A New Push for Nuclear Submarine Development
Russia’s fleet of nuclear submarines may be about to get an overhaul. Until recently, the State Armaments Programme’s plan for eight new Borey-class and six Yasen-class submarines by 2020 looked highly dubious. However, the Defence Ministry last month signed a series of contracts with design bureaus – in the presence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with full media coverage – suggesting that submarine modernization will proceed as quickly as possible.
The conclusion of these contracts by no means guarantees that the plans will be fulfilled in the next eight years. While serial production is always faster than the building of the first ship in a class, given the state of Russian shipyards, it will probably still take a minimum of two to three years to construct each vessel. The makeover of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet is a strategic priority – but it may take significantly longer than a decade to realize.
The deals were reportedly worth more than 280 billion rubles (9.2 billion dollars), including contracts for:
- - design of the modernized Yasen-class submarine by the Malakhit design bureau (13.4 billion rubles);
- - construction of the first modernized Yasen-class submarine, theKazan, by Sevmash (47 billion rubles);
- - construction of four additional Yasen-class submarines by United Shipbuilding Corporation’s (OSK)Severodvinskshipyard (164 billion rubles);
- - design of the modernized Borey-class submarine by the Rubin design bureau (39 billion rubles).
In addition, the Defense Ministry leaked information that a contract to build five more Borey-class submarines will be signed next year at a likely cost of 23 billion rubles per unit.
These deals represent the last unsigned contracts of the 2011 military procurement plan. They were held up for several months because of a row between the federal authorities and the defense industry – primarily OSK – over pricing. The Defence Ministry refused to accept price increases requested by OSK, because the requests did not spell out all aspects of the contract’s cost, as required by new regulations put in place this year. In the end, OSK agreed to lower prices in exchange for the right to choose its own subcontractors; in the past, the choice of subcontractors was dictated by the Defense Ministry.
Russia’s strategic submarines
The maritime ‘leg’ of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad currently consists of a combination of Delta III and Delta IV ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs):
- - Northern Fleet. The Navy operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four have already been upgraded to carry Sineva missiles. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2012 and 2013. The expectation is that these subs, built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve into 2020-25.
- - Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Fleet has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry SS-N-18 missiles. They will probably be withdrawn from service as the new Borey-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn by 2010, but persistent problems with the Bulava missile have pushed the timetable forward.
Borey class’s troubled history
The Borey class has a long and complicated history. Work on the first sub of this class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, began in 1996. Because of a series of redesigns involving both the submarine and its armament, it was not launched until 2008. Borey-class submarines have a displacement of 24,000 tons, a top speed of 29 knots, and can dive to a depth of 450 meters.
Construction of the second submarine (the Aleksandr Nevsky) began in 2004, and it was finally launched in 2010. The Pacific Fleet expects to deploy both Borey submarines next year, if all goes well in sea trials. A variety of problems with the Aleksandr Nevsky detected during initial testing have reportedly been fixed, though officers report continuing issues with the reliability of digital control systems. The Boreys are the first Russian submarines to be equipped with digital (rather than analog) control systems, and evidently not all the bugs have been worked out.
A third submarine is under construction and may be launched next year. The five vessels expected to be ordered next year will have a modified design that will likely include 20 launch tubes (up from 16). If they are completed on schedule, the Russian navy will have its eight new SSBNs in place well before 2020, allowing for the retirement of the Delta IIIs and most, if not all, of the Delta IVs.
The main potential roadblock is the checkered history of the Bulava ballistic missile. Three consecutive failed test launches in 2008-09 led to the removal of the director of the missile’s lead design bureau. It appears that the problems were related to quality control in the production cycle, rather than any defects in the missile’s design. Since the production cycle was improved in 2009, the last five tests have been successful, including one that achieved the maximum range of 9,300 kilometers.
A test firing of two missiles simultaneously was planned for November or December, but this has just been postponed to May 2012. While the official reason had to do with poor weather in the Barents Sea, the real cause was probably the desire to avoid any chance of failure so close to the December 4 parliamentary elections. While success cannot be guaranteed, the missile’s recent track record means that commissioning by the end of 2012 is highly likely.
Why Yasen submarines
The Yasen class may be the world’s most sophisticated nuclear submarine, capable of 31 knots, equipped with eight torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 30 cruise missiles simultaneously. The Yasen is a multi-purpose attack submarine originally designed during the Cold War to hunt NATO aircraft carriers, protect strategic submarines, and fire cruise missiles at onshore targets. This class is expected eventually to replace all existing classes of Soviet-era attack submarines (Oscar, Akula, Victor, and Sierra). The Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen class, could be commissioned this winter.
The Yasens are highly capable but also extremely expensive, with a unit cost of over 40 billion rubles. With the end of the Cold War, their purpose is unclear – especially given the extremely low likelihood that Russia could commission enough to threaten the US Navy. At the same time, the submarine is more powerful than needed to fight against any other potential adversary, including China. The Pentagon canceled the comparable Sea Wolf because of similar cost-benefit calculations, replacing it with the much cheaper Virginia class.
- - Fear of a missile-test-launch failure so close to the elections will delay the Borey-class’s deployment until mid-2012.
- - Russia appears committed to developing the new Yasen-class despite dubious cost-benefit calculations.
- - Fiscal strains – notable, a sharp and sustained fall in oil prices – would cast doubt on the entire naval procurement plan.