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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