On January 10th Russia’s next-generation 'Borey'-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) 'Yuri Dolgorukiy' officially entered service with the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet.
Professor Thomas Fedyszyn, the Chair of the Europe-Russia Studies Group in the US Naval War College, suggests that the development of 'Boreys' is the first crucial step in Russia's attempts to modernize and revitalize its aging military-industrial complex. Equipped with the most advanced weaponry, the new submarine will not only provide Russia with an effective nuclear deterrence capability but will also serve to protect Moscow's economic interests in the Arctic. Crucially, while the might of the new submarine cannot be underestimated, the expert argues that for the moment 'Boreys' should not be viewed as Moscow's bid for naval dominance nor a threat to the NATO.
The views and opinions expressed by Prof. Fedyszyn in this article do not necessarily reflect official policies or positions of the United States Naval War College or the United States government.
After years of development and construction Russia's newest submarine has finally entered service with the Russian Navy. The first in its kind, 557 feet long 'Borey'-class submarine 'Yuri Dolgorukiy' is powered by an OK-650B nuclear reactor, has a maximum speed of 25 knots and can dive to more than 1,400 feet below the surface. Built using the most sophisticated technology, the vessel is equipped with 16 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and six RPK-2 Viyuga cruise missiles, with a 5,000 mile range.
Professor Fedyszyn suggests that such technical and military characteristics make the new submarine an effective nuclear deterrent. According to the expert, "the Borey class will possess characteristics that will more than enable it to perform its mission of open ocean deterrence patrol. Compared to previous Russian-designed SSBNs it will be quieter in the open ocean". As a consequence, "it will be very difficult for anyone to locate the submarine at sea" which will enable "its missile to be a relatively invulnerable second strike weapon: the most 'stabilizing' portion of the nuclear deterrent".
There is a growing controversy, however, over the question of whether Russia will use its new submarines only for the purposes of deterrence. Given the high costs of researching, designing and developing the new SSBN-SLBM combination (which at one point consumed more than one-third of Russia’s defense budget), some have been quick to assume that the development of new submarines should be seen as Moscow's attempt to reassert its naval military dominance. Prof. Fedyszyn does not agree with this point of view. In his opinion, the development of the "new class of submarine should not be viewed as a Russian bid for naval dominance, but rather as an initiative to modernize one leg of the Russian nuclear deterrent. Its current Delta Class SSBNs are becoming obsolescent and rarely engage in deterrent patrols. The Borey class will take more SLBMs to sea and will enable Russia to emphasize what Americans feel is the most stable leg of the nuclear deterrent force. This cannot be confused with naval dominance."
Indeed, given that Russia's current naval deterrent capability consists of an aging fleet of pre-1990s submarines, the development of 'Boreys' is a significant step for modernization of Russia's strategic arsenal. Before the new submarine entered into service, only a few Russian SSBNs were available for deployment at any one time, with the remaining vessels either undergoing maintenance or modernization, or in training. As a result, for the past decade, Russian SSBN patrols have occurred intermittently, with lengthy gaps in coverage. After January 10th, however, at least one Russian strategic submarine can be at the sea at any time. When the fleet of 'Boreys' reaches eight submarines by 2020, Russia's navy would be able to conduct around one hundred deterrent patrols a year. According to Prof. Fedyszyn, "the U.S. is definitely aware of this increased move to reinvigorate the Russian Federation Navy and will observe closely". However, calling it a bid for naval dominance or a precursor to the arms race "would be an exaggeration".
Another debate surrounding the 'Boreys' focuses on the question of whether Russia's decision to build 'Yuri Dolgorukiy' was reinforced by the ongoing conflict between Russia and NATO over the BMD program in Europe. In Prof. Fedyszyn's view, "the Borey-Bulava combination is a plan many years in the making. Any coincidences with current events are just that: coincidences." Nonetheless, the expert admits that "it is feasible to imagine that Russia envisions this move as a 'counterbalance' " to NATO's BMD. Prof. Fedyszyn adds, however, that if Russian submarines are upgraded with more long-range cruise missiles, it would be NATO's turn to counterbalance "since war fighting would be emphasized over deterrence". In this sense, it is crucial that Russia maintains an appropriate balance between the deterrent and offensive capabilities of 'Boreys'.
In the meantime, the new submarines will serve not only Moscow's military-strategic goals, but will also help to secure Kremlin's economic interests in various parts of the world. According to Prof. Fedyszyn, "navies have historically assisted the economic interests of nations and it would be both appropriate and reasonable that the Russian Federation Navy be used to protect Russia's economic interests in such region as the Arctic". In the near future, the Northern Continent is expected to become the arena of intense struggle for territory and natural resources, and, in this sense, construction of 'Boreys' is a very timely development.
Crucially, however, Russia should not stop on 'Boreys' in its attempts to revitalize its Navy. Echoing the recent claims of President Putin, Prof. Fedyszyn suggests that further major reforms will be required to fully revive the naval complex.