Unpopular Opinion: Russia’s Sub Fleet is Dying

by Craig Hooper on July 7, 2018

For all the dire talk about Russia’s undersea resurgence and phoenix-like re-emergence from post-Cold War disarray, Russia’s nuclear sub fleet is dying.

There is no denying it. Despite all the hand-wringing over increased undersea activity and fretful talk of new sub designs and weapons, nothing of substance has changed since the Cold War. Outside of a few new, stable and solid platforms, new systems, professional crews and a smaller fleet size overall, the dominant platforms the Russian nuclear sub fleet employs today are the same as those the West beat in 1989.

Russia’s recapitalization bow wave is immense, and naval tastemakers are doing a poor job of describing the task ahead. Look at the numbers: Out of 41 front-line Russian nuclear attack and missile boats in service, only seven are less than 25 years of age–right now they have three new SSBNS, 1 new Yasen Class, 1 Oscar II and 2 Akula II‘s. A Borei and Yasen will enter the fleet soon. That’s it.

In ten years, eighty percent of Russia’s active-duty nuclear sub fleet will simply be too old to fight. Sure, the Russians have good, solid designs–mostly left over from a large stockpile of design work previously completed in the Cold War–but they lack the cash to build them in numbers. Despite years of sea trials to fix things, the Yasen is rumored to be pretty good, but the Russians are already looking for something cheaper because they can’t afford ’em.

Isn’t the U.S. facing similar recapitalization problems?  Not really….to compare, every single Virginia Class SSN, every Seawolf SSN, and a good number of the 688s (maybe, oh, seven?) are under 25 years of age. Even four of the venerable Ohio SSBNs are under twenty-five. Twenty-nine boats! Over 40% of the fleet. Then consider that two more Virginias are about to enter the fleet and that nine more are under construction, and, well, it’s no wonder that the Russians are feeling somewhat inadequate.

The Russian nuclear submarine fleet is dying. And as dying fleets tend to do, they’re casting about for relevance. That’s why we are seeing disruptive solutions and provocative operations. Unconventional mini-sub probes on infrastructure, autonomous super-bombs and super-speedy torpedoes do a lot to distract from the fact that the majority of the Russian Fleet are old and infirm platforms just waiting for the scrapper.

Don’t be fooled. Undersea supremacy is a money game, and the Russians don’t have it. And unless President Trump gives it to them this week, rolling back sanctions and normalizing relations, the Russian submarine threat is going to die off, and quickly too.

It Ain’t A Darn Bilateral

The challenge for the Russians goes beyond money. They live in a multi-polar world too, and the Russians don’t have too many friends in it right now.

On the other hand, America still has plenty of friends. And though America hates to admit it, and American policymakers (and reporters and other various taste-makers) persist in over-emphasizing stupid and overly-alarmist bilateral force comparisons to highlight U.S. weaknesses, the U.S. Fleet derives a enormous amount of power from friends.

Take submarines–with American friends included in the undersea domain, Russian nuclear subs face far more than just the 70-sub American fleet. Though America may–given the rampant hubris within the U.S. undersea community–dismiss the modernizing ten-ship French nuclear submarine fleet as well as the modernizing ten-ship British nuclear submarine fleets, the Russians most certainly can’t.

But that’s not all.  There’s the rest of Europe–i.e. NATO. Europe’s 50-odd fleet of conventional attack submarines are pretty new and–when run right–quite formidable. Those conventionally-powered undersea NATO assets can make life very difficult for Russia’s other undersea force–a fleet of twenty-one old conventional submarines. Russia’s 20-boat Kilo Class sub fleet is venerable, with over half pushing past 25 years of service. And while age is less of a factor in conventional SSKs (users are not tied to reactor life), pressure hulls do age out. Right now, as far as new SSK’s go, Russia has a broken/failed Lada in service, and a handful of newer Kilos. Conventional subs are quite useful, and the Russians are certainly looking to continue to recapitalize their SSK fleet….if they can find enough money.

It’s not just Europe. There’s also the Pacific, where the Russians will need to contend with very capable Japanese boats, South Korean subs and even the occasional Canadian or Australian boat looking to prove itself. And then there is border monitoring to do as well; North Korean or Chinese activities are always worth watching–and may, possibly, become a matter of critical concern.

So Russia has a lot to do and geography has a number of ways to dilute Russian submarine strength. The challenge is enormous. Russia has to protect the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea approaches and the Pacific–that’s a whole lot of coastline and a whole lot of choke-points for a tired and dying fleet to handle.

So, with no friends and a unified coalition on the maritime borders, the Russian sub fleet will, at least, die busy–unless something should happen to break up the maritime coalition currently bottling up the Russian fleet.

Death Rattles in the Infrastructure

The Russians aren’t stupid. They are doing certain things right–using what little available money they have to build a professional sub cadre, and  they’re working on sub-systems and other small and useful components.

But the signs of strain and collapse are inescapable.

Take a look at the industrial base. The Russians are doing everything they can to keep their submarine industrial base alive. And yes, the manufacturing base is getting stronger after surviving on a steady stream of foreign sales and a slow drip of Russian Navy recapitalization projects. But Russia’s submarine infrastructure remains a shadow of it’s formal self.

Despite a goodly amount of experimentation and energy (particularly with clandestine baubles of the spook set) the vault of engineering work accumulated in the Cold War is drying up. The Yasen and Borei designs were Cold War products, and, while the final platforms are solid craft, the Yasen had enormous teething problems to overcome. But the systemic problems with the Lada Class suggest that Russia’s once-formidable prowess in undersea design may well be fading, and the the future of Russian submarine design may well be an ugly mire of failure and frustration that is only resolved by ready access to cash. I expect the Husky design to be an exciting, pricey and somewhat sobering experience for all involved.

The other lifeline for Russia’s submarine infrastructure–foreign sales–is drying up as well. With China getting into the sub sales game, China’s salesmen are doing a very good job of pushing Russia out of potential sub markets the Russians once relied upon. It must be galling for Russian designers to see China’s derivative Kilos outcompeting and outselling products from the OEMs, but we all know that particular outcome was entirely predictable given China’s well-worn business model.

So, starved of funds, even Russia’s well-preserved stockpile of Cold War-era undersea seed corn dries up and dies. And when there is nothing left in the larder, Russia will find that pulling undersea surprises out of it’s hat is far, far harder than it was during the Cold War, back when Russian sub design houses were supported by a well-funded, formidable technical training pipeline and fed by a never-ending stream of design orders.

Conclusions: No Money No Bear

The future of NATO and Russia’s sanctions regime is now President Donald Trump’s call. We shall see what he decides.

My sense is that any opportunity to re-set Russian relations with the West on a positive path came and went years ago, when Western diplomacy couldn’t keep up with the sweeping chaos of a Post-Soviet world.

Today, given Russia’s aggressive posturing in Europe and elsewhere, starving the Bear is probably well within the West’s best interests. And starving the bear will likely remain in our interests until China’s designs on Russia’s Asiatic minorities–and the abundant resources in Siberia–become all too obvious for Russia to ignore.

But the question, I guess, is to what extent do we choke off Russia’s economic and military development?  A starving bear will not die easily. Russia’s big sub fleet has about a decade left before it slumps into a relatively toothless UK-sized force. And, if that is the desired strategic course, America and NATO should gird for disruption and provocation. Death throes are not pretty things, and if Russia makes a calculation that it must seize what it can now, before it’s military force dwindles away, then NATO should be ready–united and (ahem) far more prepared to prosecute ASW than it is today (now here’s an issue where President Trump could rightfully tweak Europe, and they’d all readily agree since no European country wants Russian subs snooping about in their waters).

We could muddle through, giving Russia to some unknown amount of assistance, and give Russia some fiscal oxygen. Or President Trump could break the sanctions, break NATO and watch Europe’s forces dissolve into rival factions, with the power of a united Europe’s substantial submarine force frittered away in internecine disputes and rivalries. We could do all that with the hope that a grateful Russia will work with America in the future.

Good luck with that.

My sense is that if we give Russia anything at all, then, given Russia’s military priorities, we then give the Russian sub fleet the lifeline it needs to recapitalize, and a likely still-angry Russia will get to field a professional undersea fleet that will bedevil and complicate American and European security for decades to come.

There are no easy answers. But the sanctions-constrained Russian fleet is on the ropes, and CNO Richardson and everyone else shouldn’t sugar-coat that simple fact. Sanctions work. The American Navy and it’s attendant taste-makers should be far more frank–and far less coy and alarmist–about decaying Russian capabilities, and help encourage the formulation of a viable strategy for Russia moving forward.

The strategic questions–like Russia–are enormous, and if we don’t discuss and decide a path as a democracy, somebody like President Donald J. Trump will take it out of our hands and make those decisions for us.

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When “Kill The Robots” Is Routine

by Craig Hooper on June 23, 2018

Even the most optimistic unmanned evangelists must acknowledge that naval doctrine will, eventually, boil itself down to a simple precept: “Kill the Robot, and Quickly”.

My sense is that America, as the first-mover in the unmanned space, finds that future somewhat distasteful. It is difficult to move from uncontested exploitation of potential utility to a suddenly crowded and increasingly contested niche. The transformation from limitless super-secret potential into a mundane and highly-contested reality is usually rough and full of miscalculations.

To preserve some measure of status quo, the U.S. (and a few others) are trying to grant people-less platforms  some kind of legal standing and protection (“no, no, no….that crew-less Sea Hunter USV is NOT a wreck and you CAN NOT salvage it!”). But any faith that some fuzzy-ole’ internationally-recognized legal framework can guarantee the free passage of unmanned military or government-owned craft is misguided. Faith in the Rule of Law–at least at sea–should have expired long before China snatched a U.S. glider in 2016.  Nobody should have been surprised that China grabbed an unmanned glider when it could; the U.S. and many other countries have done similar things. Interfering with rivals’ unattended infrastructure–be it a buoy, communication line , “ceremonial” underwater flags or even sea graves –is common. Any rival’s unmanned kit has-and always will be-exploitable.

But too few are talking about the prospects of adversaries “messing” with or “interfering” with unmanned craft. My sense of the future is that anything with targeting or other disruptive potential cannot–and will not–be allowed to collect or transmit unmolested. Far too many people give lip service to unmanned platforms. “Oh yes,” they say, waving their hands, “in wartime, all this ISR and unmanned stuff will be gone”, when in fact, in the future, maintaining ISR and unmanned stuff is gonna be a constant battle–an unrecognized and unpublicized one, but contested and fought-over nonetheless. And that is going to make the seas a whole lot meaner.

That’s scary. Now, with all due respect to the beady-eyed folks behind the mysterious locked green door, some operators of advanced systems understand the challenge ahead–they’re living this future today. They’re ready. But every-day leaders, policymakers snd the public have got to understand that unmanned platforms are at real risk of being killed off (or at worst, interfered with) at any time. They need to be ready for the prospect that the unmanned space could become really quite rough as countries jockey for position and security.

My concern is that, as the stakes increase, the barrier for aggressive “shoot first and ask questions later” action against unmanned craft is becoming very, very low. Some interference with disposable robot platforms can be absorbed. But at some unknown point, the fun and games end. One day the rubicon will be crossed– critical services provided by some pricy future robot platform will make the loss impossible for a country to bear without retaliating–only nobody–NOBODY–knows where that line is yet.

And that is a recipe for war.

We, as a society, are not ready. Nobody–from the U.S. on down–is prepared for a constant and undeclared war against pesky unmanned platforms. We’re talking about a very kinetic future as NORMAL. Drones and robots are going to be constantly battling it out for access on the fractious margins of various countries’ Areas of Control, and the levels of disruption and loss rates will be far higher than anybody can comprehend right now. That means that conventionally-crewed platforms will need to be on their toes, and ready to fight–if not be fighting–constantly when outside their AOR.

People are going to die over this.

Dangerous Waters Ahead

So how do we move ahead? To me, the only way to slow the global trend towards zero tolerance for unmanned craft is to complicate the targeting process, and essentially make it very, very difficult for observers/targeteers to distinguish between manned and unmanned craft. I mean, while the average PLA(N) commander will likely have a free hand in dispatching pesky drones, taking a life will still be relatively sacrosanct.

Ultimately, the harder it is to determine if people are aboard a potentially vexing sensor, the longer that platform is going to live.

So…in my mind, optionally-manned has got to become more of an accepted “thing”.  And that, of course, will be innately risky. So we need to begin thinking really hard about how to accommodate some sacrificial E-3s standing a lonely watch on the autonomous Sea-Hunteresque craft of the future, or to protect some 0-3 riding impotently in a jump-seat of some hopeless-diamond-shaped and sensor-bedecked airborne lozenge.

A second route is to tether unmanned with manned–and so tightly integrate unmanned with the manned platform that, again, the robot is harder to target and exterminate. That also raises the risk for the poor SOB charged with deploying and tending some kind of fleet of flying rubber dog shit outside of, oh, Hong Kong, but, hey, it’s a job the robots won’t be able to easily claim as their own.

Another route to survival is standard and platform-based–to harden, obscure, minimize, miniaturize or otherwise protect the platform, which then, of course, just encourages harder, tougher responses in opposition.

The final route is to be virtually sacrificial, almost just asking for a hit.


In the maritime, the robot world is going to be a rough-and-tumble place. And we, as a society, are unready for it. Safely negotiating–or tolerating- robot conflict is a global challenge.

This “kill the robot” future has huge implications. It’ll transform naval engineering and naval tactics. Overall readiness, weapons mixes, magazine sizes, EW capes, generators and a ton of other tiny things will need to change. Platform choices will shift. Risk calculations need fundamental re-tinkering. And mind-boggling levels of procurement are going to be coming once America sets upon a path forward.

But before we move down that road, America needs a strategy that is unencumbered by the distractions from the neat tactical confectionary unmanned platforms offer us today. And many more people need to know that much of this bright robotic potential may be seriously limited by active opposition.

And that isn’t happening. And that should concern everybody.

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