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Russian submarines: Threats and opportunities for Britain

For years, Britain has recognised Russia as the most significant threat to its security. General Sir Nicholas Carter, Chief of the General Staff, rang the warning bell over half a decade ago, and last year’s Integrated Review observed that Russia remained ‘the most acute direct threat’ to the United Kingdom (UK).

These warnings may have seemed overstated, yet they have been dramatically realised through Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine – an attack that highlighted Moscow’s willingness to wage full-scale war in Europe in pursuing its interests. Such behaviour not only risks drawing in Britain through any future Russian attack on a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member, but has already directly affected the nation; the UK has committed some £5.8 billion of assistance to Kyiv (with £2.3 billion of military assistance already provided), including advanced weapons and training for thousands of Ukrainian troops, and is experiencing rising energy prices and food shortages. And Russia’s impact will continue, with discussions underway about what Moscow’s assault means for the capability and funding requirements of the British Armed Forces, including whether the ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific should be watered down to allow for more focus on Euro-Atlantic security matters.

Russia’ clandestine dangers

Yet there are more insidious ways that the Kremlin threatens the UK. From cyber threats to chemical and radiological warfare attacks on British soil, Russia has shown a willingness to accept a brazen degree of risk when using such dubiously ‘clandestine’ operations to pursue its ends – which include the murder of its enemies and damage to British infrastructure. 

These activities (with which Moscow denies any connection, however implausibly) mostly have little relationship to the enormous armed effort that Russia is applying on Ukrainian soil. Yet one secretive program, long held and only just reaching fruition, manages to touch upon the war against Ukraine, encompass the Kremlin’s conventional military assets and its shadowy specialised forces, and pose diverse threats to the UK which range from economic and intelligence dislocation to the threat of a nuclear strike.

The danger here lies in Belgorod. Not the city of 300,000 people some 25 miles north of Ukraine, but the nuclear-powered special missions submarine named after it. Plans for the Belgorod were originally laid down almost 30 years ago in July 1992, and after a protracted development and construction phase affected by Russia’s changing economic and strategic fortunes, the submarine was finally commissioned into service on 8th July 2022. While it was originally to be one of the standard Oscar II class of cruise-missile equipped submarines, designed to attack American aircraft carriers and one of the largest types of such boats in the world, the decision was taken across the decades to convert it into a special purpose vessel. This required lengthening its hull from 154 metres to 184 metres, and as such, when launched, the Belgorod became the longest submarine in the world.

The main directorate of deep-sea research

While the Belgorod now belongs to the Russian Navy, it will not operate under the normal chain of command. Instead, it will operate as part of the shadowy force which forms Russia’s ‘Secret Navy’: the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research, or Glavnoye Upravlenie Glubokovodsk Issledovanii (GUGI).

The Directorate was formed in 1976 and since then has existed separately from the rest of the armed forces administratively, physically, and operationally. For example, rather than being part of the Navy, it circumvents that chain of command and reports directly to the Ministry of Defence. Further, its staff and vessels are housed at discrete bases held apart from other military facilities, notably at Olenya Bay near Russia’s border with Norway, where a specialised covered dock keeps the most sensitive assets hidden from surveillance.

The waters around the UK would be a particularly rich hunting ground for the Belgorod, with nine of the 18 cables connecting Europe directly to the United States running through the Celtic Sea, and six of these making landfall only on British soil.

Such measures are justified by the specialised and exotic nature of GUGI’s operational responsibilities. These range from oceanographic surveys to the placement and maintenance of deep-water military equipment, including submarine-detection systems, as well as the identification, tapping, and potential destruction of subsea communications cables.

To achieve these missions, GUGI operates with a wide array of equipment, including eight or more nuclear-powered special-mission submarines, the largest and most diverse force of its kind in the world. These come in two main groups. First, there are various fairly small vessels, ranging from the 40-metre Nelma to the modern 74-metre Losharik, which suffered a devastating fire in 2019 but was capable of diving as far down as 2,500 metres. These submarines are equipped with advanced position-keep equipment and specialised robotic arms that enable them to approach, deploy, retrieve, maintain, and interfere with underwater infrastructure.

Such small craft have been transported around the world by two large mother-submarines, modified versions of Delta-III and IV ballistic missile units, from which they detach and reattach underwater beyond prying eyes. The carrier-submarines provide the additional food, water, and living space for the smaller vessels’ crews to reach distant areas of operations (being nuclear-powered, range is not a constraint for such craft).

These mothercraft have now been joined by the Belgorod, perhaps GUGI’s most impressive asset to-date. Yet its role is not limited to supporting submersibles. Instead, it is also able to launch Russia’s new Poseidon torpedo – due to enter service in 2027. The Poseidon is a strategic weapon, aimed to enable an assured second strike capability at coastal targets: due to travelling underwater, it is of course invulnerable to missile defences. Yet at 24 metres long and nearly 1.5 metres wide, this weapon is so large that it will be far too big to fit in an unmodified submarine (a regular torpedo is nearly 30 times smaller), leaving its use restricted to the Belgorod and the Khabarovsk, another specialised unit.

Threats to the UK

The Belgorod, even more than its sister-vessels in GUGI’s service, poses a range of threats to Britain. The likelihood of these coming to pass and the scale of their impact vary. Of course, the unlikeliest but most drastic threat is that of the Poseidon. Such a weapon would result in untold carnage and Russian State Television has already mooted the UK as a prime target to be ‘drowned’ under the 500 metre tidal wave of radioactive water that would result from the detonation of the torpedo.

Yet such an attack is unlikely, at least short of the Kremlin being ready to engage in nuclear war; such a strike would invite massive retaliation against Russia. But more likely to materialise, particularly in light of Moscow’s cavalier attitude towards its covert operations, is the threat the Belgorod poses to elements of British infrastructure and that of its partners.

GUGI has for years been active around transatlantic communications cables. By some estimates, 99% of global international data (including phone and internet) and 95% of defence communications moves through these cables rather than paths such as satellites. This means Russia, through tapping the cables, has access to an extremely rich source of peacetime intelligence information, and the ability to hold it at-risk should tensions rise.

While Moscow stumbles in its imperialist war against Ukraine, it continues to develop and deploy assets like the Belgorod and engage in a level of undersea activity not seen since the end of the Soviet Union.

This danger is one that Britain has well recognised. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, the current Chief of Defence Staff, stated that such interference by Russia would be tantamount to an act of war. And indeed, the waters around the UK would be a particularly rich hunting ground for the Belgorod, with nine of the 18 cables connecting Europe directly to the United States (US) running through the Celtic Sea, and six of these making landfall only on British soil.

But other subsea sources of risk exist, too. Further to the north lies the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre, used for submarine quietening trials and weapons tests. Interdicting signals from the sensors along the seabed (or simply stealing them) would provide Moscow with vital information on these units, and potentially the ‘signatures’ and performance characteristics of British assets using the area. While such an operation would not be without risk, the Kremlin has likely shown an appetite for such interference in other locations – although its role remains unproven.

Finally, Britain plays a key role in the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS) – the US led effort that works to track submarines across the globe. Underwater sensors and associated signal processing stations for the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), the predecessor to IUSS, were located on the UK’s mainland and in nearby waters. And today, British personnel staff the overall headquarters of the IUSS in Virginia. 

Decades ago, GUGI was already suspected of interfering with the SOSUS, and while much of IUSS is mobile, there remain fixed elements. And some of these could very possibly be located in waters near the UK and would remain just as tempting targets for Moscow.

A role for AUKUS

The commissioning of the Belgorod has materially increased the threat emanating from the Kremlin. The submarine is the most advanced of the GUGI motherships, doubtless benefitting from the 30 years of technical advances during the course of its construction, and of course, is likely to one day be equipped with the Poseidon. 

Yet there exists an avenue of cooperation that may assist Britain in addressing the dangers of the Belgorod: AUKUS. The defence cooperation agreement between the UK, US and Australia has no less than 17 working groups, and while nine focus on the most well-known aspect (supplying nuclear powered submarines to Australia), the remaining eight are concerned with various advanced technologies. One of these is the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems (AURAS) effort, which aims to foster cooperation on autonomous underwater systems, with tests set to commence in 2023. 

Such a robotic undersea capability, enabling the persistent monitoring of British waters, could play an important role in combating the potential for interference by the Belgorod or its sister vessels. Further, work under AURAS could help stymie the efforts of GUGI around the globe. After all, Russia claims for itself a worldwide remit; GUGI’s assets have been observed operating in waters around the planet. Submarines such as the Belgorod – being nuclear powered – very feasibly could operate just as much in the oceans closer to Australia and the US as in the North Sea.

Indeed, AUKUS may lay the foundation for much broader trilateral cooperation in undersea warfare. While AURAS is doubtless a useful project, there is much that can and needs to be done. Deep sea cables and fixed IUSS elements such as the Deep Reliable Acoustic Path Exploitation System will remain key targets for Moscow, as will allied facilities around the world ranging from US submarine training ranges to new underwater detection capabilities planned by Australia. The linking together of such facilities, to enable persistent, global, and mutually supportive underwater tracking, would provide the greatest possible mutual benefit. And this would be particularly so if such sites are equipped with the most advanced technologies developed cooperatively under AUKUS. 

There is little doubt that the time for such wider cooperation is now. While Moscow stumbles in its imperialist war against Ukraine, it continues to develop and deploy assets like the Belgorod and engage in a level of undersea activity not seen since the end of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Russia arguably has the most diverse and advanced underwater special operations capability in the world. Further, the People’s Republic of China is too pursuing new technologies, with its wave gliders appearing in distant foreign waters and new large autonomous underwater vehicles and prototype submarines being created. Through their ‘no limits’ partnership, there is every chance that Beijing and Moscow will be open to yet-closer cooperation in the underwater realm. It would be prudent for AUKUS members to be ahead of this curve.

Victor Abramowicz is PhD candidate and sessional academic at Curtin University, specialising in defence policy and strategy, military technology, security relations in East Asia and Eastern Europe, and military history.

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