More than seven years after its last nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine, or SSGN, entered service, the Russian Navy has commissioned its next such vessel, the Kazan, the lead ship of a new subclass. The event marks an important advance in the overhaul of Russia’s mainly Cold War-era nuclear submarine fleet, which had previously introduced only one SSGN of all-new design, the Severodvinsk, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new type is based on the design of the Severodvinsk, the sole Project 885 Yasen vessel.
The Kazan, first of the Project 885M Yasen-M subclass, was officially commissioned into service today at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, on the White Sea in northwest Russia. Construction work on the submarine had started back in 2009 and, after much delay, it had finally been launched in March 2017.
Quoting a statement from the United Shipbuilding Corporation, the Sevmash shipyard’s parent organization, Russia’s Interfax news agency previously reported that the Kazan completed its state trials last December 28, clearing the way for it to enter service. “Sevmash has now completed all work to address the criticisms and prepare the submarine for handover to the navy,” the statement added.
As part of those pre-commissioning trials, last November, the Kazan carried out a test launch of one of its Oniks supersonic cruise missiles, according to Interfax. Before that, the submarine also launched an example of the Kalibr subsonic cruise missile, the same report said. Those missile types are available in different anti-ship, land attack, and anti-submarine versions, with optional nuclear warheads, and are delivered from vertical launch system (VLS) tubes. In the future, the Yasen-M boats are also likely to deploy the shadowy hypersonic 3M22 Zircon missile, too.
Until now, the Russian Navy had taken delivery of only a single example of the previous Project 885 Yasen class, from which the Yasen-M is derived. Entering service with the Northern Fleet in December 2013, the Severodvinsk is characterized by its significant cruise missile carriage — up to 40 Kalibr missiles, plus other weapons — as well as having an especially low acoustic signature.
Compared to its predecessor, the Severodvinsk, the Yasen-M is smaller, with its overall length reduced by up to around 40 feet, resulting in the previous large flank-mounted sonar array being deleted from the forward end. Like the Severodvinsk, the new design also utilizes a single-hull construction, akin to Western designs, and a break from the Soviet/Russian tradition of double-hull construction.
According to H. I. Sutton, an author and an expert on submarine warfare, the smaller size of the Yasen-M is intended to reduce construction costs. “Because of general improvements in technology the newer boats are unlikely to be any less capable than the original design, except perhaps in terms of passive sonar due to the reduced flank arrays.”
The Yasen-M reportedly also includes a new reactor that features an updated cooling system that is said to further reduce the noise the submarine generates.
With that in mind, despite the decrease in size, the Yasen-M is likely to be a significant development for the Russian Navy, providing a means to potentially build more submarines, more cheaply, even if they have slightly reduced capabilities in other regards.
In the past, The War Zone has explained how a combination of Yasen or Yasen-M class and the 1,500-mile range Kalibr cruise missiles could present a particular threat to a wide range of potential targets across Scandanavia and northern Europe, as well as Iceland, deploying at short notice from Northern Fleet bases. Operating in the North Atlantic, these SSGNs could also hold targets to risk on the U.S. East Coast, as well as within an area that was previously considered a “safe haven” for U.S. Navy ships and submarines.
The way these submarines launch their missiles is also different from their predecessors, which had angled launch silos. The Yasen classes are based around modular-type launch VLS cylinders that can accommodate different missile types as required. This also opens up the possibility of launching missiles without even leaving port, something that the Severodvinsk has done on at least one occasion.
And, of course, these vessels are hard to find. A War Zone source disclosed that, back in 2019, a large number of U.S. Navy submarines, warships, and maritime patrol aircraft spent weeks in an unsuccessful effort to locate the Severodvinsk in the North Atlantic.
“The Yasen may represent the pinnacle of Russian SSN design, benefiting not only from all the information from the Walker Spy Ring but the considerable technological advances that have occurred since the end of the Cold War,” explained Peter Hennessy and James Jinks in their book The Silent Deep.
The Severodvinsk joined the fleet after President Vladimir Putin had announced in 2011 plans to overhaul all branches of the military by adding around $360 billion to the defense budget. That project began to be derailed amid a serious economic crisis in Russia, including the collapse in the value of the rouble in 2015. At that point, the average age of the submarines within the Northern Fleet was 22 years.
Since then, for the Russian Navy, in particular, large-scale programs have been scaled back or even axed entirely.
Faced with this new economic reality, the scope of the SSGN renewal plan has been revised accordingly. As of 2015, four Yasen boats were reportedly under construction with Sevmash, with plans for another three to join them by 2023.
Now it seems unlikely there will be any more Yasens and instead, the focus is on the Yasen-M, at least eight of which are planned. A second Yasen-M, Novosibirsk, was reportedly engaged in sea trials in June 2020. While they may have been conceived as successors to the Oscar class SSGNs, the Yasens are far more versatile than simple cruise missile slingers, able to operate as general-purpose attack boats as well as intelligence gatherers and potentially as a special missions platform.
Of course, the new SSGN type is just one part of the wider modernization of the Russian Navy nuclear-powered submarine force, a process that has been moving at a glacial pace so far. However, by the end of the year, the service is expected to take into service the first revised Borei-A class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Knyaz Oleg, originally due to enter service back in 2017, plus the second Yasen-M class boat, the Novosibirsk.
It has been a long time coming, but the much-needed overhaul of the Russian Navy’s mainly Cold War-era nuclear-powered submarine fleet is finally starting to show progress on all fronts.
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