How the US’s and Russia’s newest attack submarines stack up

Russian Navy Yasen submarine Kazan
Russian Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear-powered sub Kazan arrives at its permanent base in Severomorsk, on Russia’s Arctic coast, June 1, 2021.

  • Russia’s effort to rebuild its navy has focused on submarines, fielding ever more advanced boats.
  • The US Navy is also building more advanced submarines to counter a variety of threats.
  • Here’s how Russia’s new Yasen-M submarines compare to the US Navy’s latest Virginia-class subs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As the United States has once again shifted its focus to great-power competition with near-peer adversaries, there is now a greater emphasis to “keep up with the Joneses,” and while the United States Navy continues to operate the largest number of aircraft carriers, it is in submarines where Russia could have an edge.

Moscow goes all-in on subs

Russian Navy Yasen-class submarine Kazan
Russian Yasen-class nuclear-powered sub Kazan arrives in Severomorsk, June 1, 2021.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was unable to match the surface fleet of the United States; however, the Soviet Navy maintained a significantly larger force of submarines.

Now, as Moscow has put renewed emphasis on its underwater cruisers, the question has been asked how Russia’s latest submarines compared to those in service with the US Navy.

Writing for Naval News, H I Sutton compared the Russian Navy’s advanced Project 885M (Yasen-M) nuclear-powered submarines with the US Navy’s Block-V Virginia-class submarines.

While the two classes of boats are similar – Sutton noted that the larger Yasen-M are essentially “cruise missile submarines” and thus are given the special vessel classification “SSGN” instead of the “SSN.”

Russia’s Project 885M

Russian Navy Yasen submarine Kazan
Russian Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear-powered sub Kazan arrives at its home base in Severomorsk, June 1, 2021.

Developed in the late 1980s, the Yasen class was initially intended to replace Russia’s aging Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Upgraded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Project 885M was heavily updated with design tweaks and performance upgrades. The submarines feature a submerged displacement of 13,800 tons and can reach a maximum speed of up to 35 knots.

The Yasen-M also features revamped onboard electronics, a slightly reduced overall length, and reportedly a new KTP-6 rector that is believed to reduce the submarine’s noise levels.

The nuclear-powered submarines are armed with 3M14K Kalibr-PL (NATO Reporting name SS-N-30A Sizzler) and P-800 (3M55) Oniks (NATO Reporting name SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missiles as their basic strike weapons, while the Yasen­-M has 32 vertical tubes that can accommodate three missile types. Additionally, the boats could soon be armed with the 3M22 Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic anti-ship missile.

Currently, there are seven Project 885M submarines in various stages of construction at the Sevmash Shipyard in northwest Russia, and the newly floated out Krasnoyarsk is now on track to be commissioned into the Pacific Fleet sometime next year.

That follows the acceptance of the Project 885M lead nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, which was handed over to the Russian Navy on May 7. She is now in active service with the Northern Fleet.

US Navy’s Block-V Virginia-class

USS Virginia, Virginia Class submarine
USS Virginia returns to the shipyard after its first voyage in open seas, called “alpha” sea trials, July 30, 2004.

The US Navy’s Virginia-class nuclear-powered cruise-missile fast-attack submarines (SSNs) were developed to replace the more expensive Seawolf-class while still providing a capable boat to address nautical threats from near-peer adversaries in the 21st century.

The boats were designed to operate in both the open-ocean and for littoral missions, including anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and intelligence gathering operations.

The Block V variants are larger than the previous versions of the Virginia-class, with the length increased from 377 feet to 460 feet, and with greater displacement from 7,800 tons to 10,200 tons. As a result, the Block V versions of the Virginia-class are the second-largest US submarines produced behind only the Ohio-class.

This included the addition of an 83-foot section, which increased the number of missile launch tubes – increasing the number from 12 to 40, which in essence could triple the capacity of short targets for each boat. The boats can carry a total of 66 weapons.

To date, 19 of the planned 66 Virginia-class submarines have been completed, while 11 more are now under construction. Ten of those are from the Block IV, while one is from the latest Block V – and that latter boat will feature key improvements that enhance the capabilities of the fast-attack subs.

Which is better?

Navy sailors stand on sail of Virginia-class attack submarine USS Virginia surrounded by an American flag and periscope equipment
Sailors stand among the masts on the sail of USS Virginia as it arrives at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, March 22, 2016.

For now, it may be difficult to know which is truly the superior sub.

As Sutton noted, “aspects such as sonar, sensors and stealth are harder to compare given the sensitive nature of these topics.”

However, each of the classes is believed to be difficult to counter, and each has arsenals of weapons that should be seen as truly deadly.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.

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How the Soviet Union upended the US Navy plans to build a fleet of faster, quieter submarines

USS Seawolf attack submarine sea trials 1997
US Navy submarine USS Seawolf during sea trials, July 10, 1997.

  • Improvements to Soviet subs in the 1980s prompted the US Navy to pursue its own more advanced subs.
  • Work on the Seawolf-class submarines got underway in the mid-1980s, but the USSR’s demise upended those plans.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

There are only three of them.

Late in the 1950s, the Soviet Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines – starting with the November-class attack submarine – could dive twice as deep as most of their American counterparts and often had higher maximum speed. But they had a conspicuous flaw: they were a lot noisier.

That meant American subs were routinely detecting and trailing the Soviet submarines from a distance without being detected in return – a huge advantage had there ever been a conflict.

In the 1980s, however, the Soviet Navy began to improve its acoustic stealth game. The Japanese Toshiba and Norwegian Kongsberg firms had sold propeller-milling technology to the Soviets that allowed for a much quieter seven-bladed propeller on its new Akula-class attack submarines.

US Navy studies concluded the Akula exceeded the mainstay of the US submarine force, the Los Angeles class, for acoustic stealth and roughly matched the Improved Los Angeles variant. As the Pentagon was flush with money during the Reagan administration, in 1983 the Navy began designing the biggest, baddest – and fastest and quietest – attack submarine possible to restore its edge over the Soviet Navy.

The resulting Seawolf laid down by Electric Boat in October 1989 had a wider hull than the 7,000-ton Los Angeles, displacing over 9,000 tons submerged and measuring 108 meters in length.

Whereas the Los Angeles carried 37 torpedoes in four tubes, the Seawolf could lug 50 heavy-weight 533-millimeter Mark 48 torpedoes or Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which it could launch through eight over-sized 660-millimeter torpedo tubes. (The tubes size was meant to future-proof in case the Navy adopted larger weapons. It didn’t.)

The Seawolf could also use the tubes to launch surface-attack Tomahawk missiles.

Cmdr. Melvin Smith, commanding officer of the Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Jimmy Carter (SSN 23), looks on as the submarine transits the Hood Canal on its way home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.
Officers and crew of USS Jimmy Carter in the Hood Canal on the way to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington state.

The Seawolf submarine was built entirely out of higher-strength HY-100 steel so that it could endure dives as deep as 490 meters.

Its sail (conning tower) was reinforced for operations Arctic ice, where Soviet ballistic-missile submarines were known to lurk. Moreover, its S6W pressurized water reactor gave the Seawolf an extraordinary maximum speed of 35 knots (40 mph), allowing it to chase down disengaging adversaries.

But most impressive were the Seawolf’s advancements in acoustic stealth: A Seawolf was an order of magnitude quieter than even the Improved Los Angeles boats at 95 decibels. Oceanic background noise averages 90 decibels.

Even better, the Seawolf’s propeller-less pump-jet propulsion system allowed it to maintain acoustic stealth even when cruising a brisk 20 knots, whereas most submarines are forced to crawl at 5-12 knots to remain discrete.

Its huge 7.3-meter diameter spherical sonar array on the bow was supplemented by wide-aperture flank arrays and TB-16D and TB-29 towed arrays. These feed sensor data to the Seawolf’s BSY-2 combat system, which can engage multiple targets simultaneously using Mark 48 torpedoes directed either via a wire connected to the sub, or using their own organic sonar.

Thus, the Seawolf was designed as the ultimate submarine-hunter: stealthier, more heavily armed, and able to match or exceed its adversaries in speed and maneuverability.

These exquisite capabilities came at a steep price – namely $33 billion for 12 Seawolves, cut down from the initial plans for 29. Adjusted for 2018 dollars, that comes out to nearly $5 billion per sub, three times the cost of the Los Angeles boats. The HY100 steel also particularly suffered extensive weld-cracking problems, necessitating additional reconstruction.

Navy submarine USS Jimmy Carter
USS Jimmy Carter in the Magnetic Silencing Facility at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, August 16, 2006.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Seawolf’s premium capabilities and expense could hardly be justified as large numbers of Russian submarines rusted away at their docks.

Thus the Seawolf order was downsized to just three submarines which launched between 1995 and 2004: the Seawolf, the Connecticut, and the Jimmy Carter, numbered SSN-21 through 23. All three are based on the Pacific Ocean at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington State.

The last boat, the Carter uniquely was modified at an extra cost of $887 million into the ultimate spy and special operations submarine. Its hull was lengthened by 30 meters to incorporate a special multi-mission platform which can carry divers, or manned or unmanned underwater reconnaissance vehicles which can be deployed using special locks.

The 12,000-ton Carter also boasts thrusters allowing it to maneuver more precisely while in treacherous shallow waters and ocean floors. It is also understood to carry instruments allowing it to tap the undersea cables through which the internet and other long-distance communications travel.

Naturally, the Carter’s clandestine activities remain a secret, though its reception of numerous unit citations for unspecified reasons suggest an eventful operational career.

It’s known to have deployed an aerial drone to spy on North Korean coastal artillery, and it returned to port in 2017 flying a black pirate flag – traditionally flourished by a submarine returning from a patrol in which it has scored a victory.

In fact, all of the Seawolf-class submarines remain shrouded in secrecy, with very few photos or articles released to the press. What reports are available suggests the subs frequently traverse under the polar ice of the Arctic Ocean, at times testing specialized sonars and communications equipment.

USS Connecticut submarine Arctic ice surface
USS Connecticut surfaces through the ice during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018, March 18, 2018.

None of the Seawolf subs are known to have engaged in combat, however – unless you count the attack of a polar bear on the Connecticut’s rudder after it surfaced through the Arctic in 2003. You can see a picture of the engagement taken via the periscope here.

Meanwhile, more affordable ($1.8 billion each) Virginia-class submarines better suited for littoral engagements are entering service, retaining many of Seawolf class’s advanced features such as the stealthy pump jets, while ditching some of the bulk and gold-plating and making greater use of off-the-shelf technologies.

Later Virginias also sport vertical launch cells for rapid land-attack capabilities.

Demand for the Seawolf’s high-end capabilities may rise, however, due to the return of an undersea arms race involving the United States, Russia and China.

China’s submarine fleet will likely soon exceed America in numbers, though the majority of it consists of shorter-range diesel-electric submarines, and even its nuclear submarines are considered to be significantly noisier than their US counterparts. Russia continues to operate stealthy Akula and Borei-class boats and is developing improved successors as well as Poseidon strategic nuclear torpedoes designed to destroy coastal cities.

Thus the US Navy reportedly sees the beefier, more heavily armed characteristics of the Seawolf as a model for its next SSN(X) submarine – even if it comes at a similar cost of $5.5 billion per submarine.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.

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China has a new ship to hunt the US Navy’s submarines

Navy submarine USS Ohio
US Navy Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Ohio off the coast of Okinawa, February 2, 2021.

  • A March report showed that China had recently launched its third anti-submarine detection ship.
  • Those ships are meant to augment China’s sub-detection abilities and erode one of the US Navy’s biggest advantages.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A new open-source investigation has revealed that China recently launched their third anti-submarine detection ship at a shipbuilding facility in Wuhan, augmenting Beijing’s ability to detect submarines.

The ship is most likely a SWATH design, or Small Waterplane-Area Twin Hull. The twin-hull design is both very stable, even at high speeds or in rough seas, and is also known for being very quiet, a useful quality to have for a ship intended to use sonar and other acoustic listening devices to detect submarines.

The Chinese design is likely broadly similar to American SWATH designs, which are noted for having long-range and high endurance.

SWATH-type ships track submarines by trailing towed sonar devices behind them on long spools of cable, and can actively detect submarines by shooting “pings” into the ocean and listening to the bounce-back for submarines hiding in the deep.

USNS Able SURTASS ocean surveillance
US Military Sealift Command ocean surveillance ship USNS Able with SURTASS equipment visible, March 18, 1992.

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces operate SWATH ships as well, known as the Hibiki-class, with the third of the class just recently entering service.

The Cold War-era class’ operating costs are reportedly split between the United States and Japan, and the data swept up by the Japanese ships is shared with Washington as well. This gives the United States in effect more ears in the water at a lower cost.

One of the United States’ ocean surveillance ships made headlines in the late 2000s when it was repeatedly harassed by both Chinese ships and aircraft during a submarine observation mission in the South China Sea.

Though the area the ship had been operating in is widely recognized as international waters, China claims sovereignty to wide swaths of the South China Sea and insisted it was defending waters within its exclusive economic zone.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy has a history of dropping in on American Navy ships and aircraft. During a 2014 US-led multinational naval exercise, the PLAN quietly slipped an electronic surveillance ship near the USS Ronald Regan aircraft carrier and its carrier strike group, presumably to scoop up electronic data.

Japan navy Hibiki ocean surveillance ship
JS Hibiki, a Hibiki-class ocean surveillance ship of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Despite the threat of detection posed by ocean surveillance ships, submarines in American naval service are progressing.

Construction has already begun on the new nuclear-powered Columbia-class ballistic submarines, which are slated to enter service in the early 2030s. Thanks to a new electric drive design, the Columbias are anticipated to be the quietest submarines ever built for the US Navy.

One of the United States’ primary advantages over other countries like China is the US Navy‘s advanced and hard-to-detect submarine assets, which could be used to restrict Chinese surface vessel movement in the event of a conflict.

This new ocean surveillance ship indicates that China is putting real effort into offsetting or eliminating that advantage, in the event that a conflict with the United States would break out.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a master of public policy and covers US and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

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US Coast Guard won’t ‘close the door’ on hunting submarines again in the future

Coast Guard cutter Bertholf Pacific Ocean
Coast Guard cutter Bertholf on a counter-drug patrol in the eastern Pacific Ocean, March 11, 2018.

  • Tensions are rising between the US and rivals like Russia and China, both of which are fielding more advanced submarines that are cause for concern for the US Navy.
  • The Coast Guard had an active role in hunting submarines during 20th-century conflicts, and while Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz says there are no immediate plans to resume that mission, it isn’t being ruled out either.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The US Navy is scrambling to adjust to what it sees as growing threats posed by the Russian and Chinese navies, particularly their submarine fleets, which are getting larger and more effective.

The US Coast Guard, which hunted subs during World War II, doesn’t have plans to help keep an eye on those subs, but its top officer isn’t ruling it out either.

Asked at a Navy League event on December 1 about the service’s requirements to conduct anti-submarine warfare, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said “you have to turn the clock back” to an era when the Coast Guard was fully equipped for that mission.

“The predecessors to the national security cutters, the 378-foot high-endurance cutters, [the] Hamilton class, we had sonar capability, and we had sonar techs,” Schultz said, referring to a class of cutters that arrived in the 1960s that also carried torpedoes and other weaponry.

“We’re not building any capabilities, installing any capabilities on our ships today that would put us back in that mission,” Schultz said. “We’ve ceded that to the Navy.”

The Coast Guard already faces “unprecedented” demands, Schultz said, referring to the service’s 11 official missions, ranging from patrolling inland waterways to high-seas drug busts.

But the Coast Guard chief didn’t rule out helping counter underwater threats in the future.

“If there was a requirement that was at the joint Coast Guard-Navy-[Department of Defense] level that said, ‘Hey, there’s an urgent need to bring that capability back in Coast Guard,’ I’m not saying we couldn’t revisit that,” Schultz said.

“I’m not so sure I see an immediate return to that mission space here, but again, I don’t close the door on anything since we live in an increasingly complicated world … and requirements change,” Schultz added.

‘Not just Coast Guard missions’

US Coast Guard Navy World War II WWII convoy submarine depth charge
Crewmen on Coast Guard cutter Spencer watch a depth charge explode, blasting a German submarine attempting to break into a US convoy on April 17, 1943. The attacking U-boat was sunk off of Ireland.

Coast Guard crews guided hundreds of ships through submarine-infested waters during World War I. During World War II, its aircraft and ships, led by the Treasury-class cutters, hunted subs on the East and West coasts and escorted convoys across the Atlantic.

The Treasury class was replaced by the Hamilton class, the 12 ships of which could perform scientific and law-enforcement missions but were also equipped to find, track, and destroy submarines. The first Hamilton-class cutter arrived in 1965 and only two remain in US service.

A modernization program in the late 1980s outfitted Hamilton-class ships with better sensors and weapons, including upgraded torpedoes and new Harpoon anti-ship missiles, in addition to their helicopters. But the end of the Cold War lowered concern about undersea warfare, and those sensors and weaponry were removed.

That perception is changing, and the military is responding to what it sees as a growing submarine threat. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite’s announcement this month that Virginia-based Fleet Forces Command would become US Atlantic Command underscores the shift.

“We will refocus our naval forces in this important region on their original mission: controlling the maritime approaches to the United States and to those of our allies,” Braithwaite told lawmakers. “The Atlantic Fleet will confront the reassertive Russian navy, which has been deploying closer and closer to our East Coast, with a tailored maritime presence, capability, and lethality.”

Observers have already called for Coast Guard cutters to take a larger role as surface combatants to bolster the Navy, arguing that capabilities the Coast Guard has for missions like catching narco-subs can be adapted for military operations.

“The US Coast Guard and Navy should move jointly and decisively to arm, train and equip the major cutter fleet so that it can perform a useful set of defense and expeditionary missions,” Cmdr. Gregory Tozzi, a US Coast Guard cutterman, wrote in 2017, arguing that doing so was “a reasonable response to threats posed by increasingly capable, bold and bellicose competitors.”

Schultz and other officials have also said new Coast Guard ships will be able to adapt for future missions.

“We’re putting in what we call space, weight, and power to be able to plug and play for all kinds of mission support,” Shannon Jenkins, senior Arctic advisor at the Coast Guard’s Office of Arctic Policy, said at an event in August when asked about arming icebreakers. “It certainly will have the capacity and the abilities to add in whatever we need to execute our national missions, not just Coast Guard missions.”

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