How the plans to increase the power of Russian submarines arose

This post was published in Vzglyad. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM) – The strange incident with the Russian nuclear submarine “Omsk”, which surfaced during the exercise, made one recall the events of twelve years ago. Then the Russian Navy cherished plans to modernize the nuclear submarines of this project, including equipping them with the Caliber complexes. What could this modernization give and why did it never take place in the end?

A few years ago in the specialized military press it was possible to get acquainted with the plans of the Russian Navy to re-equip Project 949A nuclear submarine missile cruisers [of the same type to which the deceased Kursk belonged]. It was assumed that the upgraded submarines will be equipped with launchers for missiles of the “Caliber” family. Open sources reported that the number of “Calibers” on each boat will be 72 units.

However, there are fears that the program has been suspended – only two nuclear submarines of this project, K-132 Irkutsk and K-442 Chelyabinsk, are being upgraded. With boats of other projects, the picture is even worse. At the moment, not a single third-generation multipurpose nuclear submarine has received medium repairs with modernization. What’s the matter and what does this mean for the Russian Navy?

Big plans

In the mid-2000s, it became clear that domestic submarines no longer meet modern requirements in terms of their weapons. In addition, there were persistent demands by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief to increase the carriers of the Kalibr missile weapon system [MWS] in the Navy. Due to these and a number of other factors, at the end of the 2000s, the Navy matured a plan to carry out an extensive modernization of the third generation submarines – the missile-carrying 949A Antey, as well as the multipurpose projects 971 and 945A.

In 2008, leading submarine designers submitted their proposals. CDB “Rubin” – for its boats of Project 949A, CDB “Lazurit” – for titanium boats of Project 945A, SPMBM “Malakhit” – for Project 971. 2009 became a milestone in the Navy’s shipbuilding programs – it was from this year that the money went to the fleet. Naturally, the upcoming funding was known in advance. And it was for this year that it was planned to begin the modernization of the first submarines.

It was then, with that funding, with quick and decisive action, the boats could be modernized in a short time. The boats had to go through “medium” repairs [mid-life repairs] with upgrades. It was envisaged that the main systems of the boats would be repaired, and the electronics and automation would be replaced with new ones. The integration of fourth-generation weapons (including modern cruise missiles of the Caliber family) will also be carried out.

The repairs carried out in conjunction with the modernization were supposed to extend the service life of each submarine by ten years. If this plan were implemented, then by today Russia would have had a completely different striking power of the Navy. It can be assumed that by today at least a couple of Project 949A submarines and at least the same number of submarines of other projects would have already been modernized, and the same number would have completed the modernization. This would mean that the total salvo of nuclear submarines of the Navy today would be more than 200 “Caliber”.

To make it clear, now the total salvo of all, without exception, carrying the “Caliber” surface ships of the Navy (including those that will only be commissioned this year) is a little over one and a half hundred “Caliber”. That is, it would be possible, for example, not to build the Buyan-M series of small missile ships [SMS], which has already cost more than 100 billion rubles, and these ships are much less capable than submarines. And by 2022–2023, the number of modernized submarines could double, and with them the salvo would also double.

One thing is a missile gunboat in the Caspian Sea, another is a pair of nuclear boats capable of holding at gunpoint more than a hundred targets on the territory of, for example, the United States. This is a fundamentally different level of military power.

But something went wrong. The almost started project began to slow down. The modernization of the third generation submarines did not begin either in 2009 or later. Since 2013, very slowly and according to a modified program, work began with several boats – K-132 “Irkutsk” and K-442 “Chelyabinsk” of project 949A. Of the Project 971 boats, only the K-328 Leopard is undergoing serious work, including medium repairs and, possibly, re-equipment with Caliber missiles.

It is also known that K-461 “Wolf” is undergoing medium repairs, possibly with normal modernization. The rest of the Project 971 boats are not undergoing average repair [after which the service life is extended by ten years], but the restoration of technical readiness. And instead of modernization, there are “modernization works” – improvements to individual systems.

Modernization efficiency

Having failed to undergo modernization, our third-generation nuclear-powered ships remained in the 80s of the last century in terms of their combat potential. How much have we lost? Yes.

We have an example before our eyes – the Americans, who have vast experience in maintaining old ships and submarines in operational condition through timely modernization. In our case, such work could give a comparable effect. Both the boats of the 945th project and the giants of the missile carriers of the 949A project can be very well “noiseless”, and the 971st project is already quite quiet, but it could also reduce the noise level. And, of course, “Caliber”!

Moreover, the availability of long-range high-speed anti-submarine weapons in our fleet [anti-submarine missiles “Answer” and anti-torpedoes “Last”] allows us to successfully intercept the initiative of the battle and win even with a significant lead in the detection and use of weapons by the enemy. That is, the upgraded 971 project can and should win an underwater duel against the Lasta and Answer even against the newest Virginias (which do not have such weapons).

For most of our boats, all this will remain unfulfilled plans. Except for Irkutsk, Chelyabinsk, Leopard and, possibly, Volk, none of our nuclear submarines has seen normal modernization and normal repairs. During the Army 2020 forum, it was announced that two more 971 boats would be upgraded. This is certainly good, but now is 2020.

The consequences of failure

Time is ruthless. The state of the submarines, which made sense to modernize in 2009-2010, is different today. Diving to a depth is not for nothing for submarines, metal fatigue manifests itself. Trunk cable routes are 11 years older than they were in 2009, and their replacement is a very expensive undertaking. If then it was possible to put most of the submarines on modernization, now the question of how much it makes sense to modernize is open.

Project 971 multipurpose boats, apparently, will pass the HTG with minor modernization work, and their condition today will not allow them to extend their life as much as it would be possible if they got into the plant in time. As for the missile carriers of the 949th project, today we can say that apart from Irkutsk and Chelyabinsk, all of them will serve “as is” – without major improvements and with the Granit anti-ship missile system as the main weapon. And these missiles today are not at all as invulnerable as they once were. The situation with Project 949A is all the more offensive because these boats have a very high maintainability, and modernization work with them is much easier than with Project 971.

As a result, our submarines today have serious operational limitations. By the end of the decade, they will be extensively written off. And what in return?

Replacement option

It was stated that the solution was the emergency construction of new submarines. But everything is not simple here. The only type of multipurpose nuclear submarines that can be laid “here and now” in Russia today is the Yasen-M or Project 855M.

Firstly, these boats are very expensive. Three of these ships are the price equivalent of a strike aircraft carrier. Six ships are the equivalent of the Sochi Olympics. The main thing is that today the Ash project itself requires serious modernization.

In Russia, seven units of Project 949A are officially in service (including two for modernization), nine units of Project 971, including all those that are being repaired and modernized, two each 945 and 945A and a pair of 671RTMK. Some of them are combat-ready, others are under repair with “modernization work”, and still others are awaiting him.

Delivery of the last one in the series will be in 2028. In addition, “Severodvinsk”, project 855 [“Ash without “M”] is already in service, the delivery of “Kazan” [“Ash-M”] is planned this year, “Novosibirsk“- next. So far, this is all that the Navy can really count on.

From these calculations, it can be assumed that by 2030 the number of nuclear submarines in the Russian Navy [except for strategic ones] will drop by about half, while simultaneously huge expenses for the Yaseny. We will pay huge sums of money, and the fleet will be reduced. If all the boats of the third generation had passed the planned modernization on time, then this transition would have been smoothed out, since the rate of withdrawal of ships would have been significantly lower.

And, of course, a volley. If one modernized submarine of Project 949A would have 72 “Caliber” in a salvo, then the “Yasen-M” – no more than 50. With all the advantages of “Yasenya-M” over old boats, the missile salvo would have been greater for the latter. Plus ample opportunities for the use of combat unmanned underwater vehicles, the deployment of special forces and means. Possibilities for their placement on “Ash” are multiples less than on 949A.

As a result, it is possible to predict a significant reduction in the size of the nuclear submarine fleet and large expenditures on new nuclear submarines of the Yasen-M type. What can be done in such a situation? At the very least, to establish the causes of such problems, which, alas, are not uncommon for our fleet.


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