The last of the Cold War era Russian Delta Class SSBNs (ballistic missile nuclear subs) are finally retiring after serving far longer than expected, mainly because they had to. In April 2021 Russia revealed the time-table for the long-delayed retirement of the last six Cold War era Delta IV SSBNs. The first is being officially taken out of service this year and the other five will quickly follow by late 2022. These Deltas were unofficially withdrawn from service over the last five years, something that was obvious to the U.S. Navy that keeps track of when Russian and Chinese SSBNs go to sea. Over the last decade very few Russian SSBNs, old or new, have gone to sea except for brief training or testing cruises.
The cause of all this was the difficulty Russia had, and is still having, designing and building a post-Cold War class of SSBNs. These delays continue. For example, Russia was supposed to have the four new Borei class SSBNs in service by 2019, but that was delayed because sea trials of the fourth sub kept revealing new problems that had to be fixed. That led to another round of sea trials to make sure the modifications worked and did not cause additional problems. These latest sea trials took place successfully in mid-May 2021 and it finally entered service shortly thereafter.
This was the second new submarine design where the first one built ran into so many problems that the second ship was quite different and still suffered delays as a seemingly endless series of new problems appeared. The first case of this disease was the Graney class SSGN (nuclear-powered cruise missile sub), where the second boat of the class was the one that had major changes in appearance and capabilities and lots of unanticipated problems.
Delays getting the new Borei SSBNs into service were made worse because of similar problems with the new SLBMs (Sea Launched Ballistic Missile) for the Boreis. Problems with the new SLBMs continued after the first Borei was ready for service. There were so many SLBM delays that the older Delta class SSBNs had to stay in service longer than they were designed for. That meant these Deltas were unable to go to sea as often, if at all. As a result, Russia has had few SSBNs at sea during the last decade. The four Boreis now in service and at sea did not fully compensate for the growing inability of the Deltas to stay at sea. The reality was worse, something Russia now admits.
Only five of the Borei class SSBNs have been completed and one of them is still undergoing sea trials. Three more are under construction. A typical experience with this was seen with the fourth Borei, the Knyaz Vladimir (Prince Vladimir) which completed its sea trials in early November 2019 and was supposed to enter service in January 2020. Once more the “final” sea trials revealed more problems that took months to deal with before another final round of trials took place in mid-2020.
All these problems were not unexpected because Knyaz Vladimir was actually the first of an “improved Borei”, or “Borei A” design and construction took longer, and cost more than planned. One feature, adding four more SLBM launch tubes, was deleted. Borei A includes improved electronics and changes to the hull and propulsion system to make the boat quieter and more maneuverable. There are now additional sonar arrays on the sides of the boat in addition to the usual one in the bow (front). There were significant changes to the propulsion system to improve maneuverability at low speeds. The hull now has a sleeker form without the noticeable bump behind the sail (small superstructure on top of subs). One morale-enhancing new feature is a small (four-seat) sauna. There are also larger and more comfortable crew quarters. These changes made the Borei-A look more like Western SSBN as well as perform like one.
These changes made the Borei A so expensive that the navy can only afford to build eight Boreis instead of ten originally planned. The four Boreis currently in trials or under construction are all Borei A boats which incorporate all the changes made to Knyaz Vladimir during over a year of sea trials and subsequent modifications.
There were many delays just getting the first Borei built at all. This boat, the Yuri Dolgoruky, was launched in 2008 and then encountered further delays before even undergoing the first round of sea trials in 2012. The Yuri Dolgoruky was supposed to have been launched by 2006, but there were technical problems that caused more delays. Construction of the Yuri Dolgoruky began in 1996, but money shortages and technical issues slowed progress. The cash shortage was initially thought to be temporary but was eventually declared permanent with a chance of getting worse. This was all about the permanent decline in oil prices after 2013 and the impact of economic sanctions imposed because of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Another factor, less frequently discussed, is continued corruption that is crippling economic growth, including shipbuilding.
The Boreis were needed to replace the aging Delta IVs, which entered service in the late 1980s. There was only enough money to refurbish one of the Cold War era Delta IVs to extend their active life. Keeping several of these boats active was an emergency contingency plan if the initial problems with the Borei and its Bulava SLBM were not solved in time. The Deltas were not built for this sort of thing.
There were 43 Deltas put into service between 1972 and 1990. There were actually four distinct models (Delta I, II, III and IV) that varied in size and capabilities from 7,800 to 13,500 tons. The Deltas were supposed to be replaced by the enormous (24,000 ton) Typhoon/Akula class SSBNs. These proved too expensive to build and operate. Six of them entered service between 1981 and 1989 and to save money all were retired or scrapped by 2009. One Akula is still around to test new SLBM designs. That’s because the missile tubes on the Akula are so large they can easily be modified to handle any new SLBM design.
The problems with the Akulas were a foretaste of worse problems with the Borei and Graney class subs and similar sized new surface ships. Part of the problem is growing corruption, which played a role in destroying the Soviet Union, as well as a shortage of qualified managers, engineers and construction workers to design and build these new ships. Because of all that Russia has had to cope and adjust its plans. In the 1990s it was decided that subs were more important than surface vessels and that meant, once all the budget and construction management problems manifested themselves after the 1990s, the subs always had priority. This led to the cancellation of several large surface ship construction plans and many modifications for submarine construction and use. More subs were retired as they became too old and expensive to operate. That killed the Akulas and many of the older Deltas. Money was always found to keep construction of new subs, especially SSBNs, going. There was also more patience for dealing with the seemingly endless flaws found in the new subs and their weapons. Priorities took Priority.
The first three new Borei Class boats were supposed to be based in the Pacific but that changed to only two in the Pacific. One reason was the lack of money to refurbish and reactivate the Chizha Test Range near Arkhangel to monitor ballistic missile or SLBMs test-fired from east to west. The test range on the Pacific coast has been upgraded so that ballistic missiles and SLBM testing could continue and be accurately monitored to measure success, and accuracy, of test warheads. To continue testing the Bulava one of the Boreis had to be assigned to the Northern Fleet.
During the Cold War,most of Russian SSBNs were based in the north, at several bases east of the Norwegian border and facing the Arctic Ocean. Russia is also spending over $350 million to expand and improve its submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula on its Pacific coast. This will enable its new SSBNs to threaten China as well as the United States.
The Boreis were the first new Russian boomers (naval slang for SSBNs) to enter service since 1990 when the last Delta IV was put to work. Borei was the first new Russian sub design since the end of the Cold War. Starting with the fourth Borei there have been some major changes made and this version is called Borei A. These slightly larger Boreis were supposed to carry 20 SLBMs and have some new equipment and features as well as being a bit longer than the original Borei. Most of the new features survived, except for the expansion of SLBM capacity from 16 to 20.
The Boreis are closer in design to the Delta IVs than to the Typhoon/Akula boats that were originally meant to replace the Deltas. The Boreis are 170 meters (558 feet) long and 13 meters (42 feet) in diameter. Surface displacement is 15,000 tons, and 16 Bulava SLBMs are carried. Work on the Yuri Dolgoruky was delayed for several years because the first missile being designed for it did not work out. A successful land-based missile, the Topol-M, was quickly modified for submarine use. That should have worked but it didn’t and failed in many frustrating ways. This "Bulava" (also known as R-30 3M30 and SS-NX-30) SLBM was a larger missile, cutting the Boreis original capacity from 20 to 16 missiles. The boat also has four torpedo tubes and twelve torpedoes or torpedo tube-launched missiles. There are also tubes for launching smaller countermeasure devices that look like torpedoes. The Bulava has a max range of 10,000 kilometers with six warheads and 8,000 kilometers with ten warheads.
The Boreis have a crew of 107, with half of them being officers. This is a common Russian practice when it comes to high tech ships like nuclear subs. Each of these Borei A boats cost at least two billion dollars, in part because money was spent on improved crew quarters. That was necessary to attract enough skilled, and volunteer, sailors to run these boats. The high cost of Boreis, 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 post-Soviet Russia. New factories had to be built. All components of the Boreis and their missiles are to be built in Russia. The eight Boreis now being built probably won't be completed until 2030.
These delays in getting Bulava to work reliably resulted in a lot of embarrassing changes. That’s because, in early 2012, Russia announced that its SSBNs would resume long-range "combat patrols" within a year. On schedule, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgoruky) for service on December 30th, 2012. Thus, it appeared that the newly commissioned Yury Dolgoruky would be the first Russian SSBN in many years to make a long-range cruise, as soon as it had a working SLBM to arm it. Mass production of Bulava began in 2013, with the goal of producing at least 124 of them. Yury Dolgoruky finally made its first combat patrol in 2015, although it was understood that only about half of the 16 Bulava SLBMs carried would work if launched. The Bulava SLBM is considered combat ready but only if you accept that about half of them will not work.
The Russian Navy has made a mess of its SSBN force and has done slightly better developing new SLBMs. This is all about what kind of SSBN force Russia will have in the future and what those SSBNs will be capable of. At the moment the answers seem to be “diminished” and “not much”.
In 2018 it was believed that six of the original seven Delta IVs were still in service and that is only because each has been or was about to be put through a two-year shipyard upgrade of its electronics and some mechanical components. The shrinking naval budget changed that and by the end of 2018 four Delta IVs had been quietly retired while another had been converted to a special operations support sub. Only one Delta IV went through the full refurb to make it capable of another decade of limited active service. The shorter refurb extends the life of the Delta IV 3-4 years which explains why Russia finally admitted these Deltas were done and would be officially retired by 2022.