Submarines: May 5, 2005

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  When people look at the Russian Akula and Oscar-class submarines, they wonder why these vessels have not been given as much respect and praise as Western submarines like the Los Angeles, Seawolf, and Trafalgar-classes. The answers are, illuminating, and are worth keeping in mind.

The Akula and Oscar-class submarines are, on paper, superb designs. Both reach speeds in excess of 55 kilometers per hour and carry a mix of 21-inch and 25.5-inch torpedo tubes. These submarines also are some of the quietest submarines Russia has produced. The Oscar also carries 24 SS-N-19/P-700 (NATO code-name Shipwreck) missile, which have a range of 550 kilometers and a top speed of 2800 kilometers an hour. Yet these submarines probably would not measure up in combat for several reasons.

The first reason is that the American and British submarines are manned much better trained crews. These crews all volunteers, are given very high levels of training, and a decent number of them decide to make it a career. This means they are less likely to make mistakes that could endanger the submarine (either by causing an accident or by creating noise, the latter telling everyone that the sub is there). Russian sailors, on the other hand, are often short term conscripts, and many do not remain in the service after their time is up, which leads to a high turnover in crews, or ships going to sea short handed. This personnel situation often keeps Russian submarines in port, often because the new crewmen need to be trained from scratch, while Western submarines get fully-trained crews.

The second reason is poor quality control. This is no laughing matter. Most of the Russian nuclear submarines (and surface vessels) were designed and built under communist rule (prior to 1991). This meant meeting quotas, and little attention was paid to quality when deadlines came up. Often, corners would be cut in the building of the submarines. This had led to a number of accidents, including the loss of a Yankee-class SSBN in 1986 (due to a malfunctioning seal that led to an explosion and fire involving missile propellant) and the Mike-class SSN sank after a fire in 1989. Then, there was the loss of the Kursk, an Oscar-class submarine, due to an accidental explosion.

The loss of the Kursk points to a second major area where corners were cut: the weapons themselves. In the case of the Kursk, the proximate cause of the explosion that sank her was either an accidental ignition of an SS-N-16/86R (NATO code-name Stallion) rocket motor, or a torpedo explosion (which the U.S. Navy is familiar with see the loss of the USS Scorpion in 1968). This opens the door to not just the possibility of an accidental explosion, but of a missile or torpedo failing in other ways (the seeker on a Shipwreck might not work, for instance).

Western submarines, on the other hand, are often built by shipyards that can be held accountable  by the Navy. If poor workmanship is found by the Navy inspectors, the shipyard could not only lose money by having to re-do what it messed up, but it could lose future construction contracts to a competitor. This is not an idle threat on the part of the Navy Electric Boat found itself sharing construction with Newport News Shipbuilding because of cost overruns on the initial Los Angeles-class submarines.

Getting proper funds for keeping the submarines in fighting condition has often been a problem as well. Submarines and the weapons (both torpedoes and missiles) they use are high-maintenance items. Improper maintenance can lead to systems breaking down (a November-class submarine was lost during an Okean exercise in 1970 due to an engineering casualty), or worse (a poorly-maintained torpedo might explode in the tubes or make a circular run the latter was what sank the USS Tang in 1944). Western submarines and their weapons, on the other hand, do not share the same lack of maintenance, and problems that sank Russian subs were long ago addressed and dealt with. As a result of these crucial differences not reflected in the specifications, these Russian submarines, while impressive on paper, could probably end up with the same reputation as the T-72 systems beset by fatal flaws from the start that get their crews killed. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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