The number of Russian submarines sailing in distant waters increased by half between the summers of 2018 and 2019, one U.S. general warned.
The spike in Russian sub activity is consistent with recent trends in the Kremlin’s naval deployments.
But don’t count on it lasting. The Russian fleet like many advanced navies is losing old submarines faster than it can acquire new ones.
American forces observed a “50-percent increase in the number of resources in the undersea that Russia committed" to long-range submarine patrols, U.S. Air Force general Tod Wolters, the head of the Pentagon’s European Command, told U.S. senators on Feb. 25, 2020.
The high pace of deployments continued through the fall of 2019. The Russian navy in mid-October of that year sortied eight submarines in the country’s biggest undersea exercise since the Cold War.
The eight submarines, including six nuclear-powered ships, sailed from their bases in northern Russia into the cold waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. At the same time, an additional two boats -- the nuclear-powered Sierra-class attack submarines Pskov and Nizhny Novgorod -- sailed into roughly the same waters for tests and training.
The 10 vessels represent around 20 percent of the Russian submarine force. For comparison, the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its roughly 30 subs as recently as 2013 reliably could deploy eight boats on short notice.
The U.S. fleet in total operates more than 50 submarines split between the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets. This number is shrinking.
The eight vessels in the planned, 60-day Russian exercise are practicing protecting a “bastion” of open ocean in which Russian ballistic-missile submarines can hide. “The aim of the massive operation is to get as far out to the North Atlantic as possible without being discovered by NATO,” Barents Observer noted, citing Norwegian intelligence sources speaking to news outlet NRK.
The Russian exercise seems to underscore Moscow’s new approach to undersea warfare. While the current war game reportedly is defensive in nature, the same submarines could conduct offensive operations from the same waters, striking NATO warships and launching long-range land-attack missiles.
The surge in Russian sub-activity was evident as early as 2018. “We're talking about more (activity) than we've seen in 25 years,” U.S. Navy admiral John Richardson, then the chief of naval operations, warned in August 2018.
In July 2018 the Pentagon re-established its 2nd Fleet to oversea combat operations off the U.S. East Coast. The fleet had been idle since 2011.
The East Coast no longer is a “safe haven” for American warships, U.S. Navy vice admiral Andrew Lewis, the 2nd Fleet commander, said at an industry event in early February 2020.
"We have seen an ever-increasing number of Russian submarines deployed in the Atlantic, and these submarines are more capable than ever, deploying for longer periods of time, with more lethal weapons systems,” Lewis said.
"Our new reality is that when our sailors toss the lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave Norfolk," Lewis added. "Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location."
But the Kremlin probably cannot sustain its current high volume of undersea operations.
The Russian navy’s submarine force, arguably the fleet’s most important component, is about to shrink. Potentially a lot.
There are 62 submarines of all classes in commission with the Russian navy. Fifty-five are front-line vessels and the rest are test and research vessels. There are 10 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, nine nuclear cruise-missile submarines, 14 nuclear attack submarines and 22 conventional attack submarines.
Most of the front-line submarines date from the 1980s and ‘90s. “There are still quite a few old, Soviet-era vessels carrying a major part of the burden, both attack submarines and ballistic-missile boats,” Iain Ballantyne, editor of Warships International Fleet Review, told The National Interest. “For how much longer such elderly vessels can be sent to sea while waiting for more new ones to enter service is debatable.”
By the late 2020s or early 2030s, the Russian navy could lose all but 12 of its existing subs. If Moscow succeeds in producing all the new submarines it currently plans to acquire, the total undersea fleet could top out at just 28 boats. Half its current strength.
“There will come a time when a whole swathe of the Russian submarine force both in the Northern Fleet and the Pacific Fleet – the most important naval formations -- will no longer be operational, leaving huge gaps,” Ballantyne said.