Russia’s Disappearing Subs

Russia’s aging nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines look set to be retired. Will they be replaced?

A debate is raging over whether Russia will soon decommission its three gigantic Typhoon-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines. With or without the enormous Typhoons, each of which displaces 34,000 tons while submerged, Russia's undersea fleet is all but certain to decline – and that has strategic implications for Moscow and Washington.

Prior to last week, it was reportedly the official plan of the Russian navy to keep all three of the surviving, 1980s-vintage Typhoons in service until 2019, following the addition of unspecified, new-generation, nuclear-tipped missiles. ‘They have good modernization potential,’ Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky said.

One of the Typhoons is currently serving as a test bed for the new Bulava missile, the main nuclear armament of the Borey-class submarines, the first of which entered trials in 2009. Two other Typhoons are held in reserve until new missiles can be fitted to replace the now-retired SS-N-20s. None of the Typhoons is available for strategic patrols.

In light of the lack of missiles, plus new limits on nuclear weapons imposed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 3, ratified by the United States and Russia last year, navy sources said last week that the Typhoons would be decommissioned or converted into tankers. The idea of using dangerous, expensive-to-operate nuclear submarines as tankers is seen by most as ridiculous. But the notion of retiring the useless Typhoons makes perfect sense.

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Still, the Navy denies the Typhoons face the chopping block. ‘The Defence Ministry has not made such a decision,’ an official said. ‘The submarines remain in service with the Navy.’

Under the best of circumstances, the Typhoons will get new missiles and remain in service another eight years. Even then, the Russian undersea strategic fleet will almost inevitably shrink. Besides the three Typhoons, the Navy possesses an estimated 11 missile submarines: five Delta IIIs dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s and six slightly younger Delta IVs. The Delta IIIs are unlikely to last beyond 2020.

Russia was supposed to build seven Borey submarines between 2006 and 2015. They, along with the Delta IVs, would preserve the missile-boat force. But construction delays mean just two Boreys have been completed so far. Neither has sailed on an operational cruise owing to problems with the Bulava missile.

At this rate, the older Deltas will retire faster than Boreys can replace them. Even if they’re retained until 2019, the Typhoons, too, could decommission without direct replacements. Within a decade, Russia could possess just half a dozen operational missile submarines.

And that could undermine START 3, which was predicated on reducing US and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles to just 1,550 apiece – the lowest level in 50 years, but still high enough that Washington and Russia remained the world’s leading nuclear powers.

Most of Russia’s nuclear weapons are submarine-based. Without more missile subs, ‘the force they negotiated so hard for will disappear,’ Owen Cote, Jr., an analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Diplomat. ‘They've got to do something to turn the submarine situation around, for that reason alone.’

But there's no clear remedy for Moscow's ever-shrinking missile-sub fleet.