Thursday, March 24, 2016

Russian Submarine Fleet

It’s always helpful to understand the enemy order of battle.  To that end, let’s look at the Russian submarine fleet.  Here’s a nice summary.

“The Russian Navy currently has 15 ballistic missile submarines — 10 in the North Fleet and 5 in the Pacific Fleet. The North Fleet currently has seven such vessels in service: one submarine of the 955 Borey (“Boreas”) class [Borei], one of the 941 Akula (“Shark”) class, and five of the 667BDRM ‘Dolphin’ class [Delta IV]. 

The strategic forces of the Pacific Fleet consist of two 955 Borey class submarines and three submarines of the 667BDR Kalmar (“Squid”) class [Delta III] that are nearing the end of their life cycle (one of them is undergoing repairs). This means that four submarines are battle-worthy.”

“11 ballistic missile submarines are now ready for combat duty in the Russian Navy.” (1)

According to Wiki, the Russian submarine fleet consists of the following.

13 Ballistic Missile Subs (SSBN)

  • 1 Typhoon (commissioned 1981)
  • 3 Delta III (commissioned late 1970’s)
  • 6 Delta IV (commissioned late 1980’s)
  • 3 Borei (commissioned 2013-4) – replacing the outdated Typhoon and Delta classes; 8 planned

7 Cruise Missile Subs (SSGN)

  • 7 Oscar II (commissioned early 1990’s)

18 Nuclear Attack Subs (SSN)

  • 1 Sierra I  (commissioned 1987)
  • 2 Sierra II (commissioned early 1990’s)
  • 4 Victor III  (commissioned early 1990’s)
  • 10 Akula  (commissioned 1990’s)
  • 1 Yasen  (commissioned early 2014) – replacing the Akula class

21 Conventional Attack Subs (SSK)

  • 16 Kilo  (commissioned late 1980’s)
  • 4 Improved Kilo (commissioned 2014-5)
  • 1 Lada (commissioned 2010)

Other sources list one or two fewer or greater numbers in each category, reflecting the uncertainty and difficulty in obtaining accurate numbers.

Jane’s has noted that some ships remain technically in service but have little operational capability.  In addition to operational questions, the Russian fleet is severely constrained by budget and many subs are poorly maintained and probably not realistically operational.  Budget issues also prevent many subs from operating even if technically capable.

“According to Nenashev [Captain 1st Rank Mikhail Nenashev, Chairman of the All-Russia Fleet Support Movement], Russia can now afford to have at least two ballistic missile submarines out at sea at all times — one each for the North Fleet and the Pacific Fleet. During the period of an active threat, three submarines from each one of these fleets can be deployed at sea, …”

“According to Kurdin [Captain 1st Rank Igor Kurdin, Chairman of the Submarine Sailors' Club], there were periods when not a single submarine was at sea, and only a handful of them were on combat alert duty near piers at their home bases.” (1)*

*Note:  I am not familiar with this source and cannot assign a level of credibility to it.  Take it as informational.

My general impression is that half the listed subs are actually operational, at best, and very, very few actually operate at any given moment.  Several sources suggest even fewer are operational.

Further, the majority of the subs represent dated technology and would not be considered significant threats today.  The Sierras, early Kilos, Deltas, and Oscars, at a minimum, are marginally effective, at best.  The Akulas are competent subs but no longer the threat they once were.


Finally, the Russian capabilities and strategies would probably preclude much in the way of far reaching submarine activities in the event of war.  Russia’s priorities are strategic deterrence and coastal defense.  Neither role will result in Russian submarines flooding the world’s oceans with their presence.  The majority would probably be retained in protected bastions close to home.  Russia simply no longer has the numbers, budget, or resources to conduct extensive world wide submarine operations.  During a major war, only a few submarines would likely operate in open oceans.  These would constitute a nuisance but hardly a significant threat. 


All of this ties in with my previous views on P-3/8 ASW aircraft and their role in war.  We see from this that the Russian submarine fleet does not constitute a world-ranging threat and this leads, in part, to questioning the need for, and role of, the P-3/8 and the numbers of aircraft required.

(1)Russia and India Report, “More Russian nuclear submarines deployed in the Pacific”, 2 April 2015, Roman KretsulVzglyad


  1. Russian navy is conducting worldwide sub deployments NOW. At levels not seen since dissolution of USSR.

    1. A couple of odd subs venturing out once in a while does not make a world-spanning threat.

      The referenced article has zero data on deployments, numbers, locations, distances, or anything other than vague "more active than before" statements.

      Further, the tactical proficiency of current Russian submarines has to be considered quite suspect. Whatever level of proficiency they had during the Cold War (also suspect) has long since vanished. They may, over the next 20 years, reacquire some degree of tactical proficiency but they won't constitute a threat for the foreseeable future.

    2. "A couple of odd subs venturing out once in a while does not make a world-spanning threat."

      Some pretty smart folks in the know would apparently disagree.

      Consider this: we are opening Keflavik back up. Why would we do that if Russian submarines were not a concern?

  2. Russian Navy has purportedly doubled number of days underway since 2015.

    1. Purportedly. Russian announcements are even less accurate and trustworthy than US Navy announcements!

  3. I think Russian is operating at a higher tempo which is good for them, probably because as numbers from ComNavOps indicate, they have far fewer ships than during Cold War and they are far more modern so tempo should better. Considering the numbers USN, French,UK navies have,etc,we should be able to deal with a resurgent Russian Navy.

    1. I am not as sanguine that we can easily counter Russian sub force.

      Nor do I believe utility of MPA will diminish. UK apparently agrees, since they are now buying P-8A too.

    2. What he said, with the caveat, that the British, French, German, Italian plus assorted minor Euro's naval capabilities alone are at the very least a match for the Russian Northern and Mediterranean fleets. France and UK alone match Russia's nuclear submarines, and Germany and sundry have the conventional fleets covered, numbers alone.
      That's both Sub and Surface forces.
      Won't delve into the land elements here, but again... Euro's economy is 17ish trillion dollars, etc...

    3. Russia has more submarines than all of those countries combined.

      And it's not like those nations act in a unified manner. France tends to do its own thing. Germany is not particular confrontational. Italy is only concerned about Med.

      UK is most steadfast ally. They have a total of six SSNs. And zero maritime patrol aircraft but will soon be getting P-8As.

    4. 7. With Astute class being 30% larger with 50% more weapons capability than the previous class.
      Britain also operates quite a considerable fleet of other anti-submarine assets, designed to contain Russia’s norther fleet and Mediterranean fleets.
      These frigates, helicopters and submarines are arguably the world’s best ASW assets.
      And have largely contained the USSR within the North Sea and within the Mediterranean throughout the cold war.
      On topic;
      I think the numbers are misrepresentative. I’m sure they have the hulls, and they are on the books as “active”, I very much doubt that each hull is 100% capable (if operational at all)
      We have seen however. Sub launched cruise missiles from a Russian sub in the last few months.
      Akula was certainly an impressive bit of kit as was “typhoon” SSBN. I have to assume the modern versions remain highly capable. Sub surface, remember was often considered an area the USSR was pushing the frontiers of during the Cold War.

    5. Ben,
      Ignore the hype. You're largely spot on. The UK alone spends nearly as much as Russia on its armed forces, its economy is doubly Russias, alone. It has a fraction of the ground forces, and a comparable air force to the Russians, so, RN is likely alone a match for Russian naval forces in North sea, and Med, certainly once you count in the other NATO forces working in the Med, like the parochial Italians, the Spanish, French, Russia is overmatched there too.
      Sure, the Russians are increasing activities, and they're even building Corvettes and small frigates again, but that would appear to be the limits of their naval building capacity. They're only now getting their Sub building back on track, and are a decade or more away from fielding modern day Destroyers, and 2 decades from being able to build a carrier. RN is finishing off 2 in the next year.

      It really is a numbers game. Russia just doesnt have the capacity of the Soviet Union to keep up with NATO spending, even the top 5 Euro NATO nations alone outspends Russia on defence 3 to 1.

    6. Thanks.

      To be honest the RN’s ability to contain the Russian fleet and subs is partially geographical.

      Between Gibraltar and the UK-Iceland gap, it’s extremely difficult to get to open water. Surface vessels have to sail right by us and could not withstand maritime attack from the RAF off land bases. And the shallows \ narrows of the Channel and Gibraltar straights are frankly a bugger to get any sub through at the best of times.

      In effect we just have to close the Iceland gap to sub surface contacts and for most of the year the oceans are free of pesky Ruskies.

      This of course is simplistic. Sub’s are bound to get through occasionally, and a recent contact near Faslane last year pretty much confirms this.

      The problem of course is you’re never going to know how many subs are getting through.

      The percentage of British military budget dedicated to ASW is very high. Possibly the highest.

      Historically during WW2 we invented ASW and this was our “job” during the cold war.

      Re: The numbers game. Sub warfare is partially designed to get around that concept. The ‘fear’ of a sub can control a massive amount of ocean, even if one isn’t there. The only ( single ) engagement of an SSN in wartime nullified an entire Navy. So we can’t really dismiss even an apparently small number of top flight SSN as insignificant.

    7. "The only ( single ) engagement of an SSN in wartime nullified an entire Navy."

      Curious: Which engagement was that?

    8. Presumably, Ben was referring to the Falklands War in which a RN SSN effectively neutralized the Argentinian Navy. That, though, was hardly a peer affair. The Arg Navy had no effective ASW. The reverse occurred to a large degree as well as the threat of Arg subs caused ASW effort all out of proportion to the actual threat (in hindsight, of course).

    9. I believe the only wartime use of SSNs is the Falklands War, however, diesel submarines saw action during some of the India-Pakistan Wars, with much the same outcome.
      Forces unable to allocate disproportionate resources to ASW have little option but to run away or face destruction.
      Were it not for a faulty fuze, one of the Belgrano escorts, Bouchard, would have been sank as well.

      The UK gives SSNs battleship names because they are modern battleships, minus the shore bombardment bit.

    10. *Were it not for a faulty fuze, one of the Belgrano escorts, Bouchard, would have been sank as well.

      And to be fair, had the orders been to sink all three ships, a larger and/or second salvo would have done for the survivors.

  4. CNO,
    Yes, the former Soviet fleet is now a Russian shadow of its former self, still a dangerous strike force, but not the former threat with the potential capability of being able to close the Atlantic off from REFORGER.
    Its being rebuilt, but, its still likely at least a decade and a half from being able to field even 1/3rd of its former numbers. Again, its a numbers game. US GDP is 17 trillion dollars, vs the Russian GDP of 1.4 trillion dollars. Russia isn't Americas rival any more, despite Putins dreams of restoring Russian western Hegemony.
    But, keeping on the numbers theme, China, with a GDP of some 7-9 trillion dollars (who knows, no verifiable figure released by that totalitarian regime), and a growing navy, in both competence and numbers (read budget). So while the Russian navy survives on soviet leftovers, the Chinese navy is picking up where the Soviets left off. Another place where China is picking up where Soviets left off, is in regional hegemony, so while Soviet Russia always had their eyes on Europe and threatened US allies/interests in the West, the Chinese are trying to do the same in the East.
    How that manifests itself is the great question. I fear you're likely right and the P8 development is a case where US generals/admirals are fighting the last war. Would love to see what current US games theorists are predicting for a US Chinese clash, but from my limited amateur historian perspective i can't imagine it'd be a Chinese naval/ground invasion of its neighbours and the US trying to reinforce local Japanese, Korean and Phillipenes/Australian forces. Call it an Eastern REFORGER. P8 pre supposes that Chinese submarine forces would be geared to keeping US naval forces at arms length and prevent US merchant marine from bringing over 3-5 Mechanised and Armoured Divisions of Army and Marines. So, likely, P8 would have limited utility in such a clash.
    Personally i think Chinese submarine forces would try to shore up regional coastal defences to keep US forces away from China, in which case US Submarine and Surface forces would be the chief protagonists in such a conflict, coupled with US strategic Air assets or long range strike craft operating out of Japan and the Phillipines.
    Should China set its sights on South Korea or Taiwan (think thats very far off) i dont see anywhere near enough strategic depth (no Fulda gap coupled with deep German defences to absorb a Chinese advance while US redeployed East. So again, in that regard, P8's are an asset designed to fight a war that never happened and won't repeat itself.
    Currently US navy is likely more than an over match for Chinese forces and capable of keeping Chinese dreams of local conquest at bay. Zumwalt had it worked(yet to see) and been built in numbers would likely have kept that overmatch going for another 3 decades. However, its been canned, and the USN has instead commissioned another bunch of AB's. USN is still acquiring SSN's at what can only be described as at a prodigious rate. Think the USN currently has about 60 operational SSN's and will continue having such a large number for decades to come.

    1. "USN is still acquiring SSN's at what can only be described as at a prodigious rate. Think the USN currently has about 60 operational SSN's and will continue having such a large number for decades to come."

      I've got to correct you here, Nate. As of today, we have 53 SSNs. There is a shortfall looming. We built LA class subs at a rate of 4-6 for many years and those subs have begun to retire and will continue to do so at a high rate. We're currently building 1-2 Virginias per year. You don't even have to do the math to see where the SSN trend is headed.

      The Navy projects a dip below 50 beginning in 2022 and continuing until 2043 with a low number of 41 in 2029.

      The data can be found in the CRS report "Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress", Ronald O'Rourke, March 17, 2016

      China is trending up and we're trending down!

    2. It would be interesting to do an analysis of the state of US submarines and how well trained American crews are as well.

      There will be a dip and that assumes that there are no other disruptions, such as budget cutbacks or further losses from accidents and the like.

    3. Without the Soviet subs to operate against on a daily basis, I assume the level of tactical proficiency of the US crews has dropped noticeably. As far as general training, the evidence is clear that basic skills are degraded. We have ships running aground, Aegis systems degraded fleet-wide, pilot skills are atrophying, etc. It's possible that the submarine crews have avoided this general degradation but unlikely.

    4. Some interesting reading, not on training, but on spare parts:

      I wonder what is actually driving this for the submarine force?

  5. "Currently US navy is likely more than an over match for Chinese forces and capable of keeping Chinese dreams of local conquest at bay."

    I think that all depends. Especially going forward. Our SuperHornet fleet is short legged and worn. The CVN's ASW ability isn't what it used to be, and ballistic missiles and land based air may make it difficult to get close. The LCS may have a decent AShM, but likely not targeting. The new 'Burkes may or may not have AShM's.

    Blue water, I believe we over match them. THat advantage fades significantly and rapidly as we get closer to the East China Sea.

    Were I china, and I wanted to be aggressive to a neighbor there, I'd try to close off the East China Sea with my navy and my AIP subs.

    I'd use my blue water boats to go after the Navy's CLF ships. WE don't have alot of them, and if you sink enough you can end up crippling the USN.

    1. I don't think that China wants military dominance as much as it wants to dominate economically at this point.

      They have deliberately adopted a strategy that does not seek to match parity militarily (they see excessive military expenditures as a mistake that helped cause the dissolution of the USSR), but more of a deterrence.

      Ultimately, military is a means to an end - higher living standards for your nation's people. It does no good if America's military is unmatched, but America's former manufacturing heartland becomes the Rust Belt.

      What it means is we should be more worried about the economic challenge rather than the military challenge.

      As far as a Naval Choke-point - there is an easy one. The Straits of Malacca.

  6. Seems to me that a P-8 is a lot cheaper to buy operate and maintain than a Virginia. So the needs analysis should come back and say that we do not need more Virginia subs, and if the Soviets start building more/better subs we could then build more Virginias or a follow on. So MAYBE the planned Virginia money could be spent to unfunded (are you kidding me they left this out of the budget?) the Ohio Replacement.

    Of course this would threaten the flow of money to HII and GD and the Sub Force Admirals would have less toys to play with so it will not happen.

    How many times over do we have to be able to destroy the planet?

    1. "Seems to me that a P-8 is a lot cheaper to buy operate and maintain than a Virginia."

      I very much doubt that, aircraft are only cheaper in that they can be bought and then never flown, if you want to fly them, they are fiendishly expensive, the Royal Navy spends more on ASW helicopters than ASW frigates.

      "How many times over do we have to be able to destroy the planet?"
      Gross overstatement of the powers of nuclear weapons.
      The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was 160metres from the blast and remained standing, is still standing in fact.

    2. Depends. Cost per flying hour of P-8 is reportedly a lot cheaper than the P-3.

      Actually - that's one of the reasons we went with 737 variant.

  7. "How many times over do we have to be able to destroy the planet?"

    I'm confused. You suggest we fund more SSBN's and then ask a question like that? Virginia's don't launch nukes. The Ohio follow on most certainly will.

    I'd argue that for our Pacific needs we need more Virginias; not less. We already are going to have a sub force that will start to tank in the terrible twenties; and the Pacific is a big place. Subs are more expensive, but they can *do* more than the P8.

    Arm them with AShM's and they are arguably are most versatile tool nowadays.

  8. Russias submarine force is quite small and not overly threatening I cant imagine they would sink a carrier even if they had opportunity, so far, they have gone out of their way to avoid provoking a larger fight.
    Sinking a US Capital ship would require a heavy handed response, even from a very weak leader.

    China will advance until it is difficult, as far as SSNs in the Potomac if they can get away with it.
    Best to make it intolerably difficult early on and prevent the problem than try and cure it later.

    1. "Best to make it intolerably difficult early on and prevent the problem than try and cure it later."



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