Submarines: The Borei Blues Again

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November 17, 2019: Russia continues to have problems maintaining its SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs) force and the SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) these boats carry. Only four of the post-Cold War Borei class SSBNs are in service with four more under construction. The fourth Borei, the Knyaz Vladimir finally (in early November) completed its sea trials and will officially enter service in early 2020. The Knyaz Vladimir was actually the first of an “improved Borei”, or “Borei A” design and took longer, and cost more to complete than planned. One feature, adding four more SLBM launch tubes, was deleted. Borei A includes improved electronics and changes to the hull and propulsion system to make the boat quieter and more maneuverable. Getting all this to work delayed the fourth Borei because of the extended sea trials and time spent back in the shipyard to correct problems. These changes made the Borei A so expensive that the navy is considering building only eight Boreis instead of ten. The four Boreis currently being built are all Borei A boats which will incorporate all the changes made to Knyaz Vladimir during over a year of sea trials.

There were many delays just getting the first of the new Borei class SSBNs built at all. This boat, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched in 2008 and then encountered further delays before undergoing sea trials in 2012. The Yuri Dolgoruky was supposed to have been launched by 2006, but there were technical problems that caused more delays. Construction of the Yuri Dolgoruky began in 1996, but money shortages and technical issues slowed progress. The cash shortage was initially thought to be temporary but was eventually declared permanent with a chance of getting worse. This was all about the permanent decline in oil prices after 2013 and the impact of economic sanctions imposed because of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Another factor, less frequently discussed, is the continued corruption that is crippling economic growth.

The Boreis were needed to replace the aging Delta class SSBN. There was only enough money to refurbish one of the Cold War era Delta IV SSBNs. Keeping several of these boats active was an emergency contingency plan if the initial problems with the Borei and its Bulava SLBM were not solved in time. These Deltas entered service in the late 1980s.

The first three new Borei Class boats were supposed to be based in the Pacific but that has been changed with only two in the Pacific. One reason for that is the lack of money to refurbish and reactivate the Chizha Test Range near Arkhangel that was used to monitor ballistic missile or SLBMs fired from east to west. The test range on the Pacific coast has been upgraded so that ballistic missiles and SLBM testing could continue and be accurately monitored to measure success, and accuracy, of test warheads.

During the Cold War, most of Russia’s 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 the Kamchatka Peninsula on its Pacific coast. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China as well as the United States.

The Boreis are the first new Russian boomers to enter service since 1990 (when the last Delta IV entered service), and the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. The other two Boreis (Alexander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh) benefited from all those delays and were built much more quickly. Starting with the fourth Borei there have been some major changes made and this version is called Borei A. These slightly larger Boreis were supposed to carry 20 SLBMs and have some new equipment and features as well as being a bit longer than the original Borei. Most of the new features survived, except for the expansion of SLBM capacity from 16 to 20.

The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon boats. The Boreis are 170 meters (558 feet) long and 13 meters (42 feet) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs 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. That should have worked but it didn’t and failed in many frustrating ways. This "Bulava" (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) SLBM was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis' original capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes with twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube-launched missiles. The Borei A also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow. The Bulava has a max range of 10,000 kilometers with six warheads and 8,000 kilometers with ten warheads.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers. This is a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs. Each of these Borei A boats will cost at least two billion dollars and also have improved crew quarters. 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 are to be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight, or less) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

Despite initial failures, the government insisted that the Bulava SLBM be made to work, no matter what. Many Russian officials believed that the root of all these problems was the flight of so many skilled engineers and scientists from Russian defense industries after the Soviet Union collapsed (and defense orders promptly dropped over 90 percent). The smart people quickly found lucrative jobs in other industries, and there has been little new blood in the last two decades. The same thing happened in the manufacturing end. During the Soviet period, defense industries had the cash and fringe benefits to attract the most skilled manufacturing staff. No more. And the dismal Bulava test performance is yet another result of this brain drain.

In 2013 and 2015 Russia tested more Bulava SLBMs and most of the Bulavas failed, mainly due to manufacturing defects. The 2013 tests were supposed to be the final test for Bulava, as well as for the second and third of the new Borei class SSBNs. The Defense Ministry ordered more Bulava tests and delayed commissioning of the two new Boreis. This was but the latest in a decade of failures in developing a new SLBM for a new class of SSBNs.

Problems with the Bulava caused Russia to delay the construction of its fourth Borei class SSBN back in 2009. That’s because at that point frequent test failures had led to the cancellation of the Bulava being considered. That would have meant the Borei design would have to be modified to accommodate a different SLBM (of different shape and weight).

The only alternative was to redesign the Boreis to use the existing R-29 Sineva SLBM. Sineva is the last liquid fuel Russian SLBM in service and is used in the older Delta class SSBNs. This would cost billions of dollars, and delay the Boreis entering service by several years. To many, switching to the older, but more reliable, Sineva missiles seemed like a reasonable move. Liquid fuel missiles are more complex than solid-fuel missiles, even though they use fuel that can be stored for long periods inside the missile. Unable, for a long time, to develop the technology for solid-fuel rockets, Russia made the most of this and developed some very effective "storable liquid fuel" rockets. It was only near the end of the Cold War that Russia finally mastered the solid-fuel rocket construction techniques. But only one solid fuel SLBM entered service, the huge, 90 ton R-39 for the massive Typhoon SSBNs. These huge boats were retired before some older Deltas because the Typhoons were so expensive to operate.

Borei boats have missile tubes designed to hold the Bulava (which is 12.1 meters long and two meters in diameter). The Sineva is 14.8 meters long and 1.8 meters in diameter. The additional length of the Sineva would require substantial revisions in the existing Borei design and the two under construction. The existing solid fuel SLBM that works, and is carried in the larger Typhoon, is the R-39, and it is huge (16 meters long and 2.4 meters in diameter). Much too large even for a rebuilt Borei.

By 2010, it had been decided to proceed with Bulava, which finally completed its test program on December 23rd, 2011. That made 11 successful Bulava test firings out of 18 attempts. The last two missiles made five in a row that were successfully fired. As a result of this, the Bulava was accepted into service, with a development test firing success rate of 61 percent. But there were still problems to be worked out and more test firings were scheduled. By 2017 there had been 29 test launches of Bulava and the success rate had not changed much. The situation improved during 2018 and 2019 when all test launches were successful.

One of those final tests failed in 2013 and that resulted in a lot of embarrassing changes. That’s because, in early 2012, Russia announced that its SSBNs would resume long-range "combat patrols" within a year. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service on December 30th, 2012. Thus, it appeared that the newly commissioned Yury Dolgoruky would be the first Russian SSBN in many years to make a long-range cruise, as soon as it had a working SLBM to arm it. Mass production of Bulava began in 2013, with the goal of producing at least 124 of them. Yury Dolgoruky finally made its first combat patrol in 2015, although it was understood that only about half of the 16 Bulava SLBMs carried would work if launched. Since then the Bulava SLBM is still considered combat ready but only if you accept that about half of them will not work.

The Russian Navy has made a mess of its SSBN force and has done slightly better developing new SLBMs. This is all about what kind of SSBN force Russia will have in the future and what those SSBNs will be capable of. At the moment the answers seem to be “diminished” and “not much”.

In 2018 it was believed that six of the original seven Delta IVs were still in service and that is only because each has been or was about to be put through a two year shipyard upgrade of its electronics and some mechanical components. The shrinking naval budget changed that and by the end of 2018 four Delta IVs had been quietly retired while another had been converted to a special operations support sub. Only one Delta IV went through the full refurb and was good for another decade of limited service.

The refurb included the SLBM tubes and launch equipment so the Delta IV can handle the latest (MU2) version of the R-29 missile. Most of the improvements in the R-29MU2 include the third stage, which can now carry 12 warheads, each able to hit a different target. Alternatively, the R-29MU2 can carry eight warheads and numerous decoys and “penetration devices” to deceive anti-missile systems. The upgrade extends the life of the Delta IV 3-4 years which means that by 2025 only one Delta IV will still be in (limited) service and, depending on how much money is available, there will be eight, rather than ten, Boreis.

 


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