Early last April, we were among the first to report that Russia intended to send the world's largest submarine, the Typhoon class Dmitry Donskoy, and their largest surface combatant, the nuclear powered Kirov class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, to the relatively tight and tense confines of the Baltic Sea. Now both ships have officially set sail from their home port of Severomorsk on their unprecedented voyage.
The ships are part of a massive flotilla of Russian naval power that will take part in a parade on September 30th at the far eastern reach of the Baltic Sea in St. Petersburg. The two ships represent some of the most destructive vessels the world has ever seen, and sailing them into Northern Europe's most strategic waterway will raise eyebrows, especially among NATO member countries that call the Baltic home.
Just getting the vessels in and out of the enclosed Baltic Sea will be a sensitive operation, as we wrote in April:
"The Baltic Sea is usually the playground of smaller attack submarines, namely of the diesel electric variety, not of huge ballistic missile carrying "boomers." The body of water is very much a littoral environment, with an average depth of around 180 feet, which is hardly the environment for a Typhoon class submarine that displaces 48,000 tonnes while submerged and was built to literally find a place in the deep and remote ocean to hide for long periods of time. According to The Barents Observer even transiting into the region will be a tight squeeze for the Dmitry Donskoy:
"For those who want to see, but can’t go to St. Petersburg, the vessel will have to sail at surface under the Great Belt bridge where vessels with a maximum draught of 15 meters can sail. According to Swedish Maritime Administration, the waters under the Öresund bridge or the Flint channel are too shallow. The draught of a Typhoon submarine is 12 meters."
But even if the huge submarine doesn't have a tactical purpose in the Baltic Sea, its appearance there will send a very big reminder to the region and beyond of the heavy-hitting naval capabilities the Russian Navy retains. A Kirov class battlecruiser is also not especially well-suited for operating in such a environment, but its abilities do pose a threat to the region.
The ship was built to tear apart American carrier battle groups in the open ocean, but their missiles can be used against other targets as well, and its long-range air defenses pose a credible challenge. But the fact is Russian long-range air defense assets, ballistic missiles, and even possibly land-based cruise missiles are already present in Kaliningrad, so although the Pyotr Velikiy does bring some new capabilities to the table in the region, Russia already has plenty of ways to turn on a no-fly-zone at a flick of a switch, and bombard NATO countries from nearly the inside-out if they actually wanted to do so. Not to mention the fact that a huge battlecruiser in a closed body of water is a big fat target itself.
Maybe above all else, the fact that multiple nuclear reactors (both vessels run on nuclear power) of Soviet vintage will be plodding through the region is likely to draw the most ire from Moscow's European neighbors."
According to a release from the Russian Ministry of Defense, the parade will include "10 ships and 28 aircraft and helicopters" from the Northern Fleet. The Baltic Fleet forces will likely add many more ships to that roster, as well as aircraft from units based in the region, including in Russia's Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad.
Based on this info, this should be one hell of a naval parade.
The imposing Dmitry Donskoy, whose class inspired the beloved Cold War classic The Hunt for Red October, is the last of her kind. The other five giant Typhoon class boats have been scrapped or are decommissioned (and largely rotting) and are about to be meet a similar fate. Different rumors have popped up in recent years as to the Donskoy's future. Today it serves as a test ship for Russian Navy ballistic missiles, and by some accounts there are no plans to retire her from that mission anytime soon. But other sources say the iconic submarine's days are numbered. Maybe we will find out about what he Russian Navy has in store for the unique submarine after its adventure into the Baltic Sea concludes.
The Kirov class nuclear battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy on the other hand has a long life ahead of it. It has received some upgrades in recent years and its sister ship, the Admiral Nakhimov, is undergoing a deep refit that includes installing a host of new weaponry and sensors. Once the Admiral Nakhimov is returned to the fleet, Pyotr Velikiy will go through the same refit process, giving both ships a common configuration around the middle of the next decade.
Russia's Northern Fleet armada sailing into the Baltic Sea, regardless of if it is for a parade or not, will draw huge press coverage in Europe, but their voyage around Scandinavia will also be closely monitored by local militaries. We'll keep an eye on their progress and report back on the status of their voyage soon.