Gearhead News

January 29, 2021
The Russian Navy Has Gotten Its First New Electrically-Powered Torpedo Since The Cold War

An advanced electrically-powered torpedo has entered service with the Russian Navy, marking the first time the service has introduced a new weapon of this type since the Soviet era. Electric designs are typically easier to make, simpler to maintain, and less risky to handle than those that use a chemically-powered propulsion system, and also offer certain performance benefits.

Boris Obnosov, general director of Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation (KTRV), which produces a wide variety of ordnance, including missiles, bombs, and naval weapons, confirmed in a recent interview that the introduction of the new torpedo took place sometime last year. The name and most other details of the new torpedo have not yet been disclosed, however.

“In 2020, we completed state tests of the first Russian [as opposed to Soviet] electric torpedo,” Obnosov told Russia’s Military-Industrial Courier
newspaper. “In the USSR, they were produced, but with less high-performance characteristics. Today, the first series-production examples of new electric torpedoes have already entered service with the Russian Navy.”

Marina Lystseva/TASS
Russian Navy torpedoes stowed on their racks aboard a submarine. 

Obnosov added that the new weapon was considered “significantly superior to Western models in terms of noiselessness, range, immersion depth and target detection range by the homing system,” but offered no specific details about its capabilities. Last August, it was reported that KTRV had received the go-ahead to launch serial production of a new type of torpedo, although at this point it was not announced that it was an electric torpedo.

Although Obnosov didn’t reveal any more information about the new torpedo beyond its propulsion type, it is possible that he was referring to the TE-2, a KTRV product developed by the Gidropribor design house that is described by the corporation as a “multipurpose electric remotely controlled homing torpedo.” The company says this weapon is intended to destroy both submarines and large surface vessels, as well as “stationary surface targets,” which could include port infrastructure.

The TE-2 can be launched from standard 21-inch caliber torpedo tubes on submarines, as well as surface ships. It has a length of around 27 feet when configured for submarine launch and weighs around 5,400 pounds, including its 550-pound high-explosive warhead that’s detonated by an active proximity electromagnetic fuze. The manufacturer claims it has a maximum range of 15.5 miles and a top speed of 45 knots.

Rosoboronexport
A TE-2 torpedo.

While versions of the TE-2 can be fired from surface ships and submarines, KTRV says that only the latter can employ variants of the weapon that feature wire guidance. Wire-guided torpedos can change their attack geometry or even shut down entirely if directed by the fire-control operator. This method also offers a better chance of defeating countermeasures, such as decoys and jammers, since the operator can call upon the submarine’s sonar data instead of the torpedo’s lower-fidelity onboard sonar data. You can read more about all of this in-depth in this previous War Zone story.

Another possibility is that Obnosov was talking about the UET-1, another multipurpose electric torpedo, and apparently a rival to the TE-2, which is also manufactured by KTRV. Very little is known about this weapon other than that it was designed by the Dagdiesel enterprise in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea. The UET-1 is described as a replacement for the Soviet-era USET-80, another electric torpedo that first entered service in 1980 and that is now considered obsolete.

Zenwort/Wikimedia Commons
Two other Cold War-era torpedoes on display in Kaliningrad: the 400-millimeter caliber SET-40 (nearest camera) and the 533-millimeter/21-inch caliber SET-65.

In 2018, it was reported that the Russian Navy had signed a contract to buy a total of 73 UET-1 torpedoes between 2019 and 2023, valued at 7.2 billion roubles, around $110 million at the then-current exchange rate. A year later, the Submarine Matters
blog cited an unnamed Russian submarine expert who claimed the TE-2 had not been ordered by the Russian Navy and that work on the UET-1 was being prioritized instead. That timeline would also be broadly in keeping with Obnosov’s announcement of service entry in 2020.

The same blog also provides some of the few details of the UET-1 torpedo’s specifications that are available. These include a maximum range of 31 miles and a maximum speed of 50 knots, which suggests its performance outstrips that of the TE-2.

It’s not clear what kind of guidance options are available for the UET-1. Russia notably already fields torpedoes with advanced wake-homing capabilities, which zero in on their targets by detecting differences in water density from their wake. This makes it largely immune to existing acoustic decoys and electronic warfare jammers.

Whatever the exact torpedo type that Russia has now adopted is, any new electrically-powered weapon would offer certain benefits over “thermal” designs that use some kind of chemically-powered propulsion system. Electric torpedoes are far safer to handle, as well as being generally easier to produce. Maintenance is also more straightforward. For example, KTRV says the TE-2 can be stored for up to 18 months on a shelf or in an empty tube or six months in a tube that’s periodically flooded with water. The practice of flooding and emptying a torpedo tube on a Russian submarine is something you can see in action here, while the complex process of loading and then firing a torpedo from a submarine has also been looked at in detail by The War Zone in the past.

The added safety benefits could be particularly of interest to the Russian Navy, which has experienced some high-profile torpedo-related accidents in the past involving chemically-powered torpedoes. The most deadly of these was the loss of the Oscar class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea in August 2000. On that occasion, the failure of one of the submarine’s thermal torpedoes triggered an explosion that led to 118 deaths.

Christopher Michel/Wikimedia Commons
The sail of the submarine Kursk has been preserved as a memorial in Murmansk.

There are other advantages to electric torpedoes, too, as retired U.S. Navy submarine sonarman Aaron Amick explained in a previous War Zone story on this subject:

They also have some capabilities thermal torpedoes do not. These high-torque, permanent magnet electric motor torpedoes ramp up to speed in under a second. They go from sitting in a torpedo tube to 50 knots in a near-instant because they don’t have the mechanical lag and inertia thermal torpedoes must overcome during start-up.

Furthermore, electric torpedoes are often modular designs, allowing batteries to be connected in series to give certain versions of a particular weapon more range, while fewer batteries can produce lighter and more agile, but shorter-legged variants. However, it is not clear that the new Russian weapon has this option.

Traditionally, electric torpedoes have been quieter than their thermal counterparts, too. However, that advantage has narrowed over the years and many modern thermal torpedoes now have features that significantly reduce their acoustic signature.

Russian Ministry of Defense
General Lieutenant Anatoly Gulyaev, the Chief of the Main Department for Armaments of the Russian Armed Forces, visits the Dagdizel plant to sign a contract for the UET-1.

KTRV’s Obnosov did not say how widely the new torpedo has been fielded so far, but one would expect examples of the Russian Navy’s newest submarines to have been given priority to receive the new weapons. Among the submarines with 21-inch caliber torpedo tubes that could accommodate the new weapons are the Borei class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, Yasen class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines, and the Lada class diesel-electric attack submarine.

Radziun/Wikimedia Commons
Russian Navy submarine Sankt Peterburg, the first, and so far the only member of the Lada class to enter service.

Russian surface combatants also traditionally have torpedo tubes fitted, and the Admiral Grigorovich class frigate would be one possible candidate for the new weapon. However, smaller Russian warships now being built, such as the Steregushchiy class corvette, are increasingly opting for 330-millimeter caliber torpedo tubes. These are notably capable of launching the smaller Paket-NK torpedoes, which are innovative dual-use weapons suitable for defeating both submarines and enemy torpedoes.

In recent years, Russia’s efforts to develop new-generation naval weapons for its submarines and surface combatants have focused on more capable cruise missiles, including hypersonic weapons, as well as air defense systems. However, torpedoes, in general, remain very potent weapons for use against submarines and surface targets, especially when fired by advanced submarines designed to be difficult to detect, to begin with, including nuclear types, as well as non-nuclear boats with ultra-quiet air-independent diesel-electric propulsion systems.

No matter what, a new electrically-powered torpedo to replace aging Soviet-era types that remain in service can only be a boon for the Russian Navy’s submarine and surface fleets.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

Don’t forget to sign up