Yury Dolgoruky. RIA-NOVOSTI Photo.

Russia’s Got Deadly New Submarines

Should America panic or not?

The Russian navy’s last two Typhoon-class submarines, by far the biggest undersea warships ever, are headed for the breakers for dismantling after decades of frontline service.

The Typhoons, made famous by Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, were major players in Cold War battles — mostly bloodless and largely unreported — in which U.S. and Russian submarines stalked each other beneath the waves, honing tactics for a possible nuclear showdown.

The Cold War might be over but Moscow is determined to keep resisting what it sees as American military aggression. So as the Typhoons are reduced to scrap over the next six years, new and deadlier Borei- and Yasen-class submarines are taking their place … and setting their sights on the United States.

The Boreis are ballistic missile submarines – a.k.a, “boomers” — able to destroy entire cities with their nuclear-tipped rockets. The Yasens are hunter-killers optimized for finding and destroying other submarines and surface vessels. Both classes are powered by nuclear reactors.

Everyone agrees the new subs are better than Russia’s older models, scores of which are currently rusting away at their far-flung berths, awaiting their turn under the breakers’ blowtorches. But exactly how deadly the next-gen boats are depends on who you ask. U.S. experts are at odds over whether Moscow’s new submarines warrant a yawn … or widespread panic.

Russia’s Nordic neighbors Finland, Sweden and Norway are understandably uneasy about the Boreis and Yasens gathering near their waters. But now U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tom Spahn, writing in the Naval Institute’s influential journal Proceedings, insists America should be just as afraid. Spahn says the Navy’s sub-hunters, including ships, planes, helicopters and America’s own submarines, are ill-prepared to track a resurgent Russia’s “alarmingly sophisticated” new undersea boats.

“For a long time, the U.S. submarine force has tried to find its place in post-Cold War era doing things not directly related to chasing Russian submarines around the world,” Spahn, an expert in anti-submarine warfare, tells Medium.

“It only takes one submarine to change an entire geo-political region,” Spahn warns. “If you have the threat of even one submarine lurking off the coast undetected, a carrier strike group is going to have to think twice about going to that area.”

Severodvink. Army.lv Photo

Boomers and hunter-killers

The first of the Borei class, the Yury Dolgoruky, entered service in January — albeit after years of construction delays stretching back to 1996. Two more Boreis are currently undergoing sea trials. The Russian navy intends to deploy a total of eight of the new vessels by 2020 to replace the Cold War Typhoon, Delta III and Delta IV classes.

Though they lack the intimidating looks of the Typhoons, the Boreis are much more capable under the skin. For one, they’re quieter and therefore harder to detect. “The Borei [class] contains the best of modern submarine technology, including advanced sound-silencing and pump jet propulsion similar to that found on the U.S. Virginia class,” Spahn writes.

But the real renovation is in the armament. The submarines carry 16 nuclear-tipped RSM-56 Bulava missiles, each with 10 independent warheads, designed “to thwart evolving Western ballistic-missile defense shields,” Spahn explains. The new missile is capable of “post-launch maneuvers” and can “deploy a variety of countermeasures to defend against interception.”

The first of five new Yasen-class attack submarines, the Severodvinsk, launched in 2010. Costs have exploded for the class. But the rising price is indicative of the new boats’ sophisticated internal systems, which Spahn says “have kept pace with technological advances.”

In addition, the Yasen class carries a number of cruise missiles and VA-111 Schval torpedoes, which can travel at 200 knots — so fast “a target would have little or not time to react and take evasive action.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin aboard the Alexander Nevsky. ITAR-TASS Photo

Still waters

But does all this really constitute a threat to the U.S.? Will Russia even manage to build all of its new subs? And will they ever go to sea for sustained training? Not necessarily, says Owen Cote, an expert in anti-submarine warfare at the MIT Security Studies Program.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if the Russians get some money together so that they can build some submarines like they were building at the end of the Cold War,” Cote says, “But what always happens with them, and what happened at the end of the Cold War too, is that they don’t really have the money.”

Cote concedes that Russia is the only country on the planet with the ability to build a nuclear submarine quiet enough to evade U.S. warships and America’s extensive network of seabed-mounted sensors. But it’s an open question whether Russia will actually use its new subs to carry out many operational patrols. It’s one thing to build a submarine. It’s another to use it effectively.

Nor is it certain Russia will build subs in sufficient quantity to truly challenge the U.S. fleet, which includes some 50 attack submarines plus 230 other frontline warships — by far the most powerful naval force in the world.

“It remains to be seen, when and if these things will get out there [and] can they go to sea?” Cote says. “The Russian navy right now is just a complete disaster, and on the margins they can get better, but to really get our attention they have to build 10, 20 of these things. And there are no signs they’re going to do that. I don’t think they have the money for it.”

A greater concern, perhaps, is not what Russia is doing — it’s what the U.S. is not doing very well. In the unlikely event of a major war, the Navy would be forced to call up its reserve of anti-submarine watch officers, who operate from land bases and direct P-3 patrol planes and friendly submarines, while also steering carrier battle groups away from enemy subs.

Years of insufficient training have chipped away at the watch officers’ readiness, according to Spahn.

“In the crazy event there’s some sort of world-wide submarine warfare, it’d take a little while to get up to speed,” Spahn says. It’s improved in recent years by a new training center, the Naval Mine and Antisubmarine Warfare Command (or NMAWC), but reserve officers only carry out two weeks of exercises involving anti-submarine tactics once per year. “NMAWC is not terribly good yet at providing training to reserve units, so basically we’re stuck,” he adds.

On that count, Cote agrees.

“Readiness is a real issue,” Cote says. “If you take an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, it has a fantastic ASW [anti-submarine warfare] suite. It has got a great towed [sonar] array, and a powerful active sonar. You can put a fancy ASW helicopter on the flight deck. But they simply don’t train for that — they’ve become air-defense, anti-missile ships. A lot of those don’t even deploy with a towed array, never mind practice with it.”

Still, before it ever comes to that, Russia will first have to build many more new boomers and hunter-killers and send them all to sea. Neither is a foregone conclusion.

In short, Russia’s got a few deadly new subs. America doesn’t need to panic quite yet.