A Grim Future For Russia’s Nuclear Sub Fleet
The Kremlin can't replace its aging subs fast enough
In March 2017, Russia’s new Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine Kazan launched at the northern port city of Severodvinsk. Perhaps the quietest Russian submarine ever, the event was further evidence the Kremlin can still build capable and lethal subs capable of a variety of missions, including cruise-missile attack.
But it won’t be enough. The Russian navy — already badly depleted since the collapse of the Soviet Union — can’t quickly replace most of its existing nuclear submarine fleet, which is approaching the end of its collective lifespan. The outcome will likely mean a shrinking of the Russian nuclear submarine force in the years ahead.
By 2030, the bulk of Russia’s nuclear-powered attack and cruise-missile submarines will be in their mid-thirties at least — with some pushing into their forties. For perspective, the three oldest active American attack submarines, the Los Angeles-class USS Dallas, Bremerton and Jacksonville, are all 36 years old and waiting to be decommissioned during the next three years.
Submarines wear out in old age, particularly due to hull corrosion. Another serious concern is corrosion affecting components inside the nuclear reactor compartments, but data surrounding this subject are tightly guarded secrets among the world’s navies.
More to the point, naval vessels staying in service during old age require more maintenance and longer rest periods. Given that only around half of Russia’s submarine force — a charitable estimate — can be at sea at any given time, a force made up of mostly old boats will strain operational readiness.
The Kremlin’s relatively new multi-role Yasen class, of which two — the Severodvinsk and Kazan — launched in 2010 and 2017 respectively, cannot make up for the future retirements of Russia’s 11 Akulas, three Sierras, four Victor III attackers and eight Oscar II cruise missile subs, which are all getting long in the tooth.
The youngest Akula class, Gepard, entered service in 2000. Most date to the early 1990s.
The Yasen is a late-Soviet design with seven planned submarines, with the last one planned to enter service in 2023. This is again being generous given the Yasen class’ enormous expense, which is twice as high as one of Russia’s new ballistic missile subs.
Above — the Russian ‘Akula’-class submarine ‘Kuzbass.’ At top — a Russian ‘Victor III’-class submarine. Photo via Wikimedia
While Russia could attempt to keep its Cold War-era subs going as long as possible, “given the obvious risk of rising costs, Russia will be able to have no more than 50 percent of the current number of nuclear submarines [by 2030],” the Russian military blog BMPD warned in a particularly grim assessment.
Russia’s ballistic missile submarines will be in somewhat better shape in 2030. Few countries possess “boomers” capable of dumping nuclear warheads into enemy cities — the United States, India, China, France, the United Kingdom and North Korea. Russia currently has 13, including three from the new Borey class, with up to five more on the way.
But by 2030, Russia’s three Delta III, six Delta IV-class boomers and its one Typhoon class will all be at least 40 years old if they remain in service. Nevertheless, even if Russia scrapped these boats and only relied on its newer Boreys, no country can likely match them in numbers except for the United States, China and possibly India.
Russia could attempt to further make up the gap in attack- and cruise-missile-submarines with its tentatively-titled Project Husky, which is still in the design phase.
The Husky could come in three variants for attack missions, cruise-missile strike — or SSGN — and ballistic missile roles. Dedicated SSGNs are particularly important for Russia, which has long based its naval doctrine around long-range missile attacks on American carrier groups. Russian anti-ship cruise missiles are especially fearsome.
But the most optimistic estimates have Russia possessing a mere three Huskies by 2030 if construction of the first of the class begins in the early 2020s — and that’s if the Russian navy keeps up ordering one every two years with a four-and-a-half year build period.
While the Yasens probably have the ability to launch cruise missiles as well, that would still leave Russia with around 10 modern nuclear-powered SSNs and dedicated SSGNs alongside two-dozen boats in their thirties and forties facing looming retirement.
The diesel-electric fleet isn’t in much better shape, with most of Russia’s 17 Kilo-class hunter-killers dating to the early 1990s. Although more advanced versions, the Project 636 Varshavyanka and the Lada class, have been commissioned at a brisker pace than the nuclear-powered Yasens.