Submarines: Try, Try Again

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May 11, 2020: The second Russian Graney class SSGN (nuclear-powered cruise missile sub), the Kazan, is undergoing sea trials and expected to enter service in late 2020. Russia plans to build nine Yasens and five of these are under construction. Once the Kazen was visible for fitting out and sea trials it was noted that it appeared quite different from the first Graney, the Severodvinsk. Kazen is nine meters (27 feet) shorter than the 139.2 meter (457 foot) Severodvinsk. The bow is a different shape (sharper) and there are eight torpedo tubes instead of ten. The size and shape of the propeller/rudder system have increased. About half the length reduction at the expense of crew quarters. That is not a major problem because the crew is smaller, at 64 men, than the Severodvinsk. The length and crew reduction was accomplished with the use of more automation and improved electronics that take up less space and require less maintenance. The revisions were not expensive to implement and were apparently planned before the Severodvinsk was completed. While the Severodvinsk cost $1.6 billion the Kazan cost half that and subsequent boats are expected to cost closer to $700 million each. The navy is confident that the changes in the Graney design will solve a lot more problems than they cause.

Russia knew it had some serious problems with the Graneys as the lead boat ran into a seemingly endless series of problems. In mid-2014, after two decades of construction effort and nearly six months of acceptance trials, the Russian Navy finally put the Severodvinsk into service. This boat set some of the wrong kind of records on its way to the fleet. For one thing, the construction of the Severodvinsk began in 1993, based on a Cold War design and a lot of Cold War technology. 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 underwater was not what it should be. An underpowered and noisy sub was not combat ready 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 Graney postponed it from entering service for at least a year. These problems are not restricted to the Graney, as other new subs are also encountering numerous construction and design problems.

In early 2011, the crew of the Severodvinsk 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 major progress. Things went downhill again after that, with a growing number of delays as more and more problems were encountered.

The Kazan was different. Construction of the Kazan began in 2009 and was not completed until 2017. This was two years longer than expected and apparently the result of implementing the design changes. The third Graney did not begin construction until 2013 and it was launched in 2019. That was two years less than Kazan and the fourth Graney is expected to take the same amount of time and be launched in 2021. The fifth Graney began construction a year after the fourth boat and is expected to be launched at about the same time. The Russians appear pretty confident about the redesigned Graney, in part because once the Severodvinsk was in service it proved as quiet and capable as expected. The Americans admitted as much when they revealed that, during the first long range cruise of the Severodvinsk in 2018 the U.S. Navy had a very difficult time locating and tracking it. That was unusual for Russian subs, which had previously been noisy enough for U.S. submarine detection systems to keep track of. The Kazan will have its chance to prove it is as quiet and hard to track as the Severodvinsk in a year or so when it takes a long range cruise in waters patrolled by American ASW (Anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, surface ships, subs and other submarine detection systems.

In the end, the Graney class boats were a major advance in Russian submarine technology. That was remarkable because 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 canceled, and the few that avoided that spent a decade or more waiting for enough money to resume construction. The first Graney crew was put together in 2007 and then spent years training, and waiting. The crew got their new boat in 2013, but only after record delays and time spent in the shipyard getting tweaked.

The 8,600 ton Graneys all have eight VLS (vertical launch system) tubes that can carry 32 Oniks anti-ship missiles or forty slower Kalibr (similar to the U.S. Tomahawk) missiles or the more capable Kn-101 cruise missile, as well as the torpedo tubes. The Onils missiles are designed as "carrier killers" because their final approach is at high speed and difficult to intercept. The torpedo tubes were originally supposed to be larger so they could use some new torpedo designs. Those designs did not work out as planned so the standard 533mm torpedo tubes were used with older but proven torpedo designs.

The Graneys are highly automated, which is why there is a crew of 64 that is less than half the 134 needed to run the new U.S. Virginia class boats. The Graney design is based on the earlier Akula and Alfa class SSNs. Russia had originally planned to build 30 Graneys, but now nine seems the most optimistic goal. In an effort to deal with 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 Graney their answer to the American Virginia class. But the Virginias are a more recent design while the Graney 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 19 are in service, 11 are under construction and a total of 66 are to eventually enter service.

 


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