August 17, 2012: Recently there was another media report of a Russian SSN (attack sub) that was alleged to have recently operated undetected in the Gulf of Mexico for several weeks. This attracted the attention of professional submariners (especially retired ones, who could post more freely on the Internet). It was quickly determined that this was likely a made up story as attempts to trace it back to the source ended at the politically funded, as in 501(C)4, web site. The U.S. and Russian Navy refused to comment and attempts to confirm the incident have come up empty. Moreover, no law was broken by having an Akula sub cruise around the Gulf of Mexico in international waters. Indeed, such an event makes it easier for the U.S. Navy to get more money for new submarines.
This sort of thing has happened before. Three years ago two Akulas were detected (by the U.S. Navy) off the east coast of the United States, in international waters. Russia admitted two of its Akula class boats were out there. This was the first time Russian subs had been off the North American coast in over a decade. This spotlights something the Russian admirals would rather not dwell on. The Russian Navy has not only shrunk since the end of the Cold War in 1991, but it has also become much less active. In the previous three years, only ten of their nuclear subs had gone to sea, on a combat patrol, each year. Most of the boats going to sea were SSNs, the minority were SSBNs (ballistic missile boats). There were often short range training missions, which often lasted a few days or just a few hours.
The true measure of a fleet's combat ability is the number of "combat patrols" or "deployments" in makes in a year and how long they are. In the U.S. Navy most of these last from 2-6 months. Currently U.S. nuclear subs carry out ten times as many patrols as their Russian counterparts. Russia is trying to catch up but has a long way to go.
Russia has only 14 SSNs (nuclear attack subs) in service and eight of them are 7,000 ton Akulas. These began building in the late 1980s and are roughly comparable to the American Los Angeles class. All of the earlier Russian SSNs are trash and most have been decommissioned. There are also eight SSGN (nuclear subs carrying cruise missiles) and 20 diesel electric boats. There is a new class of SSGNs under construction but progress has been slow.
Currently, the U.S. has eight of the new 7,700 ton Virginia class SSNs in service, with over twenty under construction, on order, or otherwise in the works. The mainstay of the American submarine force is still the 6,100 ton Los Angeles-class SSN. Sixty-two of these submarines were built, 42 of which remain in front-line service, making it probably the largest class of nuclear submarines that will ever be built. The Seawolf-class of nuclear attack submarines stopped at three from a planned class of twenty-nine. The 8,600 ton Seawolf was designed as a super-submarine, designed to fight the Soviet Navy at its height. Reportedly, it is quieter going 40 kilometers an hour than the Los Angeles-class submarines are at pier side.
The peak year for Russian nuclear sub patrols was 1984, when there were 230. That number rapidly declined until, in 2002, there were none. Since the late 1990s, the Russian navy has been hustling to try and reverse this decline. But the navy budget, despite recent increases, is not large enough to build new ships to replace the current Cold War era fleet that is falling apart. The rapid decline of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet needed international help to safely decommission over a hundred obsolete, worn out, defective, or broken down nuclear subs. This effort has been going on for over a decade and was driven by the Russian threat to just sink their older nuclear subs in the Arctic Ocean. That might work with conventional ships but there was an international uproar over what would happen with all those nuclear reactors sitting on the ocean floor forever. Russia generously offered to accept donations to fund a dismantling program that included safe disposal of the nuclear reactors.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, most of the ship building money has gone into new nuclear subs. Six Akulas have been completed in that time, but the first of a new generation of SSBNs, the Borei class, was delayed by technical problems, a new ballistic missile that wouldn't work, and lack of money. The first two Borei class boats, after many delays, are finally ready for service and ended up costing over two billion dollars each.
The Russian admirals made their big mistake in the early 1990s, when the dismantling of the Soviet Union left the second largest fleet in the world with only a fraction of its Cold War budget. Rather than immediately retiring ninety percent of those ships, Russia tried to keep many of them operational. This consumed most of the navy budget and didn't work. There were too many ships, not enough sailors, and not enough money for maintenance or training at sea. The mighty Soviet fleet is mostly scrap now, or rusting hulks tied up at crumbling, out-of-the way naval bases.
While Western nuclear subs can last for about thirty years, Russian models rarely get past twenty. That means two new SSN or SSGN has to be put into service each year to maintain a force of forty boats. Unless the sub construction budget get billions more dollars a year, that is not going to happen. Right now, the priority is on producing a new class of SSBNs. The rest of the Russian armed forces, like most of the navy, is in sad shape and unable to resist a major invasion. Only the ICBMs and SLBMs guarantee the safety of the state. So the way things are going now, in a decade or two, Russia will end up with a force consisting of a dozen SSNs and a dozen SSBNs.
The current Russian fleet of nuclear subs is tiny and the Russians would rather keep them tied up at dock most of the time. The crews can do a lot of training at dockside and only go to sea a few times a year, to check on their state of training. Given the number of accidents their subs have had in the past decade, the training the crews are getting now is not sufficient. Sending two Akulas to the western Atlantic, or one to the Gulf of Mexico (if only as a rumor), is a way to give the crews some badly needed experience at longer deployments and operating on the high seas.