Soviet Navy Era – Small Surface Combatants

The Soviet Navy’s assiduous development of small missile-firing warships like the Osa, Komar and, later, the Nanuchka and its continuing maintenance of large offshore defence forces shows that defending the Motherland against maritime attack remains a high priority. Nevertheless, there are several indications that its perceived importance slipped for a few years following the death of Stalin in 1953. What brought it back into prominence, if in rather a different guise, seems to have been the progress made by the West in the development of carrier aviation. For instance, at the time of the Suez operation in 1956, the Seahawk was the main strike aircraft of British carriers, an aircraft which had an effective range of only 200 miles and which fired 3-inch rockets. A carrier’s strike capacity was therefore limited to the Soviet Union’s coastal zone and would probably have been exerted against naval bases, airfields and the like.


The Soviet Navy is the largest operator of coastal craft in the world; in this account, ‘ASW craft’ correspond to its classification MPK (‘small ASW craft’). They are successors to World War II base area defensive craft, their design emphasising high speed with which to reach a reported submarine, rather than the low noise level common in Western concepts. They generally hunt in groups, under the control of a shore station.

From ‘SO 1’ onwards, there has been a steady progression upwards in unit size, so that the current ‘Grisha’ is quite comparable with the SKRs of the last design generation. However, a new ‘Poti’-sized submarine-chaser, ‘Pauk’, appeared in 1980. It can be visualised either as successor to ‘Osa’-sized harbour defence craft, or as a reversion to a size category left unfilled for some considerable time. ‘Pauk’ is listed among corvettes because of its similarity to the new ‘Tarantul’ class.


The Soviet Union operated very large numbers of coastal craft, both for military and for political security before World War II, when of the major navies only the Italians did the same. Although all the major navies built up large coastal forces in wartime, only the Soviets kept building MTBs postwar, and in the late 1950s they developed these craft into coastal missile boats, or ‘rocket cutters’, the famous ‘Osas’ and ‘Komars’. This diversion from standard practice elsewhere in the world deserves some explanation.

First, it can be argued that a coastal MTB or missile boat can be extremely efficient, as she can sink a warship many times her size. In fact, however, because of the short range and very limited sea-keeping ability of the coastal boat, very large numbers are needed to ensure sufficient forces will be available at the point on the coast an enemy may prefer to attack. Alternatively, in an offensive war in relatively restricted waters, as in the Solomons during World War II, large numbers can be concentrated as desired. Only in the Baltic can this argument apply to the Soviets; indeed, their coastal craft were effective there during World War II. Western navies would argue that coast defence per se is so small a part of their task that they cannot imagine building up large flotillas simply to secure their coasts against landings, and that failure to intercept and to destroy any invasion fleet relatively far from its objective would in inexcusable. For example, the United States effectively abandoned coastal forces after 1945, returning to them only to fight coastal and riverine wars abroad (eg in Vietnam) in the 1960s.

The Soviet point of view is very different. In Soviet eyes any foreign incursion is to be resisted. Indeed, it often appears that to Soviet leaders, ordinarily land-orientated, the essential Soviet Fleet consists of coastal craft up to and perhaps including SKRs and coast defence submarines, the craft which keep foreigners out and Soviet citizens in. The very heavy investment in coastal craft follows, despite their large net cost in personnel and in maintenance.

Coastal craft evolution has been largely limited to a series of standardised hull and machinery combinations adapted to the several different tasks: torpedo attack, surface-to-surface missile attack, KGB border patrol, and coastal (almost harbour) ASW (MO series, at first) . The earliest postwar type, codenamed ‘P 2’ in the West, was reportedly a Soviet Union simple derivative of prewar stepped-hull boats descended from the Thornycroft CMB and from some Italian MAS designs. Lend-Lease provided the Soviets with US hard-chine planing craft of Elco design, and many writers consider the ‘P 6’ descendant of that hull form. The ‘Nanuchka’ class ‘missile corvette’ is probably the most impressive departure from such small craft, with its longer-range (but not midcourse guided) weapons and its large sea-going hull. One is tempted to conclude that here was an attempt to reduce the cost of the coastal missile fleet by permitting a smaller number of boats to cover a larger coastal area. In a more general sense, the net size of the coastal fleet appears to be slowly shrinking in the face of higher unit costs and, for that matter, the high cost of building up a large bluewater fleet. KGB


The KGB maintains a large force of PSKs, craft intended to deny passage through Soviet sea borders in either direction in peacetime. Both specially built and modified naval types are used; the current specially built types are the ‘Pchela’ class hydrofoils of 1964-65 and the ‘Zhuk’ class displacement type patrol boat of more recent construction. There are also very large numbers of modified warships, including ‘Grisha II’ class frigates; some modified ‘T 58’ class ex-minesweepers; ‘Stenka’ class fast patrol boats; and ‘Poluchat 1’, a modified version of the standard Soviet torpedo retriever.

The Soviets also maintain river gunboats, eg on the Danube, Amur and Ussuri rivers, most of them consisting of ‘Schmel’ class boats with tank turrets forward and twin (‘P 6’ type) 25mm AA guns aft, with a rocket launcher in the waist; they are the successors to the wartime ‘armoured cutters’ (BK) and are carried in the Soviet Navy as ‘artillery cutters’ (AK).

‘TARANTUL’ class missile corvettes

Begun by Petrovskiy early 1977, and completed from 1979 onwards. ‘Tarainul II’ has a ‘Nanuchka’-type Band Stand radome in place of the Bass Tilt of ‘Tarantul I’, and different air intakes and exhaust vents. Both types exhaust through the transom, above water.

‘PAUK’ class corvettes

Built from 1980. The hull form duplicates that of ‘Tarantul’, but propulsion is all diesel (probably as in the ‘Nanuchkas’). Both carry a 76mm gun forward; ‘Pauk’ has 4-406mm fixed TT along her superstructure, ‘Tarantul’ two vertically stacked SS-N-2 ‘Styx’ missiles on each side. Both have an SA-N-S point defence missile aft, ·a naval version of the Soviet Army’s hand-held SA-7. In addition, ‘Pauk’ has a 30mm Gatling gun and a dipping sonar aft. Presumably it succeeds the ‘Poti’ and ‘Tarantul’ is one of several possible ‘Osa’ successors. The lead ‘Pauk’ was seen in the Baltic early in 1979. Soviet designation: MPK (Small ASW craft).

‘POTI’ class corvettes

All built 1961-68. Transfers: Bulgaria (3), Rumania (3). Total: 64 in Soviet service.

Production successors to the ‘SO 1’ class, these were the first large Soviet gas turbine ships. At 38 knots these were the fastest ASW craft the Soviets ever built; the ‘Petyas’, ‘Grishas’, ‘Mirkas’, and ‘Pauks’ only make 32 to 33 knots. The two propellers are mounted in thrust tubes the length of the poop, which contains the two turbines; the jets exhaust through ports above them in the transom, and also power air compressors which exhaust into the propeller tubes, for additional thrust. This is similar to the ‘Mirka’ plant.

Compared to the ‘SO 1’, ‘Poti’ has a single twin 57mm AA mounting amidships and 2 much more powerful ASW RL (RBU-6000) RL, with 2 or 4 single 406mm ASW TT fixed and angled outboard , aft of the gun. The location of one of the two RLs atop the bridge recalls the arrangement of the contemporary ‘Petya’ and ‘Mirka’ classes. The first units carried the earlier open 57mm twin mount and smaller RBU-2S00 launchers. Three ships transferred to Rumania in 1964-67 had a simplified battery, with 533mm TT, an open, non-automatic 57mm mount and RBU-2S00s; three more were transferred to Bulgaria in 1975. Production was completed by about 1967. The Soviets describe them as MPK (small ASW ships).

‘P 2’ class fast attack craft (torpedo)

These were apparently the first postwar Soviet MTBs. They introduced ahead-firing torpedo tubes to Soviet practice, perhaps on the basis of experience with Lend-Lease craft in wartime. Large numbers were reportedly exported to China.

Production began 1946, apparently based on prewar D-3 design. Originally designated ‘603 Class’ by US Navy. Estimates of total production vary. However, this class has been sighted so rarely that it seems unlikely that more than a few were completed before production shifted to the ‘P 4’. Reportedly all were stricken by 1966.

They appear to have been the last Soviet gasoline-powered MTBs, and their higher power is reflected in the use of 21in (533mm) torpedoes rather than the 18in (457mm) type in the diesel-powered ‘P 4’. Externally, the ‘P 2’ appears to resemble the earlier ‘D 3’ class MTB, which was descended from Italian MAS designs. Some Soviet accounts imply that these boats were no more than postwar production of a somewhat modified D-3. They were powered by an improved 1250hp gasoline engine.

‘P 4’ class fast attack craft (torpedo)

Laid down from 1950 or 1951 , first completed 1952, production ended 1956; about 200 built. Transfers 132: Albania (6), Bulgaria (8), Cuba (12), Cyprus (6), Egypt (4), North Korea (40), N Vietnam (12), Romania (12), Somalia (4), Syria (17), Tanzania (4), N Yemen (3), S Yemen (4). Not certain to what extent the 70 in Chinese service were home-built. At least 15 were built in North Korea (‘Iwon’ class). Reportedly all stricken by c1975, although carried by Western naval handbooks after that date.

The last Soviet stepped-hull planing craft, these aluminium torpedo boats are direct descendants of prewar Soviet MTBs based on the Thornycroft CMB of World War 1. The most striking visual feature is the long foredeck, the cockpit being almost amidships. The ‘P 4’ design introducing diesel power in the form of the 1200bhp M-50, the first of a series of Soviet small craft diesels. The Soviets have claimed that although small boat diesels of 1000, 1100, 1200, and 1500bhp were developed in wartime, they only entered production postwar. The stepped-hull design made for very high speed but was tactically defective, in that at high speed a boat so designed cannot easily turn, since it has only marginal stability. It cannot turn without slowing down considerably. The Soviet designation was Komsomolets.

‘P 6’ class fast attack craft (torpedo)

Laid down from 1953, first completed about 1955, over 500 built through the 1960s. About 20 were completed as ‘P 8’ and ‘P 10’ classes. Original US designation was ‘627 Class’. Transfers 199: Algeria (12), Cuba (12), East Germany (27), Egypt (36), Guinea (4), Indonesia (24), Iraq (12), N Korea (45), N Vietnam (3), Poland (20), Somalia (4). About 80 were built in China during 1956-66, and it was produced in North Korea (at least 20 built).

All of these minor combatants were built on a common wooden hull, the first in Soviet practice with a hard chine as in US wartime torpedo-boats; some writers suggest that it was derived from the Elco 80-footers supplied under Lend-Lease. Production began in 1953, with the first delivery in 1955, and it continued through about 1959. Of over 500 hulls reportedly built, making it the most numerous postwar warship class, many were exported and others converted to targets, yachts, and patrol craft. Beginning in about 1956, about 50 became ‘MO VI’ class ASW patrol craft, direct descendants of an earlier series of small submarine-chasers. Most had no sonar at all, although in some units one diesel was replaced by a sonar. Their bridges were enlarged, and depth-charge tracks and two projectors added. Three were exported to Nigeria, and the four ‘P 6s’ (without tubes) exported to Guinea may have been of this type as well.

The ‘P 6’ was considered more seaworthy than the ‘P 4’, due to its new hull form; it made a higher speed due to its much more powerful engines. One unusual feature was the asymmetrical position of the forward 25mm gun mount, offset to port. All of these boats are powered by M503 high-speed diesels, 42-cylinder engines consisting, in effect, of seven 6-cylinder radial ‘pancaked’ together, to achieve 4000bhp at 2.9lb per bhp. It also powers ‘Osa I’ class missile boats. The larger (56-cylinder) 5000bhp M504 powers ‘Osa II’ class missile boats. Two M503 driving a common gear box form an M507, the ‘Poti’, ‘Nanuchka’ , and ‘Grisha’ diesel; probably there is also a paired M504 engine design. The much higher power of the M503 compared to the M50 is reflected in the much larger size of the ‘P 6’ hull, and in its 533mm armament.

About 20 units were converted experimentally to a CODAG configuration, gas turbines replacing two of the four diesels, beginning in 1960-61. Hulls were lengthened by about 2m, and a small funnel was added abaft the bridge. The first series of conversions, the ‘P 3’ class, had a pair of semi-submerged hydrofoils forward, which lifted and stabilised the bow as the boat planed. The ‘P 10’ class omitted the hydrofoil. Late in 1967 the funnels were removed, presumably indicating a failure of the gas turbine plant, and hydrofoils were removed from the ‘P 8s’. The Soviet designation for the ‘P 6’ class is Type 183. None survive in Soviet service.

‘P 8’ and ‘P 10’ fast attack craft (torpedo)

‘P 8’ conversions 1958-59, ‘P 10’ conversions 1960-61. All reconverted with gas turbine removed , designated ‘P 10’ class . Another hydrofoil type, tentatively designated ‘P 12’, was reported in 1961, but has not remained on lists of Soviet warships. All discarded late 1970s.

‘KOMAR’ class fast attack craft (missile)

‘P 6’ conversions, 1958-61; about 100 were built. Transfers 78: Algeria (8), China (8), Cuba (18), Egypt (7), Indonesia (12), Iraq (3), N Korea (10), Syria (9), Vietnam (3). About 40 built in China. None was left on the Soviet list by c1981.

Surely the best-known conversion of the basic ‘P 6’ hull is the ‘Komar’ class missile boat. Although it was first seen in 1960, after the ‘Osa’ had been observed, it must have predated the latter; the ‘Komar’ is the minimum platform which can support a pair of open-ended SS-N-2 missile launchers. It was also the first fast attack boat in the world to engage in combat, as Egyptian ‘Komars’ sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat on 21.10.67.