Submarines: Russian Shrinking Ambitions


November 20, 2020: Russia’s continuing financial problems are leading to a growing number of defense-related program cancellations. Initially it was cuts in the construction of new ships, in particular the larger, most expensive surface ships. Then came cuts in refurbishing older surface ships. The latest cancellations involve nuclear submarines, the one class of warships Russia tried to protect from cuts. There have already been some delays and project suspensions but the latest “adjustments” are worse.

The best example this was the largely unpublicized cuts in the program to upgrade the remaining eight Antey (Oscar II) class SSGNs (cruise missile carrying nuclear sub) so that the 24 7-ton P700 high-speed “carrier killer” missiles would have those 24 silos replaced with silos that can carry 72 3M54/14 (Kalibr) cruise missiles that are smaller and weigh two tons. Kalibr is similar to the American Tomahawk and that approach, the Russians discovered, was cheaper, more reliable and allows more missiles to be carried. That made it worth refurbing some of the remaining Cold War era SSGNs. Back in 2015, the Russians announced that it would spend $180 million each to modernize the eight remaining Oscar II SSGNs in order to extend their service lives twenty years. With the 2017 announcement that price went up to $250 million per Oscar II. At that point experience firing Kalibrs at targets in Syria demonstrated the wisdom of these conversions.

Russia had long planned to convert their Antey/Oscar II subs from “carrier killers” to cruise missile bombardment vessels. In 2001 Russia decided to rebuild eight of the Oscar IIs so they could carry a variety of missile types and also have the subs refurbed to extend their service lives. Known as the Oscar II in the West, each of these subs was designed to carry 24 large anti-ship missiles. But by rebuilding the missile launchers (which are outside the pressure hull) to carry more, but smaller missiles, each Oscar II can carry up to 72 missiles. This makes it easier to overcome the anti-missile defenses of enemy surface ships. What is lost in range and warhead size will be made up with better target detection and countermeasures technology.

The Oscar class boats were worth keeping in part because their design went through a long and expensive development process. Designed in the early 1970s, the first two began construction in 1975 and 1979 and entered service in 1980 and 1983. These were the only two Oscar I (Granit) type ships. While building these two and during several years of initial use a lot of problems were noted and fixed. The remaining twelve boats were the improved Oscar II (Antey). Three Oscar IIs were in commission when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Construction continued on six more and by 1997, eight were in service. Eventually twelve Oscar IIs were built. One, the Kursk, was lost in 2000 to a well-publicized accident (a torpedo exploded onboard while the sub was underwater). Another was converted to be a “special projects” sub. Two are undergoing ton-term refurbishment leaving eight available for the cruise missile conversion.

The Oscar II class boats have a surface displacement of 14,000 tons, meaning they are very large ships. They have eight torpedo tubes (four 650mm/25.6 inch, four 533mm/21 inch) and twenty-four SS-N-19/P-700/Shipwreck/Granit missiles. These anti-ship missiles have a range of 550 kilometers, a speed of 1600 kilometers an hour, and a 750 kg (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 Oscar's are expensive to operate and because the United States and Russia are no longer at each other's throats, especially on the high seas, the Oscars were scheduled for retirement by 2010, as their nuclear reactors came due for refueling. The decision to refurbish the Oscar IIs indicates that the navy believed it could not get money for replacement boats. The government promised new subs, but many admirals don’t want to take a chance (by retiring the Oscars) and found like-minded people in the government who agreed to fund the refurb program.

Now the Oscar II situation appears to have gotten worse, with only two of them having gone through the refurb that included upgrades to navigation, fire control, sensor and electronic defenses, as well as expanding the missile load from 24 to 72. The older Shipwreck missiles were not aging well and had no combat experience. The more recent Kalibr got a lot of use in Syria over the last five years and that led to a lot of changes and upgrades. The current Kalibr is considered equal to the American Tomahawk, which also underwent lots of upgrades after hundreds have been used in combat since the 1990s.

Russia is also having problems with upgrades to its Akula class SSNs. Fifteen were built between 1984 and 2009. Currently only five are in service, although one of these is on ten-year lease to India and returns to Russia in 2022. Six others are undergoing modernization, which includes modifying their missile tubes so they can carry 40 Kalibr cruise missiles. The Akulas are also better equipped to fight American SSNs. Completing the Akula upgrades has a higher priority than the Oscar refurbishment. The Akulas are also a more modern design than the Oscars and benefitted from the problems encountered with the two Oscar I boats.

With the Oscar II refurbishment program unofficially stalled and likely to be cancelled, Russia is more dependent on their new Yasen SSN. This is the Russian answer to the American Virginia class. But the Virginias are a more recent design while the Yasen is a late Cold War effort that had some tech upgrades in the two decades it took to build the first one. So far three have been completed but only one is in service. Six more are under construction and only ten are to be built because of the high cost.

Russia is looking at designs for smaller, cheaper SSNs but getting money for a new class of SSNs is a lot more difficult as long as Russia is suffering from economic problems brought on by the 2013 crash in oil prices (from over $100 a barrel to less than $30) and 2014 sanctions for the invasion of Ukraine. Russia sees the Kalibr missiles as combat proven and more useful than any other cruise missile carried by their SSNs or SSGNs. The problem is equipping surface ships or submarines to carry Kalibr. The only surface ships carrying Kalibr are the new Buyan class corvettes. But these 920-ton ships only carry eight Kalibrs, or a combination of Kalibrs and Oniks anti-ship missiles. Buyan’s are meant for coastal defense and Yakhont missiles are their primary armament. Russia wants to have at least 200 Kalibrs aboard SSNs and SSGNs but so far that plan is moving very slowly because of tight budgets, especially for modifying subs to carry this missile.

The 9,500-ton Yasens were built after the Cold War but from Cold War era designs and are armed with 32 P-700 (SS-N-26 Oniks) anti-ship missiles fired from eight VLS (vertical launch system) silos. The seven-ton P-700 has a range of 600 kilometers. Each of these silos can hold five Klub/Kalibr anti-ship or cruise missiles instead of four P-700s and that shows how the Russians already saw the possibility of Kalibr displacing all the older Cold War carrier-killer missile designs. There are also ten torpedo tubes (eight 650mm and two 533mm).

The first Virginia began construction in 1999 and entered service in 2004. So far 19 are in service and they are entering service at the rate of one or two a year. A total of 48-66 are to eventually enter service.




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