demanding requirements - sufficient speed to successfully pursue any ship; the ability to avoid anti-submarine weapons and to ensure success in underwater combat; low detectability, in particular to airborne MAD arrays, and also especially to active sonars; minimal displacement and minimal crew complement. A special titanium alloy hull would be used to create a small, low drag, 1,500 ton, three compartment vessel capable of very high speeds (in excess of 40 knots) and deep diving. The submarine would operate as an interceptor, staying in harbour or on patrol route and then racing out to reach an approaching fleet. A high-power liquid-metal-cooled nuclear plant was devised meaning extensive automation would also greatly reduce the needed crew numbers to just 16 highly trained men. The practical problems with the design quickly became apparent and in 1963 the design team was replaced and a less radical design was proposed, increasing all main dimensions and the vessel weight by 800 tons and doubling the crew.

A prototype, "Project 661" or "K-162 (since 1978 K-222)" (referred to by NATO as the Papa class), was built at the Sudomekh yards in Leningrad and completed in 1972. The long build-time was caused by numerous design flaws and difficulties in manufacture. Extensively tested and reconfigured, it was taken out of service following a reactor accident in 1980. It reportedly had a top speed of 44.7 knots and a claimed dive depth of 800 m. This combined with other reports created some alarm in the U.S. Navy and prompted the rapid development of the ADCAP torpedo program and the Sea Lance missile programs projects (the latter was cancelled when more definitive information about the Soviet project was known). The creation of the high-speed Spearfish torpedo by the Royal Navy was also a response to the threat posed by the reported capabilities of the Alfa.


Production started in 1974 as "Project 705" with construction at both the Admiralty yard, Leningrad and at Sevmashpredpriyatiye (Northern Machinery Factory), Severodvinsk. The first vessel was commissioned in 1977.

Project 705 boats were intended to be an experimental platform themselves, to test all innovations and rectify their faults, that would afterwards found a new generation of submarines. This highly experimental nature mostly predetermined their future.

In 1983, with the completion of the seventh vessel, production ended. All vessels were assigned to the Northern Fleet.


The power plant for the boat was a lead cooled fast reactor. Such reactors have a number of advantages over older types:

* Due to higher coolant temperature, their energy efficiency is up to 1.5 times higher.
* Lifetime without refuelling can be increased more easily, in part due to higher efficiency.
* Liquid metal can't cause an explosion and quickly solidifies in case of a leakage, greatly improving safety.
* LCFRs are much lighter and smaller than water-cooled reactors, which was the primary factor when considering power plant choice for Lira.Even though 1960s technology was barely sufficient to produce reliable LCFRs, which are even today considered challenging, their advantages were considered compelling. Two power plants were developed independently, BM-40A by "Hydropress" in Leningrad and OK-550 by the "OKBM" design bureau in Nizhny Novgorod, both using an eutectic lead-bismuth solution for the primary cooling stage, and both producing 155 megawatts of power.

Burst speed in tests was between 43 and 45 knots for all vessels, and speeds of 41-42 knots could be sustained. Acceleration to the top speed took one minute and reversing 180 degrees at full speed 40 seconds. This degree of maneuverability exceeds all other submarines and most torpedoes that were in service at the time. Indeed, during training the boats proved to successfully evade torpedoes launched by other submarines, which required introduction of faster torpedoes such as the American ADCAP or British "Spearfish". However, the price for this was a very high noise level at burst speed, as for any body moving through water at high speed. The tactical speed, where the noise would be similar to other submarines, is about 20-25 knots.

Propulsion was provided by the main screw with 30 MW steam turbines, and two 100 kW electric-powered screws served as an additional propulsion for maneuvering and a backup. Backup power systems included a 500 kW diesel generator and a set of zinc-silver batteries.

The OK-550 plant was used on Project 705, but later, on 705K, the BM-40A plant was installed due to the low reliability of the OK-550. While more reliable, BM-40A still turned out to be much more demanding in maintenance than older pressurized water reactors. The issue is that the lead/bismuth eutectic solution solidifies at 125 degrees C. If it ever hardened it would be impossible to restart the reactor, since the fuel assemblies would be frozen in the solidified coolant, so whenever the reactor is shut down it must be heated externally with superheated steam. Near the piers where the submarines were moored, a special facility was constructed to deliver superheated steam to the vessels' reactors when the reactors were shut down. A smaller ship was also stationed at the pier to deliver steam from its steam plant to the Alfa submarines.

Coastal facilities were treated with much less attention than the submarines and often turned out unable to heat the submarines reactors. Consequently the plants had to be kept running even while the subs were in harbour. The facilities completely broke down early in the 1980s and since then the reactors of all operational Alfa submarines were kept constantly running. While the BM-40A reactors are able to work for many years without stopping, they were not specifically designed for such treatment and any serious reactor maintenance became impossible. This led to a number of failures, including coolant leaks and one reactor broken down and frozen while at sea. However, constantly running the reactors proved better than relying on the coastal facilities. Four vessels were decommissioned due to freezing of the coolant.

Both the OK-550 and the BM-40A designs were single-use reactors and could not be refuelled as the coolant would inevitably freeze in the process. This was compensated for by a much longer lifetime on their only load (up to 15 years), after which the reactors would be completely replaced. While such a solution could potentially decrease service times and increase reliability, it is still more expensive, and the idea of single-use reactors was unpopular in the 1970s. Furthermore, Project 705 does not have a modular design that would allow quick replacement of reactors, so such maintenance would take at least as long as refuelling a normal submarine.


Like all Soviet nuclear submarines, Project 705 used a double hull, where the internal hull withstands the pressure and the outer one protects it and provides an optimal hydrodynamic shape. However, unlike almost all other submarines, the hulls of the Lira had variable diameters. The shape is optimized for minimal active sonar signature and minimal water resistance and, although it complicated the design, it was essential for providing required maneuverability.

Apart from the prototypes, Project 705 and 705K submarines were built with titanium alloy hulls, which was revolutionary in terms of submarine design at the time due to the cost of titanium and the technologies and equipment needed to work with it. The difficulties in the engineering became apparent in the first submarine that was quickly decommissioned after cracks developed in the hull. Later metallurgy and welding technology were improved and no hull problems were experienced on subsequent vessels.

The internal pressure hull was separated into six watertight compartments, of which only the third (center) compartment was manned and others were accessible only for maintenance. The third compartment had reinforced spherical bulkheads that could withstand the pressure at the test depth and offered additional protection to the crew in case of attack. To further enhance survivability, the ship was equipped with an ejectable rescue capsule.

The hull was designed for extreme depths, below the deep sound layer (at 1 km), but complete redesign of the plumbing and other inter-hull systems was delayed. According to some information,cite web | author=Federation of American Scientists| date=December 08, 1998 7:14:29 p.m. | title=Run Silent, Run Deep| work=Military Analysis Network | url= | accessdate=2006-03-18] one of the submarines was tested on depths up to 1300 meters but submerging to such depths and returning caused permanent damage to equipment, which in a few cycles would make the vessel very unreliable. This test may have been conducted just prior to decommissioning.

Control system

A suite of new systems was developed for these submarines, including:
* "Accord" combat information and control system, which received and processed hydroacoustic, television, radar and navigation data from other systems, determining other ships, submarines and torpedoes location and speed and predicted trajectory. Information was displayed on control terminals, along with recommendations for operating a single submarine, both for attack and torpedo evasion, or commanding a group of submarines.
* "Sargan" weapon control system controlling attack, torpedo homing and use of countermeasures, both by human command and automatically if required
* "Ocean" automated hydroacoustic system that provided target data to other systems and eliminated the need for crew members working with detection equipment
* "Sogh" navigation system and "Boxite" course control system, which integrated course, depth, trim and speed control, for manual, automated and programmed maneuvering
* "Rhythm" system controlling operation of all machinery aboard, eliminating the need for any personnel servicing reactor and other machinery, which was the main factor in reducing crew complement
* "Alfa" radiation control system
* "TV-1" television system for outside observationAll the systems of the submarine were fully automated and all operations requiring human decision were performed from the control room. While such automation is common on aircraft, other military ships and submarines have multiple, separate teams performing these tasks. Crew interference was required only for course changes or combat and no maintenance was performed at sea. Due to these systems, the combat shift of Lira submarines consisted only of 8 officers stationed in the control room. While nuclear submarines typically have 120 to 160 crew members, the initially proposed crew number was 14 - all officers except the cook. Later it was considered more practical to have additional crew aboard that could be trained to operate the new generation of submarines and the number was increased to 27 officers and 4 under-officers. Also, given that most of the electronics were newly developed and failures were expected, additional crew was stationed to monitor their performance. Some reliability problems have been connected with electronics, and it is possible that some accidents could have been foreseen with more mature and better developed monitoring systems. Overall performance was considered good for an experimental system.

The main reason behind the small crew complement and high automation was not just to allow a reduction in the size of the submarine, but rather to provide an advantage in reaction speed by replacing long chains of command with instant electronics, speeding up any action.


The Alfa class submarines were designed for anti-surface warfare and their primary mode of operation was slowly waiting for enemy ships or information on enemy location and, once detected, rushing at full speed towards the target. However, the superior ability of Western passive sonar, coupled with newer, longer-ranged torpedoes and airborne ASW weapons, makes such an attack a risky proposition at best. It is possible that they could have operated in conjunction with quieter subs to coordinate attacks, albeit with the need to stay close to one another for underwater communications to work, but overall their abilities as "hunter-killers" paled in comparison to the much more capable Akula.

Despite the vessels' constant reliability problems, no crew members have ever been lost on these submarines. This is due to extensive crew protection measures and automation that isolates the crew from most of the machinery. However, 3 of the class did suffer debilitating reactor accidents, which led to the final 2 being refit with PWR reactors.


Alfas, as with almost all other nuclear submarines, were never actually used in combat and didn't perform any important tasks except power demonstration. However, the Soviet government still made good use of them, by exaggerating the planned number of vessels, which were assumed to allow naval superiority to be gained by shadowing major ship groups and destroying them in case of war. The US replied by starting the ADCAP program, and the British Royal Navy the Spearfish torpedo program, to create torpedoes with the range, speed, and intelligence to reliably pursue Alfa class submarines.

SSN-21 "Seawolf", a program started by the US Navy 12 years later, did not replicate or respond to the Lira but rather was built around the concept of anti-submarine warfare to response to the dual threats of the Soviet ballistic missile submarine fleet and the Schuka (NATO designation Akula), or Project 971 attack submarines. With a very high "silent" speed of 20 kts, burst speed in excess of 35 kts, and impressive depth capability, Seawolf is designed to hunt SSBNs and their escorts under the polar ice. There are currently three Seawolf class boats in operation, their very high cost of more than $2 Billion US leading to the development of the more cost-effective and flexible SSN-774 "Virginia".

The Lira submarines were intended to be only the first for a new generation of light, fast submarines and before their decommissioning there was already a family of derivative designs, including Project 705D, armed with long-range 650 mm torpedoes, and the Project 705A ballistic missile variant that was intended be able to defend itself successfully against attack submarines, therefore not needing patrolled bastions. However, the main thrust of Russian/Soviet SSN development was instead focused toward the larger, quieter boats that eventually became the Schuka (NATO designation Akula).

The technologies and solutions developed, tested and perfected on Lira formed the ground for future designs. The suite of submarine control systems was later used in Schuka (NATO designation Akula), or Project 971 attack submarines that have a crew of 50, which is more than Lira but still less than half as many as other attack submarines. "Schuka" submarines in their design represent a hybrid of "Lira" and Improved "688 "Los Angeles"" -class, using a large passive sonar array, towed sonar array and further reduced noise level.

Project 885 "Yasen", or Severodvinsk class multipurpose submarines, the first of which launched in late 2006 and to be commissioned in 2010, finally implements ideas of 705A and 705D, only in a Schuka-style hull. They are intended to combine the ability to launch a variety of long-range nuclear missiles and engage hostile submarines or ships at long range, though without the many defects of the Lira class. The missiles carried include 3K-10 "Granat" with 2500-3000 km range, and new Kh-101 and Kh-102 with range up to 5000 km. [ List of Russian missiles] Note: Kh- and X- prefixes mean the same. The Russian prefix is Х-, which reads as "Kh", but is written exactly like X.] [ [ Speeding up the Development of Advanced Strategic Weapons ] ] [ [ Kh-101 specifications] ] Their displacement is reduced compared to "Schuka", dive depth and maneuverability are significally improved, due to more modern reactor and smaller displacement. [ [ Federation of American Scientists] ] [ [ article] ] Noise reduction is allegedly improved, with additional use of acoustical decoupling between internal and external hulls. Automation matches Lira's level.


The first vessel was decommissioned in 1987 and four more before the end of 1992. The final vessel underwent a refit and was loaded with a VM-4 pressurised water reactor as "Project 671". After being used for training she was decommissioned in 1995.

General characteristics

* Displacement: 2,300 tons surfaced, 3,200 tons submerged
* Length: 81.4 m
* Beam: 9.5 m
* Draft: 7.6 m
* Depth:
** Usual operation: 350 m
** Test depth: 800 m
** Crush depth: possibly over 1300 mcite web | author=Federation of American Scientists| date=December 08, 1998 7:14:29 p.m. | title=Run Silent, Run Deep| work=Military Analysis Network | url= | accessdate=2006-03-18]
* Compartments: 6
* Complement: 27 officers, 4-18 under-officers
* Reactor: OK-550 reactor or BM-40A reactor, lead cooled fast reactor, 155 MW
* Steam turbines: OK-7K, 40,000 shp
* Propulsion: 1 propeller
* Speed (submerged):
** Tactical speed: 20-25 knots
** Burst speed: 44.7 knots (80 km/h)
* Armament: 6 x 533 mm torpedo tubes:
** 18 SET-65 or 53-65K torpedoes (or)
** 20 VA-111 Shkval torpedoes (or)
** 21 SS-N-15 cruise missiles (or)
** 12 SS-N-16 cruise missiles (or)
** 24 mines
* Systems:
** "Topol" MRK.50 (Snoop Tray) surface search radar
** "Sozh" navigation system radar
** "MG-21 Rosa" underwater communications
** "Molniya" satellite communications
** "Vint" & "Tissa" radio communications antennas
** "Accord" combat control system
** "Leningrad-705" fire control system
** "Ocean" active/passive sonar
** "MG-24" luch mine detection sonar
** "Yenisei" sonar intercept receiver
** "Bukhta" ESM/ECM
** "Chrome-KM" IFF

Alfa class submarines in fiction

Two Alfa class submarines (the fictional "V. K. Konovalov" and "E.S. Politovsky") are featured in Tom Clancy’s novel, "The Hunt for Red October". The E.S. Politovsky sinks due to a catastrophic reactor meltdown via a loss-of-coolant emergency - Clancy assumed that the reactor used very high pressure water coolant - while "Konovalov" is rammed by "Red October" and subsequently sinks. In the film adaptation, only "Konovalov" appears, and she is sunk by one of her own torpedoes.

Clancy's "SSN" also features Alfas sold to the Chinese by the Russians.

Alfas also appear in Bruce Sterling’s novel "Islands in the Net".

The rebuilding of Alfa-class submarines is featured prominently in Michael DiMercurio's "Emergency Deep".

There is also a rebuilt Alfa in Jan Guillou's book "Madame Terror". The Palestinian intelligence agency has bought and modernized the sub with a new diesel electric power plant - speed and performance, however, improbably stayed the same - and a groundbreaking system of detection.clarifyme The submarine in the novel also carried a midget sub in the compartment originally housing the reactor.

Tom Clancy's Novel "Red Storm Rising" features a naval assault on a Russian bomber base by "Los Angeles"-class attack submarines using Tomahawks, which are counterattacked by an Alfa which is ultimately sunk by HMS "Torbay".


External links

* [ Bellona Foundation]
* [ Global Security]
* [ Federation of American Scientists]
* [ The Russian Northern Fleet Nuclear-powered vessels]
* [ Storm of Deep]
* [ Article in Russian Language]
* [ Article in Russian Language from Russian Submarines]

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