The Russian Navy will upgrade ten multi-purpose nuclear submarines by 2020, according to Russian Admiral Vladimir Chirkov, the navy’s commander-in-chief. Two Russian shipyards, Zvyozdochka in the northwest and Zvezda in Russia’s Far East, will upgrade ten project 971 SSN Akula-class and project 949A SSGN Oscar-class II nuclear-powered submarines in the coming years.
Two Oscar-class II submarines are active with the Northern Fleet and five with the Pacific Fleet, whereas five Akula-class SSN’s serve in the Pacific and six in the Northern Fleet. Between 40 to 70 percent of submarines in both fleets are estimated to not be operational. Up until last week, it was unclear whether the Oscar-class II subs stationed in the Pacific were also scheduled for the overhaul; this now appears to be the case. The upgrades are supposed to expand the subs’ lifespan for another 15-20 years.
“All armament and vital systems will be new,” the admiral stated with regard to the navy’s modernization plans. “The service life of project 971 and project 949A multirole nuclear submarines will be almost doubled while improved tactical and technical characteristics will help considerably increase the efficiency of the use of these submarines in the Russian Navy’s submarine fleet,” he added.
Admiral Chirkov already announced last April that the navy intended to modernize around ten SSNs and SSGNs but modernization plans apparently had to be pushed back. The delay is in part because of the general lack of capacity within Russia’s shipbuilding industry, but also due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which resulted in the end of defense cooperation with Kiev as well as the prioritization of new naval platforms (e.g., the new Borei-class SSBNs) over upgrading older models.
In his statement last April, Chirkov also included the project 945 Sierra-class I SSN in the ten multi-purpose nuclear submarines to be overhauled by 2020. According to media reports, one Sierra-class SSN is currently being refitted at the Zvyozdochka shipyards. As stated by the shipyard, the original plan was to recommission two Sierra-class I attack submarines by 2017.
However, this timeline does not seem likely. Experts state that Russia’s shipbuilding industry will, in all likelihood, only be capable of producing 50 to 70 percent of the weapons and equipment laid out in Russia’s aggressive 2020 naval procurement program.
In detail, one of the reasons for the modernization of the Akula, Sierra, and Oscar-class submarines are delays in the project 885 Yasen-class SSGN program. This class of Russian attack submarines was supposed to replace older Soviet-era multi-purpose nuclear submarine models by 2020.
Yet the exorbitant costs of the submarines — estimated to be twice as much as the new Borei-class SSBNs – has so far led only to the commissioning of one out of eight SSGNs, with a further three to four vessels likely to be completed by 2020. The Russian Navy is also already working on the next generation of submarines.
“We have formulated the task for the defense and industrial sector to develop fifth-generation submarines. This work is ongoing. There will be no pauses in the development and designing of new submarines,” Admiral Chirkov elaborated.
According to Chirkov, this is due to the, “objective timeframe and the cyclical nature of the use of ships and submarines, and also the swift advance of ship-building technologies and scientific and technical progress in the field of submarine-building (…) This process is accompanied by the work to maintain the combat readiness of existing-project strategic nuclear submarines and their basic armaments.”