The ALFA SSN: Challenging
Paradigms, Finding New Truths, 1969–79
This article originally
appeared in a classified Studies in Intelligence, Vol.
37 No. 3 (Fall 1993). The author received a Studies in Intelligence Annual Award for it in 1994. The article was declassified with slight
redactions in 2007.
We knew that the Soviets
did not follow our practice in building submarines; they did not incorporate
edge-of-technology items in series-production models.
Better is the
enemy of good enough.
This Russian proverb incorporates a philosophy that is both wise and true
to the Russian heart. Those who have learned to appreciate the Russian
character will agree that most Russians instinctively adhere to and follow that
philosophy. To build, to create things good enough to do what they are meant to
do is wise; to make them better than necessary is a waste of energy and
precious resources. The proverb reportedly was inscribed on a plaque in the
office of Deputy Minister of Defense and Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet
Union Sergei Gorshkov, who had guided the development of his navy since 1956.
Those of us
who watched the building of the Soviet Navy from its humble beginnings as a
coastal defense force after World War II to a powerful bluewater navy noticed
long ago that the old proverb was true, even when it came to building
We knew that the Soviets did not follow our practice in building
submarines; they did not incorporate edge-of-technology items in
series-production models. And we saw Soviets building double-hull submarines
long after we had discovered that the modern single-hull design had many
advantages over the double hull, among them an improved speed/horsepower ratio.
While the US Navy leaped decades ahead in submarine design, the Soviets plodded
along by improving tried technologies. Our submarines not only looked better,
they were better.
Yet the Soviets seemed satisfied with evolutionary advances in submarine
design. Many US
intelligence analysts were sure that the Soviets were never going to “put all
their eggs into one basket.” Soviet society punishes failure; designing
high-risk submarines does not enhance one's career.
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It took infinite patience to fit this miscellany into the ALFA assessment. Although it was a difficult challenge, it was a task in which most intelligence analysts excel.
This was the
consensus of Western intelligence analysts, at least until one pleasant day in
1969 when strollers walking along the Neva River saw a modern-looking, small
submarine tied up at the fitting-out quay at Leningrad’s old Sudomekh Submarine
Shipyard. It looked as if the submarine had just been launched from the old
diesel submarine assembly shed. The assembly shed had seen little activity
since the last Foxtrot-class diesel attack submarine had been launched there several
years earlier. Naval analysts, following tradition and basing their analysis on
previous launch histories, initially classified the submarine as a modern
diesel-electric follow-on to a Foxtrot.
fitting-out activity, however, soon convinced at least one senior submarine
analyst, Herb Lord, that this submarine was an SSN, a nuclear-powered attack
submarine. It had a superbly streamlined hull and an overall length of about 79
Engineering calculations gave it a surfaced displacement of some 2,600 tons,
with a submerged displacement of about 3,700 tons.
Aside from the exceptionally streamlined hull form, this submarine had several
other highly unusual features:
- In 1969, it was the world's smallest SSN.
- It had, a rather high reserve buoyancy—a safety factor—of nearly 30
percent, in contrast to 8 to 11 percent for US SSNs.
received the NATO classification ALFA Class SSN. Lord, an experienced
photointerpreter, alerted others to concentrate their efforts on the ALFA’s
construction and fitting-out pattern. The analysts noticed something they had
never seen be- fore, a “highly reflective” pressure hull section near the ALFA
requested that he be point of contact for all reports that mentioned “highly
reflective” or unusually colored submarine parts. During some eight years of
examining photos of Soviet submarine construction yards, analysts assembled a
construction history of a magnitude never before accomplished.
Periodically, and with ever increasing frequency, Lord received reports
of “highly reflective” pressure hull sections associated with the ALFA fitting
out at Sudomekh. Later, he also received reports of highly reflective pieces of
hull sections, similar to those of the Sudomekh ALFA, at the Severodvinsk
Submarine Construction Yard, far to the north of Leningrad.
He noted that these two yards were connected by an inland waterway, and he
wondered whether both yards could be building this rather unusual class of
subsequently conducted what is generally known as “look-back” analysis. All
reports of “highly reflective” submarine hull sections at the two construction
sites were collated, reviewed, and once again evaluated. It was a formidable,
time consuming task. There were reports of changes to the external appearance
of the assembly halls; reports dealing with unusual submarine parts at storage
sites near the halls; and reports on unusual railroad cars, tank cars, and
increased production of titanium sponge. All were scrutinized. It took infinite
patience to fit this miscellany into the ALFA submarine assessment. Although it
was a most difficult challenge, it was a task in which most intelligence
reviewing all the evidence and after long discussions with his fellow
intelligence analysts, and with naval designers, engineers, and others in the
Intelligence Community, Lord became even more convinced that the Soviets were
indeed building a “special” type of super submarine, the first made of titanium
alloy. Eventually, he concluded that he had to convince the US Navy that the
Soviets were series-producing a highly modern, unusual SSN that, if fitted with
advanced weapons, could seriously threaten US and allied naval operations.
at CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) agreed. In fact. CIA had, as
early as 1971, published analysis—Use of Titanium by the Soviet Shipbuilding
Industry—that strongly supported the assessment that the otherwise
conservative Soviets had conducted serious, long-time research on shaping and
welding heavy titanium plates, and that they had in fact developed that
Lord tired to prove that the Soviets had moved from their usual submarine building methods, and that they had combined several advanced technologies in a single class of submarine.
skeptical. They thought that the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull
sections, especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was
impractical, if not impossible. This, too, was a totally reasonable assessment,
because titanium cannot be welded when exposed to air; welds have to be
shielded, usually by argon gas. The consensus was that the Soviets could weld
small parts of titanium, such as those for aircraft or missiles, in
hermetically sealed chambers, but that it was impossible to weld huge submarine
pressure hull sections.
could not be deterred. For nine years, he would be in the center of the battle
over the “titanium submarine.” During the early 1960s, little reliable,
high-level scientific and technical information was available, and Lord had to
rely heavily on photographic intelligence.
certain that the collective evidence overwhelmingly supported his assessment of
ALFA’s titanium alloy pressure hull. He tried to convince the US Navy that the
Soviets” research and development had advanced to such a degree that they were
able to build submarines made of light-weight titanium alloy, and that their
SSN would be able to dive deeper than any of our SSNs. In addition, a
nonmagnetic titanium submarine would be most difficult to detect.
He tried to
prove that the Soviets had moved from their usual submarine building methods,
and that they had combined several advanced technologies in a single class of
- A highly advanced, and possibly risky, pressure hull material (titanium
- An as-yet unknown, high-density nuclear power plant (high power
concentration in a small hull).
- Possible automation to reduce the size of the crew.
It was an entirely unbelievable story.
was critical for US
ship, submarine, and underwater sensor and weapon designers. After almost eight
years of debate with Navy decisionmakers, Lord retired. He died a few years
later, his enormous research effort never properly recognized by Naval
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functional reorganization in Naval Intelligence the analysis of foreign
submarines was divided into ballistic and cruise missile submarines, and attack
diesel and nuclear attack submarines. The attack submarines were my
responsibility, and in 1978 I became the ALFA Project Officer.
completely with Lord’s analysis. Now it became my mission to convince the US
Navy that the Soviets were building high-threat submarines using advanced
construction technology. Also in 1978, CIA sponsored a meeting of intelligence
analysts, naval engineers, metallurgists, and submarine designers to discuss
the “enigma” in Soviet submarine construction.
The US submarine community could not accept any possibility that the Soviets could series-produce such a sophisticated submarine.
majority agreed that the “highly reflective” parts were submarine components.
Most were certain that the components were not of conventional submarine steel.
One expert presented several dozen formulae collected from published matter
freely available to any serious researcher. He believed these open sources
proved conclusively that titanium alloys dissolve in sea water. There were a
few who suggested the whole “Sudomekh show” could have been a large-scale “disinformation”
program, and that the highly reflective components were just parts covered with
metallurgists still believed it probably was impossible for the Soviets to have
developed the capability to bend, shape, and weld thick titanium plates in a
shipyard environment. The US
submarine community, “the Rickover people,” was happy with this assessment. It
could not accept any possibility that the Soviets could series-produce such a
opinions made the ALFA submarine assessment inconclusive. On the one hand, I
had the expert naysayers; on the other, I had some admirals asking, “What the
hell are the Russians doing?”
rejected aluminum, stainless steel, and glass fibers. There remained the HY80,
HY 100, or possibly HY130 steels, and titanium. Except for stainless
steel—steel turns a dark, almost black color when exposed to the elements for
extended periods. I still agreed with Lord’s analysis that a titanium alloy was
the most logical material suitable for submarine pressure hulls.
continued, I perceived five essential problem areas, which I called “enigmas.”
These made life difficult because they challenged traditional beliefs about the
very nature of Soviet submarine construction.
- First Enigma: An apparent change in Soviet design and construction methodology.
Advantage: Long-range gain.
Disadvantage: Large investment of resources.
Remarks: If successful, Soviet submarine
designers and builders were making a quantum leap into modern technology.
- Second Enigma: Use of titanium alloy in pressure hull construction.
Advantage: Titanium is stronger and weighs
33 percent less than steel; the pressure hull can be stronger without
increasing displacement; its use gives a submarine a stronger hull for greater
diving depth and increases resistance to explosives at lesser depths; and the
submarine is essentially nonmagnetic, thus decreasing the likelihood of magnetic
anomaly detection (MAD).
Disadvantage: Titanium is three to five times
more expensive than steel; it needs a totally different manufacturing process;
shipyard workers must be retrained; construction halls must be reconfigured;
and bending and shaping of heavy plates of titanium alloy are far more
difficult compared to steel.
Remarks: Much evidence had been gathered
that the Soviet Navy had ample research and development funds and that Soviet
metallurgists had made remarkable advances in titanium manufacturing
technology. Reports indicated that the Soviet Navy had conducted research in HY
100 steel, aluminum, glass fiber, and titanium alloys for use in ship and
- Third Enigma: Apparent use of liquid metal reactor coolants.
Advantage: Better horsepower to
weight/volume ratio for higher speed.
Disadvantage: The US Navy believed that a
reactor cooled by liquid metal is less safe than the pressurized water reactor
(PWR) in use by the US Navy.
Remarks: The US Navy’s safety record
supported the PWR approach.
- Fourth Enigma: Seemingly large-scale use of automation and reduction of crew size.
Advantage: Reduced the size of the boat and
the size of its crew; lessened demand for electric power requirements; and
relieved crew from mundane tasks, thus eliminating human errors caused by
fatigue and boredom.
Disadvantage: The US Navy believed automated
controls to be less safe than hands-on control functions.
Remarks: Only by automating many control
functions could the Soviets reduce the size of the submarine. This increased
the ALFA’s survivability in combat, because it became a smaller active-sonar
target. Furthermore, the low magnetic signature from a nonmagnetic titanium
hull made localization of target by MAD difficult. Having unmanned engineering
spaces also reduced personnel casualties should the liquid metal reactor
- Fifth Enigma: Large rescue sphere in ALFA sail indicative of strong concern for crew
Advantage: Provides safe exit for entire
crew from maximum depth without external assistance. When the sphere is on the
surface, it becomes a lifeboat; it protects the crew from the elements; and it
has sufficient communications, emergency rations, and first aid on board.
Disadvantage: Increases weight of the
Remarks: The ALFA’s high reserve
buoyancy, as well as a sophisticated rescue system, implied Soviet Navy concern
for crew survivability. There were other indicators: the Soviet Navy had one India
class submarine rescue submarine each in Northern and Pacific fleet areas, had
several “hard” compartments in submarines, and now had fitted a sophisticated
survival system in the ALFA. This was another item that did not square with our
view that the Soviets had little concern for human life.
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I believed that different collection assets had to be activated to convince the US Navy of a serious threat to our submarines.
Turning to HUMINT
ALFA SSN approach had failed, I believed that different collection assets had
to be activated to convince the US Navy of a serious threat to our submarines.
Under the guidance of an able Navy captain, I used my extensive experience as a
HUMINT collector to tap these new assets.
continuing support from CIA analysts, as well as the Agency's collection
managers and collectors, several thousand reports were screened for information
about titanium. To keep that collection current, photointerpreters spent
considerable time briefing their assets in the technique of precision
photography. For three years, I followed the unfolding of this dramatic change
in Soviet submarine construction.
A fair number of
HUMINT reports dating from the time ALFA was under construction alluded to a
new submarine with a small crew. Some reports cited a crew of 15, and others
indicated a crew of 18 to 45. Admiral Rickover’s team believed that it was
impossible to operate a nuclear submarine with such a small crew, and that it
was irresponsible to automate the many vital control functions of a submarine.
As a result, this information was temporarily shelved.
subjects of small crew and automation would not die, partly because some
Western navies had already automated their submarines with considerable
success. With strong support from the CIA, I collected and assembled
information that supported Lord’s original assessment of ALFA’s small crew.
CIA reported that the Soviets maintained a high interest in automating
submarine maneuvering, propulsion power train, weapons loading, and fire
control functions. The goal: small crew, small boat. Eventually, the evidence
that ALFA was extensively automated convinced even the most skeptical.
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A Key Report
continued to confirm Soviet concern with crew survivability. By pure luck, in
1981 someone walking along the Neva
River saw a sphere being
lowered into the area where an ALFA was being fitted out. Based on the
description, analysts determined that the sphere was lowered into the ALFA
sail. The source was able to estimate the diameter of the sphere. With that
information, and based on my familiarity with West German submarines, I
concluded that the Soviets had copied a submarine crew rescue sphere designed
by Dr. Ulrich Gabler, the distinguished West German submarine designer.
extrapolation, our submarine structures engineer calculated that 37 to 39 husky
Russians would just fit into the rescue sphere. Careful examination of the sail
revealed a continuous breakaway seam in the rubber antisonar coating of the
ALFA sail. The assessment: the sphere, using part of the sail as a stabilizer
and buoyancy tank, could be released to rise to the surface as a lifeboat. This
report contributed significantly to solving the enigmas of crew size,
automation, and crew survivability.
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provided me with increasing evidence that appeared to confirm that:
- The Soviets had diverged from their pragmatic submarine construction
modus operandi by combining at least three edge-of-technology items into a
- Large, heavy, titanium alloy plates were shaped and welded at the
Sudomekh and Severodvinsk
shipyards. Almost all reports alluded to the many difficulties encountered when
- Liquid metal coolant was used to increase the horsepower over
weight/volume ratio and thus to increase speed.
CIA reported that the first ALFA had suffered a catastrophic failure during sea
trials in the Barents Sea, when the liquid
metal coolant spilled from the reactor containment vessel into the bilge.
Indeed, as later reported in Jane’s Defence Weekly, the “first ALFA suffered a
reaction meltdown in 1970.”
The submarine was towed to an isolated corner in Severodvinsk shipyard. Eventually, the bow
and amidships sections appeared once again at Sudomekh. The pieces were left in
open view on the quay for many years. Nevertheless, the ALFA prototype’s trial
run, even with its disastrous aftermath, must have produced some encouraging
results because series construction continued.
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one ALFA was launched from Sudomekh, and in early 1976 one was launched from Severodvinsk. The class
was back in series production, and intelligence collection again went into high
gear. After more than a year of collection, the results were assembled and
examined. The reports confirmed the previous assessments that the Soviets had
encountered seemingly insurmountable problems when welding titanium. The first
boat of the class had been on the ways for about seven or eight years, instead
of the normal one to two years. Fitting-out periods were also much longer than
those of other SSNs.
The old and
new supporting evidence was presented to another panel of [outside] experts
convened by CIA to assess whether the Soviets could weld heavy plates of
titanium alloy in a shipyard atmosphere. Again, most of the experts opined that
the Soviets most likely could not series-produce titanium pressure hulls for
SSNs. But this time, Naval Intelligence, with support from CIA analysts,
disagreed with the experts. The mutually supportive evidence from all assets
had convinced the technical director of the Naval Intelligence
that the Soviets had made a quantum leap in submarine technology by combining
several high-risk options in one class of submarine.
it was critical for US Navy decisionmakers to learn that:
- The Soviets were building submarines with hulls made of lightweight,
- The most streamlined hull shape ever produced by the Soviets was designed
for speeds over 40 knots.
These high-technology submarines could dive below the effective range of
US antisubmarine weapons.
These units, probably fitted with advanced weapons, posed a serious
threat to US and allied naval forces.
of Naval Intelligence, confident that his analysts had made the correct
assessment in the face of aggressive opposition, invited me to present the
assessment to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. The evidence convinced him,
and he decided that the information had to be disseminated to the Navy as soon
as possible. Naval Intelligence published the ALFA assessment in record time.
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In March 1979,
technical assets detected the second ALFA making trial runs in the Barents Sea. An analysis of the data indicated that the
ALFA had exceeded 40 knots while submerged in moderately deep water. In 1978,
after two decades of effort, the ALFA class had reached initial operational
capability and was in series production. (In 1985, the Soviets had at least six
On 19 January
1979, the commander of the US Naval Sea Systems Command wrote Naval Intelligence
that CIA’S extraordinary collection and Naval Intelligence’s timely analysis of
the ALFA Class SSN threat had saved the Navy $325 million in new torpedo
designs. It was the first time in history that this type of intelligence
collection and analysis had ever been officially credited with saving such a
large sum of money.
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Tenacity Pays Off
and manufacturing efforts for the ALFA SSN are difficult to estimate. Two
construction sites were tied up for excessively long times with this project. The
first sea trials far exceeded Moscow’s
expectations. Then, even with a catastrophic failure in the engineering spaces,
the Soviets continued the ALFA project with tenacity unmatched by Western
little doubt that the Soviets have incorporated these technological gains in
follow-on nuclear powered submarines. After all, the Soviet R&D community,
submarine designers, and builders had, at almost prohibitive cost, accomplished
what their Western counterparts thought impossible: the production of a
titanium submarine that surpassed all others in speed and diving depth.
There was at
least one commonalty between the Soviet ALFA construction program and the US
Navy’s intelligence effort against the submarine: in tenacity the Soviet Navy
had been matched by that of one senior US Naval Intelligence analyst, Herb
Lord. We had learned once again that nothing can be taken for granted. Most
important, we learned that the Soviet Navy did not always follow old Russian
proverbs. We also learned that US
intelligence was “right on the money,” and that the Soviets had indeed built a
submarine that was “better than good enough.”
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Soviet Military Power, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1985.
Understanding Soviet Naval Developments NAVSO P-3560 (Rev. 1/81), 86.
Soviet Military Power, 1990.
Norman Polmar, Naval Institute Proceedings,
October 1991: 122.
Jane’s Defence Weekly, 18 April 1987, 715.
Soviet Military Power, 1983.
Soviet Military Power, 1985.
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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this article are those of the author. Nothing in the article should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of an article’s factual statements and interpretations.