Russia's Next-Best Submarine Dwarfs Largest in U.S. Fleet

With Russia's best and largest nuclear submarine now out of commission, the next-best option in its submersible fleet still dwarfs the largest U.S. crafts in some regards.

Following months of speculation, Vladimir Maltsev, head of the Russian Movement for Navy Support, confirmed to the Russian press on Monday that the country's largest nuclear-equipped submarine, the Dmitry Donskoy, was officially being decommissioned. The craft was the last of Russia's Cold War-era Typhoon class of submarines, which were recognized as the largest in the world in terms of tonnage.

With the Dmitry Donskoy out of the fleet, the honor of the largest submarine in the Russian fleet now falls to the Belgorod, an Oscar II-class submarine introduced in July.

While the Belgorod is not yet fully outfitted with nuclear armaments, it is capable of carrying the Poseidon nuclear-capable underwater drones, which Russian naval forces have hyped as a "weapon of the apocalypse."

russian submarines belgorod
Above, a photo of the Russian submarine Dmitry Donskoy. The Typhoon-class submarine was decommissioned recently, making the Belgorod the premier submarine in Russia's Navy. Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

"This nuclear 'mega torpedo' is unique in the history of the world," American submarine expert H.I. Sutton wrote in Naval News in March. "Poseidon is a completely new category of weapon. It will reshape naval planning in both Russia and the West, leading to new requirements and new counter-weapons."

At a little over 603 feet in length, the Belgorod also holds the distinction of longest submarine in the world, considerably longer than the longest crafts in the U.S. naval fleet. The Ohio-class submarines are the largest ever deployed by the U.S. and reach around 560 feet in length.

A successor to the Ohio class, known as Columbia class, is currently under development with plans to enter naval service in 2031. Those crafts will be the lengths of their predecessors, giving Russia's Belgorod the edge in that metric for the foreseeable future.

"The Belgorod, if it performs to the level claimed, would be a powerful strategic asset," military expert Daniel Davis told Newsweek. "Among other potent armaments, it features the Poseidon nuclear torpedo. This may be one of the most powerful submarine-launched weapons in the world. It can be used to destroy coastal cities, naval bases—or can target major surface combatants, like aircraft carriers."

"Russia may be showing less than stellar in its conventional warfighting on the ground in Ukraine, but its strategic weapons? They could still destroy the globe several times over, and even a limited nuclear exchange could wipe out some of our most powerful surface combatants," Davis added. "Bottom line: We don't want to get into any nuclear exchange with Russia for any reason."

Without the Poseidon armaments, the Belgorod remained secondary to the nuclear-ready Dmitry Donskoy in Russia's fleet. However, the Russian state news agency Tass recently reported that a first batch of the armaments has been constructed and will ship soon.

With its nuclear capabilities realized, the Belgorod will outclass the now-decommissioned craft in every facet.

"The first batch of Poseidon ammunition has been manufactured and will be soon delivered to [the] special-purpose nuclear-powered submarine Belgorod," a source told the outlet in mid-January.

The source also said that "various trials of core components of [the] Poseidon underwater drones, including the nuclear power unit" were complete, according to Tass. Newsweek could not independently verify these claims, and the Russian government has also not spoken on the matter.

Updated 2/6/2023, 6:15 p.m. ET: This article was updated to include comments from Daniel Davis.