Carrier killers for the Russian Navy: Part II

Byline: Vladimir Karnazov

Nuclear shipbuilding: current state

According to official statistics, in 1955-1993 the Soviet Union [and then Russia] constructed 234 nuclear powered submarines falling into three generations. These included 123 n-subs made in Severodvinsk, 56 in Komsomolsk, 39 in St. Petersburg and 25 in Nizhny Novgorod. Russia now continues at a much slower rate. The lead vessel of the Project 955 class, the Yuri Dolgorukiy, became the 1001-th [armed] submarine constructed in Russia since October 1917.

After collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s nuclear shipbuilding industry has been transformed into something much smaller. Key enterprises on the Black Sea coast appeared to be on the territory of now-independent Ukraine – which proclaimed non-nuclear status. Admittedly, these enterprises had little to do with nuclear propulsion technology, except for some ambitions in the late 1980s when the Soviet navy planned the construction of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Nuclear activities in the city of St. Petersburg have been diminishing for a number of reasons. Under current international agreements, the Baltic Sea has a non-nuclear status. The Russian navy does not deploy atomic warheads on warships and does not place orders for the construction of nuclear-powered vessels in the area.

The Admiralty Shipyards completed their last Project 671RTMK fast attack submarine, the K-448 Tambov, in 1992. Since then the enterprise has been completely focused on diesel-electric submarines. The last nuclear powered surface combatant built in St. Petersburg was the Peter the Great of Project 1144.2. The 23,800-tonne cruiser, forth and the last in the Atlant series (after Ushakov, Lazarev and Nakhimov) was commissioned in 1998, and serves with the Northern Fleet.

Saint Petersburg shipbuilders continue working on civil projects. They have completed one floating nuclear electric power generation station known as Project 20870 with displacement of 21,500 tons. Six more such stations and five nuclear-powered ice-breakers are on order. However, this business is under heavy criticism as not suitable and potentially very dangerous for a city with a population of five a million.

The Red Sormovo yard in Nizhny Novgorod built a number of unique submarines, including the titanium-hulled Project 945, which are still in service. Under the Kremlin’s orders, this enterprise was restructured in the 1990s and no longer works for the military.

The Amur Shipbuilding Plant (ASP) is located in Komsomolsk. The Amur river runs through the city and into Pacific Ocean. ASP has suffered during the transition of Russia’s economy from command to market driven principles. If not for the Indian deal for Project 971 fast attack submarines, this enterprise would have closed down. In 2008 ASP completed the K-152 Nerpa. After sea trials and Indian crew training, the vessel was handed over to the Indian navy on 23 January 2012. But even with the Indian customer in existence, ASP is unlikely to go further than completion of one or two more Project 971 ships.

This leaves Russia with only one fully-fledged enterprise capable of nuclear shipbuilding in the longer term. This is Sevmash Dockyards (SMP) in Severodvinsk, located near the far northern border with Finland. The company had difficult times in the period 1998-2003 when orders ran low. However the company’s management refused massive laid-offs, instead trying to keep workers in place by serving free dinners during working hours to all staff and distributing food to their families. This helped save a core of the enterprise’s competent staff until the financial situation improved.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have been frequent visitors to Severodvinsk, helping the city and local businesses ease their financial, technological and social problems. Today, Sevmash directly employs 27,000 people, with average monthly salary slightly above US$ 1,000. The management considers this figure as “sufficient” to keep the employees’ families above the poverty line. With recently won orders for Project 955 and Project 885 submarines, the share of domestic military orders in the company’s portfolio has risen above 70%.

Visiting Severodvinsk in February, deputy premier of the Russian Government in charge of defense industry Dmitry Rogozin said the local shipbuilders are contracted to build eight fourth-generation nuclear submarines by 2020, and that more orders are coming. He further said the earlier program for scrapping third-generation submarines is being revised so that “these vessels will get newer missiles and be subjected to a series of repair efforts … enabling them to serve for another seven years”.


In November 2011, the Russian defense ministry awarded Sevmash orders for construction of four Project 955A Borey-A strategic underwater cruisers armed with the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles. This order comes after construction of three Project 955 Boreys (Yuri Dolgorukiy, Aleksander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh) now undergoing acceptance trials.

The customer also ordered five Project 885M Yasen-M fast attack submarines, in addition to the head vessel, the K-329 Severodvinsk, now undergoing sea trials. The exact sum of these contracts has not been made public. It is only known that the Alexander Nevsky was built under contract worth Rouble 23 billion, which equates to US$ 0.75 billion.

In 2012 Sevmash expects additional orders for the completion of certain third-generation submarine hulls laid in the mid-1990s, as well as for the refit and modernization of earlier commissioned submarines and large surface combatants. Why did the MoD place so many orders with Sevmash and its key industrial partners only recently? Why did the ministry not act in a similar way during a few preceding years? We can suggest an answer to these questions.

The big orders of late 2011 – early 2012 were preceded by a long process of MoD and industry working out a completely new pricing calculation system. When current defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov took his position in 2007, he called for a new approach to contracts with industry that would prioritize the price-efficient series production of modern weapons. As he put it, that approach had to be worked out and needs to remain in place until 2020.

Local shipbuilders were not ready for this change in the government’s procurement policy. Only in 2011 – after a series of structural changes – was the industry was able to resume talks with the customer. In the middle of 2011 the sides formulated mutually agreeable principles and proceeded with the calculation of contract values for a selected range of naval products.

The Project 955 served as a guinea pig on which the new price calculation methods were tried. This product had already been mastered by industry, while the MoD wanted to procure more such ships. In September – October the calculations were made and submitted to the defense minister for approval. This enabled the November 2011 contract signing.

The gist of the new system is to encourage industry to continually reduce manufacturing expenses and improve resource management. Manufacturer profits are made directly dependant on savings it achieves during the series production of modern weapons. This requires more effective resource management, cutting manufacturing costs and making production more economically efficient.

Figuratively speaking, Serdyukov’s role in the transformation of the Russian military defense complex is similar to that of Robert McNamara in the US. But pricing considerations are only one part in the answer to the above questions. Also, there is the Factor 2012: the presidential elections in March, which Putin won. On the eve of the elections, the Kremlin increased military spending in the hope of getting more support from voters employed by large defense enterprises and citizens of the cities where these enterprises situate.

Aviation threat evaporated

In February the Russian air force spokesman said the service intends to upgrade about 30 Tu-22M3 swing-wing supersonic bombers during the next eight years. Reportedly, between 50 and 60 such big jets are airworthy. Today, the Tu-22M3 is the only effective aviation asset available to combat carrier groups and naval task forces formed around modern cruisers and destroyers.

The aircraft inventory of Russia’s Naval Aviation suffered 78% numerical reduction during the period 1992-1997. It further dwindled until mid-2011, when most of the Naval Aviation’s large airplanes were transferred to the Air Force. Effectively, the navy has lost its aviation anti-carrier component. The move was controversial, and yet there was a good reason behind it. The most powerful and complex aircraft types in service with the Air Force and Naval Aviation became so small in numbers that their separate operations and maintenance lost combat worthiness and economic sense. This particularly applies to the Tupolev bombers and reconnaissance planes.

Surface warships of little account

With the Tu-22M3 no longer in its possession, the Russian Navy has to completely rely on its warships when it comes to countering enemy carriers. The Navy does have some surface combatants, but these can do little in the face of the potential enemy’s air superiority and larger ship counts. The most they can do is to assist submariners during joint operations.

The 2005 shipbuilding program calls for construction of 30 corvettes, 20 frigates and six destroyers. By displacement, ability to operate in rough seas and duration of autonomous operations these ships are no match for in-service cruisers.

The Russian MoD has scheduled the Admiral Nakhimov for refit and modernization in 2013. Her builder Severnoye PKB was asked to prepare an appropriate documentation package by April 2012. The third Project 1144 nuclear-powered cruiser was commissioned in 1988. She stands in Severodvinsk harbor awaiting repairs. The destiny of her sister ship completed in 1984, the Admiral Lazarev, will be decided later, while the earlier Admiral Ushakov was decommissioned long ago and is due for scrapping.

The MoD is seeking a cost effective way for the Project 1144 upgrade. This involves keeping their machinery and replacing older missiles by more modern ones. The P-700 Granit anti-ship system employing the 3M45 cruise missiles is no longer in production and considered outdated.

The KR-93 turbojet engine accelerates the 7-tonne, 10-meter-long missile with a 750kg warhead (cumulative, vacuum or nuclear charge) up to Mach 2.5. For effective employment at maximum advertized ranges of 500-600km, the Granit’s missiles need target designation either from aircraft or spacecraft. The Russian Navy no longer operates the dedicated designator airplane Tu-95RTs (all of 53 such aircraft have been grounded). The Legend-M satellite constellation was in full strength in 1983, but has degraded since then. In theory, vulnerable Kamov deck helicopters can provide targeting at longer ranges than the ship’s own radar. This particularly applies to the most recent Ka-31 with its long-range Oko radar.

The Russian Navy operates three Project 1166 cruisers with gas-turbine propulsion – the Moscow, Varyag and Ustinov. These are armed with the Bazalt or Vulcan anti-ship systems in service since 1975 and 1982 respectively. Their 3M70 missile with maximum firing range of 700km shares Granit’s targeting problems.

Cruise-missile submarines

Along with upgraded cruisers, the nuclear-powered submarines will remain the most powerful assets in the Russian inventory. Today, the navy operates dedicated carrier-killers of the third generation in the form of the Project 949A submarines armed with the P-700 Granit systems. It also operates nearly twenty third-generation fast attack submarines of the Project 971, Project 945 and Project 671RTMK able to fire Tomahawk-alike missiles from torpedo tubes.

In late 2012 the navy expects the commissioning of the K-329 Severodvinsk. This lead vessel of the Project 885 is considered to be of the fourth generation. The K-329 is outfitted with eight vertical SM-346 silos (10m-long, diameter 2m) each capable of housing either four Onix or five Caliber missile containers.

The P-800 Onix (the export version is called Yakhont) employs 3M55 ramjet-powered missiles. These weapons are nearly 9 meters long and weigh 3 tons without booster [air launched version, also known as the Alfa] or 4 tons with it. The missile accelerates to 750m/sec and has a firing range of 150-300km depending on altitude profile. It has a radar homing head able to detect a cruiser at a distance of 75km. The Onix provided the platform for the development of Indo-Russian BrahMos PJ-10.

The Caliber is non-exportable version of the Club-N/S that already equips the Indian navy Project 1135.6 Talwar-class frigates and Project 877EKM submarines. Both are able to employ three baseline missile types: the 91R antisubmarine (carries a torpedo, either APR-3M or MPT-1UM), 3M54 anti-ship and 3M14 land-strike. In addition, the non-exportable system can also fire longer-range RK-55 Granat missiles (Russia’s Tomahawk) and their derivatives, the Biruza. Compared to the exportable 3M14, the non-exportable Granat has much longer firing ranges.

The Granat became operational in 1984 with 3M10 missiles fired from torpedo tubes of fast attack submarines. The 1.7-tonne turbojet weapon had a range of 3,000km. The 3M54 differs in having a third stage (in addition to booster and cruise turbojet) running on solid-fuel and accelerating to 1,000 m/sec. This version can be fired from either surface ship or submarine if her torpedo tubes can house this 8.2m-long weapon. Without the third stage, the 3M54 weighs 1.8tons instead of 2.3 and has length of 6.2 meters.

The K-329 went to sea for trails on two occasions in 2011, and successfully performed tests using dummy Caliber missiles. Throughout 2012 the submarine shall continue testing Caliber and Onix systems. To complete customer acceptance trials, the K-329 is required to spend a total of 180 days at sea. The next in the series, the Kazan, is being built to the improved design [Project 885M] and is due for completion later in the year.

The design documentation for the refit and modernization of the Project 949A has been prepared. It calls for replacement of the Granit by the Onix and Caliber. No changes to the submarine’s original load bearing structures are required. Three Onix or four Caliber missile containers can be squeezed into one Granit launch site – the latter will be reworked accordingly. The submarine will receive an improved combat system able to employ the newer missiles.

With a standard displacement of 15,000t, the Project 949A is one of the most complex and difficult-to-maintain n-subs in the world. So far, extensive repairs were successfully conducted only in Severodvinsk, while such attempts in the Far East proved ineffective.

According to open sources, the Northern fleet operates the K-119 Voronezh and the K-266 Orel. The Voronezh completed a major overhaul in November 2011, which made numerous but unspecified improvements to missilery and onboard equipment. This enabled the Northern Fleet to send the K-410 Smolensk for repairs in late 2011. The K-525 and K-206 have been scrapped. The K-148 Krasnodar and K-173 Krasnoyask have been decommissioned and await their turn for disassembly.

The Pacific Fleet keeps the K-456 Tver, K-186 Omsk and K-150 Tomsk on duty, while the K-132 Irkutsk has been undergoing overhaul since 2005. The status of the K-442 Chelaybinsk is unclear. The K-139 Belgorod is at a high degree of completion (over 70%) at Sevmash, but the customer has continued to change its views about whether to complete her. In February the Russian Navy commander Admiral Vysotsky said the Belgorod will be commissioned as a submarine for special operations.

If the Kremlin stays with its current naval development plans, the Russian navy will have a potent force of dedicated nuclear powered “carrier-killers” by the year 2020. In the foreseeable future this kind of weapon systems will continue to be the most important element of Russian deterrence in relation to economically and militarily growing Asian neighbors with limited natural resources but reviving empire ambitions.


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