Rubin design bureau general director Andrei Dyachkov
Over its 110-year history, the Rubin bureau has produced dozens of submarine designs. Over 950 submarines have been built to Rubin drawings, from the 1901 ‘Delfin’ which took part in the Russo-Japanese war, to the nuclear- powered intercontinental ballistic missile firing submarines such as the Project 667 and 941 which now formi the backbone of the Russian nuclear deterrent force. Asia-Pacific nations operate Rubin-developed Project 877EKM and 636 diesel submarines and are interested in the even more advanced Amur 1650. Defence Review Asia’s Vladimir Karnazov was privileged to spoke to general director Andrei Dyachkov, who kindly shared his views on current state of naval warfare and future prospects of Russian submarines.
Q. The main advantage of submarines is their stealthiness makes possible surprise attacks on the enemy. We are seeing the active development of various sensors, including ones based on emerging technologies, using newly discovered physical laws or natural phenomena. Will these impact the usefulness of submarines?
There is a never-ending conflict between defensive and offensive technology. It started when armor was invented, and then firearms. On the land battlefield, armor and armour – defeating systems are in constant competition . The same kind of situation exists with surface combatants and subsurface ones. We understand that antisubmarine warfare technology has been advancing quickly. At the same time, the development of submarines is not standing still.
Let me highlight three aspects.
First. The on-disputable advantage of the submarine is for surprise attacks. A lot has been achieved in this direction recently. New designs under construction for the Russian navy, including the Borey-class and Lada-class submarines, are several times better their predecessors for reduced noise signatures. And yet the potential for further improvement in lowering noise levels has not been exhausted. We continue working very actively in this field, in order to further improve stealth qualities of our submarines.
Second. In a duel situation when the submarine is opposing enemy warships, it is very important to have the ability to detect the enemy at long distances. Here, in this field, development of advanced sensor systems continues. In particular, the Lada-class submarine comes equipped with a newly developed acoustic detection system featuring a huge antenna, comparable in size to those in use on much larger nuclear powered submarines. Detection distances are increased accordingly.
Third. Self-defense of the submarine when contract is made with an enemy. In this field, we also have a number of newly developed technologies. These enable the submarine to quickly undertake various actions in self-defense: fooling the enemy and diverting weapons directed at the submarine away from it. All such systems are state-of-the-art and ready for installation on our both nuclear and non-nuclear submarines.
When we consider the submarine as a weapon, we can make this statement: there is no better stealthy weapon today in the world. The assets of land forces and also these of air forces are exposed to reconnaissance satellites. However, to detect a submerged submarine is not easy.
If we add one more factor into consideration, the overall picture gets even more interesting. Submarines may look expensive. But if we draw a comparison between various kinds of weapon systems, taking account of their lethality versus costs, and the results they can achieve in the course of a war, then we find out that the submarine is rather a cost-effective weapon. This finding can be illustrated by recent events. Relatively high combat efficiency and moderate costs of diesel submarines allow smaller nations with no means for building a vast and potent surface fleet to nevertheless safeguard national coasts – this is an inexpensive means with which to defeat a larger enemy surface fleet. In support of my worlds I can give you a recent example, when the South Korean corvette ‘Cheonan’ was sunk by a small and inexpensive submarine last year.
There are quite a few countries in the world, and the Asia-Pacific in particular, with vast sea areas that need to be protected. Having a potent navy is important for most of these countries to safeguard their independence. In addition, the Asia-Pacific region features well-developed sea trade and intensive sea traffic. All of this speaks for the need of those countries to build a submarine fleet. Not many nations possess enough money for constructing and maintaining large surface fleets able to oppose the sea power of the world’s strongest nations. Having a number of non-nuclear submarines in the navy of a smaller nation is the answer. And that is why Asia-Pacific nations are so interested today in buying non-nuclear submarines.
Q. You addressed a submarine’s noise signature, but what about other signatures, other physical effects?
Noise is still the main factor. A submarine also has electric and magnetic signatures. Besides, a nuclear submarine also has a radiation trace. Although none of these are dominant, we continue working tirelessly, trying to reducing them all. Growing importance is given to eco-technical systems.
Q. Russia is a northern country, and so Russian ships are designed to operate in cold waters. At the same time, many citizens of the Asia-Pacific countries may not even know that the ambient temperature can drop below water-freezing point. Do Russian submarines need adjustment to warm water before being exported?
I will never agree with a statement about Russian submarines being good in cold waters only. The range of operational temperatures is determined by the customer via their technical specifications. Normally these specifications take into account not only the weather conditions in the points of basing, but in a much wider geographic area where given ships must be able to operate. Let me remind you that the Rubin-designed submarines were deployed to and operated out of Cuba in the 1960s. At that time our submarines were also operational in the Pacific waters, including around China and Vietnam. We solved all major issues pertaining to high water temperatures.
In the past two decades Rosoboronexport – the state arms export agency – has won large orders from India, China and other Asian nations for Project 877EKM and Project 636 submarines. These submarines are now in service and operate in “warm” waters. Today, Rosoboronexport offers foreign customers several submarine designs, including Rubin-developed Project 636 and Amur 1650.
When placing an order, foreign customers often put forward their additional requirements. We, at the Rubin design house, take the matter of customer requirements very carefully. As a rule, clients from southern countries present us with their specifications for internal conditioning, operations of machinery and systems at high temperatures, corrosion protection of the hull and systems in the given temperature conditions, and so on. Technically, there are no issues with our submarines pertaining to operations in warm waters – these were solved long ago.
Q. A number of nations have procured from Russia some diesel-powered submarines armed with cruise missiles from the Novator company. Neither French nor German non-nuclear submarines carry anything like it. Do you see this as your compelling advantage?
The permission to export our submarines armed with the Club-S weapons system gave a big leap to competitiveness of our products in the international market. From the viewpoint of non-nuclear submarines as vessels and as weapon platforms, we are on the par with our European colleagues. At the same time, our submarines are different in having a powerful rocketry system, which enables them to render devastating strikes on both surface ships and targets on the shore. Such an offer appeals to those countries that seek to built a modern submarine force. When looking for suitable suppliers and developers, these nations undertake a very careful selection from various non-nuclear submarines available in the international market.
The very fact that the Russian-made submarines come equipped with the Club-S missile system is in line with the maritime doctrines of the purchasing nations. Here, we speak about non-nuclear submarines with universal weapon systems. These can defend the coastline from enemy surface and submarine forces, and, if necessary, can also strike at coastal targets. As of today, none of the European designers offers submarines with a powerful missile system able to undertake land strike. (K Although development of such systems is on-going, the issue of exporting them is of complex matter as it involves technical and political interaction.
Q. Reportedly, the Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has placed orders for construction of Project 636(mod.) submarines. What is new about this improved version as compared to the Project 877EKM and baseline Project 636?
The Project 877EKM was popular, but is no longer on offer. The Rubin bureau undertakes only those tasks on the Project 877EKM submarines that relate to repair and modernization. The Project 877EKM gave way to the Project 636, which was the next step in the development of Rubin diesel submarines. Even today this submarine remains a very good offer and still generates export sales. Meanwhile, Rubin is working on the more advanced Lada and its export version, the Amur 1650. We are ready to cooperate with countries interested in purchasing the Amur 1650.
Equipped with a modern missile system, the Project 636 has other features stimulating market interest in it. The interest of a country depends on what sort of tasks are put forward to its navy. Importing nations seek balanced and optimized solutions on weapon purchases, and use selection criteria based on cost-effectiveness. Naturally, these customers consider various ways by which their navy’s tasks can be solved. When you put yourself in the customer’s shoes and look at the Project 636, you may find it quite competitive. At the same time, for those nations that have long traditions of running a submarine fleet, we are ready to offer more advanced equipment such as the Amur 1650.
Touching on the order recently placed by the Russian MoD, I can say the following. The Russian navy set two tasks for Rubin: development of the improved Project 636 version to meet the navy’s new requirements and do so within a short timeframe. Normally, when a customer applies to us on the matter of the baseline Project 636 and talks on new deliveries, it presents us with a set of additional requirements and what then becomes necessary to add to the factory’s configuration. The list of changes is determined by the customer and we would modify the ship accordingly. When the changes to the design documentation are made, Rubin sends it to the shipyard, which builds a customized submarine and delivers it to the customer.
This practice also worked in case of the Russian MoD order. Rubin received additional requirements necessitating the upgrade of a number of the Project 636 onboard systems. Since these new submarines are intended not for export but our navy, the communications system changes accordingly. The information-control system changes also. In relation to the baseline model, the torpedo and missile systems are altered, once the international treaties on non proliferation of missile technologies are no longer applicable. With these and other changes implemented, Rubin has done its work: the technical documentation for the submarine modernization is complete. The Admiralty Shipyards are now starting construction of the Project 636(mod.) submarines.
Q. Air-independent propulsion (AIP) submarines: the Germans and the French sell them. As far as I know, Russia does not offer anything of the sort. Does this reduce competitiveness of the Russian offering?
High interest in AIP started in the late 1940s. Together with shipbuilders of other countries, Rubin also tried it. We developed such a propulsion system, but the scientific and technological level of the time was not sufficient to provide trouble-free operations of submarines with AIP at sea. They suffered numerous malfunctions. In the end we gave up this idea and continued development of diesel submarines and ways of increasing electrical capacity of lead – acid accumulator batteries. By now, the way of lead-acid battery development has been completely covered: such batteries have reached the electrical capacity close to the maximum theoretically possible. And that is why there is a new wave of interest in AIP.
It is interesting to notice that certain countries pursue different ways of AIP development. The Germans created their own propulsion unit centered on an electrochemical generator and storage of the fuel and oxidizer in tanks outside the crew space, between the pressure hull and outer light hull. Sweden has succeeded in creating a unit based on the Sterling engine. France has created MESMA (Module d’Energie Sous-Marine Autonome) in which the turbine works in a closed cycle using ethanol and stored oxygen.
Having done a thorough analysis of the situation, we came to a conclusion. AIP shall not only provide for a long underwater time, but also stealth operations and be safe when operated aboard submarines. The German solution does not look safe enough because of the hydrogen stored onboard the submarine, which is fraught with fire or explosion. The Swedish and French ways have their own disadvantages. Their units have additional mechanical parts: either engines with crank mechanism or turbine with their own gears. Adding these extra rotating mechanisms creates additional sources of noise. So we face the situation that can be described as balancing at the edge. On one side there is duration of underwater cruise, on the other side stealthy features and lower noise. It is difficult and not always possible to find an optimal solution.
Having done a thorough analysis, we chose a different way to go – the electrochemical generator. An absence of rotating parts is good from the viewpoint of stealth operations. The difference between our and the German solution is that we do not keep hydrogen onboard, thus eliminating the need for special costly infrastructure and complex systems on the ship. Generation of hydrogen goes on aboard the submarine by means of diesel fuel reforming. For the time being this solution is bench-tested using an experimental power unit. From the viewpoint of a ship designer, the AIP will be confined to some blocks within existing submarine modules. This will not entail considerable re-development or any sort of serious revision of a classic submarine layout. The difference will be confined to insertion of an additional compartment.
Speaking of AIP development, I want to highlight the following. Although AIP allows an increase in the underwater cruise time, it is rather costly. Even though submarines with AIP have been available on the international market for quite awhile, their sales are numbered. There is no “burst” of interest in them.
There is one more point to notice. The ion-lithium battery has been progressing well recently. Models available on the market allow an increase in underwater time for a diesel submarine by at least 40%. And yet the technical potential of the whole idea has been exploited by only 35-40%. In other words, the ion-lithium battery can be improved further for higher electrical capacity and, hence the underwater time of a diesel submarine. It is a very interesting development that Rubin has been following. Therefore I do not rule out a possibility that the interest in AIP will soon be diminishing.
There are some signs of this. Specialists attending the Euronaval 2010 took notice that French and German firms have commenced development of new submarines without AIP. This fact only added confusion to the minds of strategists of importing countries. There is much to think about, especially when a country starts thinking of building a submarine force from scratch.
Q. The ‘Saint-Petersburg’, lead vessel of the Lada class, was launched in 2004 and entered service with the Russian navy in 2010. What can you say about initial operations of this new submarine?
In your question you give the dates: launched in 2004, operational in 2010. This leaves six years for trials and commissioning. To make the matter clear, I need to tell the story how this submarine was designed, constructed and tested.
The decision for development of the Rubin’s fourth-generation non-nuclear submarine was made in the 1990s, when Russia was in transition from a command to a market-driven economy. State funding was always previously available to such programs, but at that time it appeared to be very limited. Many of our vendors were undergoing reforms and reorganizations (their enterprises were changing the form of ownership, some turned from state-run into privately hold businesses). Despite all these and other troubles, the lead vessel was completed, going through manufacturer and customer acceptance trials. The submarine was commissioned and went into service with the Russian navy.
During the Lada development phase, more than 200 scientific research and experimental hardware contracts were signed, leading to the creation of principally new pieces of equipment. They were not only developed, manufactured and tested, but also installed in the ‘Saint-Petersburg’. As I said previously, we felt funding shortages and hence committed to using semi-experimental systems on the lead vessel without much bench testing. In some cases these new systems started to work for the first time when aboard the ship, and hence we needed time to cure teething problems and for fine-tuning.
Therefore, when we speak about the timeframe in which the Lada was being developed and tested, we need to bear in mind what was special for the given period of time. And that is why the lead vessel required so much time for testing at the manufacturing plant and at sea. Despite all these complications, the main issues pertaining to shaping this new submarine and its vital systems have been successfully solved.
The ‘Saint-Petersburg’ was commissioned and is on operational trials with the Russian navy now. Our submarines of the third generation, such as the Antey and Akula also underwent operational trials lasting a year or two. During which time mechanisms of the ships were checked for durability, various design and manufacturing solutions were checked for would-be flaws, while the navy worked out methods of conducting operations using these new ships.
There is a reason behind the navy accepting a newly built vessel for conducting operational trials. When a new ship is being commissioned, the checks and tests take a relatively short time. In such a short time it is not always possible to collect necessary data about the new design prior to commencing quantity production. Meanwhile, operational trials reveal any weak points in the design and eliminate them before the industry begins construction of a series of such ships. As per the weak points discovered so far during operational trials, these are few and none of those is serious enough to curtail the operational trials prematurely or declare the ship unworthy for further service and evaluation.
Q. By displacement, the Lada is notably smaller than the Project 636, why is that?
Reducing displacement is a general trend in the non-nuclear submarine development. Our customers ask for displacement just enough for fulfillment of their requirements. Today, we work on a submarine with even lower displacement than the Amur 1650 with a project called Amur 950. A number of countries ask for submarines with displacement of 500-600 tons and 900-1000 tons.
Q. Historians say the Russian navy rose from the ashes several times, and each time in the past century its revival started with construction of submarines. Can we speak again today about such a revival, with the Borey and Lada class leading the way? Which place do these two classes take in the whole of the Russian shipbuilding effort?
It is difficult for me to draw historic parallels. Besides, our colleagues specializing in surface combatants have been doing rather well recently with their modern warships. Their ships are being built, tested and commissioned alongside with ours: the Yuri Dolgoruky (head vessel of the Project 955 Borey-class) and the Saint- Petersburg (head vessel of the Project 677 Lada-class). As per the current state of the Russian navy, I would not use the words “rose from ashes”, since the navy is here, fulfilling its tasks and safeguarding Russia’s sea borders. I would instead use the word “strengthening” in relation to the navy’s assets. The governmental Program for development of the Russian navy up to 2020 is being implemented; the Program is well balanced with regard to various kinds of naval equipment.
The last decade of the 20th century and the first one of the 21st century formed a critical period when the destiny of the Russian navy and Russian shipbuilding industry was being decided. And also that of the vast community of our vendors and suppliers – hundreds of highly specialized enterprises. Thanks to the key decisions made by the Russian government at the end of the 1990s, such as those in favor of the Borey-class submarines, this huge industry and its suppliers were allocated state funding and given new challenging tasks. Hence, these teams now have a chance to explore their full scientific and technical potential without fear of their enterprises being closed down on economical grounds. The above-mentioned decision in favor of the Borey-class, and those in support of the Lada-class have rendered invaluable support to the Rubin bureau and our vendors. This support has enabled us to stay in business, to complete development and construction of new items of naval equipment and systems, keep our skilled employees in place and create jobs for a younger generation of Russian shipbuilders. The importance of this can hardly be overestimated, knowing the complexity of submarine development and construction.
The Borey-class program is a priority for Russia. This program is to maintain the naval component of the national nuclear deterrent forces. Today, our underwater ballistic missile submarines built in the Soviet times are nearing end of their service lives and need replacing. The program for construction of the new strategic deterrent is compliant with the international treaties and harmonized with the development of other elements in the nuclear triada. It is well planned from the viewpoint of timely replacement of older vessels nearing retirement.
Sadly, the Russian navy did not pay due attention to its diesel submarine fleet for some time. These assets need further development, and the first step made in that direction was the MoD order for construction of the Project 636(mod.) submarines and the commissioning of the Lada-class head vessel – which hopefully be followed by quantity production. These measures shall provide security of Russia’s nearer sea borders with non-nuclear submarines.