Russia’s Latest SSBN Goes to Sea: Highlighting the “Return” of the Russian Navy


2013-02-01 By Richard Weitz

Russia’s new (fourth) generation Project Mk 955 Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), equipped with the new RSM-56 Bulava (NATO code name SS-NX-30) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), officially entered service with the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet this month.

Christened the Yuri Dolgoruky, the ship was under construction at the Sevmash shipbuilding company in Severodvinsk, in Russia’s northern Archangelsk Region from 1996 to 2008. This ship had originally intended it to carry the much larger Bark SLBM. When the Russian government decided to abandon the Bark in favor of the smaller Bulava, Russian shipbuilders had to redesign the entire Borey class of submarines to accommodate the Bulava even before the missile had moved beyond the drawing board.

Russia’s new (fourth) generation Project Mk 955 Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), equipped with the new RSM-56 Bulava (NATO code name SS-NX-30) Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM), officially entered service with the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet January 2013. 

The Russian military intends the Borey-Bulava combination to serve as the foundation of Russia’s nuclear triad through at least the 2040s.

The cost of researching, designing, and developing this new SSBN-SLBM combination represents perhaps the most expensive item in recent Russian defense budgets.

Estimates are that the Borey-Bulava combination at one point consumed more than one third of Russia’s defense budget. The Russian government has allocated $132 billion to construct many new submarines and other warships by 2020.

This high spending reflects its perceived strategic significance. 

At the ceremony marking the Yuri Dolgoruky’s entry into service, President Vladimir Putin emphasized that, “Submarines of that class will become an important element of sea-based strategic forces, a guarantor of global balance and security of Russia and its allies.”

Despite all the media attention to the dozens of new warships Russia plans to buy, which include as many as 50 military vessels by 2016, perhaps the most visible sign of the revival of the Russian Navy has been its many deployments.

This heightened activity contrasts sharply with the absence of Russian warships from the high seas as recently as a decade ago.

Last February, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, declared that the Russia’s SSBNs would resume regular deterrent patrols on or shortly after the Yuri Dolgoruky is scheduled to enter into service.

This change in deployment posture would mean that at least one Russian strategic submarine would be at-sea at any time. For the past decade, Russian SSBN patrols have occurred intermittently, with lengthy gaps in coverage. Whereas during the Cold War the Soviet Navy would conduct a couple hundred deterrent patrols a year, last year the Russian Navy accomplished only five deterrent patrols.

The renewed strategic patrols suggests that the Russian Navy has enough trained sailors to field ten complete (or almost complete) crews, since the standard Russian (and U.S. Navy) practice is to train one crew while the other is on patrol.

Russian submarine crews consist of only long-term professional sailors and technicians; they do not use conscripts given the time needed to train crew members to operate the sophisticated equipment as well as meet the demanding safety requirements of nuclear –armed and nuclear-propelled vessels. The long-term voluntary service together also builds moral and cohesion among crew members.

The Russian Navy just undertook its largest exercise since the end of the Soviet Union. 

The extensive drills involved all four fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific). They sent guided-missile cruisers, amphibious ships, submarines, and other vessels as well as long-range naval aviation. In order to improve overseas coordination among the different fleets, the ships conducted more than 60 at sea maneuvers.

Although the speculation — fed, incidentally, by the Russian media–that Russia might use the fleet to conduct operations in Syria proved inaccurate, it was an impressive display, which did catch Washington’s attention.

The drills also prepared the fleet, if necessary, to evacuate the tens of thousands of Russian citizens and those Syrians married, employed, or otherwise linked to Russia and therefore vulnerable to punishment if the Assad regime falls to the radical insurgents.

But the Russian Navy has been noticeably active since the August 2008 war with Georgia. 

During that conflict, ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, based at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, deployed along the coast of Georgia’s breakaway province of Abkhazia to support Russian ground and air operations in Georgia.

Since October 2008, the Russian Navy has deployed a rotating fleet of ships off the Somali coast to fight the pirates operating there, which occasionally have preyed on Russian shipping. Like China, Russia has always kept its ships independent from the larger fleets operated by NATO and the EU.

The following month, at the same time that Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to make an official visit to Venezuela, the Northern Fleet’s flagship Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great), a nuclear-powered Kirov Class heavy missile cruiser, and the anti-submarine warfare ship Admiral Chabanenko, two of the Russian Navy’s newest warships, ostentatiously docked at the port of La Guaira, near Caracas. Then they engaged in joint training exercises with the Venezuelan Navy—the first occasion since the end of the Cold War that the Russian Navy had conducted surface operations in the Western hemisphere.

The Soviet-era naval maintenance site near Tartus in Syria is currently Russia’s only foothold in the Mediterranean, but Russian Navy commanders have expressed interest in acquiring new bases in the Mediterranean Sea.  The Soviet Navy had a limited flotilla in the Mediterranean, but Russian Federation warships have rarely deployed there.  The Mediterranean Sea currently falls under the operational control of the Black Sea Fleet. The Navy is also considering creating a special command for the Indian Ocean to conduct counter-piracy and presence missions.

The Russian Navy’s naval patrols serve several important purposes.

First, by showing the Russian flag throughout the world, they support Russian aspirations to affirm Moscow’s global importance, its right to be consulted on all major security issues, and its capacity to contribute to upholding international peace and security.

Second, the patrols confirm the capacity of the Russian Navy to project power despite some setbacks, which in recent years have ranged from shipbuilding cancellations to failed missile tests to deadly accidents.

Third, they could help sustain the Navy’s budget by highlighting its value and importance. The Navy has received about 40% of the Russian defense budget in recent years, a higher than normal level due to the need to revitalize the sea-based leg of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Fourth, by providing evidence that Russian Navy forces continue to perform effectively, the patrols could entice foreign buyers of Russian military technologies, such as Russian attack submarines.

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