A senior U.S. military officer has again sounded the alarm about the threat that advanced, very quiet, cruise-missile-armed Russian submarines, as well as Chinese ones, increasingly present to the United States. At a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, who is head of U.S. Northern Command and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, told lawmakers that Russia's growing fleet of nuclear-powered Yasen class guided-missile submarines, in particular, are nearly on par with U.S. Navy types in terms of quietness and will present a persistent threat to the American homeland unlike any before within five years. He added that, at its current pace of modernization, the Chinese Navy would not be behind for long in terms of similar capabilities.
VanHerck made these comments before members of the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing on missile defense on June 15, 2021. The general was one of five officials testifying before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, the others being Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Leonor Tomero, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Navy Vice Admiral Jon Hill, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command head Lieutenant General Daniel Karbler, and U.S. Space Command chief Space Force Lieutenant General John Shaw.
"Russia just fielded their second Sev class [submarine], which is on par with ours," VanHerck said at one point, as part of a response to a question about threats that fall below the nuclear threshold that potential adversaries pose to the United States. "Within a five-year period, they'll have eight to nine of those submarines, which will be a persistent proximate threat off of our east and west coasts that we haven't had ever in the past."
The "Sev class" boat VanHerck was referring to was the Kazan, which was formally commissioned into Russian Navy service in May. Kazan is the second submarine in the Project 885 Yasen class, which NATO refers to as the Severodvinsk class after the name of the lead boat. It is also the first boat in a new subclass, known as the Project 885M Yasen-M class. Russia has four more of the multi-mission Yasen-Ms already under construction and is presently planning to build at least eight boats in this subclass, in total.
Earlier in the hearing, VanHerck, in the context of cruise missile defense, another area of growing concern to the U.S. military, in general, had talked about Russian submarines that were "advanced, very quiet, nearly on par with our[s]." This also appeared to be a reference to the Yasen class.
Severodvinsk, which is set to be the only example of the original Yasen design, has eight large payload tubes that can be configured with different configurations of vertical launch system (VLS) cells to accommodate different types of missiles. Reported loadouts include up to 40 Kalibr subsonic cruise missiles, variants of which are intended to be used in anti-ship and land-attack roles, as well as differing amounts of other weapons, such as the Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. The shadowy Zircon hypersonic cruise missile could also be part of its arsenal in the future.
The Yasen-M design is shorter, by up to around 40 feet, but reportedly still has eight large payload tubes, allowing it to fire the same mix of existing and future missiles. Reports also say that Kazan and its future sisters lack the large flank-mounted sonar array found on Severodvinsk, but have gained improvements, including to their reactor plant and elsewhere that focus on reducing their acoustic signatures.
The Severodvinsk was already understood to be very quiet, something that General VanHerck has now publicly confirmed. Low acoustic signatures make the Yasen and Yasen-M class designs, which you can read more about in detail here, very hard to detect and track, and then, in the event of an actual conflict, engage.
"In the not too distant future, five to 10 years, China will be in the same position," VanHerck also said during the hearing, referring to similar advanced Chinese submarine developments. This includes the continued development of new variants of the Type 093 Shang class, another modern nuclear-powered type that is reportedly very quiet and can launch cruise missiles from its torpedo tubes. There had been reports that the improved Type 093G version might have VLS cells, but no subsequent evidence has emerged to support this.
General VanHerck's comments yesterday are very much in line with remarks that Navy Vice Admiral Andrew "Woody" Lewis made last year. Lewis was and continues to be the head of U.S. 2nd Fleet, as well as NATO's Joint Force Command-Norfolk. The Navy reestablished 2nd Fleet in 2018 specifically in response to growing threats in the Atlantic Ocean, including from Russian submarines.
"Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location," he said at a gathering jointly hosted by the U.S. Naval Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in February 2020. "We have seen an ever-increasing number of Russian submarines deployed in the Atlantic, and these submarines are more capable than ever, deploying for longer periods of time, with more lethal weapons systems."
VanHerck's remarks also come just months after the Russian Navy made a dramatic display of some of its submarine capabilities when it had three boats capable of firing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles surface close to each other in the Arctic, an area of growing strategic significance. Knyaz Vladimir, the first and, to date, only in-service example of the improved Borei-A class, another design reported to be very quiet, was among the submarines that took part in that exercise.
The general's comments about both submarines and cruise missiles are also interesting when remembering that the Russian Navy's Project 949A Oscar II class guided-missile submarine Omsk
made an unusually public appearance near an outlying part of Alaska last year, sailing on the surface near St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. That had, in turn, prompted an equally unusual public statement from U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) that it was monitoring the boat's activities.
The Soviet-era Oscar IIs have a distinctive hullform that is very wide in order to accommodate 24 missile launchers, 12 on each side, in long sections between their inner and outer hulls. Each one of these launchers can be loaded with a single P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missile, which NATO also refers to as the SS-N-19 Shipwreck. Deep overhaul-retrofits will see these older Soviet-era missiles replaced by more modern ones. Russian has previously announced plans to modernize at least one Oscar II class boat, the Irkutsk, with new launchers able to fire the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile.
The potential for Yasen and Yasen-M class boats, along with older Russian submarines, as well as various types of surface warships, to carry Zircon is part of separate and growing concerns about the threats that missiles able to reach hypersonic speeds present to American forces. “It’s important that we have that capability now because the hypersonic threat is there now," MDA head Vice Admiral Hill had said at a separate hearing before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week in a response to a question about the need for hypersonic defense systems, especially sea-based options to protect Navy aircraft carriers.
At the hearing yesterday, Hill stressed that when he talked about hypersonic weapons, he was talking about a broad category that included missiles tipped with highly-maneuverable unpowered boost-glide vehicles, very-fast-flying air-breathing cruise missiles, and advanced ground-based and air-launched ballistic missiles, which reach extremely high velocities in their terminal phase of flight.
"Dog-leg maneuvers just right off the bat, maneuvering in space, what I call range-extensions," Hill told the members of the House Armed Services Committee in terms of developments just in advanced ballistic missile performance capabilities. "They're all hypersonic when they come back into the atmosphere."
"What used to be a very predictable ballistic profile, that has now changed and it's a challenge to the sensor architecture," he continued. "It's very important that we continue to invest in the sensor capacity that we have against ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise [missiles], because they are converging and they're coming at us across that whole integrated air and missile defense domain."
"I remain concerned about my ability to defend the homeland as our competitors continue to develop capabilities to hold our homeland at risk, from all vectors, and in all domains," General VanHerck had said in his opening remarks at the hearing, where he also raised concerns about non-kinetic threats, such as cyber attacks.
The potential difficulty in detecting Russian Yasen and Yasen-M class guided-missiles submarines, as well as other increasingly quiet designs that Russia and China are developing, combined with the ever-more-advanced weapons they can carry, look to only be further complicating this overall threat picture. As a result, the situation is increasingly prompting warnings from those with the best available information that America's advantage in key strategic areas is eroding.
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