Russian Navy News

Russian submarine activity nowhere near the Cold War levels but new challenges lie ahead for NATO

Make no mistake about it, Russia’s submarine fleet is much smaller today than it was during the Soviet time. Furthermore, Soviet submarine patrols during the Cold War where averaging well over one hundred per year on a regular basis. Nowadays, Russian submarine patrols average at about ten per year. In 2012, US Office of Naval Intelligence estimated that the entire Russian Navy’s(VMF) submarine force conducted between nine and 16 patrols for that year. In many respects, the modern Russian submarine fleet is only a shadow of its former self.

Nonetheless, Western powers can not afford to be too complacent. Russia’s subsurface strategic and operational objectives seem rather murky. Last year, the NATO’s Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone said: “a lot of what Russians are doing at the moment we do not understand”. Elaborating further that Russia’s true intent is “shrouded in other activity, which makes us nervous and makes nations nervous”. Vice Admiral Johnstone claims that in the last couple of years, Russians have not invited a single NATO representative to one of their exercises. NATO apparently invites observers on a regular basis. All this is taking place while new, both conventional and nuclear powered, Russian submarines are being introduced into service at a steady pace.

Arguably, the ability of those pending new and modernised Russian submarines to hit multiple targets, with be it conventional or nuclear warheads, is being significantly enhanced. And in the case of modernised Proekt 949A Antey (Oscar II) this enhancement is dramatic and represents a rather alarming force multiplier.

As recently as 7 March, 2017, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov confirmed that Proekt 949A nuclear powered guided missile submarines(SSGN) are undergoing deep modernisation that is to include conversion of their P-700 missile launchers to Kalibr cruise missile vertical launch cells. According to Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolev, these Soviet era behemoths are also to receive “most advanced life-support, sonar, navigation, control and communication systems”.

Information regarding the number of missiles that are to be installed on a single improved Pr.949A seem to be conflicting at the moment. With some sources putting this figure at over 100, others are claiming a lower figure of 96 or 74 missiles. With 74 missiles per boat perhaps being the most realistic figure and the ongoing Kalibr-isation of the Russian navy, it comes as a little surprise that Kalibr manufacturers are, according to Russian arms expert Ruslan Pukhov, working in three shifts.

Depending on the type of mission, improved Pr.949A will be armed with a combination of both anti-shipping and land attack Kalibr variants and eventually hypersonic Tsirkon (3M22) missile once it enters navy service.

In theory, these 74 Kalibr cruise missiles can be launched in a salvo and aimed at 74 different targets hundreds of miles apart and thousands of miles away. Such powerfully armed and relatively stealthy asset would pose a great challenge, even to those countries with most advanced anti-submarine warfare(ASW) and missile defence capabilities. Naturally, the closer the improved Pr.949A is able to get to its target/s prior to offloading its devastating cargo, shorter the target’s response time, which, in turn, would make any prospect of defence against such an onslaught even more remote.

Oniks
P-800 Oniks (© Zvezda)

With Kalibr missile being of sub-sonic speed, it is likely that one variant of improved Pr.949A is to be armed with supersonic 2.5 Mach P-800 Oniks missiles. Its reported range of 300km for the export variant – Yakhont, is likely to be two to three times greater for the Russian Navy’s own Oniks missiles. India, with indispensable Russian assistance, is reportedly working on a 600km range version of the same missile, which is locally known as BrahMos. Somewhat wider in diameter in comparison to Kalibr, a number of Oniks missiles carried will undoubtedly be lower than that of the former. Oniks’ primary purpose is anti-shipping but, as demonstrated during Russia’s ongoing Syrian campaign, the missile is able to hit land targets too.

The exact number of Antey submarines that are to be modernised is unclear. In the most recent interview that Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Ivanovich Korolov gave to Krasnaya Zvezda(Red Star) newspaper on 17 March, 2017, the Navy is to receive “gruppirovku” or a grouping of both modernised Project 971 and 949A submarines by 2020. In the Russian Navy parlance “grouping” is anything from two to three submarines and up. According to other sources between four and six Oscar IIs in total are to undergo this kind of deep modernisation. For this to happen by 2020 is pretty much mission impossible but it likely represents overall target for the future.

It is thought that two submarines are at presently undergoing modernisation at Zvezda complex in Bolshoi Kamen near Vladivostok. They are K-442 Chelyabinsk and K-132 Irkutsk and are expected to join the Navy by the end of 2019. It is likely, but as of yet unconfirmed, that K-442 is to be armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, whilst K-132 is to carry larger Oniks – direct successor to the Soviet P-700 Granit. It is also possible that Agat Concern has come up with a completely modular vertical launch system that can host a combination of both Kalibr and Oniks on both vessels.

In line with this impetus, the first of the upgraded Borei-class ballistic missile submarines(SSBN) -Knyaz Vladimir- is to be floated out later this year. It is apparently to be armed with 20 Bulava(Mace) submarine-launched ballistic missiles(SLBM), versus 16 on current Borei-class in-service models. Each multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle(MIRV) is to carry six nuclear warheads(some sources put this figure at 10), with a total of 120 warheads on each submarine.

Latest US report now suggests that more than the planned eight Borei-class submarines are to be built. “Expectations are emerging that Russia will order another four Borei SSBNs for a total fleet of 12 boats, the same number of SSBNs planned by the US Navy” claim Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

It is worth noting that Bulava was and perhaps still is a rather troubled post-Soviet era SLBM project. Although officially adopted into service on 10 January, 2013, their launch record leaves a lot to be desired for and puts a certain question mark over their overall reliability.

In a relatively recent development Kalibr armed diesel-electric Varshavyanka submarines, known as improved Kilo in the West, are reported to have been venturing deep into North Atlantic from their bases in the Black Sea. Allegedly dubbed the “Balck Hole” subamrine by the U.S. Navy, Varshavyankas are well known for their low acoustic signature.

Special projects

One uncompleted Oscar-II from the early 90s – K-329 Belgorod – is being converted into a special missions mothership for a midget submarine and is known as Proekt 09852. Its complement is to be made up of Russian Navy personnel but as some reports would indicate is to serve under separate highly secretive military entity known as No.45707. Which in turn is directly subordinated not to the Russian Navy but to the Main Directorate for Deepwater Research(GUGI) of the Russian Defence Ministry.

Proekt 09852 was observed in what was probably intentionally leaked image of a giant ultra-long range(10,000km) nuclear torpedo that is known as Status-6. The footage of the document was broadcast on state-run Channel One when President Vladimir Putin met military chiefs in the Russian city of Sochi back in November 2015.

Another submarine that was visible in the leaked document of Sataus-6, next to Belgorod was Proekt 09851 Khabarovsk. In terms of outward appearance Khabarovsk appears similar to Boeri-class SSBN, but appears to be substantially shorter. Belgorod is expected to be launched sometimes later this year, with Khabarosvk to be launched by 2018.

The above mentioned leaked image would suggest that both Proekt 09851 and 09852 are to be armed with Status-6, code-named Kanyon by the Pentagon. Without dismissing Status-6 project as a whole, it is worth keeping in mind that the indented leak, in part at least, might have been intended as dezinformatsiya or disinformation in order to deceive target audiences – read NATO member states.

What appears more certain is that both submarines are to play pivotal roles in Russia’s global maritime surveillance system known as Garmoniya (Harmony). Partially active in Russia’s Arctic since 2015, the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020. Similar in concept to U.S.’s sound surveillance system or SOSUS, Garmoniya is made up of networks of “autonomous bottom(seabed) stations”(ADS), which in turn are made up various monitoring devices, standalone power and data relay units.

Deep-diving midget submarines, such as one that is to be hosted on Belgorod, are to play a crucial role in placement and maintenance of these ADS networks. Each ADS network has a corresponding land based command post and is assigned an acronym based on its geographic location. In line with this, command post in a work settlement of Belushya Guba in Novaya Zemlya archipelago is referred to as Garmoniya-NZ, whilst Severomorsk one is referred to as Garmoniya-S.

Podmoskovye
Podmoskovye leaving the Zvezdochka Ship Repair Centre (©Zvezdochka)

Late last year, on 26 December 2016, one other specialised nuclear powered submarine mothership was commissioned into service. Subordinated to GUGI, BS-64 Podmoskovye is an extended -Stretch- former Delta-IV SSBN(K-64) and is to join its older brethren BS-136 Orenburg, formerly K-129 Delta-III SSBN, at Olenya Guba base near Murmansk. Both ex boomers, together with midget subs that they host are thought to be actively involved in the secret Garmoniya project.

Oceanographic research -Russian euphemism for spying- ships(OIS) that host deep-diving submersibles have been known to loiter near the undersea finer-optic cables. One such ship, commissioned in 2015, known as Proekt 22010 Yantar and subordinated to secretive GUGI has recently been involved in the recovery of Mig-29KR and Su-33 parts from the seabed off the coast of Syria. In October last year, Yantar was spotted above undersea cables off the coast of Lebanon. Year earlier, in October 2015, Yantar was spotted off the coast of U.S. in the Atlantic. This has raised suspicions in the West that Russians might be snooping for secret military cables and/or that they might be tapping and mapping the commercial cables in order to be able to sever them in times of war or major confrontation with the West. There is a distinct possibility that all three scenarios might from a part of the overall concerted Russian effort.

Podmoskovye
Proekt 16810 Rus deep-diving submersible that is hosted on Proekt 22010 Yantar (©mil.ru)

When one takes all of the aforementioned into account, it comes as no surprise that NATO planners are left feeling nervous and discombobulated by Russia’s latest subsurface endeavour. As Garmoniya surveillance system edges towards completion and new and modernised Russian submarines start to enter service, the undersea environment is bound become substantially more challenging to NATO and its allies.

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