The Shkval (Squall) is the revolutionary new breed of torpedo in use by Russian Naval forces.
The Shkval is the first use of supercavitational technology in modern weapons and represents perhaps the largest leap forward in underwater warfare since the invention of the submarine itself.
Launched from Bars (Akula) and Antyey (Oscar) class submarines, Shkval torpedoes travel at over five times the speed of conventional torpedoes. Propelled forward by a rocket engine, there are no countermeasures or defenses which can stop the Shkval.
Research on developing a self propelled supercavitational projectile began in the early 1960s at the Ukrainian Institute of Hydromechanics. It took over a decade for the fundamental problems to be solved, during which time, the sound barrier is believed to have been first broken underwater. The research led to the construction of underwater supercavitating rifles for use by elite Russian Spetznaz troops, and in the mid 1970's to the creation of the worlds first supercavitating torpedo.
First appearing in 1977, the original VA-111 Shkval is some 26 ft (8 m) long and is thought to have a range of around 5 miles (8 kms). Believed by some to be unguided, sources differ on whether the torpedo is nuclear capable. The Shkval is propelled forward by a solid rocket motor. Traveling at over 300 mph (500km/h) the Shkval is so fast that (despite being equipped with one) it does not even require a warhead! Its sheer mass and velocity is enough to sink an opposing submarine.
Development of the Shkval has continued through the 1980s and 1990s to the present day. Very little information is available about the Shkval II, the existence of which was made public by the Russian government in 1998. Rumours state a top speed of possibly 450+ mph (720 kph/h) and a vastly improved range, believed by some to be in the region of 60+ miles (100 km). The fact that the Shkval II is guided renders it vastly superior to the original Shkval. The Shkval II is thought to be able to supercavitate, then if need be slow down and reacquire its target, before speeding up and homing in for the kill. Yet newer techniques developed by Ukrainian scientists are believed to offer the possibility for high speed supercav guidance and maneuvering.
The Russian Navy has always pursued a different approach to the United States run silent, run deep philosophy on submarine warfare. Placing more emphasis on speed rather than silence, it appears the Russians may have backed the winning horse.
Picture this scenario... A Los Angeles class and a Russian Akula Class submarine hunt each other. The Los Angeles is first to fire, releasing a conventional Mark 48 torpedo into the water. Upon launch of the Mark 48 a retaliatory VA-111 Shkval is fired down the trajectory of the incoming torpedo, straight at the Los Angeles class, forcing it to maneuver and thus cut the guidance wire to its own fish! Furthermore, the close range of modern submarine engagements would in all likelihood result in the Los Angeles class being incapable of maneuvering out of the path of the Shvkal in the fleeting few seconds between launch and impact.
Because of this ability the Shkval has often been classed as a defensive weapon, used to protect against the Russians inability to run as silent as opposing submarines. Such ideas, however, have been put to rest with the creation of the Shkval II and further guided variants.
With their longer ranger, the Shkval II and newer variants could potentially be launched at a distance of over 60 miles, and home in on their target, with no countermeasures available. As such, a single nuclear equipped Shkval could take out a carrier battle group whilst sitting tens of miles away.
Little is known of current Russian Shkval projects, other than the amazing potential which supercavitational projectiles hold. The capacity to create a supercavitating torpedo/rocket which would race towards a target underwater and then become airborne once nearing a coastline would render any kind of anti ballistic missile shield useless.
The Russian Navy is the primary user of the Shkval.
A downgraded Shkval, the Shkval-E went to an international arms fairs in 1995, and both China, Iran and France have been known to have acquired limited numbers of Shkvals. The Russian press has claimed that the technology of the Shkval cannot be reverse-engineered and thus the Russian Navy is marketing the export variant aggressively.
The Shkval rocket torpedo represents the first step in the underwater revolution which is fast approaching. As funds pour into supercavitational research around the world it becomes more and more clear that control of supercavitation will soon equate to control of the seas.
Submarines peaked in power and relevance during the Cold War; there has since been a shift in focus to aircraft-based combat, and subs have become budget-cut victims. But subs are still prized for their ability to sneak about global waters undetected and to defend surface ships from attack. Many U.S. subs are being converted from missile launchers into delivery vehicles for special operations troops.
But the supercavitating torpedo—a rocket-propelled weapon that speeds through the water enveloped in a nearly frictionless air bubble—may render obsolete the old submarine strategy of sly maneuvering and silent running to evade the enemy. The superfast torpedo could be outfitted with conventional explosive warheads, nuclear tips or nothing at all—a 5,000-pound, 230-mph missile could do enough damage on its own. The Russians invented the concept during the Cold War, and their version of this underwater killer—dubbed the Shkval (“Squall”)—has recently been made available on the international weapons market; the United States, of course, wants a new, improved version of the original.
The hard part about building a rocket-propelled torpedo isn’t so much the propulsion as clearing a path through the ocean. Water creates speed-sapping drag; the best way to overcome that drag is to create a bubble that envelops the torpedo—a supercavity. A gas ejected uniformly and with enough force through a cavitator in the nose of the torpedo will provide such a bubble, permitting speeds of more than 200 mph and a range of up to 5 miles (traditional torpedoes have slightly longer ranges, but lumber at only 30 to 40 mph). Though submerged, the torpedo remains essentially dry, with a frictionless surface. “That sounds easy, but doing it is extremely difficult, especially if you’re trying to steer,” says Kam Ng, program manager for the torpedo at the Office of Naval Research, which has been developing the weapon since 1997. “If your torpedo moves in a straight line, you just aim and shoot,” says Ng. “That capability already exists with Shkval. But the U.S. vehicle will be more capable—it will turn, identify objects, and home in on the target.” (Improvements to the torpedo to make it steerable likely froze when the Soviet Union collapsed, says GlobalSecurity.org’s Pike.)
Among the greatest challenges for U.S. torpedo researchers is developing detection and homing technology that will enable the torpedo to distinguish an enemy sub from, say, a rock formation, says Ng. Also tricky is finding a way to control the gas bubble to permit those course changes. “When you turn, the bubble distorts because it is no longer symmetrical,” he says. “So you have to compensate for that by putting more bubble to one side.” This is done, Ng explains, by ejecting more gas toward the outside of the turn.
Naval officials say the high-speed torpedo will enable submarines to attack enemy subs and surface ships without giving them time to respond. The U.S. military has tested a prototype, but combat-ready versions are not expected for at least 15 years.