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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrian July 12, 2018 at 9:34 pm

On the subject of subs, which I know very little, is it better to have some new, but lower tech subs, or few to none at all high end ones?

I ask because talk of China leads to Taiwan, which really only has 2 working subs. Would they be be better off being able to build a dozen 1980’s level subs, or waiting to be able to hopefully build a sub almost equal to what the Japanese have, but perhaps only be able to afford 2 of them, and not for many more years?

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TMark July 10, 2018 at 6:27 am

Yes, there’s no question that Russia’s fleet has fallen from a ‘Great Power’ status. I alternatively ask: Is the western defense analysis community still unreasonably clinging to Great Power expectations from Russia based on Putin’s belligerence, i.e., Crimea, Syria and his rebuilding promises? Russia remains a nuclear power with global ballistic reach, true, but have we bought too much into the naval hype from Moscow?

I would argue that Russia – bordering over a dozen nations and the Arctic – is primarily a land power with no maritime dependence on either imported oil or agriculture. It’s exports mostly go over land to Europe and Asia in pipelines and rail cars, not by sea. And with the Cold War expansionist dream now over, protecting Russia’s undersea boomer fleet with a surface force is no longer a priority.

Much of the defense hype from Putin’s Kremlin – even a promised supercarrier – is driven by Russia’s cultural attraction to nationalism, Great Power ambitions and a preference for strongmen over modern western democracy. There should be no surprise that this rebuilding hype reached a crescendo in February just before Russian elections. (Notice how Putin’s defense ‘Powerpoint’ show depicted weapons in virtual reality instead of, well, real video.) Many Russian men were conscripted vets with their ancestors repelling the Nazis. Strong defense is romanticized while funding is an afterthought.

But while Russia’s past can be diagnosed, why does this nationalist fervor persist today? I would argue that Russians are united by two factors: size and resentment, which feed unrealistic defense goals. The Russian landmass spans eleven time zones and their population is the largest in Europe. This enables Russia to economically intimidate it’s immediate neighbors; a hard habit to break.

Yet the world mostly ignores Russia. Nobody wants to vacation there, immigrate there or learn Russian. Immigration flows outward. This builds resentment among Russians. They resent being mocked for their icy expanse and exports of fossil fuels, weapons, caviar, vodka, hockey players, hacking and mail order brides. They resent their economy is comparable in size to Spain.

So Russians, especially Cold War romanticists, gravitate toward goals that satiate this resentment of the west. They take pleasure in Putin’s cyber warfare and the recent poisoning of defecting spies. They buy the defense rebuilding lie despite the corruption they see everywhere. If Russia can’t economically match the west, then disrupting and taunting the west on the cheap is a vengeful alternative.

So while we can’t ignore the Kremlin’s alliance-busting campaigns, we can ignore Putin’s PowerPoints and let go of Russia as a ‘has-been’ great power.

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Craig Hooper July 10, 2018 at 8:42 am

Great comment. I think this has deeper roots than just the Cold War; let’s not discount the fact that Russia has a very fond spot in their hearts for Peter the Great, and his investment in navy-building is still a big point of pride.

Don’t get me wrong. In general, I like Russians. They embraced the West. They’re often smart, interesting, enjoyable party guests and often pretty darn wise to the world (sadly, they’re often too willing to cut corners, live with corruption and the European ones often have a surprisingly racist side to ’em). And yeah, they’ve been buffeted about by fate pretty roughly. I get that they’re pissed off, resentful and so on. I get it. I respect ’em.

The trillion-dollar question is if they can overcome their past and present and convert their not-so-benevolent despotism into something more wholesome–less based on corruption, cynicism and sludgy resentment. I don’t know how though…hell, I don’t know if it is even possible.. I think there is a strategic question somewhere in there about how to support and appeal to the more noble sides of the Russian character and Russian state, but….with the current state a bewildering mix of criminality, organized crime and toxic corruption, it’s a far harder nut to crack now than it was back in the nineties.

I hate the idea of starving ’em out. I don’t think it makes them a better as a country and such an existence brings out some of the worst Russian traits…But for us—the USA–it may well be the safest option. But that’s where strategy comes in. And we sure as hell don’t seem to have one.

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Nate-Dogg July 9, 2018 at 8:56 am

I dont for one second say that these fringe wars are anything but the full bloody horrendous carnage they are.
What I’m saying is, Ukraine and Georgia, are to Russia what Lybia was to the Euro’s, and Iraq and Afghanistan are to America, fringe, unlosable wars that the major nations carry out against minor powers who have no hope of ever inflicting even a minor defeat on their opponents.
Lets not forget that Gorbachov and Bush senior agreed that Nato would never try and recruit anyone in the former warsaw pact, and allow Russia room to re assert some kind of control over its immediate environs. Clinton abrogated all that as soon as he was elected.
Agreed, the chance of having a cordial relationship with Russia is dead and buried.
The major powers will almost certainly never resort to war amongst each other though. Hence spending on truly effective weapons systems is so curtailed. Russia is dead broke, and can’t even build a 5000ton frigate, never mind a full 10,000 ton destroyer, which the pacifics are pumping out like mad, as is America, and for you guys those things are a breeze, 1/10th the size of the Carriers you build every 3 years. The Arleighs are over kill against anything they are ever likely to fight. I think the US still has more than twice as many VLS mounted on Naval platforms as the rest of the world combined? Or is it 4 times as many?

I dont see Russia as a threat, even with America disengaging completely, which it wont, the Euros alone could face off Russia, even with their abysmal ready rates (read spending on major fleet units), the only nation with worse than the Euro’s ready rates in the Air or Naval arenas is Russias. They couldn’t field half of Europes air power if they tried. They have virtually no major surface units capable of even unmooring, and as you say, their sub fleet, nuclear, is over matched by England/France, and their SSK’s are over matched by Germans+nordic nations.
Sure, Russia is the bear that likes to poke, but when they fly a recon flight within a few hundred k’s of England its int headlines that they even have the left over resources to still manage it, yet we hardly hear about the virtual daily recon flights western nations do just outside their 12kms territorial borders. We poke them as much or more.

If I’m misreading Russias naval or ariel abilities please do correct me. Im only going on the little thats available publicly, but what there is doesnt paint a particularly pretty picture. For them.

I dont for one second think anything Trump does reflects Americas strategic interests, and yes, i agree, he’s capable of causing great harm to long term US strategic interests. If thats intentional or through ineptitude historians will parse that little chestnut.
Current western naval spending is more than overmatch for Russia in the western theatre, in the east Russia can barely man a customs station. The Chinese are the real concern there. Perhaps not as competent as the Russians, but they as opposed to the Russians, are outbuilding S Korea and Japan plus Aust and Canada combined. As such, America turing to face east is likely the correct strategy. That strategy proceeded Trump, was enacted by actual serious politicians, and i doubt theres much Trump can do to unravel that.

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Nate-Dogg July 9, 2018 at 2:25 am

From the little i know of the subject, generals (i suppose that means admirals too) are always overselling their adversaries capabilities, how else will they get their respective governments to fund the latest and greatest tech that the various defence companies are developing?
Heaven forbid they’d tell the truth that the US military has a 10-1 over match on their adversaries, and dont actually need anything better or more of it.
To be fair, the adversaries do so too (over sell their enemies capabilities), to get their respective governments to keep spending on the near peer threat.
Is any of it realistic? Weather you believe the MAD proponents that we dare not attack those with nuclear arsenals, or lean more towards a Victor Davis Hansen approach that war is the result of one side miscalculating the ability of ones adversary to defeat one in combat, therefor the rise in telecommunication relegating the fog of uncertainty to a distant memory, i very much doubt the major powers need to really worry about their oppositions capabilities. All they need to be able to do is beat up on the worlds minor powers with impunity in these colonial brush wars they keep having.
So, no, Russia is not a near peer threat. Yes, Russia can annihilate anyone in unconventional war. Yes, they’re aware they can’t beat even Europe in a conventional war. No, i very much doubt we’ll ever have one again.
Regardless of all the above logic, no one will turn off the faucet, too much money gets funnelled to the right places to ensure that happens, the scare campaign is for the consumption of the hoi paloi whose taxes will fund the continual spend.
With China trying to carve out its elbow room in the world, and doing so in a very bellicose manner, its an easy sell.
Will Trump open up the Russians ability to re-invigorate their economy? Im sure he’d like to. Im also sure the real money that decides how our world works would like to as well. Again, no real threat posed, and makes for an easier sell to the masses on why they must be taxed so high.
Not sure if this pseudo analysis furthers this discussion any.

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Craig Hooper July 9, 2018 at 7:15 am

Thanks for the comment.

I’d ask you to think a bit about the prospects for a conventional war in Europe. When Yugoslavia dissolved, it dissolved into a decade of fighting between 1991 and 2002 or so. Russia’ has been fighting in the North Caucasus and the Sough Caucasus for awhile, and the recent/ongoing dust-up with the Ukraine looks, to me, like war as well. So while the heart of Europe is peaceful, the fringes can get (or currently are) pretty rough. We can debate whether these were “conventional” or not, but…most involved some pretty rough conventional combat. So while we agree that full-scale, old school battle against the Russian hordes isn’t bloody likely, Russia has a lot of room and a lot of reasons to cause trouble and, in the process, re-digest states lost when the Soviet Union broke up.

How will President Donald J. Trump play his next week? Who knows? I think he could productively spend the NATO summit venting about Europe’s diminished ASW capabilities. That’s a capability that directly supports everybody–for each sub the Europeans find/track, that’s one less sub we need to worry about AND nobody in Europe wants the Russians bopping about off their shorelines, un-supervised. If Trump went in yelling about that, I suspect a lot of folks would nod and go, “yeah, you know, when he’s right, he’s right.”

But if he hands Russia normalized relations and opens the fiscal spigots, they’ll have a route to fielding some pretty fancy capabilities. For subs, Russia used what money they had quite well, and have become a far more professional force than they once were. Operationally, it means that any platforms they get, they’ll use them in ways that’ll drive everybody nuts–and they’ll suck away resources best focused on China.

I also don’t think they’ll look at any olive branch from President Trump as anything more than a sucker’s gift rather than a real bet on a long-term US/Russia partnership. I think that opportunity sailed in the early nineties, and now we’ve just got a whole bunch of aggrieved Russians out there with big chips on their shoulders, yearning for national greatness. And that’s not exactly great partnering materiel.

Thanks for commenting!

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Bryan July 9, 2018 at 10:20 am

Not only do I think you are correct but I think we are about to shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to China.

Not only should we continue to isolate Russia, but we should begin to isolate China. All the while reforming our military to be properly structured. One of the ironies I see from President Trump is his willingness to expand the Army. People talk about the army fighting a weak Russia as though we need a million soldiers. It’s wasteful spending. We have help in Europe and we are not marching to Beijing unless we want a nuclear war. We need to shrink the active duty army.

I believe the U.S. will crash and burn financially while trying to keep up with Chinese expansion. Politically I don’t think we can do anything else. The irony is we will not be there for our allies if that happens. I personally believe a small powerful Army and Air Force is what we need. Keep the budget the same for the military. Reform the welfare system. Balance our budget. Keep the budget balanced and slowly begin to eat away at our debt.

That would be a far superior plan for being there when our allies need help. As it is, I suspect China just has to do enough to get us to functionally bankrupt ourselves. Then our fleet will stay in port just as the Soviets did. 2%, while somewhat arbitrary, is a far superior goal than 355. That number is just a joke born of ignorance.

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anonono July 9, 2018 at 11:50 am

The Army has used the European threat to suck up any and all DC interest in and funding for the Pacific.

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