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Bear underwater: Russia’s undersea capabilities

As Vladimir Putin’s disastrous and ill-advised aggression against Ukraine continues to chew away at Russia’s ground forces, with no likelihood of rapid force reconstitution even when the war eventually ends, it is easy to see Russia’s military capabilities as wholly degraded. However, not only does Russia retain its strategic arsenal but, beyond some embarrassing losses in the Black Sea, its navy is almost wholly intact.

If Moscow wishes to project power or simply reassure itself that it is still a power of consequence in the future, it is likely to have to rely all the more heavily on its naval assets. This is something of an irony, as Russia has never been a major maritime power, its navy being regarded much more directly as an adjunct to its land operations. But given that the Kremlin currently considers itself as being, in effect, at war with free and open countries, and that it thus will develop its strategies on a global rather than theatre basis, the likelihood is that tensions in Europe will drive confrontation in the world’s oceans. Future defence planning – not least, the refresh of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Defence Command Paper, expected this summer – will have to reflect this continued and in some cases expanded maritime challenge. 

The submarine fleet

Nonetheless, the Russian Navy is not going to be able to match the United States (US) Navy or even, in future, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Thus, Moscow’s powerful underwater forces become all the more important in both military and geopolitical terms, allowing it to manifest a potential challenge to free and open countries far from Russia’s borders. It has, after all, one of the largest submarine fleets in the world and despite budgetary pressures and technical challenges, it has devoted considerable effort through the Putin era towards its modernisation, and at present, it is receiving the bulk of naval procurement funds. Along with the 11 ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), part of its nuclear forces, it has ten nuclear-powered cruise-missile armed submarines (seven older Oscar IIs and three Yasen), 16 nuclear hunter-killers (mostly the Akula-class), 21 diesel-engine attack submarines (Kilos and Improved Kilos, as well as the first Lada-class) and eight other ‘special purpose’ boats, typically for testing, but also including the Belgorod, rebuilt to mount the new Poseidon long-range nuclear torpedo-drone and also to be a mothership for other minisubmarines and underwater drones.

Moscow still has ambitious plans for further modernisation. The latest Borei-class SSBN, the Imperator Alexander III, is currently undergoing sea trials, as is the Yasen-class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Krasnoyarsk, and the attack submarines Kronstadt and Mozhaisk. This year, the Sevmash and Admiralty Shipyards are due to hand over two nuclear-powered and three diesel-electric submarines. Looking further ahead, the Rubin design bureau has pitched its advanced Arcturus SSBN, featuring a stealthy hull and the capability also to deploy drones. However, there are growing doubts that much of these ambitious longer-term plans will come to fruition, as much for reasons of funding constraints (and the need to rebuild the ground forces) as problems acquiring advanced technology given sanctions and export controls.

New and old roles

Instead, Russia’s undersea fleet will focus on four roles: 

1. Strategic deterrence. In Russian doctrine, Russia’s strategic forces remain the final guarantor of national survival and sovereignty, and its SSBNs represent a powerful and survivable element of the nuclear triad. This fleet continues to be modernised, with the newest Borei-class SSBN, the Generalissimo Suvorov, to be transferred this year from the Northern to the Pacific Fleet, to be based in the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, it is also worth noting that Moscow also considers even its conventional submarine fleet as a tool of escalation management, able to threaten cruise missile strikes (or seabed attacks, as discussed below) for what Russian doctrine calls ‘fear-inducement’ while remaining below the nuclear threshold.

2. Defence of national waters. Unlike the US Navy and Royal Navy, Russia’s fleet has prioritised support of land operations and preventing foreign navies from operating close to the Russian shore or in regions in which Russian forces are deployed. As a result, its submarine fleet is especially geared for defending national waters, denying access to enemy vessels above and below the water. The interdiction mission is also going to become more complex and important as the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the opening up of the Arctic sea routes mean that the age of ‘High North, Low Tension’ are over,  and a new era of contest is beginning in a region Moscow is claiming as its own.

3. Power projection. From the Syrian intervention to the war against Ukraine, Russian submarines have launched Kalibr cruise missiles against both military and civilian targets in support of ground operations and also in the hope of disrupting chains of command and demoralising populations. More broadly, the submarine fleet is used as a disruptive and performative instrument. It could be used to threaten maritime trade routes or constrain rivals’ naval deployments, and in the process disrupt economic and military operations alike. 

However, Moscow’s capacity to send its submarines ranging far from its shores is also part of what one could consider ‘performative power projection’, acting the part of a global power, even if the Russians are not planning on doing more than flying the flag. For example, when the Ufa, one of Russia’s stealthy Project 636.3 diesel-electric submarines, was added to the Pacific Fleet last year, Russian reports said that this was ‘because the Asia-Pacific region has become an arena of confrontation between great powers, primarily China and the United States.’ That is true enough, but in the words of a recently-retired Russian naval officer, ‘it’s not that we can do anything much there if China and the US go to war, but we can at least pretend we are significant, and hope people believe us.’

4. Threatening undersea infrastructure. Ben Wallace, the British Secretary of State for Defence, noted in April that Russian submarines ‘in the North Atlantic and in the Irish Sea and in the North Sea [have been] doing some strange routes that they normally wouldn’t do.’ The reason is, as Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, Chief of the Defence Staff, said, that there has been a ‘phenomenal increase in Russian submarine and underwater activity’ such that Russia could ‘put at risk and potentially exploit the world’s real information system, which is undersea cables that go all around the world.’

The fibre-optic cables along which internet traffic and other communications flow, and the power cables and pipelines crucial to energy transfers, are both crucial and vulnerable and the ability to tap communications and break cables and pipelines offer Russia a powerful strategic opportunity (See Map 1). To this end, for more than a decade Russia has been developing these capabilities; largely subsumed within GUGI, the secretive Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, they include submarines adapted to deep-sea pressures, intelligence-gathering vessels able to map seabed infrastructure and minisubmarines capable of operating at depth.

Map 1: Underwater cables in the Euro-Atlantic region

A paradoxical future

Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist at the Centre for Naval Analyses, considers ‘the Russian submarine threat…the greatest threat that Russia poses to NATO’. Under these circumstances, the challenge for the UK and other NATO allies will be to maintain two balances. The first is between an awareness of the potential Russian threat and undue alarmism. After all, the latter only enhances the Kremlin’s ‘performative power projection’. The other balance is between the underwater and other threats. However, so long as there is a leadership in the Kremlin committed to confrontation with free and open countries, the Russian navy will by default have to play a larger role in asserting its place in the world, and given the relative weaknesses of its surface fleet, this will to a considerable degree mean its submarine force.

It is not as though NATO is unaware of the challenge. The latest iteration of the Dynamic Mongoose naval exercises demonstrated a heightened awareness of the submarine threat that even the Russian military press noted. However, deterring Moscow when it has already succumbed to a wartime mentality is harder, and practically responding to the array of potential threats difficult when the war against Ukraine is directing attention towards land and air defence forces instead. No wonder Russia’s most toxic propagandists are falling back on submarine fantasies to try and frighten free and open countries, from devastating the British Isles to cutting the cables carrying the internet.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

This article is the fourth part of a special series for Britain’s World on underwater warfare. The series is kindly sponsored by Dr Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter OBE.

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