MOSCOW — Russia has launched the second boat in its new Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine fleet. The launch marks an important milestone in a procurement program that began in the 1980s and Russia's efforts to rebuild its nuclear submarine fleet.
Adm. Vladimir Korolyov, head of the Russian Navy, boasted that the Soviet Union's underwater presence has been restored.
"Last year, we operated at a level not seen in the post-Soviet era in terms of hours spent underway," Korolyov said Friday after the submarine, known as "Kazan," was floated out of dry dock at the Sevmash shipyard. "The Russian submarine fleet last year spent more than 3,000 days at sea. This is an excellent figure."
The launching ceremony was attended by top Russian defense officials. A bottle of champagne was broken over the bow by Kazan's future commander Capt. Alexander Beketov, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was on the scene to tweet photos of the ceremony. "It is a beautiful, powerful boat," Rogozin said on Twitter.
Атомная подводная лодка "Казань" спущена на воду! pic.twitter.com/RVJXr2fEQU
— Дмитрий Рогозин (@Rogozin) March 31, 2017
Korolyov fawned over the Kazan as it slid into the frigid waters of Russia's Arctic coast. "The launch of an advanced multirole submarine is quite an event for the entire country and its Navy," he said. "We are in the process of creating a submarine fleet capable of carrying out tasks around the world and ensuring Russia's national security."
For the Russian Navy, the launch of the second boat could not come a moment sooner. While Russia's submarine fleet has always held pride of place when it came time to hash out defense budgets, ballistic missile submarines have been jealously guarded line items. In the 20 years it took to build the first Yasen-class submarine, Soviet-built attack submarines have aged poorly.
"There has been a sharp reduction in the number of multipurpose nuclear submarines in the fleet (such as the Akula-, Sierra and- Victor-class boats) with nothing to replace them," said Andrei Frolov, managing editor of Moscow Defense Brief, a monthly publication from the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
The story of the Yasen-class submarines has been a troubled one. Commissioned near the end of the Cold War, the keel of the first boat, the Severodvinsk, was laid down in 1993. But post-Soviet budget cuts saw the program grind to a halt by the the mid-1990s.
Only amid a boom in global commodity prices was the program resumed in the mid-2000s. And so on June 15, 2010, at the Sevmash shipyard, Russia launched the K-329 Severodvinsk, a fourth-generation multipurporse submarine (as seen in this article's top photo).
The Yasen-class submarine bears a superficial resemblance to the Akula-class submarines of the Cold War, of which the design would have been contemporary. But when construction resumed more than a decade ago, the Yasen design reportedly went through a significant overhaul. It is not publicly known how closely the final design resembles plans drawn up in design bureaus in the 1980s.
"The industry collapsed as the boat was laid down, leading to delays in financing and a need to find new suppliers," Frolov said. "Plus, the concept of the project itself changed over time in response to shifting requirements, and components that had become obsolete required replacement, etc. Actual construction on the first boat in fact only began in the early 2000s."
The lead boat of the Yasen-class is also itself reportedly different than the newest boat. Russia has designated the second hull Project 885M, denoting additional modifications. The cost of a Yasen has been reported in the Russian press as falling at about $1.5 billion per hull. The design's capabilities are unknown, but Russian news reports paint a picture of a capable boat.
The Yasen-class measures in at 390 feet long, with a displacement just shy of 14,000 tons. It has a crew complement of 64, which commentators say suggests extreme automation of ship systems. Its maximum operating depth is reported to be almost 2,000 feet, and it can travel up to 20 knots without breaking silence beneath the surface.
Kalibr for all
Most interesting is the Kazan's apparent weapons complement. An important function of a Russian submarine is the launch of guided cruise missiles. After all, the primary role for the Russian Navy is to keep U.S. carrier battle groups away from the coast. Combined with land-based bombers armed with standoff cruise missiles, submarines are designed to overwhelm missile defenses.
Such missiles are versatile and suited for a variety of roles, including land strike. New Russian cruise missiles, such as the Kalibr, are being outfitted on platforms across the fleet. Yasen is no exception. However, its tubes are reportedly not dedicated Kalibr platforms, but rather universal missile tubes capable of hosting Oniks-type anti-ship missiles as well.
"Russia has some serious plans for its submarines," according to Pavel Podvig, an expert in Russia's nuclear forces. "Most of them will be cruise missile carriers, intended to be used in conventional strikes. But Russia has the ability to deploy nuclear long-range, sea-launched cruise missiles (like Kalibr) as well. They might not, but it is something that would be hard to ignore."
While Russia's state armament program through 2020 has allocated money for building up to six Yasen-class boats, significant effort is being poured into keeping what remains of older classes, like the Oscar II guided-missile subs, competitive and in service. Two weeks ago, Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov said the Oscar submarines would be modernized for Kalibr launches.
Russia certainly has newer, Kalibr-capable submarines in service. The improved Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines, for example, demonstrated their utility as a missile-launch platform in Syria. Although Russian yards have been busy pumping out these smaller submarines for years, "they really can't replace the nuclear multipurpose boats," Frolov noted.
The numbers bear this out. According to open-source data, Russia has just 27 nuclear-powered multipurpose and fast-attack submarines in service. The U.S. Navy, by contrast, has about 60 similar vessels in service, with a handful more on the way. Even if Russia completes the estimated six boats of the Yasen-class, it will remain behind the United States.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.