WASHINGTON — The Russian Navy's submarine force is on a roll.
Four different kinds of submarines are under construction and more are coming. The country expects to lay down five new nuclear submarines in 2015.
The Navy is accepting Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines, and Kilo- and Lada-class diesel electric attack submarines. Six Kilos are being built for Vietnam and more are offered for export.
This rate of construction is beginning to look more like Cold War days rather than the lethargic shipbuilding rates prevalent since the 1990s.
By comparison, the US only recently returned to building two nuclear attack submarines per year, and industry is gearing up to begin construction of a new class of ballistic submarines in 2021 — a three-subs-per-year construction rate not seen since the Reagan era.
Combine the revived Russian submarine construction rate with President Vladimir Putin's aggressive stances of the past year, along with the steady drumbeat of Chinese naval expansion, and the question might be asked — is a submarine race going on?
"I know a lot of folks like the term arms race, but I think it's more complicated than that," said Thomas Mahnken, a former US defense official and now a professor at the Naval War College. "There's definitely competition going on — with the US, other NATO navies, China — but there's also modernization going on. An increasing portion of what Russia is doing is replacing aging systems or systems that already have been retired."
"I would be skeptical," cautioned Norman Friedman, a longtime naval analyst and author. "There's a history in that country of laying down things that don't get finished for a long time. No question they'll lay down the subs, but actually building them after that is a more interesting question."
The Russians frequently issue proclamations that they intend to increase naval construction, including statements about building a fleet of aircraft carriers. But ship construction remains modest, and the Navy remains largely a collection of Cold War relics. Yet Russia has a long tradition of building tough and innovative submarines.
"The Russians have put their money where their mouth is with regard to submarine construction and development," said Bryan Clark, a former US Navy submariner and strategist, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They see that as a way to generate an asymmetric advantage over US forces. If they can develop a really high-end submarine force like they did in the Cold War, it would create a problem for US naval planners and strategists thinking through how to deal with a potential Russian threat — one that could emerge without a lot of warning."
The most lethal new subs are those of the Yuri Dolgoruky class, also known as the Project 955 Borey class. Construction of the Dolgoruky has been a protracted affair — the ship was laid down at the Sevmash military shipyard in Severodvinsk in 1996 but not launched until 2007. Sea trials began in 2009, but development of the ship's primary weapon, the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), itself has been fraught with problems. It was only in 2014 that the submarine submerged with a full load of 16 ICBMs, according to Russian media.
A second Borey, the Alexander Nevsky, was laid down in March 2004 and began sea trials in 2011. Like the Dolgoruky, the ship and its missiles have experienced numerous problems, and trials continued at least through 2013. Vladimir Monomakh, the third Borey, was commissioned last December after eight years of construction and trials.
Three more Boreys are under construction, and Russian Navy chief Adm. Viktor Chirkov said in December two more would be laid down in 2015, for a total of eight, all expected to be in service by 2020.
The design of the Dolgorukys uses many features of earlier submarines. In fact, the first units used pieces and components built for earlier submarines that were either scrapped or never finished. Russian media reports indicate the Vladimir Monomakh used significant hull components of the decommissioned Akula-class attack submarine Ak Bars.
"I get the feeling for all the big talk from the Russians about building a new fleet, they're probably having trouble getting stuff," Friedman said. "For the first subs, they used pieces from earlier subs."
The Dolgoruky carried out an operational test firing of a Bulava in October, the Itar-Tass news agency reported — the third successful test launch since a September 2013 failure — and two more will take place in 2015.
Meanwhile, construction of Yasen-class Project 885M nuclear attack submarines is picking up. The first unit, Severodvinsk, was commissioned at the end of 2013 after a 20-year construction period, during which the submarine underwent significant re-design. A second unit, laid down in 2009 at Sevmash, could be delivered this year.
Two more Yasens were laid down in 2014. Itar-Tass reported on Dec. 26 that Mikhail Budnichenko, head of Sevmash, said three Project 885 Yasen-class subs would be laid down this year along with two Boreys.
Non-nuclear submarine construction also continues. Along with several Kilo-class subs being built for the Russian Navy and export, at least one more Lada-class diesel-electric submarine is to begin construction this year.
Numbers vs. Effectiveness
But can Russia sustain this prodigious submarine construction effort?
"The naval production we're likely to see this year is an artifact of decisions made some time ago when oil prices were fairly high and before a number of Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia," Mahnken said. "Whatever the Russians do this year, I think it'll be very hard for them to sustain naval production going forward."
Added Friedman: "Putin doesn't have that much money. And with the drop in oil prices, they have very bad problems."
With the post-1990 decline in shipbuilding, Friedman said, the shipyards have lost much of their submarine-building expertise.
"A lot of people quit the yards" when construction all but ended, he said. "If they lost a lot of their smarter people, there's a difficulty in recreating what they had. Coming back 15 years later and trying to recreate it is kind of dubious."
"Their industrial base is weakened from two decades of not being used," he said. "You've got a significant reduction in the number of skilled engineers, the aging out of people who otherwise would be part of the Russian design base.
"While Russian engineering and technology development is top-notch, they don't necessarily have the people to be able to do all the legwork necessary to take an idea into a reality. That's why you see things like submarines taking 10 or more years to construct, because they just don't have the design and construction base to support high-rate production."
But are the new submarines cause for worry?
The Yasen attack subs "are probably what you could get in 1989, plus improved combat systems," Friedman said. "They got access to microprocessors and things like that. But they're not going to the insertion of new technology, because they're not that flexible. But I would guess the combat systems have improved substantially."
Clark sees no cause for alarm in the pace of Russian submarine construction.
"They don't have very many submarines today, and they certainly don't have very many frontline submarines that would be anywhere close to US submarines," he said. "The best submarines the Russians are producing are perhaps equivalent to some of the older US submarines currently in use. It would take a while for the Russians to build up enough of those to where they create a potential problem for the US.
"The main concern," Clark added, "is that even a small number of very good submarines can be problematic from an intelligence-gathering and surprise strike kind of perspective. But they're not able to cause a debilitating effect to a fleet."