Design and Development
Following the troubled times spent by the former USSR in fielding capable submarines in 1950’s and 1960’s, which culminated in the ill-fated HEN (Hotel-Echo-November) classes, it became clearly evident to the admirals of the fleet that a focus on quantity to counter the technically superior NATO forces, would not yield the wanted results.
The turn was then taken to quality of the boats, most notably meaning a reduction of the emitted noise levels, as well as improvements in the nuclear reactors reliability and sonar detection capabilities. The results transitioned from those of the Victor and Yankee classes of boats to, ultimately, the Sierra and Delta classes of the mid-to-late 1970’s of design.
In 1976 it became clear that the Soviet Union did not possess the industrial capability to mass-produce the peculiar titanium hulls of the Sierra class, and this prompted the Ministry of Defence to find an alternative boat able of at least meeting the same performances of the Sierra class using a low magnetic steel hull.
In 1972 SKB-143 "Malakhit" (chief designer GN Chernyshev) was tasked with the development of a “third generation multi-purpose large nuclear submarine” with traditional low-magnetic steel hull. A preliminary design was completed by 1976 and the detailed technical design was then started with the contribution of Krylov Shipbuilding Research Institute for the boat noise reduction part.
USSR Ministry of Defense approved the project on September 13, 1977 with reservations that the development and construction drawings should provide even greater reduction in noise and the possibility to accommodate surface-to-surface missiles to engage coastal targets.
Most likely following the “John Anthony Walker Spy Ring” results, information was received by the Soviet High Command on the new Los-Angeles SSN digital signal processing sonar capabilities, clearly demanding an even greater reduction in emitted noise levels of the boat under design. Furterhmore, USSR Council resolution of 26 May 1978 demanded that the boat would also be able to carry the forthcoming RK-55 Granat (SS-N-21 ‘Sampson’ of NATO designation) and also it was decided that the project had to be further revised for the installation of the new "Skat-3" sonar, which required a change in hull design. The final design (coded by the Soviets as usual with a number – project 971 in this case) was then completed in 1980 with the first boat, K-284 (later christened “Akula” – shark) being laid the same year (other sources indicate 1983) at plant number 199 in Komsomolsk-on-Amur (Zavod Imeni Leninskogo Komsomola N199).
Over the years the design of the boat was constantly upgraded with the introduction of better quieting measures, sensors, and armament capabilities. To this day, sources fail to agree on a firm designation for all the different sub-classes and it is possible that not until all information will be publicly available a clear distinction can be made.
Nevertheless, for the purpose of what will follow in this review and to establish a basis for the average modeller to navigate the differences between the boats, the following classification can be adopted: • Akula I: initial production boats (K-284 and K-263) with all basic features of the original design. Starting with K-322, SOKS (Sistema Obnarujenia Kilvaternovo Sleda – “keel-water wake detection system”) is introduced with its noticeable appendices on the top front of the sail and hull. Then, starting with K-391, a new design of the reactor passive cooling water inlets is adopted, in which the shape is now similar to that of a shark fin rather than bulged as in the initial design and the bow now has external modifications with the addition of six external, non-rechargeable, 533 mm tubes between outer and inner hull (most sources indicate that these house acoustic countermeasures/decoys). •Akula I “Improved” (sometimes referred to pr. 971i or “u” in western sources): boats under this classification retain all modifications previously introduced (except for K-461 and K-328 that do not have SOKS), while incorporating better noise reduction measures, more advance sonar features, upgraded electronics and a new combined electro-chemical system for the regeneration of air (EHRV) • Akula II (sometimes referred to pr. 971a in western sources): Most sources attribute this classification starting with K-157 (and actually the only boat built to this standard). The hull is claimed to have been elongated by some 3m to house new equipment and all internal apparatus are brought to Akula III standard. Some sources indicate that this was also the first operational Russian SSN to incorporate an active noise cancelling system. • Akula III (referred to pr. 971m in some sources): also in this case, to this day, this remains a one-class boat, represented by K-335 “Gepard”. This boat departs notably from the rest of the pack in its outer appearance, while retaining the 3m longer hull of the Akula II. Most distinctive features are: removal of the prominent towed array sonar bulge/pod on top of the stern rudder with the introduction of a much more compact assembly and a marked refinement of the shape of the sail, with much more steep sides that blend less gently into the hull contours and different tapering of the back (similar to western subs and somewhat also to the Sierra-class boats). • A final mention shall be made of boats which fail to fall in any of the above classes: - K-152 “Nerpa” (Seal) is an Akula I Improved with “export” electronic suite, a new crew escape module, and, from most reference images, appears to be lacking SOKS as well as the six external 533mm tubes and is destined to a 10-year lease program for India. It is also reported that its 8 rechargeable torpedo tubes are all 533mm in diameter (to “prevent” the use of nuclear-tipped Granat cruise missiles). This is the ill-fated submarine that suffered an accident on 8th November 2008 in which 21 sailors were killed when the emergency fire extinguishing system was inadvertently triggered by mistake during the boat sea-trials. - Two early boats, K-154 (“Tigr”) and K-317 (“Pantera”) appear to have undertaken an upgrade program the extent of which is unknown and may incorporate some of the features found in the latter classes (Akula II or even Akula III). - Most sources indicate that one last boat (“Irbis”) is lying to a good degree of completion in Komsomolsk and could also be part of a lease agreement with India once completed.
Interestingly enough, at least 3 hulls under constructions have been converted for use in the new class of Russian SSBN (Borej).
The Project 971 "Schuka-B" (Akula in western designation is taking the name of the lead boat of the class – not to be confused with project 941 SSBN – Typhoon – that in Russia is formally designated as Akula-class) is a 110 m long (113.3m in the case of Akula II and AkulaIII), double-hulled boat with considerable distance between the outer and inner hulls to reduce the possible damage to the latter and features a distinctive high aft fin housing the towed array sonar. The inner hull is comprised of six pressurized compartments and the full boat has a rated displacement in the range of 8,500 tons surfaced and 12,000-14,000 submerged. Most sources indicates a surfaced speed of 10-13 knots and a submerged one of 30 knots with a maximum safe dive depth of 600m. The main propulsion machinery consists of a VM-5 pressure water reactor with a model OK-650 b high-density reactor core rated at 190 MW with a GT3A turbine developing 35 MW. Two auxiliary diesels rated at 750 hp provide emergency power. The propulsion system drives a seven bladed fixed pitch propeller. The submarine features two additional submerged “creeper” electrical motors for ultra-quiet propulsion and aid in mooring, located on each side below the waterline, half a way between middle and aft of the boat, rated at 410hp (370hp according to other sources) capable of up to 5 knots (submerged). The submarine carries sufficient supplies for an endurance of 100 days and is operated by a complement of 73 crew (33 officers).
The Akula can launch a range of anti-submarine and anti-surface vessel torpedoes. It has eight torpedo launch tubes, four 650 mm and four 533 mm tubes. The four 650 mm tubes can be fitted with liners to provide additional 533 mm weapon launch capacity. The torpedo tubes can be used to launch mines instead of torpedoes. The Akula Class carry up to twelve Granat submarine launched cruise missiles. The anti-ship missiles are the Novator SS-N-15 Starfish and the Novator SS-N-16 Stallion. As seen above, the Improved Akula, Akula II and Akula III carry six additional 533 mm tubes between inner and outer hulls, most likely used for decoys. An air defence capability is provided by the SA-N-5/8 portable missile launcher fired by sailors on the sail when surfaced.
IN THE BOX...
Preliminary note: despite what has been presented above, Bronco has “chosen” to consider Gepard an Akula II boat. Inside a sturdy cardboard box with a tight fit of the lid (not the easiest to open) displaying an art work of the submarine under way on the surface in a cold area, come two sprues and a display stand, all independently bagged, the instructions and a small zip-log back with decals and a tiny photetched sheet.
This one carries the bulk of the model: the submarine hull pieces. It is worthwhile to note that Bronco has taken a different approach to this kit (compared, for example, to their HMS Vanguard) in that the hull is now split in a top part, that carries integrally the sail, and in the bottom which is divided longitudinally in two halves. Separation line top to bottom is very close to the waterline which would aid the modeller looking to display the model in the water.
This one carries all remaining details: top rudder (only one option: that of the Gepard boat without the distinctive towed array sonar bulge), bow and stern horizontal dive planes, movable planes provided as separate parts for all horizontal and vertical surfaces, masts and hatches, SOKS antennas, creeper motors, bays and hatches, the screw (i.e. propeller) and the fixation stubs to use the display stand provided with the kit. Total styrene part count is 56.
As mentioned above, the display stand is moulded in a one piece of black styrene.
The zip-lock bag contains the decal sheet (mostly comprised of the “parade” white waterline markings) and a tiny photo-etched set consisting of the engraved display writing (reporting much of the same that is found on the box cover, including the Bronco logo) and three parts for the railings of the sail.
At the very bottom comes the instruction booklet in the usual large Bronco format, printed in colour on glossy paper. It is made up of 8 pages: a brief history written by Phil Greenwood in English, German, and Chinese as cover page, a “read before start” section with the usual explanations of the icons used throughout the assembly instructions, and the list of colours to be used with reference to Mr. Hobby, Hobby Color, Humbrol and Tamiya ranges. After the parts layout on sprues (no parts “not for use”), the reader is taken through five assembly steps: 1-2 for the lower hull and associated details, 3 for the details of the sail superstructure, 4 for SOKS, photoetch and upper to lower hull mating, 5 is installation on the display base. The last page carries colour and decal placement information. Given the very low part count and kit complexity, the instructions are far more than adequate.
Dimensions: the model measures approximately 320mm in length, coming pretty close to the 322mm that would translate to the 113m of the real boat. Outer hull diameter is difficult to measure exactly without building the kit due to the top-to-bottom separation being at the waterline, but measurement of the width of the upper hull piece indicates that the kit is a bit larger than what my references report: 34mm which should actually be the maximum diameter, i.e. below the waterline. Sail placement appears to be a bit too much aft compared to my references, but the effect is not so noticeable at least on the sprue (I had to measure everything twice to check why things were not adding up).
Borrowing the term from aircraft modelling, all “panel” lines are engraved and appear numerous and much in line with available reference profiles (difficult to spot such details in pictures) except perhaps for the bow sonar outline which appears to be too straightforward (reference profiles indicate a more stepped outline particularly in the area around the waterline).
Overall depth of the lines looks a bit out of scale considering that we are looking at a 1/350 boat, but this is generally the approach adopted by most modern submarine model manufacturers I have come across (Dragon, Hobbyboss, Airfix, etc.). The two safety line rails that run along each side of the hull are represented as raised features but their shape has a few issues: it interrupts at the sail, whereas it should be continuous all along the boat and should be less straight in shape. Forward and aft of the sail, all mooring points are represented, but these are rarely seen in pictures and even for boats at the pier not all of them are extracted at the same time. In any case they are all grossly overscale in height and need to be trimmed down.
Bow to Stern look at the details: • Tubes are correct in number, placement and dimensions. The 8 re-loadable tubes (4x533mm and 4x650mm) appear a bit too oval in shape compared to most of the pictures in my possession, especially the two outermost ones on each side • The long torpedo loading hatch is correctly represented in three parts in between the six non-re-loadable tubes. • Forward retractable depth planes/stabilizers are correctly placed and present a swept appearance as the real ones, but comparison with most sources indicate them to have too long a chord (i.e. they are longitudinally too wide). My suggestion in this respect would be to use the ones of the old Alanger kit that appear much closer to the references. • Portholes in the outer hull (the openings that are used to flood the space between the outer and inner hull, typical of Russian submarines) are for the most part correctly located. Unfortunately, in most pictures these appear open and this maybe difficult to represent without some major work by the modeller (the model does not have a double hull!). Even closed, the kit representation of the hole details is not correct: they should have a double frame around the opening and, at least on the Gepard, they are closed by two horizontal shutters that should leave a horizontal line when in closed position. Under the waterline the representation is line with only one of the profiles I have available, while most Russian references indicate a slightly different layout (and some seem to carry movable hatches – not represented in the kit). The reader is cautioned that Gepard has a different layout below the waterline when compared to all the other Akula boats. • Emergency buoy is correctly represented. As a note, no decal is provided for the white and red markings, these must be painted on by the modeller • The specific emergency system (inflatable life rafts) of the Gepard, located on each side of the boat, just forward of the sail and slightly above the waterline is not represented (should be a “panel” feature of roughly two oval shape running top to bottom side-by-side) • At about the same height, just aft of the sail, come the prominent features of the SOKS: above the waterline a stub with three needle-shaped probes for the starboard side (on the Gepard this is meeting the hull at 90°, on other Akula boats is canted to the side), three small cylinders running 50 cm atop the hull on the port side. Below the waterline, again a stub with three needle shaped probes this time on both port and starboard sides. All needle shapes are a bit blunt and maybe will need to be replaced by actual sawing needle tips or other suitable sharply pointed object. The three-cylinder thing looks the part but is not 100% accurate in shape: in reality the cylinders have a blunt nose leading edge and very pointy trailing edge.
- Shape: here is where things start to get problematic. Judging from publicly available pictures, it is clear that Gepard has a very different sail shape than any other Akula boat, departing from the gentle blending of curves at the junction with the hull and adopting a look generally employed by western submarine designers (688, Trafalgar, etc.) in that the sail sides are straight and meet almost at a right angle with the hull. Also, this particular submarine sports a different tapering of the aft end making the sail look longer than in other boats of the same class. In this respect, Bronco has not been able to represent this peculiar shape 100% correctly. Sail sides are not fully straight and a round chamfer is introduced where it meets the hull, thus leading to a tapering of the sail shape when seen from the bow or the stern (base being larger than the top). Overall this represents the most important shortcoming of the kit. - SOKS at the top of the sail front is provided as a separate small piece. This choice may have been mainly dictated by moulding techniques vs. details sought, nevertheless fit of the parts will have to be close to perfect to avoid lots of filling and sanding, since no seams are visible in this area of the real boat. Again, shape of the needle probes is a bit blunt and maybe it would be necessary to replace them with more pointed parts. - Moving atop of the sail, the first area encountered is the cockpit. Just before getting to it, aft and above the SOKS, Gepard is again a “one of a kind” boat with a prominent bulge that the kit fails to represent. The cockpit has an overall correct appearance in shape but it is definitely too deep within the sail (scaled to reality it would amount to almost 2m in depth). It is nevertheless missing all the interior details: the crew access hatch in the middle, two manholes on each side should have a separate framing (hatches are nevertheless provided, so one option would be to have them closed) and most unfortunately the front windshield is represented as a hatch instead and will need replacing with clear styrene sheet. - The location of the two periscopes should be moved forward, closer to the cockpit. Hatches are provided separately to display them open or closed. Shape of the two masts appears correct. - Crew access hatch is correctly represented on the starboard side of the sail at the junction with the hull. - Outline of the crew escape module is present (this has a “saddle” shape and is in the center of the sail) but for some reason Bronco has depicted a rectangular “counter frame” around it which is not there on the real boat. - Mast array. Location and number is “almost” correct: 6 out of 7 masts are there, in the correct location and decently represented. Forward to aft they are: Snoop Pair Radar mast, the three communication masts (Park Lamp, Pert Spring, etc.), the EW system “Bay” and finally the Rim Hat (this last mast needs some scratchbuilding to get the right “cagey” shape of the real thing). What is missing is a last, small mast slightly to the port side and aft of all the others that can be often seen in pictures of the Gepard. Unfortunately this mast does not have a hatch, so a hole will have to be most likely drilled in the corresponding location even if the mast is chosen not to be displayed raised. - Tapering of the back of the sail looks ok except again for an excessive roundness where sail and hull meet. - PE railings are provided for the sail but are not correctly representing the real thing. It should be continuous all around the sail (except aft) and interrupting only in correspondence of the two crew access hatches on the starboard side. All in all, in my humble opinion Bronco should have really provided the sail as a separate piece in order to correctly represent the shape. • Moving aft back on the hull, a small bulge just aft of the sail in the centerline is missing. • Communication buoy housing is correctly represented (on Gepard it has lost the raised lips present on other Akula boats) but should be a bit more forward. • Reactor intake fins are ok in shape but should be moved further aft, indeed they need to be sitting right before the creeper motors . • Creeper motors are placed a bit too aft and shall move slightly forward (see above: they should meet half a way with the intakes!). Also, the motors themselves look a bit small, should be attached to the hatches and are missing the duct and grill for the propellers. • Rudders and aft depth planes: all four should have a more pronounced blending of the root leading edge at the attachment with the hull. Also, although all movable surfaces are provided separate, Bronco has failed to catch another peculiar feature of Russian attack submarines: all horizontal and vertical movable surfaces of the tail are actually in two pieces, a large, outboard one and a very small trim tab inboard able to move separately and physically separated from the former by a small fixed frame. • Also, for what concern the towed array assembly atop the vertical rudder, shape is overall correct except for the trailing edge that should have had a truncated end and a hole drilled within rather than a very sharp point – easy to correct. • The seven-bladed fixed pitch screw appears correct in size and shape, also Bronco has tried to represent the cruciform attenuator at the end but should have extended it to the very end of the propeller hub.
A final word for the stand which is pretty simple but has nice pedestals and once painted should look fairly convincing.
>All in all it is a commendable effort by Bronco to represent a very specific boat of the Akula class and some of the details specific of Russian subs. Panel lines and surface details are crisp and, most notably, recessed, casting of parts very good with minimum amount of flash and ejector pin marks. To the casual observer, the model will look the part once built and offers a dramatic improvement over the only other kit in styrene (which, by the way, is now out of production), with good attention to details (SOKS, creeper motors, screw, etc.). Perhaps the choice of splitting the bottom hull in two halves longitudinally will not ease construction and the resulting seam line would need careful filling and sanding. On the other hand, waterline option is easily accessible and this could appeal to many looking for in-the-water diorama possibilities. To the “rivet counter”, shortcomings are there and not small in number. Most of them would not harm the overall quality of the kit and do not represent insurmountable obstacles for the average-to-skilled modeller, but the shape of the sail is what really throws the balance off. From my very own personal point of view it would have been perhaps wiser to offer a “generic” Akula model kit rather than focusing on a very specific boat (i.e. a “one of a kind”) that marks a clear departure from the rest of the class and which here has not been 100% correctly represented in its peculiar features. From a market point of view, today this is effectively "the only game in town" left in styrene at an affordable price.
Highs: good level of details, recessed panel/seam lines, crisp moulding, waterline optionLows: shape of sail not correct, details specific to the Gepard missed or misplaced, no option to build other boats of the earlier Akula classes, splitting of the bottom hull in two longitudinal halvesVerdict: A kit that builds into a credible model to the casual observer, but that fails to convince the more educated one