Russia has had a lot of wonder weapons in the news, from combat walkers to nuclear-powered cruise missiles. Many of these weapons verge on the ridiculous or are the product of propaganda, but some are legitimately concerning. One scenario that keeps Pentagon planners up at night: the threat of sea-launched cruise missiles, ferried halfway across the Atlantic by Russia’s new submarines, threading their way through American airspace to deliver their deadly nuclear warheads on unsuspecting targets. Welcome to the new Yasen-class submarines.
At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had the largest submarine force in the world. From the deep-diving titanium hulled submarine Komsomolets to the nuclear-armed leviathans of the Akula class class the Soviet submarine fleet was large and rapidly catching up to the U.S. submarine fleet.
The collapse of the USSR meant the Russia that inherited the Soviet Navy suffered from too many ships and not enough money, and so the new Russian Navy limped along, barely sustained by the starvation budgets of the 1990s. Hundreds of submarines were discarded and new boats were started that took decades to finish.
One such project was the Project 855 nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine, or Yasen-class. The first ship in the class, Severodvinsk, was laid down in December 1993. Just three years later, Moscow halted construction due to a lack of funds with only a third of the hull completed. The submarine finally entered service in 2014 as Russia’s first truly modern nuclear attack submarine of the post-Cold War era.
Severodvinsk is a big submarine. She is approximately 393 feet long and displaces 11,800 tons submerged. An OK-650KPM pressurized-water nuclear reactor provides 200 megawatts of power, driving her to speeds up to 31 knots submerged. A Irtysh-Amfora sonar system provides near all-around sonar coverage, with a bow-mounted spherical sonar array, flank arrays on the hull of the submarine, and a towed sonar array dragged from the rear of the submarine while moving.
The Yasen-class combat systems are formidable, with ten 533-millimeter torpedo tubes armed with UGST-M heavyweight guided torpedoes. The weapon systems of greatest concern to Western analysts however are the eight multipurpose vertical launch tubes behind the sail. These launch tubes can accommodate P-800 Oniks missiles, ramjet-powered ship killers that in the final moments of an attack speed up to a blistering Mach 2.5, all the while staying as low as 16 feet above the wavetops.
Basically, a surprise attack by a Yasen armed with Oniks missiles would give U.S. carrier strike groups little time to react.
Another weapon that fits in the vertical launch tubes: Kalibr land attack cruise missiles. Similar to the American Tomahawk cruise missile, Russia has launched several waves of Kalibr missiles from submarines and surface ships against Islamic State targets in Syria. Kalibr missiles are also nuclear tipped. The first Yasen submarine, Severodvinsk, can carry up to 40 Kalibr cruise missiles while the second, Kazan, can carry 32. The result is a potent potential first strike platform.
For years, Russia has tried to devise a means of bypassing American ballistic missile defenses. Even though U.S. defenses are oriented against smaller states like Iran and North Korea, the Russians believe the potential exists for Washington to scale up its defenses to the point where they could threaten Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. If Washington can shoot down Russia’s missiles, that’s not much of a nuclear deterrent.
U.S. missile defense efforts are concentrated against high-flying ballistic missiles. Cruise missiles like Kalibr on the other hand fly a low, terrain-hugging profile to evade early warning radars. Russia’s implied threat in fielding nuclear-tipped cruise missiles is that no matter what kind of missile defenses the U.S. deploys, Russia will seek to go around them.
The problem with missiles like Kalibr is that they could easily be nuclear first-strike weapons. Kalibr has a range of 1,600 miles. As submarine expert H.I. Sutton, author of World Submarines: Covert Shores Recognition Guide, points out, a Type 855 submarine armed with Kalibr missiles “could target East Coast U.S. cities from the mid-Atlantic.”
Submarines with Kalibr missiles could launch decapitation strikes against key government targets across the United States, crippling the ability of U.S. strategic forces to retaliate. The closer the launching submarine can get to the U.S. mainland, the deeper the cruise missiles can fly into North America and the harder it is to stop them.
It was this threat of Russian cruise missiles that sent the Pentagon scurrying to develop the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. JLENS was a network of radar-equipped aerostats that flew high over the Northeastern United States, their radars looking down to detect cruise missiles flying below.
The program went into a coma after a 2015 incident in which one of the aerostats broke free of its moorings and flew free across the state of Pennsylvania.
Moscow probably does not intend for the Yasen/Kalibr combination to be a first strike weapon, but it does theoretically have that capability and the Pentagon believes the capability needs to be addressed. The Yasen submarine is that good.
Sutton believes the hype around the Yasen class is broadly justified. “By all accounts Severodvinsk class is a very stealthy and potent threat,” he said. “Currently Russia has some very capable submarines but they are mostly one generation older than the average American or British boat. With Russia now switching into production mode with the Severodvinsk class it will become a real challenger for US Navy and Royal Navy submarines.“
“The Severodvinsk is in many ways Russia’s equivalent to the US Navy’s Seawolf class,” Sutton explained, referring to the U.S. Navy’s large, deep diving attack submarines built during the late 1990s and early 2000s. “It’s an expensive top-of-the-range submarine conceived in the Cold War. The biggest difference is that the Russian boat has eight silos for cruise missiles in addition to what can be carried in the torpedo room. This feature has since been added to American attack submarines but they will never have the same weapon capacity.”
Meanwhile, the Kalibr missile system does work, as the strikes in Syria have shown. Sutton says: “Russian operational experience with Kalibr will help Russia has been combat testing the cruise missiles carried by Severodvinsk in Syria. Initial results were mixed but repeated strikes, including from submarines, will have increased Russian experience and confidence in how to use the weapons effectively.”
The United States has responded to the threat by reactivating the Second Fleet, an Atlantic based fleet command oriented toward the approaches to the continental United States. Post JLENS, there are rumors of a new system designed to detect missile launching submarines across the continental United States. New P-8 Poseidon submarine hunting jets and the Navy’s next generation frigate will lend heft to the Navy’s new submarine defenses, but the service is still a long way from the varied, complex, and skilled anti-submarine warfare forces it maintained during the Cold War.
For now, the best hope the Yasen-class won’t be the major threat it could be is the state of the Russian economy. Although the Moscow is over the economic pain of the mid-2010s and in a gradual recovery, growth is slow and the Yasen class is extremely expensive. Russia, whose economy is smaller than Texas’, has only built two such submarines in twenty years. It has aspirations to build a total of eight.
At this rate, it could be a long time before there are enough Yasens to constitute a serious problem.