Submarines: November 20, 1999


THE FULL STORY ON SHKVAL: Ever since the existence of the Russian 200-knot underwater missile known as Shkval became known, the West has been trying to determine how it was to be used. The recent sale of non-nuclear Shkvals to China complicated the situation since there was no indication that the nuclear version had any kind of homing system. Recent revelations by Russian industrial officials have explained things more clearly than ever before. Shkval was to be used by ballistic missile submarines (and the hunter-killer subs that guarded them). The Russians assumed that the detonation of a nuclear weapon underwater in a remote area would not trigger nuclear war, but would show the US that it was serious in defending its ballistic missile submarine bastions. The Russians knew that the ultra-quiet Los Angeles submarines could detect them before they were themselves detected, and that the first warning would be the sound of an oncoming Mark-48 torpedo. The defense method of choice was to fire a Shkval on the reciprocal bearing (presumably back toward the US submarine). Because Shkval traveled at 200 knots, it could reach the designated detonation point well before the torpedo reached the Russian submarine, and its explosion would probably destroy or at least damage the torpedo and the attacking US sub. The fact that Shkval was unguided would not be a problem in such a scenario. Even if the US submarine used the tactic of firing the wire-guided torpedo at an angle away from the target and then (halfway along) turned it toward the target might have worked, although the nuclear detonation would have at the very least stopped the Mark-48 and blinded the attacking submarine for enough time for the Russian submarine to escape. The conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) Shkvals sold to China are unguided, and are designed for short-range attacks on major surface warships, where the high speed of the underwater missile would provide little or no chance for the target to escape. While the 90-second burn time gives Shkval a range of 10,000 meters, an unguided torpedo could not be expected to hit at that range. The Russians would like to design a guidance system for Shkval but face formidable challenges. The rocket is extremely noisy and no existing sonar set could be mounted inside Shkval and continue to function. A wire-guidance system is impractical (and probably unreliable) due to the high speed. Even if some kind of guidance could be provided, it is hard to see how Shkval could utilize the information. The missile travels in a gas bubble only 3mm or so larger than the weapon itself. Anything other than the slightest of turns would push the nose out of the gas bubble into the surrounding water, causing it to tumble and break up. --Stephen V Cole


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