Submarines: Russian Boomers Bumble Along


June 3, 2009: Only eight of the twelve existing Russian Delta IV SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers") are available for service. Russia wants to have about a dozen of the new Borei class boats, to replace the current Delta IV class SSBNs. The Delta IVs are getting old, and have only about a decade of useful service left. Currently, it appears that the navy will get at eight Boreis. These new boats are expensive, and the navy wants to build some aircraft carriers.

There are still more delays for the new Russian Borei class SSBN. This boat, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched over a year ago, and was to have begun sea trials late last year, then in January of this year, then by the end of May. It still hasn't happened. Major delays were introduced because of an accident on a new Akula SSN last November. There, a sailor hit the wrong switch and accidently triggered a fire suppressant system in a compartment where several dozen people were sleeping, killing twenty of them. The safety system was poorly designed, making it too easy for someone to do what the sailor did. Such design problems are common in Russian ships, and the additional months of inspections and modifications for the Borei is another attempt to eliminate such problems. There were also some problems with welds on the hull, and the nuclear power plant.

The first of its new Borei class subs was moved to a dry dock two years ago, for additional work. This ship, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was supposed to have been launched three years ago. But there were technical problems that delayed it until now. Construction of the Yuri Dolgoruky began thirteen years ago, but money shortages, and technical issues, slowed progress.

The first of three new Borei Class boats will be based in the Pacific, sometime early in the next decade. During the Cold War, most of Russias SSBNs were based in the north, at several bases east of the Norwegian border, and facing the Arctic ocean. But now Russia is spending over $350 million to expand and improve its submarine base on Kamchatka island. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China, as well as the United States.

This is the first new Russian boomer to enter service in 18 years, and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. The second ship in the class, the Alexander Nevsky, is also nearing completion. Construction on the third, the Vladimir Monomakh, began two years ago.

The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs, than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon boats. The Boreis are 558 feet long and 44 feet wide. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and twelve Bulava SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) are carried. Work on the Yuri Dolgoruky was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. A successful land based missile, the Topol-M, was quickly modified for submarine use. The Bulava was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis capacity from twenty to twelve missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes, and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles. The Borei also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers (a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs). Each of these boats will cost at least two billion dollars. This high cost, by Russian standards, is partly because many factories that supplied parts for Russian subs were in parts of the Soviet Union that are not now within the borders of present day Russia. So new factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis, and their missiles, will be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

Another problem is the reliability of the new Bulava missile, which, so far, has failed five of its ten test launches. The Bulava is believed to be fundamentally sound, but it could be another year, or more, before all the kinks are worked out. The Yuri Dolgoruky might be ready before its ballistic missiles are, which is not unusual for a new class of SSBN, carrying a new missile.