The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the output of all sectors of Russian industry, including arms manufacturers (see EDM, April 20, 21, 29, July 28). And despite the fact that state defense orders and the development of nuclear weapons in particular are among Russia’s most protected projects, coronavirus-related problems have affected them, too.
Due to the decision to implement lockdowns early in the pandemic’s outbreak, SevMash, the main Russian producer of naval nuclear weapons, practically ceased working from March 30 to April 13. Since then, no more than 59 percent of employees have worked at the plant an any given time (29.ru, June 10). Nonetheless, in April, SevMash reported that work on its state defense orders had not stopped (Marine.gov.ru, April 7). At the end of April, specialists from the Northern Fleet disinfected offices, main shipbuilding docks and other SevMash facilities (Interfax, May 25). But a facemask requirement was only introduced a month after the resumption of work. Also in May, body temperature control checks were implemented upon entry to company buildings and plants. Ultimately, shift start times were divided up among the workforce, thus relieving congestion at entry checkpoints. And signal markings were posted throughout public areas reminding employees to maintain social distancing (29.ru, June 10).
None of these measures were wholly successful, however, as SevMash experienced a new outbreak in May. By early July, the number of cases of COVID-19 within the company reached more than 1,000 (Interfax, September 17). In some departments, 70 percent of the workforce contracted the disease; despite this, employees were not widely tested for the coronavirus, and individuals who potentially interacted with infected persons were not placed in quarantine. Rather, all company actions were concerned foremost with preventing any halts in production. All corporate divisions are connected to one another, so closing one of them would have meant the shutdown of the entire plant (Zona.media, May 29). The company, therefore, found itself caught between two obligations: to fulfill the state defense order on the one hand and provide anti-coronavirus measures on the other hand. So despite the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 at SevMash, the surrounding company town of Severodvinsk was not placed under quarantine until June 6—after the Borei-class nuclear submarine Knyaz Vladimir was completed at the local plant and transferred to the defense ministry, on May 28 (Sevmash.ru, May 28; Severodvinsk.info, June 4).
Similarly, on April 3, the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), Alexey Rakhmanov, said that restrictions caused by the spread of coronavirus infections would not affect the terms of delivery of orders to the Russian navy (Flotprom.ru, April 6). Yet by September, Rakhmanov admitted that the pandemic had, in fact, disrupted production schedules. “There were delays, mainly due to the fact that a number of key employees ended up in a hospital bed,” the USC head said at a meeting of the parliamentary commission on the defense industry (Interfax, September 17).
These problems on the factory floor have undermined development plans involving the maritime component of Russia’s nuclear forces. In April 2020, sea and state trials of the K-329 Belgorod submarine were to begin; and at the end of the year, it was to be transferred to the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF) (TASS, June 26, 2019). The Belgorod is to carry the Poseidon (a.k.a. Status-6) autonomous nuclear-tipped super-torpedo. Yet by now it has become obvious that the navy will not receive this specialized submarine before the end of the year. Indeed, the Ministry of Defense only announced on July 27 that tests were being conducted (Sudostroenie.info, July 27). And an unnamed source within the Russian military-industrial complex said last May that the tests of the Belgorod would continue for another year and a half (RIA Novosti, May 26). At the same time, the first test launch of the Poseidon was supposed to take place in the fall of 2020 (Flotprom.ru, May 26). That trial has still not been completed.
Another vessel designed to carry and launch the Poseidon nuclear super-torpedo—the first submarine of the new Khabarovsk-class, currently under construction—has also been postponed several times. It was supposed to be completed in the spring of 2020 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 14, 2019). But in August 2020, the head of SevMash, Mikhail Budnichenko, disavowed this information, saying that the launch will not occur until 2021 (TASS, August 23).
The Borei-A-class submarine Knyaz Oleg, which is supposed to carry the advanced Bulava ballistic missile, will also not be transferred in 2020, as the defense ministry had heretofore expected (Kremlin.ru, December 24, 2019). The previous vessels of the Borei class all took at least two years after their initial launch to fully join the fleet. In addition to mooring as well as factory and state trials of all of the submarine’s structures and mechanisms, it will still be necessary to conduct a test launch of the Bulava missile from this vessel. No such test launch has been attempted yet, which means that it is far from certain that SevMash will be able to transfer the Knyaz Oleg to the VMF even before the end of 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a longer-lasting negative effect than Moscow expected. At the beginning of the outbreak, many specialists from other regions could not access Severodvinsk for some time, as they had to pass personal quarantines for 14 days. Then, the city itself was closed for quarantine in June. Due to the two-week lockdown, the chain of links with component suppliers also broke and took some time to recover. Initially, officials and SevMash’s corporate management apparently assumed that maintaining a record number of trial crews would help to deliver the nuclear submarines faster; but the pandemic dragged on, preventing those trials from being done.
The formerly planned deadlines for the implementation of state defense orders are now clearly shifting. However, the government has refused to compensate the defense industry enterprises for the funds they spent on anti-COVID-19 measures (Voennoe.rf, October 2). According to military expert Viktor Murakhovsky, the Ministry of Defense will impose penalties for delaying contracted deliveries by even a day (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 7). In these circumstances, the development of Russia’s naval nuclear weapons will require more money than expected. This plus the ongoing delays in production may, in the long term, lead not only to a revision of implementation deadlines but also to a reduction in the actual volumes of any of these strategic programs.