Submarines: The Yasen Challenge

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June 14, 2021: On May 7th Russia finally put its second Yasen class SSN into service. There were delays, which has become typical of the Yasen class. The first of these entered service in 2013, twenty years after construction began. Construction on the second Yasen began in 2009 and took twelve years to complete. The second and subsequent Yasens are a much-improved design called Yasen-M. The third Yasen began construction in 2013 is supposed to begin sea trials in mid-2021. That means the third Yasen could enter service by the end of 2021 or early 2022. Six more Yasens are under construction and all are supposed to enter service by the end of the decade.

Russia expected its new class Yasen SSN to be their answer to the American Virginia class but by 2021 nineteen Virginias are in service and there will be nearly forty by the end of the decade when all the Yasens are supposed to be completed. At least sixty Virginias will be completed before a new class of American or Russians SSNs begin to enter service.

Many of the delays in getting the second Yasen built were attributed to updating the design to incorporate new technology that was not available or used in the first Yasen because that would have delayed delivery even more. Also, Russia could not evaluate how well the initial Yasen design worked until they had one in service. That proved to be a wise decision because the differences between the first Yasen and the subsequent ones are so numerous that all the other Yasens are considered a subclass of the first boat and called the Yaesn-M. This is similar to American warship classes, which undergo considerable upgrades after four to ten ships are built. For example, the first four Virginias were considered Block 1 boats while the next six were Block 2, the first of which entered service four years after the first Block 1. The current Virginia's entering service are part of ten Block 4 boats. The Virginias are a 1990s design with the first one beginning construction in 1999 and entering service five years later.

The first Virginia was a more recent design than the Yasen, and that was because initial design work for Yasen began in 1977 and was supposed to be completed within a decade, with construction starting in the late 1980s. That was delayed by financial and political problems which culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and end of the Cold War. Yasen faced more delays because of massive cuts to the naval construction budget in the 1990s. Russia became aware of a lot of new SSN tech in the two decades it took to build the first Yasen.

Russia is looking beyond Yasen as it designs a smaller, cheaper class of SSNs. 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.

The 9,500-ton Yasens were built after the Cold War ended but used Cold War era technology and the first one was 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 instead hold five of the smaller 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 missiles. The Yasen-M just carries 40 Kalibr missiles. Yasen-M is the same displacement of the first Yasen and is six percent shorter and a distinctively different shape. All Yasens have ten torpedo tubes (eight 650mm and two 533mm). Yasen-M also has more automation and a smaller crew of 64 compared to 85 in the original Yasen.

The major tech problem with the first Yasen was that it was not as quiet as Western SSNs, especially the Virginia. The sensors of the Yasen, for detecting other subs and surface ships, were much less effective compared to the Virginias. These were problems with Russian Cold War era nuclear subs and the Yasens were supposed to close the gap. That did not happen until Yasen-M. Meanwhile each block of Virginias makes improvements in those two areas, especially the sensor capabilities.

Russia’s continuing financial problems are leading to a growing number of defense-related program cancellations. Initially there were reductions 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 refurbishing 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 long-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 Oscars 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 didn'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 since 2015 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 a 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.

Post-1991 Russia was not able to catch up in nuclear submarine technology and financial problems prevented the construction of many new nuclear boats. By the 2030s, with the Oscar and Akula boats retired, Russia will only have about twenty SSNs and SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) compared to three times as many American nuclear subs. China has not yet developed nuclear subs to match the latest Russian designs and is devoting more attention to cheaper and smaller non-nuclear subs which use new tech to stay submerged for weeks at a time using more effective batteries and life support systems. Russia has fallen behind China in this category and that indicates Russia is competing with the wrong technology. China realized this before the Russians did, which is common in many areas of post-1990s military technology.

 


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