Russia's Next Super Submarine Is Almost Ready for War
Moscow's first Project-885 Yasen-class sub, K-329 Severodvinsk, is set to deploy on its first combat training mission. Should the West worry?
The Russian Navy’s first Project-885 Yasen-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, K-329 Severodvinsk, is set to deploy on its first combat training mission.
The new submarine recently completed operational testing after being accepted into service in June 2014. Prior to that, the boat had been undergoing pre-delivery sea trials since September 2011.
“Operations trials of the Severodvinsk submarine are over and the submarine is ready to fulfill its designated missions,” Russian Northern Fleet spokesman Vadim Serga told the Moscow-based TASS news agency. “The Severodvinsk’s crew is currently completing measures necessary to put the submarine into service and to take to sea for planned combat training sessions."
Severodvinsk and her more advanced Project-885M sister ships are capable vessels. “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.” Rear Adm. Dave Johnson, Naval Sea Systems Command’s (NAVSEA) program executive officer (PEO) submarines said during the 2014 Naval Submarine League’s symposium in Falls Church, Va. “The rest of the world’s undersea capability never stands still.”
Severodvinsk leverages many of the automation technologies the Soviet Union invested in during the 1970s and 1980s with the Project 705 Lira-class boats—better known by their NATO-code name as the Alfa-class. The Alfa-class submarines—which were built with a titanium hull and liquid-metal cooled reactor—were the fastest and deepest diving operational submarines ever built—save for the lone Soviet Project 661 Anchar-class (NATO: Papa-class) boat. As such, the 13,800-ton, 390-foot long, submarine is highly automated vessel with a crew of only 32 officers and 58 enlisted submariners.
The U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World noted that some reports suggest the vessel might have a maximum speed of between 35 and 40 knots. It is far quieter than previous Russian submarines and has a maximum “silent” speed of about 20 knots. Like most new nuclear submarine designs, Severodvinsk reactor is designed to last for the life of the boat.
According to the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), while the new Russian submarine is quieter than the Improved Los Angeles-class boats, the new vessel is not quite as silent as the Seawolf or Virginia-class. However, the Russians were always only lagging slightly behind the U.S. in quieting technology according to Navy sources.
Unlike most Soviet submarine designs, the Yasen-class boats do not make use of a double-hull—instead it has hybrid design with a lighter structure over the vessel’s pressure hull according to Russian media reports. Another unique feature for a Russian vessel is that it incorporates a spherical bow sonar called the Irtysh-Amfora for the first time. As a result, Severodvinsk has its torpedo tubes located at about mid-ship like U.S. submarines. The vessel has eight torpedo tubes, four of which are 650mm tubes while the rest are 533mm tubes. Combat Fleets of the World estimates that the Yasen-class may carry as many as 30 torpedoes.
But the Russians are well aware that time has not stood still since 1993 when Severodvinsk was laid down. The Russian navy is set to take delivery of an improved Project 885M Yasen-class attack submarine in 2016 according to Russian state media, which is named after the city of Kazan. The new Project 885M boat incorporates many improvements over Severodvinsk. Kazan is expected to have improved sensors and weapon systems compared to Severodvinsk. It is also likely to be quieter than Severodvinsk. The Russian navy hopes to procure a minimum of eight Yasen-class attack boats. Four boats have been ordered thus far with a third vessel, Novosibirsk, having been laid down in July 2013.
While the Project 885M is an impressive and very capable vessel, it is not quite an equal to the latest American Virginia-class boats in terms of acoustical or sensor performance. In terms of raw performance, the Severodvinsk and her sisters are likely more similar to the U.S. Navy’s three Seawolf-class attack boats, which according to Navy sources were designed specifically to counter late generation Soviet vessel like the Project 941 Akula—also known more commonly as the Typhoon— Project 971 Shchuka-B (oddly code-named Akula by NATO) and the Project 945 Sierra-class boats.
The Yasen-class boats are fast, heavily armed and deep diving—and ideally the United States would have more Seawolf-class vessels to handle them. The Virginia-class subs don’t have the deep diving, high-speed open ocean performance of the Seawolf-class, but it should be enough to handle the handful of Project 885Ms that Russia builds.
Meanwhile, the Russians are working on a next-generation submarine to replace the Project 949A Antey (Oscar II) and Project 945 Sierra-class boats. Construction should start in the 2020s if Russia’s economy recovers.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.