Russia Built the Fastest Submarine Ever (But Just One?)
Key point: The Anchar class was just too noisy and prone to breakdown when going at its otherwise impressive speed.
Speed has often held a mixed appeal in submarine warfare. After all, even very quiet submarines become noisy when they’re tearing through the ocean at their maximum speed of 20 to 30 knots. As typically the goal in submarine warfare is to detect an unaware adversary and launch torpedoes without being detected in return, many submarines cruise at little more than a brisk jog to minimize noise.
However, speed also enables more aggressive maneuvers against alert enemies and incoming torpedoes, and the ability to close with or disengage from adversaries as the situation dictates. And sometimes speed is desirable simply to get a submarine where it needs to be to engage a fast-moving enemy.
Such was the thinking behind the Soviet’s Project 661 submarine Anchar that was conceived in 1959: a speedy submarine that could race forth to intercept American carrier task forces cruising at 33 knots, blast them with long-range cruise missiles fired from underwater, and then get the hell out of Dodge.
Project 661, known as the Papa-class by NATO, was developed roughly in parallel with another high speed-design, the Project 705 torpedo attack submarine, which would result in the iconic Alfa-class submarine. Though the two boats diverged in many respects, they had in common hulls made of strong but lightweight titanium alloy instead of steel to save weight, and thereby increase speed.
While U.S. engineers incorporated titanium components into aircraft like the ultra-fast SR-71 Blackbird, doing so on something the scale of a submarine hull was considered unfeasible because the element could only be welded in a de-oxygenated environment. That didn’t stop Soviet engineers, who had workers in pressurized suits weld 60-millimeter thick titanium plates of the Project 661’s pressure hull in the argon gas-flooded Building No. 42 in Severodvinsk.
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