Special Operations: A Very Special Submarine


May 12, 2019: Russia recently launched its first new-built special operations submarine; Belgorod. Another year or two will be spent on completing installation and testing equipment before this modified Oscar class SSGN (nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine) is ready for service. Belgorod won’t work for the navy like other subs, but for the GUGI (Main Department of Deep-Water Researches) which works for the intelligence services and is attached to the Navy for ship and crew support. The Belgorod has come a long way since construction began in 1982. At one point the sub was canceled while still under construction. In 2006 Russia announced it would not finish construction of the Belgorod, the last of nine Type 949A SSGNs. Known in the West as the Oscar II class, these boats began entering service just as the Cold War ended. Three were in commission when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Construction continued on six more, and by 1997, eight were in service. But, at that point the navy had run out of the money, with the Belgorod not quite complete. Another $100 million was needed to complete Belgorod and the government (although not the navy) felt it wasn't worth it. Seven Oscar IIs remain in service, as the Kursk was lost in 2000, to a well-publicized accident. Work then resumed on Belgorod. That did not last long because the money was not there and not likely to be in the immediate future. Then in 2012 it was announced that the Belgorod, which had not been scrapped but put in “storage”, would once more be scheduled for completion. But this time there would be some major revisions. At this point, Belgorod became something more than an SSGN.

The original Oscar's were designed as "carrier destroyers," with long-range cruise missiles that could, in theory, take out an American aircraft carrier. The Oscar II class boats have a surface displacement of 14,000 tons. They have eight torpedo tubes (four 650mm, four 533mm), and 24 SS-N-19/P-700 Shipwreck missiles. These anti-ship missiles have a range of 550 kilometers, a speed of 1600 kilometers an hour, and a 1,650 pound high-explosive warhead (or a nuclear warhead of 350 or 500 kilotons as an option). The Oscar's crew of 107 contains 48 officers. That's because of the high degree of automation, and the need to offer officers pay and accommodations to attract the technical talent required to keep these boats going.

The new Belgorod was 11 meters longer (at 184 meters) and several tons heavier than the other Oscars. It no longer carried the 24 cruise missiles but instead was equipped to handle a number of new systems. These included four to eight Poseidon AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) that are allegedly armed with nuclear warheads and can be programmed to travel to enemy coastal cities, detonate underwater and create tidal waves that cause enormous damage along the nearby coasts. The Poseidon can travel thousands of kilometers on its own before detonating the 10-100 megaton warhead while on the seabed of the continental shelf.

Belgorod also can transport a new (since 2003), smaller (65 meters long) and nuclear powered Losharik minisub underneath it. This minisub can  perform various operations using remotely controlled arms. It carries a crew of 25 to great depths (up to 6,000 meters) and has a top speed (for emergencies only) of 72 kilometers an hour. Losharik is believed to be for checking Russian underwater data cables for bugs (or damage in general) and tamper with underwater cables and other equipment belonging to the United States and other Western states. Because Losharik can dive deeper than any other sub and is quite large for a deep diving sub, it can find and retrieve useful items that end up in very deep waters (electronics from Western aircraft or ships). Losharik can also survey very deep sea bottoms for suitable sites for placing various electronic devices.

Belgorod can also transport a Shelf nuclear power plant that can be placed on the ocean floor to power the Harmony system of underwater sensors or any other new tech that needs to be powered for a long time. Power supplies similar to Shelf have been used in space satellites that require a lot of power (like those equipped with radar).

Belgorod is also equipped to carry combat divers (similar to U.S. SEALS) and Harpsichord AUVs that are the size of standard torpedoes but contain side-scan sonar and other sensors that can operate while up to 2,000 meters underwater. Belgorod is also designed to tow objects behind it. These can be a towed array sonar or other items.

Russia already has some specialized subs equipped for special operations. These are conversions of existing subs while Belgorod was custom designed and built for the special operations tasks. In late 2016 Russia finally sent its second “special operations” SSN, the Podmoskovie (BS64), to sea for trials. This sub is actually a Delta IV class SSBN (nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine) that began its career in 1986 as K64 Podmoskovie. Since 1999, K64 has been undergoing conversion to BS64, which appears to be something similar to customized U.S. SSNs that have been in service since the 1970s. The current American example of this is the USS Carter, a Seawolf-class SSN converted (while under construction) to be 30 percent longer and 20 percent heavier than the other two Seawolfs. The additional space was to hold mini-subs for the fifty SEALs it can carry, or to tap into underwater communications cables and perform other intelligence gathering tasks. The Carter entered service in 2005 and replaced an older Sturgeon class SSN (USS Parche) that entered service in 1991 and was retired in 2004. The Parche replaced earlier SSNs that had performed these intel missions throughout the Cold War.

The 13,500 ton Podmoskovie had its 16 ballistic missile silos replaced with facilities for launching remotely controlled mini-subs for intelligence missions. The renovations resulted in the sub becoming about five percent longer. This meant that the converted Podmoskovie was somewhat lighter (probably about 12,000 tons). The first Russian SSBN to undergo a similar conversion was the K129 Orenberg, a Delta III class SSBN whose conversion (to BS136) began in 1994 and entered service in 2008. The Delta III is about the same size and displacement as the Delta IV but the Podmoskovie conversion seems to be more extensive than the Orenberg. Both the Orenberg and Podmoskovie carry the Losharik minisub beneath it.

The United States has also converted four SSBNs, but not for intelligence work. On March 19th, 2011 the USS Florida, American Ohio class SSGN fired its Tomahawk TLAM-E cruise missiles in combat for the first time off Libya. Most of the hundred or so Tomahawks launched that day were fired by the SSGN. This was not the first time nuclear subs have fired cruise missiles in wartime as U.S. SSNs have fired Tomahawks several times. But the Ohio class SSGNs carry 154 cruise missiles, more than ten times the number carried by some SSNs.

The four Ohio class SSGNs are SSBNs converted to cruise missile submarines (SSGN) and these first entered service in 2006. Each of these Ohio class boats now carries cruise missiles as well as many as 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment.

The idea of converting ballistic missile subs, that would have to be scrapped to fulfill disarmament agreements, has been bouncing around since the 1990s. After September 11, 2001, the idea got some traction. The navy submariners love this one because they lost a lot of their reason for being with the end of the Cold War. The United States had built a powerful nuclear submarine force during the Cold War, but with the rapid disappearance of the Soviet navy in the 1990s, there was little reason to keep over a hundred nuclear subs in commission. These boats are expensive, costing over a billion each to build and over a million dollars a week to operate. The four Ohio class SSBN being converted each have at least twenty years of life left in them.

The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles, and capable of rapidly traveling underwater (ignoring weather, or observation) at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day to a far off hot spot, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also attractive. In one sub you have your choice of hammer or scalpel. More capable cruise missiles are in the works as well. Whether or not this multi-billion dollar investment will pay off remains to be seen, but it certainly worked off Libya.

The SSGNs are carrying a new version of Tomahawk, the RGM-109E Block IV Surface Ship Vertical Launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missile. Each of these weighs 1.2 ton, has a range of 1,600 kilometers and travels at 600-900 kilometers an hour. Flying at an altitude of 17-32 meters (50-100 feet) they will hit within 10 meters (32 feet) of their aim point. The Block IV Tomahawk can be reprogrammed in flight to hit another target and carry a vidcam to allow a missile to check on prospective targets.

The Russian special operations boats are certainly special with their nuclear-powered minisubs and AUV nuclear-armed minisubs as well as the sensor equipped smaller minisubs.


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