Russia Retires World’s Largest Nuclear Submarine: Why Was the Aircraft Carrier Sized Typhoon Class Phased Out?

The Russian Navy has formerly decommissioned its last Typhoon Class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine the Dmitry Donskoy, according to a report by the state media outlet TASS. This follows longstanding speculation regarding the ship’s fate, with the possibility having raised that it could still remain semi operational for research purposes despite no longer being officially in service. The Typhoon Class is by far the largest submarine class ever laid down, displacing 48,000 tons when fully submerged, which is greater than the size of two British Invincible Class aircraft carriers and slightly under the size of two Japanese Izumo Class carriers. The first ship fo the class was laid down in 1976, with six completed for the Soviet Navy. Although it was by far the most capable Soviet submarine class when commissioned, and unprecedentedly integrated intercontinental ranged ballistic missiles with both solid fuel composites and multiple warheads, the effective collapse of the Russian economy after the Soviet Union’s disintegration led to the fleet contracting to just three ships by 2000. These were then gradually phased out of service from the 2010s and replaced by new Borei Class ships.

The Borei has been favoured over the Typhoon due to its much lower operational costs, and at around half the size they carry 80% as many ballistic missiles of similar size and are considerably more stealthy. Six Borei Class ships are currently in service with four more having been laid down, one of which is already in sea trials, and two more planned but yet to begin construction for an intended fleet size of 12. The last was commissioned on December 29, 2022, possibly closely coinciding with the Dmitry Donskoy’s decommissioning the date of which remains uncertain.

While Typhoon Class ships were quickly phased out of service, the Dmitry Donskoy was the sole ship of its class to receive significant upgrades including the integration of the RSM-56 ballistic missiles – which was developed as the primary armament of the Borei Class and replaced the Donskoy’s older R-39 missiles. The ship has nevertheless been held back from frontline deployments and been relegated primarily to training duties. It has also played important roles in R&D and received various modifications to better perform these duties, with some reports indicating that its modification to integrate the RSM-56 was in order to test the missiles – not because upgrade the old vessel’s armaments was seen as a sound investment decision. It remains uncertain what portion of its 20 launch tubes have received such upgrades.

A number of upgrades for the Typhoon Class, including an unusual proposal to turn them into cruise missile carriers mirroring the similar conversion of American Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines for this purpose after the Cold War, have been rejected, with the age of the ships’ stealth capabilities and their exceedingly high operational costs resulting in a perceived lack of cost effectiveness compared to building new submarines. The Typhoon’s case has contrasted to that of Russian heavy surface combatants, as while its submarine industry has remained relatively healthy and is currently laying down new nuclear powered strategic and attack submarines at a rapid rate, by contrast no new surface combatants have been laid down for the Russian Navy since the USSR’s disintegration in 1991. The Typhoon’s retirement despite its elite status in the Soviet fleet is thus a result of the prioritisation which modernisation of the submarine fleet has received, while the surface fleet is set to rely on Soviet-built cruisers and destroyers seemingly indefinitely.