B-585 Sankt-Peterburg project 677 Lada class diesel-electric submarine.
Post-Soviet Russia kept a viable submarine capability throughout the lean and stretched twin decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its SSBNs, guarded by a full panoply of air, surface and underwater protectors in their cold bastions, remained the ultimate, last-resort defence of the Russian homeland, a constant and absolute top priority for the occupant of the Kremlin. And if, in the words of the 1985 JIC assessment, they are ‘deployed to the Arctic waters … the ice-cap can give extra protection from Western anti submarine warfare forces’ and ‘SSBNs can fire their missiles on the surface either where there is open water or by breaking through the ice-cap.’
In 2011, two years after stepping up patrolling, Vladimir Putin declared publicly that all branches of the Russian military would be funded for a 30 per cent modernization by 2015 (equivalent to £89bn) rising to 70 per cent by 2020. Western Intelligence was sceptical that on the naval side this would convert into the number of new hulls promised by 2015 and 2020 as Putin may have been aiming high deliberately.
By 2015, the end of the first surge of new defence spending, the average age of the submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet was twenty-two years. As in the Cold War, Putin’s naval construction programme is weighted heavily towards submarine construction. It is now at its highest level since the breakup of the Soviet Union, with three major submarine programmes receiving considerable investment:
The ‘Borey’ class SSBNs (Borey is the Russian word for the Greek god of the north wind).
The ‘Yasen’ SSNs (Yasen is the Russian for ash tree).
The ‘Lada’ conventional submarines (Lada is the name of a Slav pagan goddess who had the lot – youth, beauty, love, harmony and merriment).
The first of the huge 24,000 ton ‘Borey’ class, the Yuri Dolgoruki, is already at sea after a programme that has been beset with delays. Originally conceived in 1982, the development of the ‘Borey’ class SSBN was frustrated by both funding difficulties and considerable missile development problems. When the first of class was laid down in November 1996, the plan was to use a new strategic missile, the SS-NX-28. That missile was cancelled in 1998 and replaced with a navalized version of the SS-27 Topol-M, known as Bulava 30. The Bulava’s development programme has been marred by embarrassing and increasingly public test failures (missiles exploding mid-flight and violently cartwheeling through the night sky in flames). Despite these problems, Bulava entered service in January 2013 (and in September 2013, a Bulava missile failed in flight following a submerged test launch). Overall, there are plans for eight ‘Borey’ class submarines in all, each carrying sixteen Bulava missiles with up to six warheads apiece. The six Delta IVs of the Northern Fleet have been refitted to keep them going until the 2020s but the three Delta IIIs in Vladivostok are in poor condition, as is Russia’s SSBN capability in the Pacific. As a result, the Russians are thought to be giving the construction of the Boreys priority over all other programmes. Three are under construction at Russia’s nuclear-submarine naval yard at Sevmash: the Knyaz Oleg, the Vladimir Monomakh and the Knyaz Vladimir.
The first of the ‘Yasen’ class, the Severodvinsk, impressed Western intelligence analysts before, during and after its trials in the White Sea in 2012. It is a dual-purpose missile carrier with its cruise missiles a mix of the nuclear-tipped and conventional anti-ship warheads, and carrying too a substantial complement of torpedoes. The ‘Yasen’ may represent the pinnacle of Russian SSN design, benefiting not only from all the information from the Walker Spy Ring, but the considerable technological advances that have occurred in the years since the end of the Cold War. The quietness of the Yasen’s signature makes it very hard to detect. Its sensors are very advanced but the US Navy’s newest ‘Virginia’ class SSNs and the Royal Navy’s new Astutes will still have a technical edge when and if they come up against one. Four are currently under construction at Sevmash: the Kransnoyarsk, the Khabarovsk, the Kazan and the Novosibirsk. Three more are planned by 2023, although four in service by 2023 is probably a more likely figure.
The ‘Lada’ conventional submarines too are very advanced with greatly extended underwater endurance and will pose a stiff test to the US Navy and the Royal Navy. Like the Yasens, the first of the line, St Petersburg, and its sisters will represent a step change in Russian conventional submarine capability and seven of them are planned to be in service by 2020. Western intelligence reckons the Russians may go into partnership with the Chinese Navy in building the Ladas.
There are other more puzzling developments. One of the six remaining Delta IVs, K-64, has been converted into an auxiliary submarine to replace a specially converted Delta III to serve as a mother ship to an unusual titanium-hulled mini-submarine known as the Project 1851 ‘Paltus’. In each case the central section, where the missile compartment once sat, has been removed and replaced with a 43-metre plug into which the mini-submarine is able to dock and undock. The purpose of Paltus is unknown, but it is capable of diving to extreme depths of up to 1000 metres. It is also equipped with two forward manipulators, long arms capable of reaching out from the submarine and carrying out various tasks, which suggests it is used for a combination of oceanographic research and search and rescue operations, but also possibly for underwater intelligence gathering. Here, the US ‘Ivy Bells’ programme to tap Soviet underwater communication cables immediately comes to mind. As of 2014, 99 per cent of international communications are routed via 263 submarine fibre-optic cables, which are cheaper and quicker than satellite communications. Many more are due to be laid down in the future. Are the Russians using this mini-submarine and its mother ship to tap underwater cables? Do they have a modern day equivalent to the ‘Ivy Bells’ programme?
Russian interest in small submarines does not end there. In 1990 construction of a nuclear-powered mini-submarine known as ‘Losharik’ started at the Soviet Admiralty shipyard in Leningrad. Construction was suspended following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the submarine was completed in 2007. Built of titanium to withstand pressures at extreme depths, the highly classified submarine took part in Russia’s Arctic expedition in autumn 2012, where it dived 2.5–3 kilometres in the Mendeleyev Ridge and remained submerged for twenty days. During the dive, the crew conducted geological surveys and collected 500 kg of rocks, which Russia probably intends to use to reinforce its claims to the Arctic region. According to recent reports, construction of a second mini-submarine, smaller than the ‘Losharik’, has also started.
The funds pouring into submarine Russia will finance a range of other significant upgrades tasked for anti-submarine warfare including three new classes of frigate – the ‘Steregushchiy’, the ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ and the ‘Admiral Grigorovitch’. There is a big push too on underwater sensors, both magnetic and passive/active acoustic. The old Ilyushin 38 May Maritime Patrol Aircraft will be replaced by a new aircraft at what looks like the rate of one a year and the old Tupolev Bears will be upgraded again. Add to this modernization programmes for heavy and light torpedoes and anti-submarine missiles and mortars and mines and there is, or soon will be, a truly testing Russian-shaped underwater world in which today’s Perisher graduates and their crews will have to operate on their peacetime patrols, let alone in the scarcely thinkable conditions of any other kind. The silent deep today and in the foreseeable future has the characteristics of a front line just as it did in Cold War times.
For the Royal Navy Submarine Service, the Russians will always be their Champions League opponents, their maritime benchmark. In the 2020s Russia will certainly have the capacity to mount another deep Cold War should the occupant of the Kremlin wish it. But it is important not to neglect another rising set of hulls just one or two of which might find themselves up against a Royal Navy SSN in the warmer waters East of Suez.