Submarines: All Digital, Much Cheaper


January 21, 2012: The Russian Navy recently released some details of their new SSBN (ballistic missile nuclear subs, or "boomers"). The new Borei class boats make extensive use of modern electronics. It’s all digital and flat screens inside. Lots of microprocessors and modern sonar, which the navy insisted would make these boats more aware of their underwater surroundings than previous designs.

Externally, the Boreis are closer in design to the older Delta IVs than to the more recent, and much larger, Typhoon boats. The Boreis are 180 meters (558 feet long) and 14.2 meters (44 feet) wide. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and twelve Bulava SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) are carried. Work on the first Borei, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. As a replacement, the successful land based missile, the Topol-M, was quickly modified for submarine use. This Bulava was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis capacity from twenty to twelve missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes, and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube launched missiles. The Borei also sports a huge sonar dome in the bow.

The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers (a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs). Each of these boats cost at least two billion dollars. This high cost, by Russian standards, is partly because many factories that supplied parts for Russian subs were in parts of the Soviet Union that are not now within the borders of present day Russia, so new factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis, and their missiles, will be built in Russia. A dozen (or eight, depending on how much cash is available) of these boats probably won't be completed for at least a decade.

The Boreis will replace the aging Cold War era Delta class SSBNs. The Deltas are being retired because of safety and reliability issues. Nuclear submarines are one area of military spending that did not get cut back sharply after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but there are still limits to the navy budgets, and the Boreis are being built, in part, to be cheaper to operate. Two Borei boats are now in service. This is just in time, because the older Delta III SSBNs are overdue for retirement. The more recent, but massive, Typhoon SSBNs will be retired in two years, mainly because they are so expensive to operate.


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