Asia Defense | Security

Russian Submarines: Still a Relevant Threat?

A resurgent Russian submarine capability presents considerable challenges for the United States and allied powers.

By Arnaud Sobrero for
Russian Submarines: Still a Relevant Threat?
Credit: Flickr/Jens Hoffmann

As the world adjusted to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia inherited nothing more than “ruins and debris,” as then-Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev noted. Even though Russia still retains its title as the world’s largest military after the United States, the Russian military has undergone a considerable transformation that profoundly impacted its capabilities. Like the Soviet Union, Russia has a strong and proud maritime tradition, and in the Russian naval structure, submarines are the “crown jewels for naval combat power.” As submarines are instrumental for both nuclear deterrence and force projection, they are essential to the development of global military power. Also, both advanced conventional and nuclear submarine capabilities illustrate how advanced the overall military capabilities are, as the development of submarines requires a highly sophisticated industrial defense base for design and manufacturing.

The Russian military capabilities have considerably improved since 1991 thanks to modernization and funding reforms and a shift toward high-tech weaponry, which together have bolstered the capabilities of their nuclear-propelled submarines. While keeping afloat its nuclear submarines, Russia has shifted its focus to new niche capabilities enabling power projection. Those improvements are illustrative of new threat levels to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.

From Legacy Military to Large-Scale Rearmament

The breakup of the Soviet Union initiated a decline of Russian military hardware across all armed forces. While the newly independent Russian Federation had inherited the largest part of equipment and personnel of the Soviet Union, a large portion of it was transferred to former Soviet republics, including sophisticated equipment. As a result, the bulk of equipment received by Russia was obsolete, as scholar Bettina Renz described it. The first Chechnya war (1994-1996) highlighted the Russian military’s low readiness and poor capabilities to address 21st century warfare’s challenges.

The Russian submarine fleet has suffered quite extensively from this decline. With 266 submarines in operation in 1991, including 60 SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile submarine), only 64 submarines in total were in operation in 2000. The Russian Navy has seen a severe decline in the numbers of nuclear attack submarines (SSNs) and cruise missile submarines (SSGNs) as well: only 25 percent of the platforms in service in 1991 were active in 2000. This drastic reduction impacted the Russian navy’s ability to operate at sea and maintain the credibility of its submarine threat. However, that decline was haltered as military expenditures started to increase.

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After a steep decline in the 1990s, defense spending has been bolstered since 2000, following the arrival in power of Vladimir Putin and a sharp increase in oil prices. After its peak during the Soviet Union in 1988 ($344 billion), the defense budget for the Russian Federation dropped to just $19 billion ten years later, a 95 percent decrease. Those drastic budget cuts affected Russia’s ability to procure weapon systems required for the 21st century. However, the declining trend was reversed after 2000. The defense budget peaked at $90 billion in 2015 and stabilized at $65 billion in 2019. The State Armament Program (SAP) – a 10-year document that forms the basis for Russia’s defense procurement and military priorities – provides critical information regarding service funding. It is interesting to note that, in the SAP 2020 released in 2010, the navy received the largest share of the budget (26.3 percent of 10 trillion rubles). Western economic sanctions and the fall in oil prices are challenging Russia’s ability to sustain robust military expenditures in the future. Nevertheless, a much-needed boost in funding helped to increase the procurement of new equipment.

Following the reorganization of military structures and the defense budget increase, military reforms also focused on bolstering procurement capability. Significant procurement delays were observed, highlighting a considerable gap between Russia’s declarations and the reality of what has been delivered. The notable SAP 2020 established ambitious targets to increase the numbers of procured units: 70 percent of the armed forces’ equipment had to be modernized by 2020. It is necessary to note that “modern equipment” is likely to be equipment built after the collapse of the Soviet Union. SAP targets were met in some areas by upgrading legacy platforms based on Soviet-era designs.

While some submarines were delayed (e.g., four Borei-class SSBN were commissioned by 2020 instead of eight originally), there have been significant improvements in commissioning submarines. The first Borei-class SSBN took 16 years to be commissioned, while the third of its class took eight years and eight improved Kilo-class submarines were delivered in the last six years. Some of those delays can be attributed to the economic downturn and the Ukrainian shipyard’s loss following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Additionally, those submarines have been deemed a significant export success with multiple foreign operators, reflecting the Russian defense industry’s achievement as the second largest world arm exporter (and accounting for 21 percent of global weapons exports during the 2015-2019 period).

While the overall amount of hardware in Russian military has decreased since 1991, there has been a strong emphasis on modernizing the new units and developing new capabilities aligned with Russia’s military requirements.

A Shift Toward High-Tech Weaponry

Several policy documents and the SAP have indicated an ambition to resurrect Russian military capabilities and maintain a leading world military. In particular, the maritime doctrine issued in 2015 and the 2017 state naval policy serve as critical enablers for the modernization of submarine capabilities. While the 2015 maritime doctrine emphasized two geographical areas (the Arctic and the Atlantic), the 2017 state naval policy stressed the importance of a permanent naval presence in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea as key priorities for the future Russian navy. This represents an evolution from the Soviet-era doctrine of global military dominance to a military capable of projecting its power globally. Nevertheless, those documents affirm ambitious qualitative plans for the navy’s development — in which submarines play the most critical role — as well as for the development of long-range high-precision conventional weapons that will significantly enhance Russian military capabilities.

In absolute terms, contemporary Russian military hardware is more modern and technologically more advanced than it was during the 1990s and 2000s as a direct result of the “New Look” modernization program launched in 2008. This ambition has translated into the development of new cutting-edge underwater capabilities, which can be seen on par with some Western powers. The Yasen-M SSGN class represents a significant step forward in acoustic signature and sub-systems and weapon integration. According to the U.S. Navy, the “Severodvinsk (Yasen-class) is the most capable Russian attack submarine ever built and leverages many of the technologies the Soviet Union invested in during the 1970s and 1980s.

From a ballistic missile submarine standpoint, the last Borei-class SSBN stands out for its upgraded stealth capabilities, better underwater maneuverability, and the use of the Buvala Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), which is a significant technological evolution from its predecessor, the Typhoon class. Ten units of the Borei SSBN are supposed to be commissioned by 2027, representing a substantial capability and enabling Russia to have a more modern SSBN class compared to the U.S. Navy’s 14 aging Ohio-class SSBNs. In addition to developing ultra-modern submarines, Russia has focused its efforts on new niche capabilities, as I will discuss below.

Future R&D activities and developments in the submarine field are illustrative of Russia’s ambition to stay on par with Western technologies and, in some cases, be more advanced. In addition to commissioning the largest nuclear submarine in the world by the end of 2020 (the Belgorod strategic submarine), the Russian navy is expected to launch the new Khabarovsk-class strategic submarine this year. The two new submarines’ common denominator will be the Poseidon, a nuclear-armed, autonomous drone that could represent a technological leap in nuclear reactor technology and underwater warfare. Russia is also at work on a fifth-generation SSN, which could feature more stealth characteristics and a more comprehensive range of weapon capabilities than the current submarines in service.

The most significant development is the adoption by submarines of the Kalibr long-range strike missile representing a “game-changer of the navy’s contribution to the overall national strategy,” according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Indeed, the improved Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines proved that the Russian navy has acquired this new capability by firing four Kalibr missiles from the eastern Mediterranean Sea to strike ground Syria targets in 2015. The strategy, dubbed as “Kalibrization,” entails mounting the cruise missile aboard the navy’s surface combatants and, more importantly, on its submarines. Also, the Tsirkon hypersonic missile currently being tested would be a formidable addition to Russia’s offensive capabilities.

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It is important to note that despite these positive developments and achievements, Russia lacks the ability to project force globally and remains well behind the United States in anti-submarine warfare, surface ships, transport aircraft, and automated control systems. Nevertheless, while some challenges remain, Russia has shown it can still present a threat to NATO forces.

Based in Asia for more than 10 years, Arnaud Sobrero is an independent writer focused on defense technology and East Asian affairs.