Russia’s Submarine Modernization Program - by Dr. Richard Weitz
The Russian government is turning its attention to revitalizing Russia’s fleet of cruise-missile and multi-purpose attack submarines.
They are able to do so with the apparent completion of Russia’s fourth-generation Project Mk 955 Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and its new RSM-56 Bulava (NATO code name SS-NX-30) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).
But the production of cruise-missile and multi-purpose attack submarines has fared even worse than Russia’s strategic nuclear submarines, leaving the Russian Navy with 8 attack submarines designed to engage other ships and 19 submarines designed to attack land-based targets with cruise missiles. Though still functional, they will soon reach the end of their designated lifespan since they were constructed during the 1980s and 1990s.
Without urgent corrective measures, Russia’s submarine fleet could decline to fewer than 20 operational ships in a few years. Vice Admiral Oleg Bertsev, First Deputy of the Naval General Staff, has said that the Russian Navy needs between 40 and 50 nuclear-powered submarines to counter the submarines of Western nations. The United States currently has some 60 active submarines, though many of the Ohio class SSBNs will need to be replaced in coming decades. Many of the Russian submarines currently in service could continue operating until 2020 if their reactor cores are preserved due to their low level of operation. But eventually they must be retired and replaced.
The focus of the Russian submarine replacement effort is now on the new Project 885 Yasen (NATO code name Graney) class nuclear-powered multipurpose attack submarine.
Being a multipurpose ship, it fulfills two roles– that of traditional attack submarines and that of Russia’s cruise missile submarines.
As an attack submarine it would replace the Akula attack submarines, and as a cruise missile vessel it would replace the Oscar II class ships. Although work started on the first Severodvinsk in 1993, with a planned launch for 1998, financial considerations halted work for most of the 1990s. Construction resumed in 2000 but delays in production continued due to financial problems as well as technical updates and modifications. The submarine was then scheduled to launch on May 7, 2010 to mark Victory Day over Nazi Germany. However, technical problems delayed the date again to June 15, when President Medvedev attended the launching ceremony.
The Severodvinsk is named after the city in which it was built. Designed by the Malakhit Design Bureau and built by Sevmash Shipyard in the northern Russia city of Severodvinsk , the boat has a double hall and a single shaft. It is 120 meters long with ten compartments. The Severodvinsk displaces 9,700 tons on the surface and 13,700 tons when submerged. It has a maximum speed of 31 knots when submerged. The submarine is equipped with mines, torpedoes, 24 long-range cruise missiles for attacking distant targets, and short-range anti-ship missiles. The torpedoes are launched through eight 533 mm and 650 mm torpedo tubes, while the cruise missiles are launched via eight vertical launch tubes. The cruise missiles include the 3M51 Alfa SLCM, the SS-NX-26 Oniks SLCM and the SS-N-21 Granat/Sampson SLCM cruise missiles, and the SS-N-16 Stallion anti-ship missile. They can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads and have ranges up to 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles). It has a 85 member crew, suggesting a high degree of automation.
The Severodvinsk recently began trials in the White Sea. The success of these sea trials will determine how soon the boat enters service. During its first underway period from September 12 to October 5, the Severodvinsk accomplished 80 percent of its assigned tasks while observers identified only minor problems with the ship’s performance. The official expectation is that the submarine will join the fleet this year, but according to Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, it could be three to five years before it is ready. The second Yasen submarine, the Kazan, was laid down in July 2009 and is currently under construction. It is expected to have more advanced equipment than the Severodvinsk and to enter service in 2015.
Russian articles claim the Severodvinsk will be the quietest submarine in the world. The boat reportedly has new communications, navigation, and nuclear power systems as well as extensive noise reduction and stealth features. Western nuclear submarines have tended to be quieter than Soviet and Russian nuclear designs and Western experts have predicted that it will only be slightly quieter than the Akula class. The Severodvinsk is also reportedly the first Russian submarine with its torpedo tubes amidship to make way a new bow-mounted advanced sonar system.
The Yasen’s long-range cruise missiles lead some to see it as a “carrier killer.” These SLCMs can be armed with nuclear warheads. Russian naval strategists see tactical nuclear warheads as helping to compensate for the inferior size of the Russian fleet as compared with the U.S. Navy. A tactical nuclear warhead could destroy an entire carrier task force group in seconds, which is beyond the capacity of Russia’s conventional weapons.
Russian policy makers would naturally worry about such a conflict escalating to further nuclear exchanges, but the advantage of using a nuclear warhead against an ocean-going target is that the number of civilian casualties would be minimized and a clear firebreak would be retained since the adversary’s national territory would not be directly affected by the nuclear blast.
But another mission for the Yasen submarines could be defending Russia’s extensive claims over the natural resources on the floor of the Arctic Ocean, which the Russian government has declared as part of its continental shelf. With its long-range cruise missiles and other weapons systems, the Severodvinsk would be able to defend large areas of the Arctic Ocean from a distance.
The Yasen boats will probably be assigned to the larger Northern and Pacific Fleets due to their size, capabilities, and cost. Its advantages — long endurance, stealth, and cruise missiles—could be used more effectively in a larger body of water.
Originally, the Soviet Navy wanted a total of 30 Yasen class submarines, but the Russian government only recently committed in the 2007-2015 SAP to buy two Yasen vessels, the Severodvinsk and the Kazan. In March 2011, an unnamed senior Navy official said that the service planned to acquire as many as ten Yasen class ships by 2020.
Since then, the rising cost of the Severodvinsk class ships as well as tight funding has led many defense experts to urge the Russian Navy to find a cheaper replacement for its retiring current generation of submarines. The cost of the first Severodvinsk class boat is $1.7 billion, but the shipyard, Sevmash, was seeking to charge the Navy three times as much for the second boat, justifying the increase on inflationary trends in the defense industry related to rising prices for materials, energy, and “monopolistic” subcontractors “trying to dictate prices.”
In early November 2011, the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) and the Russian Defense Ministry resolved their price dispute for the Yasen and Borey class nuclear-powered submarines. The Ministry agreed that in the future USC could select its own subcontractors rather than the Defense Ministry.
Even if all ten Yasen submarines were built, they would not provide enough boats to replace all the Russian attack submarines that will retire in coming years. Some defense analysts suggest that Russia discontinue production of the Yasen boats after the Kazan, the second ship in the class, and then build less capable but less expensive submarines. The U.S. Navy pursued such a policy when it discontinued the building of the Sea Wolf class and began building the more economical Virginia class attack submarines.
The Russian Navy still has several types of multi-purpose submarines inherited from the Soviet period. These include eight Oscar II class cruise missile submarines. They are armed with P-700 Granit cruise missiles designed to attack U.S. Navy carrier task forces. They may be armed with newer cruise missiles that could allow them to attack land-based targets. The Navy also has four Victor III and three Sierra attack submarines.
The eight Akula submarines are mainly assigned to Russia’s Northern Fleet. Although the Soviet government began working on the more advanced Akula II type ship in the early 1990s, the post-Soviet collapse meant it was not until 2007 that the Russian government found sufficient funds to resume development work, starting in October 2008, to begin sea trials of the vessel.
The Russian Navy only began receiving delivery of the first of its eight planned new Lada class diesel submarines in 2010, whose construction began over a decade ago. Developed by the Rubin Design Bureau, this new type Project 677 diesel submarine reportedly operates more quietly than the venerable Russian Kilo-class diesel-eclectic submarine, which it will replace.
The Lada also has a longer operational range than the Kilos, which were constructed in the 1980s, and more advanced anti-ship weaponry. The Russian Navy wants to have eight Lada submarines by 2020, and more later, but problems with the propulsions systems used by the first vessel of this class, the St. Petersburg, have delayed completion of the other two ships whose construction has already begun.
As an interim measure, the Navy is building six new improved Kilos based on a vessel that was previously only sold to other countries (such as China). They are supposed to join the Black Sea Fleet in a few years. The Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, currently has a single Project 877 Alrosa submarine. The Navy also plans to provide the Black Sea Fleet, whose operational zone incudes the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with new frigates for possible use against pirates and to establish a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean.