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The Undersea Arms Race Between the US and Russia Is Back On

A new Russian nuclear attack submarine may make the ocean depths feel a lot more like they did just before the end of the Cold War.

by Ryan Faith
Oct 30 2014, 9:00pm

Photo via Sevmash

The K-560 Severodvinsk is the first genuinely new Russian nuclear attack submarine put in service since the end of the Cold War, and it has gotten the attention of US naval planners in a serious way.

The US Navy has a dominant edge in aggregate power, but that doesn't mean it's conclusively dominant in each and every facet of naval warfare. And the Russian submarine force is — or at least was, during the Cold War — a serious rival to the US Navy.

There are basically four kinds of submarines in use today. The boomers (SSBN), which carry a set of ballistic nuclear missiles and are a critical part of the Russian and US nuclear force. There are guided missile subs (SSGN) that carry huge numbers of cruise missiles intended to blow up ships and conventional targets, or to carry nuclear warheads. Then there are the diesel attack subs (SSK), which are intended to hunt other ships and subs. These submarines can actually be quieter and stealthier than their nuclear cousins, but they're smaller, slower, and generally stick closer to shore. The US no longer operates any diesel subs, but Russia, China, Japan, and several European countries produce very advanced examples.

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Finally, there are the nuclear attack subs (SSN). The offensive mission of these submarines is, like their diesel counterparts, to hunt, track, and kill targets. Unlike the diesel attack subs, however, nuclear attack subs prowl far and wide throughout the deep ocean looking for prey.

Because submarines spend their time in peacetime hunting and hiding from enemy subs in much the same way they would during an actual war, there's less difference between wartime and peacetime for submarines than you might think. This constant training and testing means that when two countries are operating with equivalent levels of experience in submarine warfare, it is one of the purest arms races around. Both sides are continually trying to out-think, out-build, and out-maneuver each other.

Historically, the Soviets kind of sucked at making submarines quiet, so they instead opted for performance. Their subs could go faster, dive deeper, and generally hotrod around the oceans. But Cold War spy John Walker (who died in prison on August 28) sold Edward Snowden-like amounts of top secret American submarine warfare info to the Soviet Union to help them improve their equipment and tactics. This in combination with the Japanese sale of advanced manufacturing tools to the Soviets meant that their subs got a lot better very quickly. By the late 1980s, the most advanced Soviet nuclear attack sub, the Akula II, was basically as quiet as America's most advanced nuclear attack sub, the improved Los Angeles class. The Soviet subs still had lousy sonars, but the US edge in quietness had come to an end.

The US then set out to regain its advantage with the new Seawolf class, which were supposedly larger, quieter, faster, and more dangerous than any other submarine afloat. Various reports claimed that the Seawolf was 10 times quieter than the Los Angeles; allegedly a Seawolf at 25 knots was quieter than a Los Angeles class submarine idling at the pier. It was set to decisively re-establish US submarine warfare dominance — until its enormous price tag was torpedoed by the "peace dividend" of the 1990s. Only three Seawolf class submarines were ever built.

Meanwhile, Russia was aiming to move beyond its Akula II and trying to match or exceed the new US effort to regain the undersea edge; as a result, the first Yasen class nuclear attack submarine was started in 1993. While the Seawolf was plagued by its enormous costs and eventually killed, the Yasen suffered an analogous problem: the collapse of the Russian economy.

Now, more than two decades after it was begun, the Yasen class attack sub K-560 Severodvinsk has been launched, has completed its trials, and is now being accepted into service. Think of it as the official restart of the US-Russia undersea arms race.

Vladimir Putin has embarked on an ambitious program to rebuild the Russian military and make it as powerful and influential as it was when it was called the Soviet military, and the Russian submarine rearmament — a key of the overall military rebuild — is centered around four programs: the Yasen, the Lada, the Borei, and the Bulava.

New Yasen class attack subs will be going into service roughly every year starting in 2016. The Lada class are the newest Russian iteration of the diesel attack submarine. The Borei are Moscow's new ballistic missile submarines, and are intended to revitalize the Russian submarine-based nuclear deterrent. And the Bulava is the brand new missile that the Borei will be carrying. With multiple advanced maneuvering warheads, it is designed to defeat any sort of missile defense countermeasures.

Just as the launch of the Severodvinsk is indicative of Russia's military re-emergence, this week's launch of America's newest Virginia class submarine, the USS North Dakota, is indicative of America's continued move past the cancellation of the Seawolf.

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Designed to be a smaller, cheaper alternative to the Seawolf, the Virginia is reportedly just as quiet, but makes sacrifices in performance compared to its pricey predecessor. And analysts in the West must ask how much Russian naval designers were able to tweak and incorporate new technologies into the design of the Severodvinsk during the decade-plus stall in its construction. The result? There's a huge uncertainty about how the Severodvinsk and North Dakota will match up.

The Cold War ended with something approaching a match in quietness. Now the question is how the Russian ability to incorporate new advances in the design during the build hiatus is going to compare with US design choices based on a post-Cold War world that is now starting to look an awful lot more like a Cold War world. At least, under the water.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Sevmash