Submarines: Yasen The Elderly Pretender


August 28, 2021: In mid-2021 Russia launched another nuclear sub, the Krasnoyarsk. This was the fourth Yasen (Graney) class SSGN (nuclear-powered cruise missile sub) and was being prepared for sea trials. Krasnoyarsk is considered the production (serial) model of the class and the remaining five will be identical, and are referred to as Yasen-M.

The Yasen design took three decades to perfect. The second Yasen, the Kazan, entered service in May 2021 and was the first Yasen-M. The third Yasen, the Novosibirsk is expected to enter service by the end of 2021. It is normal for the first ship of a new class to reveal a lot of potential upgrades that will be added to the second ship of the class which will be the production model for the next four or more ships. The U.S. and China, the only other navies that build large classes of new ships, use a similar technique.

The Yasens were different because they were the first new class of nuclear subs to enter production, in 1993, after the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soon after that the Russian armed forces quickly shrank to 20 percent of its pre-Soviet personnel strength. Procurement budgets shrank even more for the navy because the post-Soviet Union admirals tried to keep more ships in service than the budget and available personnel could support. By the end of the 1990s most of the Soviet era nuclear subs were out of service and were soon dismantled with the assistance of NATO nations who provided billions of dollars in aid and expertise to safely dismantle these potential nuclear disasters. Early on Russia had just scuttled some older nuclear subs off its northern coast, which put a lot of nuclear fuel underwater where it will remain a danger to aquatic life for centuries.

There were other problems with the sharp reduction in nuclear sub construction, mainly that the Soviet era shipyards could no longer get enough qualified workers and managers to build nuclear subs on time and budget, or maintain quality standards. Post-Soviet Russia meant skilled workers and managers could no longer be compelled to work where the government wanted them. Shipyard personnel now could seek better paying jobs elsewhere in Russia or, as many did, migrate to the West for better opportunities. For two decades warship construction efforts were a mess and it was only in the last decade that substantial progress was made in fixing these problems.

All nuclear subs are built in one facility on the north coast (the White Sea); the Sevmash yard in Severodvinsk. This operation now employs 30,000 people with fifteen nuclear subs under construction in mid-2021. While the quality problems have been largely solved, it still takes too long to build each submarine and the current goal is to reduce construction time by at least a year. That means new classes of nuclear subs that are smaller and less expensive to build. The successor to the Yasen class is already being developed and will be closer in size to the American Virginia class SSNs, which are currently being produced at the rate of two a year and are still the world-standard for other nations to strive for. Yasen-M has closed the quality gap with the Virginias. Oddly enough, the latest version of the Virginia, the Block 5 is larger than the twenty already in service and similar to what Russia would call an SSGN, like the Yasen. If these Block 5s work well the U.S. plans to eventually build 70 Virginias, most of them Block 5s which are larger (at 10,200 tons) than the 8,600-ton Yasen M.

Russia developed SSGNs during the Cold War as “carrier killers” but the new Yasen-Ms are built to carry a lot of cruise missiles, like American SSNs have been doing since the 1990s. The Russian SSGNs carried fewer but larger anti-ship missiles. The U.S. believes that SSGNs are more effective “firepower” ships than anything on the surface, which are vulnerable to a growing number of surface and air based anti-ship missiles. Russia needs more SSNs to protect its SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile) subs and provide an effective defense against foreign SSNs carrying out covert peacetime missions to keep an eye on Russian naval bases and naval exercises.

The frequency and effectiveness of these American SSN espionage missions was kept secret throughout the Cold War because the American SSNs were so much quieter than Russian subs and able to evade detection. Russia heard the rumors of such missions before the Cold War ended in 1991 and since then has been making a serious effort to improve submarine detection methods and build quieter nuclear subs so they can snoop on the Americans for a change. The Yasens are quieter and have much better sensors but they are too large and expensive for this espionage work. The first Yasen replacement is supposed to be in service by the late 2020s and proposed designs are all smaller and similar to Block 1-4 Virginias.

Russia plans to build nine Yasens and in mid-2021 five were still being built. Once the Kazen was launched and out of its construction shed for fitting out and sea trials it was noted that it appeared quite different from the Severodvinsk, the first Yassen. Kazen is nine meters (27 feet) shorter than the 139.2-meter (457 foot) Severodvinsk. The bow is a different shape (sharper) and there are eight torpedo tubes instead of ten. The size and shape of the propeller/rudder system have increased. About half the length reduction is at the expense of crew quarters. That is not a major problem because the crew is smaller, at 63 men, than the Severodvinsk. The length and crew reduction were accomplished with the use of more automation and improved electronics that take up less space and require less maintenance. The revisions were not expensive to implement and were apparently planned before the Severodvinsk was completed. While the Severodvinsk cost $1.6 billion the Kazan cost half that and subsequent boats are expected to cost closer to $700 million each. The navy is confident that the changes in the Yasen design will solve a lot more problems than they cause.

Russia knew it had some serious problems with the Yasens as the lead boat ran into a seemingly endless series of problems. In mid-2014, after two decades of construction effort and nearly six months of acceptance trials, the Russian Navy finally declared the Severodvinsk into service. This boat set some of the wrong kind of records on its way to the fleet. For one thing, the construction of the Severodvinsk began in 1993, based on a Cold War design and a lot of Cold War technology. 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 last that long, but the Yasen SSGNs were special in so many ways.

Putting the Severodvinsk into service was delayed twice in 2013. Early on the sea trials revealed that the nuclear reactor did not produce the required power and that the ability of the boat to remain quiet while underwater was not what it should be. An underpowered and noisy sub was not combat ready and the navy demanded that the builder make it all better before 2014. This proved hard to do because in the 1990s lack of work and money meant that most of the best people left the companies that produced the nuclear subs and their complex components were gone. Those left behind produced a growing list of embarrassing failures. Earlier, undisclosed problems with the first Yasen postponed it from entering service for years. These problems are not restricted to the Yasens, as other new subs are also encountering numerous construction and design problems.

In early 2011, the crew of the Severodvinsk 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 major progress. Things went downhill again after that; with a growing number of delays as more and more problems were encountered.

The second Yasen, the Kazan was different. Construction of the Kazan began in 2009 and was not completed until 2017. This was two years longer than expected and apparently the result of implementing the design changes. The third Yasen did not begin construction until 2013 and was launched in 2019. That was two years less than Kazan and the fourth Yasen was expected to take the same amount of time and launch during 2021, which it did. The fifth Yasen began construction a year after the fourth boat and is expected to be launched at about the same time.

The Russians appear pretty confident about the redesigned Yasen M, in part because once the Severodvinsk was in service it proved as quiet and capable as expected. The Americans admitted as much when they revealed that, during the first long range cruise of the Severodvinsk in 2018 the U.S. Navy had a very difficult time locating and tracking it. That was unusual for Russian subs, which had previously been noisy enough for U.S. submarine detection systems to keep track of. The Kazan will have its chance to prove it is as quiet and hard to track as the Severodvinsk when, by 2022, it takes a long-range cruise in waters patrolled by American ASW (Anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, surface ships, subs and other submarine detection systems.

In the end, the Yasen class boats were a major advance in Russian submarine technology. That was remarkable because Russian submarine building has been on life support since 1991. Many subs under construction at the end of the Cold War were canceled, and the few that avoided spending 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 got their new boat in 2013, but only after record delays and time spent in the shipyard getting tweaked.

The Yasens all have eight VLS (vertical launch system) tubes that can carry 32 Oniks anti-ship missiles or forty slower Kalibr (similar to the U.S. Tomahawk) missiles or the more capable Kn-101 cruise missile, as well as the torpedo tubes. The Oniks missiles are designed as "carrier killers" because their final approach is at high speed and difficult to intercept. The torpedo tubes were originally supposed to be larger so they could use some new torpedo designs. Those designs did not work out as planned so the standard 533mm torpedo tubes were used with older but proven torpedo designs.

The Yasens crew is less than half the 134 needed to run the new U.S. Virginia class boats. The Yasen design is based on the earlier Akula and Alfa class SSNs. Russia had originally planned to build 30 Yasens, but now only nine are being built and the smaller and cheaper successor is supposed to be produced in large numbers if the procurement budget can handle that.


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