Russia designing new ‘aircraft carrier killer’ torpedo to boost naval power

Yasen class nuclear attack submarine Severodvinsk being commissioned into the Russian Navy, at the Sevmash shipyard, June 2014.

Yasen class nuclear attack submarine Severodvinsk being commissioned into the Russian Navy, at the Sevmash shipyard, June 2014.

Vladimir Larionov/TASS
While shrouded in secrecy, the ‘Khishchnik’ is thought to have characteristics that are an improvement on those of the well-known Shkval torpedo.

In early October, Russian military analysts reported that a group of designers working for the navy were completing work on a completely new high-speed torpedo. The widely-known Shkval (“Squall”) torpedo, which for a long time was a global leader in terms of speed and the destructive force of its warhead, will be replaced by a new torpedo, called Khishchnik (“Predator”).

No specific information is available yet on what the new torpedo is like and what its technical characteristics are: The project is classified. It is only known that it is being developed by the Elektropribor design bureau, which specializes in aviation technology.

The connection is not accidental – after all, what is being developed is not just a torpedo but what is in effect an underwater missile whose engine has a lot in common with its airborne equivalents. One thing is certain: In terms of its main specifications, the Khishchnik will exceed its famous predecessor, the Shkval.

Underwater record breaker

The project brief to develop a fundamentally new torpedo capable of carrying a nuclear warhead was issued in the USSR back in the 1970s. The resulting Shkval torpedo was accepted into service in 1977 and, despite its venerable age, remains the world’s record breaker among underwater projectiles.

The Shkval torpedo / Source: Anatoly Sokolov / Oruzhie RossiiThe Shkval torpedo / Source: Anatoly Sokolov / Oruzhie Rossii

An ordinary torpedo has a speed of no more than 140 kilometers per hour (87 mph), which allows a ship targeted by it to maneuver and avoid being hit. The Shkval, however, leaves the enemy practically no chance: Its speed is nearly three times the speed of a standard torpedo. This means that a targeted ship has just a third of the standard time for maneuver. In real naval combat that means a nearly inevitable hit.

The secret of the Shkval’s speed is in its special engine, which runs on solid fuel. While an ordinary torpedo gains speed with the help of spinning propellers, the Shkval uses supercavitation. A special design of its engine makes it possible to achieve a unique physical effect, whereby a gas bubble forms around the moving torpedo. That allows the projectile to move virtually in a vacuum, minimizing drag.

The Shkval torpedo remains one of the top-secret Russian military designs. Although it has been in operation for nearly 40 years, some of its technical characteristics continue to be classified. It is therefore not surprising that it was Shkval-related documents that featured in an early 2000s spy scandal involving U.S. businessman Edmond Pope.

That said, most of the attempts to replicate this torpedo abroad have failed. It was only in 2005 that the German Navy received an underwater rocket with specifications close to those of the Shkval, though even then it failed to beat its Russian equivalent in terms of speed.

Cold War legacy in the 21st century

Like many other military designs that originated in the Cold War, the Shkval has outlived the Soviet-U.S. global confrontation. It was originally created as a Soviet response to the development of U.S. naval air defense. Soviet aviation was no match for the powerful American navy and reactive torpedoes emerged as a know-how aimed to make up for that deficiency.

As an effective anti-naval weapon, the Shkval remains popular still. Back in 1992, Russian designers developed a dedicated export version of the torpedo. This is somewhat inferior to the original in terms of its range and speed but is still superior to foreign equivalents.

And yet the Shkval has considerable potential for improvement. It has a relatively short firing range and the depth capability of its carrier is limited. This makes a Shkval-enabled submarine susceptible to active enemy defense. A torpedo traveling at a high speed generates noise that makes it easy to detect it. Finally, it does not have a homing guidance system.

One can assume that all these considerations were taken into account in the development of the Khishchnik. After all, things that were technically impossible 40 years are quite achievable today. 

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