Russia rarely experiences good news in the narrative of its declining naval power, but its introduction of a new submarine has come close to representing a breakthrough in the monotony of negative developments. On October 28 a new submarine named St. Petersburg, honoring the 300th anniversary of the city, was launched at one of Russia’s oldest shipbuilding yards, Admiralteyskiye Verfi. The conventionally powered fourth-generation submarine of the Lada project, designed by the Rubin Central Design Bureau, marks the introduction of one of the first submarines specifically built for the Russian Navy since the collapse of the USSR. Vladimir Alexandrov, Managing Director of Admiralteyskiye Verfi, believes it has few overseas rivals. The St. Petersburg is 67 meters long, her beam is 7 meters, and her draft measures 6.5 meters. She is equipped with new models of torpedo and cruise missiles and can reportedly cruise unsupported for 45 days (Itar-Tass, October 28).
Indeed, the St. Petersburg has certain advantages over older generation Russian submarines. For example, its noise level is reduced, and its modern hull is more efficient with a coating preventing hydro-acoustic location. One clear innovation, distinguishing the vessel from similar models elsewhere in the world, relates to the provision of systems to ensure the ecological safety of the vessel. Moreover, it boasts a combined technical-automatic management system for the submarine and its weapons, as well as a range of other measures to enhance survivability.
Igor Spassky, Chief of the Rubin Central Design Bureau, hopes that future cooperation between shipbuilding yards and design bureaus will assist in stretching the bounds of air-independent units, such as the St. Petersburg. Thus, Russian experts are developing new-generation power plants in order to markedly increase the length of time that conventional submarines may spend underwater. They are already testing air-independent/anaerobic units that will allow submarines to remain submerged for several weeks, eliminating the necessity of constantly resurfacing. It is a vital area of research for the Russian Navy, which is keen to demonstrate its potential to maintain some theoretical parity with the United States Navy in keeping with its rather unrealistic blue water ambitions, which may help secure a greater share of the defense budget. “We intend to continue cooperating actively with shipbuilders, and in particular to jointly take the development of anaerobic units further,” Spassky affirmed.
The launch of a new submarine, welcome though it is in Russian Naval circles, hardly constitutes a significant reaffirmation of the fortunes of an ailing naval force, which has been in decline since before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. There are other signs, some would argue, that Russia’s Navy may be about to experience better times. In late October, a flotilla of ships from the Northern Fleet returned to the harbor of Severomorsk, having completed large-scale exercises for a carrier-borne aviation group in the Atlantic Ocean. Although a boost to morale in general, the exercises reveal more about the condition of the Navy, its plight, and the political culture within which these exercises were planned.
Superficially at least, the one-month long exercises were impressive, testing anti-submarine and air defense capabilities and refueling vessels at sea. It witnessed the participation of the nuclear cruiser Petr Velikiy, the mine ship Admiral Ushakov, and the missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov. The flagship was the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The Atlantic exercises were designed as a serious test, not merely to showcase the group. Admiral Mikhail Abramov, Commander of the Northern Fleet, believes that these exercises demonstrated the reliability of the Northern Fleet to defend Russia’s borders, as well as showing a high level of combat readiness (Channel One TV, October 22).
Yet, for seven years the ships of the Northern Fleet had not been further than the Barents Sea. The participants were inexperienced with the harsh conditions of the Atlantic, testing to the limit the skills of Russian pilots, who fail to receive anywhere near the number of annual flying hours that their NATO counterparts log. Reportedly, more than 100 sorties were flown by fighter aviation, proving the exercise invaluable as a way of enhancing experience and competence of young pilots in harsh weather conditions.
Russia’s foray into Atlantic exercises for its Navy, combined with its renewed emphasis on submarine research and development, albeit on a greatly reduced scale than many Admirals would wish to see, suggest a drive within the Russian military to promulgate an image of greater naval capabilities than Russia realistically possesses. Given the proximity of threats to its territorial integrity coming largely from within or near its own borders, the choice of location for the exercises suggests that hostility towards the United States as a potential enemy or Naval rival remains alive and well with the security elites of the Russian Federation. After the Kursk and other tragedies, there are clear signs that many want an enhanced naval capability, but fail to appreciate, let alone agree on how to set about it. Reform of the Russian Navy, based on the evidence of these much-vaunted advances, appears a long way off, stultified as it is by internally conflicting views of the type of Navy Russia requires in the 21st century. Development and changes in place will continue to masquerade as real reform.