The Soviet Union produced hot-rod submarines that could swim faster, take more damage, and dive deeper than their American counterparts—but the U.S. Navy remained fairly confident it had the Soviet submarines outmatched because they were all extremely noisy.
Should the superpowers clash, the quieter American subs had better odds of detecting their Soviet counterparts first, and greeting them with a homing torpedo. However, that confidence was dented in the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Navy launched its Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.
Thirty years later they remain the mainstay of the Russian nuclear attack submarine fleet—and are quieter than the majority of their American counterparts.
Today the Russian Navy maintains ten to eleven Akulas, according to Jane’s accounting in 2016, but only three or four are in operational condition, while the rest await repairs. Nonetheless, the Russian Navy has kept its boats busy. In 2009, two Akulas were detected off the East Coast of the United States—supposedly the closest Russia submarines had been seen since the end of the Cold War.
Three years later, there was an unconfirmed claim (this time denied by the U.S. Navy) that another Akula had spent a month prowling in the Gulf of Mexico without being caught. The older Kashalot even has been honored for “tailing a foreign submarine for fourteen days.” All of these incidents have highlighted concerns that the U.S. Navy needs to refocus on antisubmarine warfare. In the last several years, Russia has also been upgrading the Akula fleet to fire deadly Kalibr cruise missiles, which were launched at targets in Syria in 2015 by the Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don.
Despite the Akula’s poor readiness rate, they continue to make up the larger part of Russia’s nuclear attack submarine force, and will remain in service into the next decade until production of the succeeding Yasen class truly kicks into gear.
Until then, the Akula’s strong acoustic stealth characteristics will continue to make her a formidable challenge for antisubmarine warfare specialists.