Scientific American reports in its May edition that these supersophisticated weapons have been linked to the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk last August, and even to the arrest and imprisonment of Edmond Pope.
Pope, an American businessman, was charged by Russian authorities with spying, specifically that he had sought to buy plans for the "ultrahigh-speed torpedo."
The magazine reports that "evidence does suggest that both incidents revolved around an amazing and little-reported technology that allows naval weapons and vessels to travel submerged at hundreds of miles per hour in some cases, faster than the speed of sound in water. The swiftest traditional undersea technologies, in contrast, are limited to a maximum of about 80 mph."
The new technology that allows for these incredible speeds is "is based on the physical phenomenon of supercavitation."
According to Scientific American, the new generation of torpedos, some believed capabale of carrying nuclear warheads, are surrounded by a "renewable envelope of gas so that the liquid wets very little of the body's surface, thereby drastically reducing the viscous drag" on the torpedo.
The new technology "could mean a quantum leap in naval warfare that is analogous in some ways to the move from prop planes to jets or even to rockets and missiles."
In 1997 Russia announced that it had developed a high-speed
unguided underwater torpedo, which has no equivalent in the
Code-named the Shkval or "Squall," the Russian torpedo
reportedly travels so fast that no U.S. defense can stop it.
In late 2000, after the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk,
new reports began circulating that the Chinese navy had
bought the Shkval torpedo.
The modern Russian weapon in
Chinese navy hands has sent alarm bells ringing through the
halls of the Pentagon.
"China purchased the Shkval rocket torpedo," stated Richard
Fisher, a defense analyst and senior fellow at the Jamestown
"The Shkval was designed to give Soviet subs with less capable
sonar the ability to kill U.S. submarines before U.S.
wire-guided anti-sub torpedoes could reach their target. The
Chinese navy would certainly want to have this kind of advantage
over U.S. subs in the future. At the speed that it travels, the
Shkval could literally punch a hole in most U.S. ships, with
little need for an explosive warhead."
"This torpedo travels at a speed of 200 knots, or five to six times
the speed of a normal torpedo, and is especially suited for
attacking large ships such as aircraft carriers," stated Fisher.
The report that China purchased some 40 Shkval torpedoes from
Russia in 1998 has been confirmed by U.S. intelligence sources.
Pentagon officials also confirmed that a Chinese naval officer
was on board the ill-fated Russian submarine Kursk to observe
firings of the Shkval.
The Shkval rocket first came to light in the Western press in
April 2000 when Russian FSB security services charged American
businessman Edward Pope with spying for the U.S. According to
Russian intelligence sources, Pope obtained detailed information
on the rocket-powered torpedo.
A FSB statement said it confiscated "technical drawings of
various equipment, recordings of his conversations with Russian
citizens relating to their work in the Russian defense industry,
and receipts for American dollars received by them."
The 6,000-pound Shkval rocket torpedo has a range of about 7,500
yards and can fly through the water at more than
230 miles an hour. The solid-rocket-propelled "torpedo"
achieves this high speed by producing a high-pressure stream of
bubbles from its nose and skin, which coats the weapon in a thin
layer of gas. The Shkval flies underwater inside a
giant "envelope" of gas bubbles in a process called
The Russian Pacific Fleet held the first tests of the Shkval
torpedo in the spring of 1998. In early 1999, Russia began
marketing a conventionally armed version of the Shkval
high-speed underwater rocket at the IDEX 99 exhibition in Abu
The Shkval is so fast that it is guided by an autopilot rather
than by a homing head as on most torpedoes. The original Shkval
was designed to carry a tactical nuclear warhead detonated by a
simple timer clock. However, the Russians recently began
advertising a homing version, which runs out at very high speed,
then slows to search for its target.
There are no evident countermeasures to the Shkval and,
according to weapons experts, its deployment by Russian and
Chinese naval forces has placed the U.S. Navy at a considerable
"We have no equivalent, its velocity would make evasive action
exceedingly difficult, and it is likely that we have no defense
against it," stated Jack Spencer, a defense analyst at the
According to the Jamestown Foundation's Richard Fisher, China is
acquiring a fleet of blue-water submarines
armed with the deadly Shkval. In a recent defense report,
Fisher noted the Chinese navy is arming itself with a deadly
combination of silent submarines, supersonic nuclear tipped
Stealth missiles and Shkval rocket torpedoes. Fisher warned
that the new Chinese navy is capable of operating far from Asian
"There are reports that the Chinese navy's current subs do not
have tubes large enough to fire the Shkval. The Chinese navy
has completed the acquisition of four Russian Kilo-class
conventional submarines. The Kilo 636 is said to be nearly as
quiet as the early version of the U.S. Los Angeles class nuclear
submarine," noted Fisher.
"This very high speed torpedo would provide the PLA with the
technology to build their own version, and this is a looming
threat," stated Fisher.
"The next few years may also see China produce a new class of
nuclear-powered submarine, the Type 093. Again benefiting from
The Chinese Type 093-class nuclear attack submarines are similar
to Russian Victor III class first produced at the Leningrad
yards in the 1970s. Each Chinese Type 093 weighs more than 5,000
tons and is over a football field in length. The Chinese type
093 submarines are armed with eight 21-inch torpedo tubes that are
large enough to fire the super-fast Shkval.
"The Type 093 is projected by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence to have a performance similar to the Russian Victor-III nuclear attack submarine. By one estimate, four to six Type 093s should enter service by 2012," concluded Fisher.
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