Murphy's Law: Crises In The Russian Nuclear Sub Industry


December 23, 2013: In late 2013 the Russian navy announced that plans to refurbish its nine Akula class SSNs (nuclear attack subs) would take longer than expected. In fact, the first Akula will be out of service for three years for the upgrade. The other eight subs will get done more quickly, but the entire job will take at least a decade and probably closer to fifteen years. The refurb involves replacing most if the wiring and electrical systems as well as the missile handling equipment. Many mechanical systems will be replaced of upgraded. The end result will be a much quieter sub and that’s very important in undersea warfare.

In early 2013 the Russian Navy announced more optimistic plans for upgrading its nine Akulas. The first of these entered service in 1984, and fifteen were built. Several were cancelled after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and some have been retired already. The latest Akula entered service two years ago and was then leased to India.

These 8,100 ton boats were to be replaced by the new Graney (Yasen) class subs. That has not worked out so far because of problems with the Graneys. Moreover, the Russian Navy is not getting enough money to replace their rapidly aging nuclear subs, so it was decided to invest a year or two and over $100 million each for the existing Akulas to be upgraded and refurbished so they can remain in service for another decade or two.

The refurb on the first Akula will take at a lot longer (at least three years) because since the end of the Cold War in 1991 a lot of technical documents on the Akula have been lost and many of the skilled engineers and technicians for this sort of work have retired or gone to work in more lucrative non-defense jobs. This was not fully appreciated when the initial upgrade plans were announced earlier in 2013. So recruiting sufficient skilled staff and sorting out how to take apart an Akula and put it back together again will mean more time will be required to upgrade all nine of the Akulas.

Meanwhile, the Graney SSGNs (nuclear powered cruise missile sub) were delayed twice in 2012. Sea trials revealed that the nuclear reactor did not produce the required power and that the ability of the boat to remain quiet while under water was not what it should be. An underpowered and noisy sub is not acceptable, and the navy is demanding that the builder make it all better before 2014. That was not possible because of the shortages of qualified people to do this sort of work. This problem has produced a growing list of embarrassing failures.

Earlier, undisclosed problems with the first Graney have postponed it from entering service for at least a year. That will mean, if the latest delay is the last one, the first Graney will enter service twenty years after construction began. These problems are not restricted to the Graney, as other new subs are also encountering numerous construction and design problems.

In early 2011, the fifty man crew of the first Graney took their boat to sea, or at least around the harbor, for the first time. Sea trials were to begin three months later but first the sub took baby steps to ensure that everything worked. These harbor trials were seen as a major progress. Things went downhill again after that, with a growing number of delays as more and more problems were encountered.

Russian submarine building has been on life support since the Cold War ended in 1991. Many subs under construction at the end of the Cold War were cancelled, and the few that avoided that spent a decade or more waiting for enough money to get finished. The first Graney crew was put together in 2006 and has been training, and waiting, ever since. The crew now continues training on their new boat, which was supposed to have entered service by now. In 2009 construction began on a second Graney. Russia planned to complete six boats of this class by the end of the decade.

Construction of the first Graney class boat, the Severodvinsk, began in 1993, and it was to have entered service in 1998. But after a few years work sort of stopped. Work on this boat was resumed in 2004. If work is not interrupted the second Graney class boat should be ready in less than six years. With the current situation, better make that seven or eight years.

The 9,500 ton Graneys are armed with 24 cruise missiles, as well as eight 650mm (25.6 inch) torpedo tubes. Some of the cruise missiles can have a range of over 3,000 kilometers, while others are designed as "carrier killers." The larger torpedo tubes also make it possible to launch missiles from them, as well as larger and more powerful torpedoes. The Graneys are having new "smart" (target seeking) torpedoes designed and built for them. But even these new torpedoes are having development problems and may be cancelled.

The Graneys are highly automated, which is why there is a crew of less than half the 134 needed to run the new U.S. Virginia class boats. The Graney design is based on the earlier Akula and Alfa class SSNs. Russia had originally planned to build 30 Graneys, but now eight seems the most optimistic goal. Thus the need for refurbishing Cold War era boats just to obtain a respectable number of subs.





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