Submarines: The Russian Navy And Plan B


March 25, 2017: Russia, with its defense budget now officially cut substantially for the foreseeable future, has been announcing contingency plans for current procurement programs. For the navy that means fewer new submarines and instead more major refurbishment of boats worth keeping in service. What money the navy has left for new construction will go towards a new class of SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear powered boat, also called "boomers") because the old ones are old and less capable of getting the job done with each passing year. The SSN (attacks boats) and SSGNs (anti-ship missile carrying boats) will get production cut severely and see many more recent boats get refurbished. This approach gest the refurbed boats many of the capabilities of new designs but not as much time they can remain in service. Russia has a centuries old solution for that; use the refurbed subs much less. This was actually the norm doing the Cold War largely because Russian nuclear sub tech was far behind what American boats had and the Russians quickly figured out that whenever one of their nukes (nuclear powered subs) went to sea it was quietly (enough so the Russians rarely could detect their stalker) followed by an American SSN which considered this excellent practice for wartime conditions. So the Cold War era subs rarely went far from coastal waters or stayed at sea for long each time out. Russia confirmed after the Cold War that the American SSNs would often quietly enter Russian territorial waters (less than 22 kilometers from the coast) for training and espionage. The Russian submarine admirals were hoping they would get the money to build more competitive nuclear boats and put the Americans on the defensive some of the time. But now that goal has to be deferred. The refurbed boats will have better sensors, but can be done to improve noise control (how quiet the sub is under water). They will not be able to go to sea as much as the American boats but that will mean Russia will have a nuclear submarine force nearly half the size of the American one and, with China building more nuclear boats, the West will still feel threatened at sea.

For this strategy to work Russia needs better weapons for its remaining subs. Thus it was no surprise that in early 2017 the navy confirmed that it would replace most of the older heavy anti-ship (“carrier killer”) missiles on its subs with a more recent design that is very similar to the American Tomahawk. The Russian equivalent is 3M54 (also known as the SS-N-27, Sizzler or Klub/Kalibr), which many Russian and some Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian and Chinese subs are already equipped with. The Kalibr (Klub is the less capable export version) had growing pains that the Russians appear to have remedied. For example India was an early adopter but encountered reliability problems in 2010 when there were repeated failures of the Klub during six test firings. The missiles were fired off the Russian coast, using an Indian Kilo class submarine, INS Sindhuvijay. That boat went to Russia in 2006 for upgrades. India refused to pay for the upgrades, or take back the sub, until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles, which Russia eventually did. The 3M54 officially entered service in 2012 and has since used the surface ship and air launched versions of Kalibr in combat against targets in Syria.

Weighing two tons, and fired from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube on a Kilo class sub, the 3M54 has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. The anti-ship version has a range of 300 kilometers but speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. There is also an air launched and ship launched version. A land attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature and has a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead. What makes the 3M54 particularly dangerous is its final approach, which begins when the missile is about 15 kilometers from its target. Up to that point, the missile travels at an altitude of about a hundred feet. This makes the missile more difficult to detect. The high speed approach means that it covers that last fifteen kilometers in less than twenty seconds. This makes it difficult for current anti-missile weapons to take it down.

The 3M54 is similar to earlier, Cold War era Russian anti-ship missiles, like the 3M80 ("Sunburn"), which has a larger warhead (300 kg/660 pounds) and shorter range (120 kilometers). Even older is the P700 ("Shipwreck"), with a 550 kilometers range and 750 kg (1,650 pound) warhead. This missile entered service in the 1980s. The first Russian version of the Tomahawk (3M14) was still in development at the end of the Cold War and was finally put into service by 2001 as a land attack missiles. It took another decade to perfect the anti-ship (3M54) version.

The 2017 upgrade announcement confirms that the 24 P700 missiles (7 tons each) currently carried by the Oscar II (Antey) SSGNs in silos will have those 24 silos replaced with silos that can carry 72 3M54 (Kalibr/P900) cruise missiles that are smaller and weigh two tons. The American Tomahawk approach, the Russians are discovering, is cheaper, more reliable and smaller. That is worth refurbing some late Cold War era SSGNs for.

Back in 2015 the Russians announced that it would spend $180 million each to modernize the eight Oscar II SSGNs in order to extend their service lives twenty years. With the latest announcement that price has gone up to $250 million per Oscar II.

That cost may yet increase because the plan was to upgrade the Oscars with mechanical and electronics upgrades found in the new Yasen class subs. The modernized boats will also have needed and often long delayed) repairs made. What won’t be changed much is the amount of noise these boats make while submerged. The noise is a fatal vulnerability for subs and the new Yasens are having problems with getting all their new gear to work. That is not a surprise because the Russian government has been having major problems with state owned firms that manufacture these warships and their modern weapons.

The Russians are responding to the U.S. Navy discovering that, given current sensor (sonar, magnetic, heat, chemical) technology it is possible to detect very quiet submerged diesel-electric sub. This includes the new ones using AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) systems that allow diesel-electric sub to stay under water, silently, for several weeks at a time. Since 2000 the United States has done a lot of work on improving systems used to detect submerged subs. This included lots of tests on diesel electric and AIP subs that led to many small tweaks to existing sensors on subs and surface ships. AIP boats, in particular, were found to have many vulnerabilities. The AIP technology generated more noise and heat than just using batteries for underwater propulsion. The more the U.S. studied AIP subs in operation the more ways they found these subs could be detected. The passive (listen only) sonar systems in the new Virginia class SSNs (nuclear attack sub) were tweaked considerably to better find diesel-electric and AIP boats. The sensors on the Virginia are also among the best (if not the best) available for finding surface ships or other nuclear subs. But it depended on how noisy the other ships were. Diesel-electric subs operating submerged using battery power are theoretically the quietest. But the older a sub gets the more components become noisy and some diesel-electric sub designs are simply quieter. Even the older and noisier diesel-electric subs tend to be quieter than most nuclear subs, which have to run pumps at all times to circulate cooler water around the hot nuclear reactors. The most recent nuclear sub designs have found more ways to conceal the pump noise along with noise in general. Add that to more effective noise detecting sonar and you have a Western edge that Russia was getting close to matching when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Before 1991 the Russians had managed to steal a lot of the silencing tech and smuggle in special manufacturing equipment to create the quieter components. But all that ended in the 1990s and all the Russians had left were less than a dozen “quiet” nuclear subs that had been completed by 1991. After that Western, especially American, silencing and sensor tech continued to improve, although not as fast as during the Cold War.

Russia considers the Yasen their answer to the American Virginia class. But the Virginias are a more recent design while the Yasen is a late Cold War effort that had some tech upgrades in the two decades it took to build the first one. The first Virginia began construction in 1999 and entered service in 2004. So far twelve are in service, five are under construction and a total of 48 are to eventually enter service. The 9,500 ton Yasen were built after the Cold War but from Cold War era designs and are armed with 32 P-800 (SS-N-26 Oniks) anti-ship missiles fired from eight VLS (vertical launch system) silos. The three ton P-800 has a range of 600 kilometers. Each of these silos can hold five Klub/Kalibr anti-ship or cruise missiles instead of four P-900s and that shows how the Russians already saw the possibility of Kalibr displacing all the older Cold War carrier killer missile designs. There are also ten torpedo tubes (8 650mm and two 533mm).

The Yasen are highly automated, which is why there is a crew of 90 that is a third less than the 134 needed to run the new U.S. Virginia class boats. The Yasen is based on the earlier Akula and Alfa class SSNs. Russia had originally planned to build 30 Yasens, but now seven or eight seems a more realistic goal. Because of this Russia has gone ahead with a program for refurbishing Cold War era boats just to obtain a respectable number of subs in the future. What Russia has not been able to do is keep up with silencing and detection (sensor) tech. American sub commanders are not being overconfident about all this but base their assessments on growing opportunities for the quieter American SSNs (especially the Virginias) to detect and Russian SSN (or diesel-electric boat) and stalk it for days or weeks without ever being discovered. This was a Cold War practice as well and how the U.S. Navy discovered, in the 1980s, that the latest Russian SSNs were much quieter. But there are few of them and now improved American sensors make them easier to detect.

As of early 2017 only one Yasen has been to sea, another will soon do so, four more are under construction and seven more are on order. The U.S. apparently was able to detect and stalk the Yasen, getting a good sense of how much quieter (apparently not enough) it is. As improved as Yasen is it had lots of problems getting into service. For example it took two decades of construction effort and nearly six months of acceptance trials before the Russian Navy could finally put the first Yasen (Graney) SSGNs (nuclear powered cruise missile sub) into service during mid-2014. This boat, the Severodvinsk, set some of the wrong kind of records on its way to join the fleet. For one thing construction of the Severodvinsk began in 1993. Then there were the sea trials, which took two years during which the Severodvinsk was at sea 30 percent of the time (222 days) and submerged over a hundred times. There were at least five live firings of its cruise missiles. Sea trials are not supposed to go on for that long, but these SSGNs were special in so many ways.

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 resume construction. The first Yasen crew was put together in 2007 and then spent years training, and waiting. The crew now has their new boat in service, but only after record delays and time spent in the shipyard getting tweaked.




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