Why US commanders are so worried about keeping track of Russia’s newest subs

Russia submarine Arctic
The Russian submarine K-560 Severodvinsk.

  • US commanders have expressed admiration and concern about Russia’s new Yasen-class submarines.
  • Yasen-class guided-missile subs have a variety of advanced technology that makes them quieter and more deadly.
  • US officials have said the first Yasen-class sub has already shown an ability to elude detection.
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In 2018, the Russian Navy‘s most advanced submarine, the Severodvinsk, slipped into the Atlantic. For weeks the US Navy couldn’t find it. Here’s why.

Yasen-class

Russia Navy Yasen submarine Dmitry Medvedev
Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the launch of the Yasen-class submarine Severodvinsk, June 15, 2010.

The Yasen-class is Russia’s most advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine. The first of the class, the Severodvinsk, was commissioned into the Russian Navy in 2013 or 2014.

One of the US Navy’s top submarine officers was so impressed with the Severodvinsk that he had a model made for his office to remind him what the United States Navy is up against.

Talking about naval threats from Russia, Rear Adm. Dave Johnson said “We’ll be facing tough potential opponents. One only has to look at the Severodvinsk, Russia’s version of a [nuclear-guided missile submarine] (SSGN). I am so impressed with this ship that I had Carderock build a model from unclassified data.”

The whole shebang

Russian Navy K-560 Severodvinsk submarine sailors
Crew members aboard K-560 Severodvinsk during basic training, March 14, 2018.

The Severodvinsk is incredibly advanced and leverages some technologies that the Soviet Union researched in the 1980s. It has a large spherical sonar array in the bow that is thought to be very sensitive.

Because of the sonar’s large size, the torpedo tubes were moved from the nose to a position amidships near the submarine’s sail and are aimed at a forward angle. The Severodvinsk’s torpedo tubes are a mix of standard 533-millimeter and 650-millimeter heavyweight torpedoes.

The Severodvinsk’s hull is made of non- or low-magnetic steel, which either significantly reduces or eliminates the Severodvinsk’s magnetic signature.

Soviet (and now Russian) submarines have favored a double-hull design in the past in which a hydrodynamic outer hull encapsulates a stronger inner pressure hull. The Severodvinsk uses a hybrid design, the outer hull only partially covers the inner hull.

There is a high degree of automation in the Severodvinsk, and the sub’s crew complement is consequently small – just 65 sailors and officers.

In addition to missiles, the Severodvinsk has 24 tubes aft of the sail that can carry the P-800 Onyx anti-ship missiles or nuclear-capable Granat missiles. The Severodvinsk will be armed with Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missiles, a first in submarine armament.

Silent as a mouse

Russian Navy Yasen submarine Kazan
Russian Yasen-class nuclear-powered sub Kazan in Severomorsk on Russia’s Arctic coast, June 1, 2021.

In a 2019 interview with 60 Minutes, a US Navy admiral said that Russia has a “very capable submarine force,” and that increased Russian submarine activity gives him pause.

Talking about the Severodvinsk specifically, the admiral said that the Severodvinsk is “a brand new class of submarine, and it’s very capable, and it’s very quiet, so that’s the most important thing I think, in submarine warfare.”

Although he would not comment on reports that the US Navy lost the Severodvinsk, Pentagon officials said that the Severodvinsk went into the Atlantic Ocean in 2018 – and managed to evade detection for weeks.

During peacetime, losing a Russian submarine is a headache. During a conflict, losing track of a submarine is deadly.

Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on US and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture

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Russia’s newest submarines are ‘on par with ours’ and sailing closer to the US, top commanders say

Russian Navy Yasen submarine Kazan
Russian Yasen-class submarine Kazan in Severomorsk, on Russia’s Arctic coast, June 1, 2021.

  • The head of US Northern Command and the Navy’s top officer warned lawmakers about Russian submarines.
  • US commanders have cited Russia’s increasingly capable submarines as cause for concern.
  • Those subs are also spending more time near US coasts, reflecting a growing risk to the homeland.
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The US commander responsible for North America and the Navy’s top officer warned lawmakers this month about Russia’s increasingly capable and active submarines, which they say are operating closer to US shores.

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck and Navy Adm. Michael Gilday are the latest officials to express concern about Russia’s submarine fleet, which is smaller than its Soviet predecessor but has improved considerably in recent years.

Asked about threats “below the nuclear threshold” at a June 15 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, VanHerck – who leads US Northern Command and NORAD – said Russia and China are “developing capabilities” below that threshold “to hold the homeland at risk.”

“Those capabilities would include very quiet submarines,” VanHerck said. “Russia just fielded their second Sev-class submarine, which is on par with ours.”

Russia submarine Arctic
Russian Yasen-class submarine K-560 Severodvinsk.

VanHerck appeared to be referring to Russia’s Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, which NATO calls the Severodvinsk class. The second Yasen-class boat, Kazan, was commissioned on May 7.

Kazan is also the first sub of the Yasen-M sub-class, which has upgrades such as new quieting technology and a quieter reactor. Russia plans to add five more Yasen-Ms to its fleet by the end of the decade.

“Within a five-year period or so, they’ll have eight to nine of those submarines, which will be a persistent, proximate threat off of our East and West coast that we haven’t had ever in the past,” VanHerck said.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 17, Gilday, who is chief of naval operations, defended the Navy’s request for only eight new ships in 2022 by citing Russian submarine activity.

Four of those ships, including the first new TAGOS-class ocean-surveillance ship, are support ships “that we can’t wait on any longer,” Gilday said.

TAGOS ships have “a very unique capability to do wide-area search for submarines,” Gilday added. “If I look at Russia these days, well, not so long ago Russia only operated their submarines during a certain period of the year. Now they’re a pretty persistent threat against the East Coast of the United States, and so those kinds of capabilities become more and more important.”

The request also includes two Virginia-class attack submarines designed to hunt enemy submarines and armed with cruise missiles capable of long-distance strikes.

US ocean-surveillance ship USNS Effective in dry dock
US ocean-surveillance ship USNS Effective in dry dock in Yokosuka, Japan, September 13, 2007.

Vice Adm. Daryl L. Caudle, commander of Naval Submarine Forces, and Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, who is responsible for the East Coast as head of 2nd Fleet, have expressed similar concerns, warning that the US is no longer “a sanctuary” and that the East Coast is no longer “a safe haven.”

That concern is driven by the development of the Kalibr cruise missile, which gives Russian subs a land-attack capability.

The Kalibr’s range of 1,000 miles to 1,500 miles would allow Russian subs to strike strategically valuable targets, such as ports, in the US and Europe.

“Russia has developed a capability through long-range cruise missiles that provide a very low radar cross-section that are incredibly challenging to detect,” VanHerck said at the June 15 hearing in response to a question about cruise-missile threats.

In addition using bombers and surface ships, “Russia has developed capabilities from undersea with their advanced, very quiet, nearly on par with our submarines to field that capability,” VanHerck added, without mentioning the Kalibr specifically. “So I’m very concerned about the cruise-missile defense of the homeland.”

Russian submarine launching Kalibr cruise missile
Russia’s Veliky Novgorod and Kolpino submarines fire Kalibr cruise missiles at ISIS bases in Syria, September 14, 2017.

At a hearing in April, VanHerck said Northern Command didn’t see “indications” that a peer competitor was likely to attack the US “right now.”

But VanHerck cautioned that the capabilities those competitors were developing could “influence” the US military’s “ability to project power on our timeline.”

Since the end of the Cold War, the US hasn’t had to do “a lot of thinking” about threats like those posed by air- and sea-launched cruise missiles or by new weapons like hypersonic missiles, said Mark Gunzinger, an expert at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“Those are the kinds of threats that keep our combatant commanders awake at night,” Gunzinger told Insider in October.

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Russia is saying goodbye to its last Soviet-era ballistic-missile submarines. Here’s what’s replacing them.

Russian Navy ballistic missile submarine K-84 Yekaterinburg
Russian nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub K-84 Ekaterinburg in Murmansk, May 23, 2018.

  • Russia has announced plans to decommission the ballistic-missile submarine Ekaterinburg.
  • That will be the beginning of the end for the subs that have long been the backbone of the Soviet and Russian fleet.
  • They will be replaced by the Borei-class, Russia’s most advanced ballistic-missile sub.
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In April, the Russian Navy announced that the Ekaterinburg, its second-oldest Delta-IV-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, will begin its decommissioning process in 2022.

The sub has spent almost two years laid up at port in Severodvinsk, and its decommissioning will be the end of a more than 36-year career, one with its fair share of mishaps and accidents as part of the Soviet and Russian navies.

Ekaterinburg’s decommissioning is also the beginning of the end for the Delta-class series of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, or SSBN, that has been the backbone of the Soviet and Russian SSBN fleet for decades.

The Deltas will be replaced by the long-awaited and much-anticipated Borei-class.

The Delta series

Russian ballistic-missile submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye in Severomorsk
Russian ballistic-missile sub BS-64 Podmoskovye at the Northern Fleet base in Severomorsk, July 3, 2019.

Known in Russia as the Project 667BDRM Delfin-class, the Delta IV boats are the fourth and final iteration in a long series of 43 SSBNs, the first of which was introduced in the early 1970s.

At 544 feet long, Delta IVs have four torpedo tubes and 16 silos. They were originally armed with R-29RM Shtil submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, which were eventually upgraded to the R-29RMU Sineva in 2007. After 2014, some Delta IV boats were given the R-29RMU2 Layner SLBM as well.

The missiles are each capable of carrying four Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs, each of which contain warheads that can be directed to different targets. The Shtil’s MIRVs carried 100-kiloton nuclear warheads, while the Sineva’s and Layner’s carry 500-kiloton warheads.

Seven Delta IVs are in service with the Russian Navy. One of them, Podmoskovye, was converted into a Special Mission submarine in 2016 for intelligence missions.

Instead of carrying nuclear missiles, the Podmoskovye acts as a mothership, carrying underneath it smaller subs like the Losharik, a secretive nuclear submersible believed to be used for espionage and which suffered a deadly fire in July 2019. (Losharik could be out of service until 2025.)

Aside from the seven Delta IVs, one Delta-III-class submarine, Ryazan, is also in service. All Delta IVs are currently serving in Russia’s Northern Fleet, while the lone Delta III serves with the Pacific Fleet.

Ekaterinburg

Russian Navy submarine Yekaterinburg fire
A still image from RT footage shows crews trying to put out a fire aboard Ekaterinburg, December 29, 2011.

Ekaterinburg was the second Delta-IV-class boat to be built. Laid down in 1982 and commissioned in 1985, it has had an interesting history to say the least.

On August 6, 1989, during Operation Behemoth, Ekaterinburg attempted to launch all 16 of its R-29RM Shtil SLBMs while underwater – the first time any SSBN had tried such a feat. The first launch was successful, but a rocket-fuel leak in the second missile sparked a fire, causing the test to be terminated.

The missile itself was destroyed, but Ekaterinburg escaped without any serious damage. Exactly two years later, its sister-boat, Novomoskovsk, conducted the test successfully, launching all 16 missiles in three minutes and 44 seconds.

In 2011, a fire broke out on Ekaterinburg’s bow while it was in a floating drydock in Murmansk. Attempts to extinguish the blaze were unsuccessful, and the fire burned for almost a full day before it was decided to submerge the submarine to put out the fire.

While the fire was out, Ekaterinburg was heavily damaged and had to undergo a three-year repair process.

It was later revealed that Ekaterinburg was actually carrying its full load of nuclear SLBMs when the fire broke out, a violation of normal procedure. The decision to submerge, then, prevented what could have been the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

After being repaired, Ekaterinburg served as any other SSBN in the Russian Navy. It was involved in a few missile tests and conducted a number of patrols with the Northern Fleet.

Borei-class

Russia Borei ballistic missile submarine Yury Dolgoruky
Russia’s Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub Yury Dolgoruky at the Northern Fleet base in Gadzhiyevo, March 16, 2017.

Ekaterinburg and the rest of the Delta-IV boats will eventually be replaced by the Borei-class.

Though design work started in the mid-1980s, construction of the first Borei-class boat, Yury Dolgorukiy, did not begin until 1996, and it did not enter service until 2013.

Despite being smaller than the famous Typhoon-class, the Borei-class is considered the most advanced SSBN Russia has built. Features like new sonar systems and a pump-jet propulsion system make it considerably quieter than its predecessors. It also has a new suite of electronics and control systems.

The Borei-class has six torpedo tubes and 16 missile silos that house new RSM-56 Bulava SLBMs. The Bulava can carry anywhere between six to 10 MIRVs, each with 100- or 150-kiloton yields.

Russia Borei ballistic missile submarine Yury Dolgoruky
Russian Borei-A-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub Knyaz Vladimir at the naval base in Gadzhiyevo, July 3, 2020.

Like the Yasen-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, production of the Boreis hit repeated delays, which in turn allowed the Russians to refine the design.

As a result, the Borei-A subclass was created, with different dimensions and even more advanced tech.

There are currently four Boreis in service. The most recent of them, Knyaz Vladimir, was commissioned last year and is the first Borei-A in service. The next Borei-A, Knyaz Oleg, is currently undergoing sea trials.

Two of the Boreis are assigned to the Northern Fleet, while the other two are assigned to the Pacific Fleet. The Russian Navy plans to have 10 Boreis in service by the end of the decade.

The 10 Boreis were originally planned to be distributed evenly between the Northern and Pacific fleets, but after the Umka-2021 exercise, in which three Boreis surfaced through the Arctic at the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry reportedly decided to prioritize their delivery to the Northern Fleet.

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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.
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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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