Flag MIKE Class: Russia's unique deep-diving attack submarine
● K-278 Komsomolets
● NATO: MIKE Class
● Project 685 Plavnik ('Плавник') Class

The Ocean’s depths below 500 meters (1,640 ft) are almost exclusively the preserve of research submersibles and underwater engineering mini-subs. Almost. The Soviet Union did commission a nuclear-armed titanium-hulled attack submarine which could dive to 1,020 meters (3,350 feet), comparable to the US Navy’s famous unarmed NR-1.

Original artwork. CLICK for high-resolution image:

Although NATO expected serial production, only a single prototype boat, K-278 Komsomolets, was built. She was launched on 9th May 1983 and put into operational service. Despite the incredible diving depth, the Pr.685 MIKE Class attack submarine had otherwise typical SSN performance including a maximum submerged speed of 30 knots. It was 117.5 m (385 ft) long and 10.7 m (35 ft) across. It had a relatively small crew of 70 men consisting mostly of officers and petty officers.

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The deep-diving capability required some compromises. Although a large submarine at 5800 tons, the MIKE Class was slightly smaller than other Russian fourth-generation attack submarines (AKULA Class, SIERRA Class), which allowed for just three decks and an older-generation Skat-KS bow sonar. The torpedo armament was 22 rounds which was better than many older submarines but compared to 30-40 rounds in contemporary Russian and US/UK attack submarines. And there was no towed array sonar.

To allow deep-diving, the boat’s submerged displacement was approaching double the surfaced displacement, at 8,500 tons. Although it was a typical Russian double-hull design, the ballast tanks were in the inner pressure hull to allow the deep diving.

The armament was intended to be an almost equal mix of SAET-60M heavyweight torpedoes (some with nuclear warheads) and S-10 land-attack cruise missiles. It could also carry the rocket-powered VA-111 Shkval super-cavitating torpedo and, most likely, the RPK-6 Vodopad (SS-N-16 STALLION) torpedo-carrying rocket which was similar in concept to Subroc. There were six 533mm (21”) torpedo tubes in the bow above the main sonar array. In order to minimize the number of openings into the pressure hull, the typical Russian torpedo loading hatch was abandoned and the torpedoes had to be loaded through the escape chamber.

K-278_Komsomolets MIKE Class - Covert Shores

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K-278_Komsomolets MIKE Class - Covert Shores

Fate - 7th April 1989
K-278_Komsomolets MIKE Class - Covert Shores
Incredible painting of escape capsule release during K-278 Komsomolets' sinking. Artist TBC.

On 7th April 1989 K-278_Komsomolets was cruising at a depth of 380 meters (1,250 ft) in International waters in the Norwegian Sea. Shortly after 11:00am a high-pressure air line connected to main ballast tanks burst in Compartment 7 where the steering machinery is. It caused a fire which soon spreads to other compartments even though the hatches are closed. By 11:13am the situation is dire and the submarine loses hydraulic power to the control surfaces. The captain, Captain First Rank Yevgeniy Vanin, orders main ballast tanks to be blown and the boat eventually rises to the surface where she floundered, awaiting rescue. The situation aboard was untenable and after a few hours the crew were evacuated. Thinking that surface help would arrive soon, the crew did not don wet suits even though the water is cold enough to kill them in 15 minutes.

Eventually efforts to keep the boat afloat start to fail and she started to sink at around 4:30 pm. At 4:42pm the Captain ordered the crew to abandon ship and minutes later sends his last radio message. Rafts are inflated from the boat and some are dropped by aircraft. Unfortunately many of the crew could not reach them in time and around fifty men are left in the frigid water. Six men, including the Captain, remained aboard as the boat finally sinks just after 5pm.

The six aboard the submarine manned the escape pod but one is accidently left behind in the thick smoke. The five remaining men released the pod and it rose to the surface as the submarine’s hull was crushed in the depths. When the hatch blew off, only one man was able to escape from the pod.In total, 42 of the 69 crewmen aboard perished.

An excellent write-up of the disaster can be found at the CIA Library.

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