Submarines: Russia Refurbs To Survive


November 7, 2015: Russia recently announced that it would modernize twelve Oscar II and Akula class Cold War era nuclear subs in order to extend their service lives twenty years. This is necessary because there is neither time nor money available to replace these twelve subs with newly built ones. The older boats will be equipped with similar weapons and electronics as are in the new Yasen class subs. The modernized boats will also have needed and often long delayed) repairs made.

The seven remaining Oscar II class boats have a surface displacement of 14,000 tons. They have eight torpedo tubes (four 650mm/25.6 inch, four 533mm/21 inch) and twenty-four P-700(SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship missiles. These 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 fifteen remaining Akula class subs are 8,100 ton boats that are SSNs (nuclear attack boats) equipped with torpedoes and smaller (than P-700 or P-800) cruise missiles.

The 9,500 ton Yasen are post-Cold War and armed with 32 P-800 (SS-N-26 Oniks) anti-ship missiles fired from eight VLS (vertical launch system) silos. The three ton P-800 has a range of 600 kilometers. Each of these silos can hold five Klub anti-ship or cruise missiles instead of four P-900s. There are also ten torpedo tubes (8 650mm and two 533mm). The P-900s are designed as "carrier killers." The torpedo tubes were originally supposed to be all the new and larger 650mm types so that new torpedo designs could be used. All those new designs did not work out as planned so two standard 533mm torpedo tubes were installed to use older but proven torpedo designs.

The Yasen are highly automated, which is why there is a crew of 90 that is a third less than the 134 needed to run the new U.S. Virginia class boats. The Yasen is based on the earlier Akula and Alfa class SSNs. Russia had originally planned to build 30 Yasens, but now seven or eight seems a more realistic goal. Because of this Russia has gone ahead with a program for refurbishing Cold War era boats just to obtain a respectable number of subs in the future.

Russia considers the Yasen their 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. The first Virginia began construction in 1999 and entered service in 2004. So far ten are in service, five are under construction and a total of 30 are to eventually enter service. 

Yasen, the new standard for Russian nuclear subs has had problems getting into service. For example it took two decades of construction effort and nearly six months of acceptance trials before the Russian Navy could finally put the first of seven Yasen (Graney) SSGNs (nuclear powered cruise missile sub) into service during mid-2014. This boat, the Severodvinsk, set some of the wrong kind of records on its way to join the fleet. For one thing construction of the Severodvinsk began in 1993. Then there were the sea trials, which took two years during which the Severodvinsk was at sea 30 percent of the time (222 days) and submerged over a hundred times. There were at least five live firings of its cruise missiles. Sea trials are not supposed to go on for that long, but these SSGNs were special in so many ways.  

Putting the Severodvinsk into service was delayed twice in 2013. Early on the sea trials revealed that the nuclear reactor did not produce the required power and that the ability of the boat to remain quiet while under water was not what it should be. An underpowered and noisy sub was not acceptable, and the navy demanded that the builder make it all better before 2014. This proved hard to do because in the 1990s lack of work and money meant that most of the best people left the companies that produced the nuclear subs and their complex components. Those left behind have produced a growing list of embarrassing failures. Earlier, undisclosed problems with the first Yasen postponed it from entering service for at least a year. These problems are not restricted to the Yasen, as other new subs are also encountering numerous construction and design problems.

In early 2011, the crew of the first Yasen took their boat to sea, or at least around the harbor, for the first time. Sea trials were to begin three months later but first the sub took baby steps to ensure that everything worked. These harbor trials were seen as a major progress. Things went downhill again after that, with a growing number of delays as more and more problems were encountered.

Russian submarine building has been on life support since the Cold War ended in 1991. Many subs under construction at the end of the Cold War were cancelled, and the few that avoided that spent a decade or more waiting for enough money to resume construction. The first Yasen crew was put together in 2007 and then spent years training, and waiting. The crew now has their new boat in service, but only after record delays and time spent in the shipyard getting tweaked.





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