The head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, has stated that Russian submarines now spend more days at-sea and on-patrol than at any time since the Cold War. These remarks, made during the launch of Russia’s newest nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Kazan, sound ominous, particularly given recent remarks by a Putin spokesperson that US-Russian relations are worse than at any point since the Cold War. In reality, the objective threat scenario is smaller and less dangerous than it might seem.
Kazan is a Yasen-class attack submarine (NATO reporting name, “Severodvinsk”), considered analogous to the United States’ SSGN (nuclear guided-missile submarine). The first ship of the class was laid down in 1993, but steep budget cuts and downsizing in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union meant K-560 didn’t launch until 2010 and wasn’t commissioned until 2013. Kazan‘s keel was laid down in 2009, with commissioning expected in 2018. In many ways, it’s the lead ship of the class, incorporating modern technology not available when Severodvinsk was designed. It’s capable of launching a wide range of missiles, it’s the first Russian submarine with a spherical sonar array, and while it’s not as stealthy or capable as the modern Virginia-class that the United States fields, it’s believed to substantially outperform the Los Angeles-class boats we built from 1972 to 1996.
Sub noise comparisons between US, Russian boats
There are a few things to consider when evaluating whether these new submarines constitute a shift in the status quo between the US and Russia. First, there’s the simple fact that the Russians operate a fraction of the submarines they fielded at the height of the Cold War, when it was standard policy for Soviet vessels to spend much less time at sea than their American counterparts. Much of the Russian fleet is made up of older submarine classes, and the seaworthiness of many of these is at least somewhat suspect. There’s currently one Yasen-class boat in service, with up to 12 planned. Compare that with the 36 Los Angeles-class, three Seawolf-class, and 13 Virginia-class submarines currently in service with the US Navy, and you get a sense of the discrepancy between the relative state of the US and Russian submarine fleets.
Russia’s modern Borey-class (equivalent to an American nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine) is another impressive boat, intended to replace the Delta III, Delta IV, and Typhoon classes. But again — the Russians have three in service with eight planned total, compared with the 18 “boomer” Ohio-class submarines in service with the US Navy today. Russia’s surface Navy isn’t exactly in great condition either; the country’s single aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (technically classified as an aircraft-cruiser to permit legal passage through the Turkish Straits) has long been plagued by mechanical problems and a critical lack of trained staff.
It would be a mistake to dismiss Russia’s ambitions. Vladimir Putin has made it extremely clear that he intends to return Russia to what he views as its rightful place. Putin’s own actions towards various EU countries and the United States in recent years are a virtual play-by-play enactment of right-wing Russian foreign policy recommendations in the 1990s intended to accomplish this aim. The former KGB agent has no qualms about using force, on the personal or the political stage. But Russia has been working to modernize its naval forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of the Kursk emphasized the poor state of its navy. The country’s new submarines are formidable — but then again, so are ours.