The Russian Navy is massively arming up its fleet of attack submarines through a weapons modernization effort intended to add as many as forty-eight new undersea-launched cruise missiles.
The move, according to Russian’s TASS news agency, seekers to grow the strike capabilities of its nuclear-powered Irkutsk submarine two-fold through an upgrade program called Project 949AM.
“Currently, the nuclear-powered submarine Irkutsk is undergoing repairs and upgrades at the Far Eastern Zvezda ship repair plant. A source earlier told TASS that the sub’s strike capabilities would grow at least two-fold after its upgrade and it would be capable of carrying 48 new Kalibr-PL, Oniks, and Tsirkon missiles,” the paper says.
The missiles being added are significant. Russia’s submarine and ship-launched cruise missile, the Kalibr-PL, was first discovered by the United States in 2015 when Russia launched twenty-six cruise missiles against eleven targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea, traveling 1,500km, according to a report from deagle.com. The deagle report also says the weapons rely upon both GPS and inertial measurement guidance technology, not too unlike the U.S. Tomahawk which can reach up to 900 nautical miles. The Tsirkon is an emerging submarine-launched hypersonic missile.
It seems very interesting to note that this Russian effort to massively up-arm attack submarines very closely parallels the ongoing U.S. Navy initiative to build Virginia-class attack submarines with an added Virginia Payload Module. Those modules are eighty-foot sections that raise the number of on-board Tomahawk cruise missiles from twelve all the way up to forty. The firepower increase, which is both ongoing and very substantial, is being added as part of the Navy’s Block V Virginia-class construction effort. It is already well underway, and the move is intended to replace the massive amount of Tomahawk firepower carried by the four soon-to-retire SSGNs, guided-missile Ohio-class submarines.
Often the first used weapon of war, Tomahawk missiles can pinpoint targets ashore from ranges out to 900 nautical miles, use a two-way data link to adjust targeting information and “loiter” above target areas as needed. Even more recently, the Navy’s Maritime Tomahawk variant is engineered with technology enabling it to destroy moving enemy ships. It appears it would be interesting to know if any of these Russian submarine-launched cruise missiles now being added possess any kind of comparable technical ability. Moscow may not have the same targeting capabilities as American Tomahawks. However, in terms of sheer volume of cruise missiles, it does appear that the Russians seek to surpass the U.S. Virginia-class Block V VPM boats armed with forty Tomahawks by building submarines armed with forty-eight cruise missiles.
A Russian effort to match or surpass the emerging firepower being built into Virginia-class U.S. Navy boats is certain to surprise no one at the Pentagon.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.