Russia Submarine Capabilities

Delta II class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), US G overnment via WikiMedia Commons

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the once mighty Soviet submarine fleet entered a period of prolonged crisis from which it is only beginning to emerge. The Russian Navy now faces the dual task of dismantling the submarines it no longer needs or cannot maintain, while also maintaining and modernizing its new smaller force. Whereas international assistance has contributed to the first task, the second, which is the exclusive prerogative of the Russian government and the Ministry of Defense, is just starting to pick up pace again as economic strength and new defense policies have once again brought the Russian fleet to the forefront of defense policy.

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The Russian submarine force is intended to support both strategic and tactical missions, including Nuclear Power Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs), Nuclear Powered Attack Submarines (SSNs), Guided Missile Submarines (SSGNs) and diesel powered attack submarines (SSKs). SSBNs are often considered the most important element of Russia's submarine fleet, playing an integral role in Russia's nuclear triad by contributing to nuclear deterrence as a relatively invulnerable, primarily second-strike asset. For more than two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of SSBNs dwindled, often leaving no more than one or two SSBNs on patrol at any given moment, and occasionally even resulting in periods when no SSBNs were on patrol at all. [1] Though Russian SSBNs have the capability to launch missiles from the surface, including while moored to the pier, they would be a likely target in any first strike, thereby removing the deterrent capability of a survivable second strike. Since the early 2000's, high oil revenues have given Russia the opportunity to start recapitalizing and modernizing its military, which have resulted in a recent increase by 150% in spending for Russia's strategic nuclear forces, and the setting aside of $160 billion for procurement of new naval ships and submarines until 2020. [2]

The "attack" or multipurpose nuclear submarine force, supported by SSNs, SSGNs, and SSKs, has traditionally played a primarily anti-ship and anti-submarine mission: tasked to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and surface ships, including aircraft carriers. [3] Consequently, procurement emphasis was given to anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, the latest models of which are highly sophisticated. Diesel powered SSKs are particularly well suited for some of these missions, given their ability to operate undetected in relatively shallow littoral waters close to shore or in narrow straits. Conversely, attack submarines, in hopes of improving the distance necessary to engage targets, have also acquired cruise missiles for use against land targets. Though the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) and the original START I treaty prevented both the United States and Russia from placing tactical nuclear submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) on attack submarines, the New START Treaty has no such limitations, making these cruise missiles more contentious. In fact, it has been suggested that the PNI's are no longer being honored, as the newly commissioned Project 885 Yasen (NATO: Granay) guided-missile attack submarine, Severodvinsk, is known to carry Caliber (SS-N-30) land attack cruise missiles, which are rumored to be nuclear capable. [4]

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, insufficient funding haunts the Russian Navy, which limits its ability to conduct regular overhauls of operational submarines and to maintain them in a combat-ready state. Although the Russian Navy has completed upgrades on its six remaining operational Project 667BDRM "Delphin" (NATO: Delta IV) SSBNs, it has elected to maintain 2 operational Project 667BDR "Kalmar" (NATO: Delta III) SSBNs while it continues production of the new Project 995 "Borei" (NATO: Undesignated) class SSBN, which will eventually replace all the Project 667BDR SSBNs. [5] The first of the new Borei class SSBNs, named "Yuri Dolgoruki," was commissioned on 13 January 2013. However, given the problems plaguing the test firings of the new Bulava (NATO: SS-N-32) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which is being developed for the new Borei class, it appears likely that the rate of decommissioning will continue to exceed that of force modernization. Additionally, past political decisions set overambitious goals that cannot be supported by current funding, and have significantly burdened modernization efforts. Paradoxically, the long period of decline 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 currently consists of 10 SSBNs, including 6 Project 667BDRM "Delphin" (NATO: Delta IV) SSBNs, 2 Project 667BDR "Kalmar" (NATO: Delta III), and 2 Project 995 "Borei" (NATO: Undesignated) class SSBNs, of which only 7 are capable of carrying SLBMs. [6] Though the size of the Russian SSBN force was projected to contract as the remaining Delta III's were decommissioned, it seems more likely now that they will continue operating as part of Russia's Pacific fleet until they can be replaced by Borei class SSBNs. [7] Some of these delays in SSBN force modernization can 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 (NATO: SS-N-20) SLBM that was deployed on Project 941 Akula (NATO: Typhoon) submarines. The new missile was supposed to keep the Akulas "afloat" and be deployed subsequently on the new, smaller Project 955 Borei (NATO: Undesignated), whose first keel was laid in 1996. When the Bark program was terminated in 1997, construction of the first Borei, Yuriy Dolgorukiy, had to be frozen [8] The R-30 "Bulava" (NATO: SS-N-32) SLBM program was subsequently launched in 1998 to replace the BARK, However, the future of this missile program remains uncertain as well following a series of failed test-firings, culminating in the most recent failure on 6 September 2013. [9] Production of the Borei class SSBN continues with the Aleksandr Nevsky, the most recent Borei class, entering into service on 23 December 2013. However, neither it nor the Vladimir Monomakh, currently under construction, can be considered strategic assets until the issues with the Bulava have been resolved; the Borei class SSBN is not configured to carry any other SLBMs in the Russian arsenal. [10] Despite these issues, the Russian Navy is fully committed to the project and has committed to beginning construction on 2 new Borei class SSBN's in 2014 and an additional 2 in 2015. [11] 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 could alter this number. [12]

By contrast, the shape of the nuclear attack submarine fleet can be predicted reasonably well. The main purpose of 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.

Modernization of Russian SSNs 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: Sierra I) and 945A "Kondor" (NATO: 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. [13] However, in 2013 it was announced that the remaining Project 945 "Barrakuda" class SSN's, the Karp and the Costroma, would be refit and modernized by 2017, to reenter service following modernization. [14] 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 anti-submarine warfare (ASW), although the later modification, Project 945A, was also equipped with Granat (NATO: SS-N-21) cruise missiles intended to attack land targets. [15] Four second-generation Project 671RTM "Shchuk" (NATO: Victor III) boats remain part of the northern fleet, but reportedly they will be decommissioned in the near future due to their age and recurring sound-silencing problems that the Russian Navy could never resolve despite numerous modernization and improvement efforts. [16] The core of the attack nuclear submarine fleet consists of Project 971 Shchuka B (NATO: Akula) submarines—a smaller, and more importantly cheaper, multipurpose platform developed to follow the expensive Project 945 (NATO: Sierra). Project 971 began in the mid-1970s, and the first submarine in that class, the "Puma," was launched in 1984. [17] Russia has continued building the Akula Class and, despite a freeze in production in the 1990s due to a lack of funding, currently operates 12 Project 971 (NATO: Akula) submarines. [18] Project 971 SSNs are widely known as the quietest, fastest, most modern submarines in Russia's fleet and are reportedly on par with the most advanced U.S. attack submarines. In 2013, Russia announced its decision to modernize many of the existing Akulas with better stealth capabilities and improved electronics. [19] While it has not been announced which Project 971 submarines will be modernized or when, the announcement signals the importance of the platform to the Russian Navy. Additionally, the most recently built Project 971 Class submarine, the "Nerpa," was completed in 2009 and leased to the Indian Navy under the name "Chakra" for a 10-year period. [20]

The core of the Russian guided missile submarine class (SSGN) are the Projects 949 Granit and 949A Antey (NATO:Oscar I and II), each capable of carrying 24 conventionally armed cruise missiles. [21] Only 8 of these submarines are currently operational, and there are no reports of plans to build new submarines of these classes, given that the future of the Russian guided-missile attack submarine fleet is represented by the fourth-generation Project 885 Yasen (NATO: Granay) SSGN. [22] The first ship of the class, the "Severodinsk" was handed over to the Navy on 30 December 2013, with the second of the class, the "Kazan," slated for transfer to the Navy in 2017. [23] Project 885 is expected to eventually replace Projects 945 and 949, so that only two classes of attack submarines will remain in the navy. Additionally, although SSGNs were previously limited from carrying nuclear submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) by the original START treaty, the New START Treaty does not define SLCMs as strategic delivery systems, and therefore does not prevent the Yasen class SSGNs from carrying them. While the Russian government has given no indications that this class will carry nuclear-tipped SLCMs, it is believed to be a possibility, given that they are capable of carrying several varieties of nuclear capable SLCMs. [24]

Despite falling out of favor with some modern navies, Diesel SSK submarines still play a large role in the Russian fleet, with around 20 such submarines still operational. The mainstay of the Russian SSK fleet is the Project 636 (NATO: Kilo) SSK, which entered service in the 1980's and continues to operate presently within all the Russian fleets. [25] Considered one of the quietest diesel submarines in the world, the Russian Navy has been quite successful selling the Project 636 SSK to many other countries, including China, Venezuela, and Indonesia. [26] The recent modernizations in other parts of the Russian fleet have affected the SSK fleet as well, with the most recent addition, the "Novorossiysk" being launched in 2013, as well as two more to follow in the coming years. [27]

[1] Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, "Russian Nuclear Forces, 2007," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, March/April 2007, pp. 61-64.
[2] "РФ в 2016 г. планирует увеличить расходы на ядерное оружие в 1,5 раза (RF v 2016 g. Planiruet uvelichit' rasxody na iadernoe oruzhie v 1,5 raza – In 2016 Russia Plans to Increase Spending on Nuclear Weapons by 1.5 Times)" RIA Novosti, 10 August 2013,;"Russian Navy to Receive 24 Subs, 54 warships by 2020," RIA Novosti, 11 March 2013,
[3] Valdimir Karnazov, "Carrier Killers for the Russian Navy: The Strategic Environment," International Relations and Security Network, 30 July 2012,
[4] Thomas Nilsen, "Severodvinsk Launched Cruise Missile" Barents Observer, 8 November 2012,
[5] Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, "Russian Nuclear Forces, 2013," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Volume 63, Issue 3, pp. 71-81.
[6] Pavel Podvig, "Strategic Fleet," Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Accessed 27 January 2014,
[7] Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, "Russian Nuclear Forces, 2013," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Volume 63, Issue 3, pp. 71-81.
[8] Richard Weitz, "Global Insights: Russia Revitalizes Its Submarine Deterrent," World Politics Review, 15 January 2013,
[9] "No Submarine-Launched Bulava Missile Tests Seen Until 2014," RIA Novosti, 13 November 2013,
[10] "Russian Navy Commissions Second Borey-Class Submarine" RIA Novosti, 23 December 2013,
[11] "Россия заложит за два года девять подлодок, в том числе атомные(Rossya zaloshit za dva goda devyat podlodok, v tom cheesle atomnye – Russia to start construction of 11 new submarines, including several nuclear submarines, in the next two years)" RIA Novosti, 7 February 2014,
[12] Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, "Russian Nuclear Forces, 2013," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Volume 63, Issue 3, pp. 71-81.
[13] "Project 945 Sierra class Attack Submarine (Nuclear Powered)," Federation of American Scientists, Accessed on 30 January 2014,
[14] "Russia to resurrect titanium submarines," RIA Novosti, 5 March 2013,
[15] "Project 945 Sierra class Attack Submarine (Nuclear Powered)," Federation of American Scientists, Accessed on 30 January 2014,
[16] "Россия избавится от шумных «Щук»(Rossya izbavitsya ot shumnich Schyk – Russia to get rid of noisy Submarines)" Lenta, 15 April 2013,
[17] "Project 971 Shuka-B Akula class Attack Submarine (Nuclear Powered)," Federation of American Scientists, Accessed on 31 January 2014,
[18] "In Service Ships – Submarines,", Accessed on 31 January 2014
[19] "Russia to Modernize Akula Class Attack Submarines," RIA Novosti, 20 March 2013,
[20] "SSN Akula Class (Bars Type 971) Nuclear Submarine, Russia.", Accessed 31 January 2014,
[21] "SSGN Oscar II Class (Project 949.A) (Kursk), Russia", Accessed 31 January 2014,
[22] "In Service Ships – Submarines,", Accessed on 3 February 2014,
[23] "Russian Navy commissions first Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarine.", Accessed 3 February 2014,; "Атомную подводную лодку «Казань» передадут флоту в 2017 году (Atomnuyu podvodnuyu lodku "Kazan" peredadut v flout v 2017 godu – Nuclear Submarine will be transferred to the fleet in 2017," Izvestia, 30 July 2013,
[24] Pavel Podvig, "Project 955 Submarines to Carry Long-range cruise missiles" Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, Accessed 27 January 2014,
[25] "In Service Ships – Submarines,", Accessed on 31 January 2014,
[26] "SSK Kilo Class (Type 636), Russia.", Accessed 3 February 2014,
[27] "Maritime 'black hole': Russia launches new 'stealth' submarine,", Accessed 3 February 2014,

June 10, 2014
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