Amidst growing tensions in the Western Pacific over rival Chinese and United States efforts to bolster their presence there, Russia’s military is pursuing a major upgrade of the Viliuchinsk naval base in the Russian Far East. Viliuchinsk is the Pacific Fleet’s ballistic nuclear missile submarine (SSBN) base on the southeastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Sea of Okhotsk has been used as a “bastion” for sheltering Russian naval SSBNs since Soviet times, but Viliuchinsk’s advantage over Vladivostok, to the south, is that it has direct access to the open ocean. The Viliuchinsk upgrades include constructing new hardened submarine shelter pens for the Pacific Fleet’s SSBN and attack submarines. Given the distance of Pacific Fleet warships from European-based Northern Fleet maintenance and repair facilities in the Kola polar region, the harbor is also to receive a modern floating dock for berthing and repairing the Russian navy’s recent Project 955 Borei- and Project 885 Yasen–class submarines to lessen the facility’s current near-total reliance on shipyards at the other end of Eurasia.
It is a measure of the port’s strategic importance that Viliuchinsk remains a “closed” town despite the end of the Cold War (Zhurnal Kamlaif, accessed December 15). During a working trip to Kamchatka in August, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu set the end of December as the deadline for completion of all of Viliuchinsk’s military infrastructure upgrade projects necessary to host the navy’s latest Yasen-M attack and Borei-A-class SSBN nuclear submarines (Krasnaya Zvezda, August 12).
Shoigu’s order reinforced earlier promises by the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet’s (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) commander-in-chief, Admiral Nikolai Evmenov, who, in March, pledged the creation of an earthquake-resistant modern submarine base for the Pacific Fleet in Viliuchinsk before the end of the year. These works, he announced, would include the arrival of an advanced PM-61M1 floating pier (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 19). Given the Kamchatka Peninsula’s vulnerability to earthquakes, the Viliuchinsk naval base upgrades will be designed specifically to cope with seismic events (FLOT, March 19).
The primary objectives of Russia’s four fleets and Caspian flotilla are twofold: regional sea denial as well as protecting Russia’s submarine-based nuclear deterrent. Viliuchinsk is currently the home port of the Aleksandr Nevskii and Vladimir Monomakh Borei-class SSBMs. Equipped with the RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), each Borei-class craft can carry 16 SLBMs, with up to 6 “multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle” (MIRV) warheads on a missile, for a combined maximum load of more than 700 warheads (Matthew Korda and Hans M. Kristensen, “Russian nuclear weapons, 2021,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 77, Issue 2, March 18, 2021, pp. 90–108). To replace its aging Soviet-era Delta-III and -IV SSBNs, Russia began constructing the Borei–class lead boat in 1996 and will eventually deploy ten: five in the Pacific Fleet and five with the Northern Fleet. According to the Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force Command chief of staff, Rear Admiral Arkadii Navarskii, Russia’s Pacific Fleet will soon receive four new nuclear submarines; two Borei- and two Yasen-class vessels (TASS, October 27).
Viliuchinsk is, thus, becoming an essential element in upgrading Russia’s Pacific Fleet nuclear deterrent. Beyond receiving the new Borei SSBNs, analysts note the base’s exceptional defense importance and suggest that, in the near future, it may also house the VMF’s Poseidon underwater drones, currently under development (Izvestia, October 27).
As for the port’s current value for the Russian military’s strategic nuclear deterrent, in December 2020, Viliuchinsk’s Vladimir Monomakh launched for the first time a salvo of four Bulava SLBMs from the Sea of Okhotsk at the Chizha coastal military site in the Arkhangelsk Region, a distance of more than 3,415 miles (5,500 kilometers) (Krasnaya Zvezda, November 10).
The upgrades to the Viliuchinsk base are prudent because, at present, Pacific Fleet submarines are largely dependent on the maritime infrastructure in the Murmansk and Archangelsk regions. Namely, Russian SSBNs have, until now, had to travel for repairs and overhaul to Severomorsk and Severodvinsk (Marshallcenter.org, April 26, 2019).
Beyond improving its Western Pacific strategic nuclear maritime capabilities, another element strengthening Russia’s future military impact there is its increasing interaction with China’s military forces. It is notable that in assessing major actions in the Pacific Fleet in 2021, its commander, Admiral Sergei Avakiants, observed, “I will mark the Russian-Chinese naval exercise ‘Maritime Interaction 2021’ as the most significant event” (Krasnaya Zvezda, November 10).
From October 14 to 17, Russia and China held the bilateral Maritime Interaction 2021 naval exercise in the Sea of Japan (TASS, October 18). And the following day, ten Russian and Chinese vessels pointedly sailed through the Tsugaru Strait, between Honshu and Hokkaido and continued down Japan’s Pacific coast through the Osumi Strait between the southern tip of Kyushu and the island of Tanegashima, where Japan’s space-launch facilities are situated. The Russian and Chinese task force then arrived in contested waters of the South China Sea (Fond Strategicheskoi Kultury, October 28).
In light of such operations and Moscow’s apparent ambitions in the Western Pacific theater, the Viliuchinsk upgrades take on additional importance. In particular, they represent an essential element of Russia’s decades-long modernization of its strategic nuclear triad and drive to replace decaying and obsolete Soviet-era weaponry. And as the Russian Pacific Fleet upgrades its naval footprint in the region, the simultaneously growing bilateral Russian-Chinese naval cooperation there will increasingly complicate US military force projection missions across the world’s largest ocean.