Soviet Postwar Submarine Designs: A Developmental Timeline

The Soviet submarine force during the Cold War was enormous.  From 1945 to 1990, there were over forty classes of submarines fielded under the Soviet naval ensign, numbering well over six hundred hulls.  (By comparison, the United States constructed just under two hundred submarines over the same period.)

The sheer diversity of Soviet submarine platforms has always given me a headache.  Take the 1950s-era “Project 613” conventional fleet submarine, known to NATO as the Whiskey-class, for example.  The Whiskey quickly spawned many variants.  In 1955, a Whiskey was adapted to carry the P-5/NATO SS-N-3c cruise missile, with the testbed being called “Project P-613” and the six operational missile-carrying units called “Project 644” (NATO Whiskey Twin-Cylinder).  In 1961, a series of new-build Whiskeys were commissioned with quad-tube P-5 missile mounts (Project 665/NATO Whiskey Long Bin).  Project 640 (NATO Whiskey Canvas Bag) was a radar picket variant launched in 1957, and Project 613S and Project 666 were dedicated rescue submarines.  As late as 1974, the Whiskey design was being used as a propulsion testbed (Project 613Eh).  And, of course, it wasn’t until 1981 that a Baltic Fleet Whiskey (S-363) ran aground off the Swedish coast in the infamous “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident.  All told, there were over two hundred Whiskeys built for the Soviet Navy.

And there was even more diversity among classes.  In the jargon of the western navies, we have Echo I/II/IIIs, Foxtrots, Hotels, Romeos, Victor I/II/IIIs, Charlie I/IIs, Yankees of many stripes, Alfas, Sierra I/IIs, Oscars, Kilos, Typhoons, an unfortunate Mike, and an endless procession of Golfs and Deltas–not to mention many ships of lesser celebrity, to which NATO never assigned code names.  With all of these ship designs floating around, it is often difficult to discern the relationships between classes.  Indeed, the common NATO code names are sometimes misleading, as the Soviet admiralty usually saw no reason to be transparent on these subjects to the intelligence services of their class enemies.

Over the New Year’s weekend a few years ago, I was reading Norman Polmar’s and K.J. Moore’s excellent submarine design history, and, feeling lost as usual, thought that I’d chart out the basic Soviet class lineages for myself.  The result is this very large timeline map of Soviet submarine classes since 1945.  In addition to class and sub-class lineages by timeline (flowing left to right), I’ve added (a) indicators for the total number of hulls in the class (green circles); (b) boundary markers for the “four generations” into which Soviet nuclear submarine designs are commonly divided (shaded boxes toward the bottom); and (c) concurrent timeline tracks for major known Soviet submarine incidents for each class (white dotted lines and triangles).

This chart is a first draft, and may be incomplete or erroneous in a number of ways. After that weekend, I had intended to go back and refine its contents, but haven’t yet found the time to do it.  With that caveat, I thought I’d share it with others who might find it interesting and/or useful.

[Download high-resolution JPG image, 6394×3648, 1.2MB]

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