How Russia’s post-cold war submarine program fell behind schedule, and the impact it had on their naval capabilities
At the end of 2022 Russia put the Suvorov (K-553), its sixth Borei class SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile sub) into service. Suvorov is the third of the marginally improved Borei B SSBNs, which carry the same 16 Bulava SLBMs (Sub Launched Ballistic Missiles) of the Borei A. There are four more Borei B’s under construction and two more on order for delivery in 2030 and 2031.
The Borei’s were the first post-Cold War Russian SSBN. The first began construction in 1996 but took 17 years to complete. The problem was that the capabilities of Russian shipyards collapsed during the 1990s because skilled engineers and workers were free to find better paying jobs and did so on a large scale. As a result, the Borei’s currently being built will take about eight years to get into service. The last Soviet era-SSBNs, the Delta IV class, took three or four years to complete. The seven Delta IVs entered service between 1984 and 1990 and six of them were refurbished a decade ago so they could remain in service until enough Borei’s were ready.
Delays getting the Borei’s into service were made worse because problems with their new SLBMs these boats continued after the first Borei was ready for service. There were so many missile delays that the older Delta class SSBNs had to stay in service longer than they were designed for. That meant these Deltas were unable to go to sea as often, a problem that was partially solved by refurbishing six of them. As a result, Russia has had few SSBNs at sea during the last decade. The four Borei’s now in service and at sea just about compensates for the growing inability of the Deltas to stay out for long periods. In ten years, all ten Borei’s will be in service and the refurbished Delta IVs will no longer be needed.
The fourth Borei was also the first “improved Borei”, or “Borei A” design, and construction took longer, and cost more, than planned. One feature, adding four more SLBM launch tubes, was deleted. Borei A includes improved electronics and changes to the hull and propulsion system to make the boat quieter and more maneuverable. There are now additional sonar arrays on the sides of the boat in addition to the usual one in the bow (front). There were significant changes to the propulsion system to improve maneuverability at low speeds. The hull now has a sleeker form without the usual noticeable bump behind the sail (small superstructure on top of subs) of older Russian SSBN’s. One morale-enhancing new feature is a small (four-seat) sauna. There are also larger and more comfortable crew quarters. These changes made the Borei-A look more like Western SSBN as well as perform like one. These changes made to create Borei A were so expensive that the navy can only afford to build ten Borei’s.
The Borei’s are essential to replace the aging Delta IVs. In many ways the Cold War-era Delta IVs were a superior design. 43 Deltas were put into service between 1972 and 1990. There were actually four distinct models (Delta I, II, III and IV) that varied in size (7800 to 13,500 tons) and capabilities. Russia had already built a class of subs to replace the Deltas – the enormous (24,000 ton) Typhoon/Akula class SSBNs. Those proved too expensive to build and operate. Six of them entered service between 1981 and 1989, and to save money, all were retired or scrapped by 2009. One Typhoon is still around to test new SLBM designs. That’s because the missile tubes on the Typhoon are so large that they can easily be modified to handle any new SLBM design.
The problems with the Typhoons were a foretaste of worse problems with the Borei and other large subs and surface ships planned. The shipyards could not get it done. Part of the problem was growing corruption, which played a role in destroying the Soviet Union, as well as a shortage of qualified managers, engineers and construction workers to design, develop and build these new ships. Because of all that Russia has had to cope and adjust its plans. In the 1990s it was decided that subs were more important than surface ships and that it was more cost-effective to refurbish older subs rather than build new ones. This has had an impact on Russia’s naval capabilities, as they have been forced to rely on older and less capable submarines for a longer period of time.