Russia Submarine Capabilities
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the once mighty Soviet submarine fleet entered a period of prolonged crisis from which it is only just beginning to emerge. The Russian Navy now faces a dual task. On the one hand, it needs to complete the dismantlement of the submarines it no longer needs or cannot maintain, a task that is nearing completion. On the other hand, the shrunken force has to be maintained and modernized. Whereas international assistance has contributed to the first task, the second is the exclusive prerogative of the Russian government, the Ministry of Defense, and the navy.
Submarine Tables for Russia
The submarine force is intended to support several missions. SSBNs are viewed as an integral part of Russia's nuclear triad and as contributing to nuclear deterrence as relatively invulnerable, primarily second-strike assets. The number of SSBNs is dwindling, however, and, perhaps most important, the navy cannot maintain many SSBNs on combat patrol—according to open sources, no more than one or two SSBNs are on patrol at any given moment, and there have been periods of time when no SSBN was on patrol at all. Although Soviet SSBNs were given the capability to launch missiles from the surface, including when moored to the pier, this is poor consolation because, in port, SSBNs are little but a "soft" (unhardened) and very attractive target that cannot contribute to deterrence.
The "attack" or multipurpose nuclear submarine force traditionally had a primarily anti-ship and anti-submarine mission: they were supposed to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships (the priority target was U.S. aircraft carriers). Consequently, the emphasis was given to anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, the latest models of which are highly sophisticated. The same mission was also supported by diesel submarines in relatively shallow waters close to shore or in narrow straits. More recently, attack submarines have also acquired cruise missiles for use against land targets. With the exception of SLBMs, all weapons on board submarines are non-nuclear in accordance with the 1991 U.S.-Soviet Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs).
Although defense spending has increased in recent years, the available funds are still insufficient in the face of the backlog of modernization, training, maintenance, and dismantlement tasks. Like the rest of the armed forces, the navy is haunted by insufficient funding, which limits its ability to conduct regular overhauls of operational submarines and even to maintain them in a combat-ready state. Although the Russian Navy has almost completed upgrading procedures on its six remaining operational Delta IV SSBNs, it is expected that most of the remaining Delta III's will be decommissioned by 2013. Given the problems that have been encountered with test firings of the new Bulava SLBM, which is being developed for the new Borey-class strategic nuclear submarines, it appears likely that the rate of decommissioning will continue to exceed that of force modernization. Another navy-specific problem is the burden of past and recent political decisions, which tended to set overambitious goals that cannot be supported by current funding; this problem applies primarily to the SSBN fleet.
Paradoxically, the long period of decline has helped to optimize the submarine fleet and make it more cost-effective. Prospective future programs now emphasize smaller, cheaper, but also more technologically advanced multipurpose vessels.
The strategic submarine fleet—SSBNs carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles—seems to be in the worst shape. Currently, Russia has no more than 16 SSBNs and this number is likely to contract further once the remaining Delta III's are decommissioned. The largest (and the most expensive) SSBNs in the world, Project 941 Akula (NATO name Typhoon), are nearing extinction with one of the three remaining vessels, Dmitriy Donskoy, being used as a testing platform for the Bulava missile. The reasonably modern Project 667BDRM Delfin (Delta IV) that are the mainstay of the SSBN fleet number only six and their predecessor, Project 667BDR Kalmar (Delta III) number five. SSBN modernization remained at a standstill until a few years ago, in contrast to other elements of the submarine fleet.
The sorry state of the SSBN force could be attributed to the failure, in the mid-1990s, of a program to develop the new solid-fuel Bark SLBM, based on the older R-39 (SS-N-20) SLBM that was deployed on Project 941 Akula (Typhoon) submarines. The new missile was supposed to keep the Akulas "afloat" and be deployed subsequently on the new, smaller SSBN, Project 955 Borey, whose first keel was laid in 1996. When the Bark program was terminated in 1997, construction of the first Borey, Yuriy Dolgorukiy, had to be frozen. In 1998, the new Bulava-30 SLBM program was launched, and the Borey class had to be redesigned for the new missile; this also doomed Akulas with the exception of the Dmitriy Donskoy, which was overhauled to serve as a testing platform for the future SLBM). Although Yuriy Dolgorukiy is currently undergoing sea trials with the Northern Fleet, the future of the Bulava missile program has been called into question after a series of failed test-firings. An additional two Borey-class submarines, the Aleksandr Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh, were laid down in 2004 and 2006 respectively and are likely to join the Pacific Fleet. It seems that following many years of delays, insufficient funding, and design failures the Navy is rushing to bring the new SSBN into service at the earliest possible date. Although estimates vary, it is believed that the new class will eventually number between eight and ten strategic nuclear submarines, although future events will continue to affect this number.
By contrast, the shape of the nuclear attack submarine fleet—which will also represent the core of the submarine fleet not only by their numbers, but also in terms of their mission—can be predicted reasonably well. The main task of the existing and future vessels in this category is finding and destroying enemy submarines and surface ships (including aircraft carriers and aircraft carrier groups), as well as land targets.
Their modernization concentrates on designs that date back to the late 1970s and 1980s, which had matured by the last years of the Soviet Union. Production of the large third-generation attack nuclear submarines of Project 945 Barrakuda (NATO name Sierra I) and 945A Kondor (NATO name Sierra II) was discontinued in 1993 (the unfinished fifth submarine of that class, Project 945B Mars was disassembled at the shipyard); only two ships in that class remain in service, the Pskov and Nizhny Novgorod. The main drawbacks of these submarines from today's perspective are their high cost (caused, in part, by the titanium hull) and limited mission—they were originally designed for antisubmarine warfare (ASW), although the modification, Project 945A, was also equipped with Granat (NATO designation SS-N-21 Sampson) cruise missiles intended to attack land targets. A number of second-generation Project 671RTM-RTMK Shchuka (Victor III) boats remain part of the fleet, but these will probably be decommissioned in the near future.
The core of the attack nuclear submarine fleet consists of Project 971 Shchuka B (NATO name Akula) submarines—a smaller multipurpose development of Project 945 (Nato name Sierra). Project 971 began in the mid-1970s and the first submarine in that class was launched in 1984. A total of 14 of these SSNs have been built, the latest, Nerpa, was launched in 2006. Russia continued building the Nerpa after its construction, along with other vessels, was frozen in the 1990s due to a lack of funding. Project 971 SSNs are widely known as the quietest, fastest, most modern submarines in Russia and are widely reported to be on a par with the most advanced U.S. attack submarines. Another "core class" of SSNs are Projects 949 Granit and 949A Antey (NATO names Oscar I and II); 13 of these submarines have been built. There are no reports, however, about building new submarines of these classes.
The future of the Russian attack submarine fleet is represented by fourth-generation cruise-missile Project 885 Yasen (NATO name Granay), the second of which, Kazan, was laid down in 2009. Project 885 is supposed to eventually replace Projects 945 and 949, so that only two classes of attack submarines will remain in the navy.
Diesel submarines number about 20 and are represented by reasonably advanced Project 877 Varshavyanka (NATO name Kilo) class submarines of various modifications, which entered service in late 1980s. A submarine of the latest modification entered service in 2000. Construction of the most recent submarine in that class was completed in May 2005, but the vessel was intended for export. In early 2005, the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg launched the St. Petersburg, the first submarine of a new class, Project 677 Lada; an export version of that class, Project 677E (Amur-1650) will also be produced in the near future.
Information on submarine propulsion reactors was complied by Ole Reistad, Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. For information on the HEU enrichment of Russian submarine fuel, and other information on submarine reactors, please see Ole Reistad, Morten Bremer Mærli and Nils Bøhmer, "Russian Naval Nuclear Fuel and Reactors," Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2005.
This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright © 2013 National Journal Group, Inc., 600 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20037.
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