The Orel, one of Russia’s elderly Oscar II (Antey) class SSGNs (cruise missile carrying nuclear sub), had an embarrassing power failure on July 30. This happened while leaving the Baltic Sea via the Skagerrak. This is the 240-kilometer-long straight that has some narrow passages that involve moving through territorial waters (less than 22 kilometers from the coast) of Denmark or Sweden. International agreements allowing “innocent passage” of warships through the Skagerrak require that submarines do so on the surface and escorted by a Danish or Swedish warship. In this case the Orel and a Russian destroyer were escorted by a 246-ton Danish patrol ship with a Russian navy tug nearby. The Orel suddenly lost power and began drifting towards a Danish Island at about three kilometers an hour. Orel is a behemoth on the surface, displacing 14,000 tons and not the kind of ship you want running aground in your neighborhood.
The Danish patrol boat offered to help evacuate crew or render any other assistance. The Russians declined and said their sea-going tug would arrive shortly and several Orel crew, wearing life jackets, were seen on the forward deck, apparently preparing the sub to be towed. None of that was necessary because the Orel soon regained power, at least enough to move slowly out of the Skagerrak where it apparently fixed whatever powerplant problems it was having and was able to submerge and continue underwater to its base off the Russian northwest coast.
The Oscars were the last class of Russian nuclear subs put into service before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Oscars were considered more reliable than earlier nukes but suffered from shipyard accidents and one (the Kursk) was lost off the north coast in a 2000 accident. The cause was apparently crew mishandling of a malfunctioning torpedo that detonated while the sub was still submerged. The Kursk sank but 28 of the crew survived in an intact compartment for several days. The navy lacked modern submarine rescue equipment and refused such help from Britain, which had some of the most advanced rescue gear in the world. The Kursk was subsequently raised to the surface and taken to a shipyard for examination and dismantling. This disaster caused Russia to equip its navy with modern submarine rescue gear, now stationed at the two main submarine bases; one on the northern coast and the other in the Russian Far East. The refurbishment plans for the Oscars were updated to deal with some of the problems discovered during the Kursk investigation.
The Orel, and two other Russian nuclear subs and several other Russian and foreign warships had been in Saint Petersberg to celebrate the 325th anniversary of the Russian Navy and participate in a naval parade.
The Orel was one of the last Oscars to complete its refurbishment in 2017, before budget cuts forced the navy to make unpublicized “adjustments” in the program to upgrade the remaining eight (Oscar II) class SSGNs so that the twenty-four 7-ton P700 high-speed “carrier killer” missiles would be replaced by 72 smaller 3M54/14 (Kalibr) cruise missiles that weigh two tons each. The 24 P-700 silos were modified to carry three Kalibrs each.
Kalibr is like 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 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 along with having the subs refurbed to extend their service lives. Known as the Antry-class in Russia and the Oscar IIs in the West, each of these subs was designed to carry 24 large anti-ship missiles for use against aircraft carriers and other large warships. The Russians now agree that carrying more, but smaller missiles, it is possible 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 as well as the ability to hit more land targets or smaller warships in one attack.
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 obviously different, had better performance and were called Oscar II. Three Oscar IIs were in service 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. Another was converted to be a “special projects” sub. Two were put in reserve until the navy could afford to refurbish them. This left eight available for the cruise missile conversion and all but two have completed that process.
The Oscar II class boats 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 Oscar's 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. That was enough to keep eight Oscar IIs in service into the 2030s. After that there will probably be no more boats the size of the Oscars, but smaller, cheaper, more reliable and just as lethal.