Russian Navy postpones upgrade of third-generation nuclear submarines

Several years ago, the media published plans of the Russian Navy to upgrade Antey-class SSGN of project 949A. They had to become able to fire Kalibr missiles. Open sources said each submarine would have 72 missiles. However, there are fears that the program has been suspended. Only two SSGN — the K-132 Irkutsk and the K-442 Chelyabinsk are being upgraded. The situation with submarines of other projects is even worse. No multirole third-generation nuclear submarine has undergone medium overhaul and upgrade. The Vzglyad business newspaper writes about the reasons and consequences.
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Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001K-132 Irkutsk (Picture source: Russian Navy)

It became clear in the 2000s that the weapons of the submarines do not meet modern requirements. The supreme commander-in-chief demanded to increase the number of Kalibr carriers. The Navy drafted a plan in the late 2000s to upgrade third-generation SSGN of projects 971 and 945A.

The leading designers submitted their proposals in 2008. Rubin dealt with project 949A, Lazurit — titanium submarines of project 945A, Malakhit — project 971. 2009 was a landmark year for the Navy, as it began to receive money for the upgrade of the first submarines planned that year.

The appropriations could rapidly and briefly upgrade the subs. They had to undergo medium overhaul and modernization. The main systems had to be overhauled and electronics replaced. The fourth-generation weapons (including Kalibr cruise missiles) had to be integrated.

The overhaul and upgrade had to extend the life cycle by ten years. Had the plan been implemented, Russia would have had a different firepower of its Navy. A pair of project 949A and a pair of other submarines would have been upgraded by now. They would have brought the total firepower of Russian nuclear submarines to 200 Kalibr missiles.

At present, the total firepower of available and constructed warships slightly exceeds 150 Kalibr missiles. It means Buyan-M-class corvettes of project 21631 could be abandoned, as they are less effective than submarines. The number of upgraded subs could have doubled by 2022-2023, as well as the firepower.

A corvette with guided missiles is appropriate in the inland Caspian Sea. A pair of nuclear submarines targeting hundreds of objects in the USA is quite another thing. It is a completely new firepower level.

But something went wrong and the project stalled. The upgrade of third-generation subs did not begin in 2009 or later. In 2013, the work slowly began by an amended program with the Irkutsk K-132 and the Chelyabinsk K-442 subs of project 949A. The Leopard K-328 is the only sub of project 971 undergoing a medium overhaul and likely rearmament with Kalibr missiles. It is also known that the Volk K-461 is undergoing medium overhaul and modernization.

Other submarines of project 971 have technical readiness restored rather than undergo a medium overhaul to extend the life cycle by ten years. Modernization is replaced by an upgrade of specific systems.

Without modernization the Russian third-generation nuclear submarines retained the combat potential of 1980s. Did the Navy lose a lot? Yes. The example is offered by the Americans who are experienced in maintaining old warships and submarines in proper order by upgrading them. Russia could have received a comparable effect. Project 945 submarines and project 949A SSGN could have reduced acoustic signature. Project 971 could have decreased the noise. The long-range antisubmarine speed weapons (Otvet missiles and Lasta antitorpedoes) can seize the initiative and win even if the adversary engages weapons first. It means Lasta and Otvet can win an underwater duel with the latest Virginia-class SSN which do not have such weapons.

However, it is an impossible option for most Russian nuclear submarines. Besides the Irkutsk, the Chelyabinsk, the Leopard and potentially the Volk, no other submarine has undergone intermediate overhaul and upgrade. It was announced at Army-2020 forum that another two submarines of project 971 would be upgraded. It is good, but it is 2020 already.

The state of submarines which had to be upgraded in 2009-2010 has deteriorated. The fatigue of metal has increased. The trunk cable lines are 11 years older than in 2009 and their replacement is a costly business. Ten years ago most submarines could have been upgraded. Today it is necessary to decide whether there is any sense to upgrade them.

Project 971 subs are likely to have combat readiness restored with a slight modernization. Their life cycle can no longer be extended as it had been planned. Project 949A SSGN are likely to continue operating without major improvements and Granit antiship missiles as the main weapon.

The Russian submarines are restricted in operations and will be decommissioned by the end of the decade. It was announced that new submarines would be built. However, the only SSGN that can be currently built are Yasen-M-class project 885M subs.

They are very expensive. Russia officially operates seven subs of project 949A (including two undergoing modernization) and nine of project 971 (including all those in overhaul and upgrade), two SSN of projects 945 and 945A and a pair of SSN of project 671RTMK. Some of them are combat ready, others are in overhaul or awaiting it.

Russia is building and testing only eight project 885M SSGN to replace them. All the submarines have to become operational in 2028. The Severodvinsk lead Yasen-class sub of project 885 is already operational. The Kazan first sub of project 885M is to be launched this year and the Novosibirsk second sub in 2021. It is everything the Navy can get.

It means the number of nuclear submarines (except SSBN) will halve by 2030 and the construction costs of project 885M SSGN will grow. Had all the third-generation submarines undergone timely modernization, the transition would be smooth as decommissioning pace of the subs would be slower.

One upgraded submarine of project 949A could have carried 72 Kalibr missiles. Project 885M SSGN has two times less. The firepower of old submarines could have been bigger.

As a result, one can forecast a considerable decrease in the strength of the nuclear underwater fleet and major expenses for new nuclear submarines. What can be done in such a situation? It is at least necessary to clarify the reasons of the problems often faced by the Russian Navy, the Vzglyad said.

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