On June 12, the first Borei-A class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Knyaz Vladimir, officially entered service with the Russian Northern Fleet (Mil.ru, June 12). The submarine’s transfer to the fleet was originally scheduled for 2017, but was postponed to 2019. Tests of the submarine were completed last fall, with ballistic missile and torpedo launches. However, these tests revealed some faults in the vessel’s navigation and maneuvering capabilities (TASS, May 16), necessitating further tests in May 2020. Presumably, the problems arose as a result of a tight time frame allocated for the development. The Borei-A developmental contract was signed on November 1, 2011, whereas the laying of the hull took place on July 30, 2012, meaning the development process lasted less than a year.
The situation was exacerbated by disagreements about whether the Borei-A would carry 20 or 16 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) (Vzglyad, April 20, 2012), most likely contributing to disputes between the defense ministry and the manufacturer regarding the submarine’s costs (RIA Novosti, May 5, 2012). A contract worth 100 billion rubles ($1.43 billion) was finally signed in 2012 for construction of five nuclear submarines before 2022 (Flotprom, May 10, 2012). Sevmash (part of United Shipbuilding Corporation) then had to catch up with the construction terms. But this task occurred against the challenging background of constant staff shortages and ongoing large-scale modernization of its production facilities. In addition, the Sevmash plant was later targeted by United States sanctions, forcing it to begin production of parts it had previously purchased from abroad.
According to information provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense at the Army-2015 Forum, the final built design of the Borei-A has a normal displacement of 13,000 tons, a length of 160 meters, a beam of 12 meters and a draft of 8 meters. Its top speed while submerged is 20 knots, with a maximum operating depth of 300 meters; these figures are lower than the specifications Borei-1 submarines built in previous decades, of 30 knots and 450 meters, respectively. The total crew has also been reduced from 130 to 107 people, and endurance from 90 to 60 days (Sevmash.ru, No. 4, 2019).
The most emphasized feature for the Borei-A is its noise reduction. The thrusters are an all-metal structure, which reduces noise emission (TV Zvezda, March 8). Also, the submarine is equipped with a new special sound-absorbing coating. The Borei-A received a new redesigned conning sail with a traditional profile. This was probably caused by changes in hydroacoustics. Moreover, the submarine entrance lines became more curved. The designers removed a missile-launch platform “hump,” which also contributed to further performance improvements and noise minimization (Izvestia, May 13, 2019).
The submarine’s rudders have undergone a major change as well. In contrast to the original Borei-1, the Borei-A’s entire rudder mechanism turns. Moreover, extra “washers” were added to the submarine’s vertical rudders, and part of the sonar system has been fully modernized, with the side search sonar now located under the launch platform. As a result, the submarine’s physical fields level has been significantly reduced—in particular, its visibility in the acoustic and magnetic fields (RIA Novosti, May 20). Finally, the Borei-A is equipped with more advanced communication and weapon control systems (TASS, October 30, 2019).
Despite the success in reducing the submarine’s noise and magnetic field signatures, its armament leaves serious questions. Only 16 launchers were installed in the Borei-A. The Russian navy justified its decision to waive the option of a redesign to add more launchers by noting that it needed to put new submarines into operation as soon as possible. The increase would have delayed submarine production (TASS, April 23, 2013).
In 2015–2017, there was talk of the Borei-A obtaining an upgraded version of the Bulava ballistic missile (Vzglyad, November 26, 2015; Lenta.ru, May 16, 2016) with increased range and the ability to overcome enemy missile defenses (Lenta.ru, January 23, 2017). However, no further information has ever been released as to the Bulava’s modernization. While, in January 2020, it was reported that a crucial Bulava missile’s flaw that materializes when passing through ice would be eliminated by an unguided rocket projectile (Lenta.ru, January 25).
Instead of eight torpedo tubes, the Borei-A is equipped with only four, each with a diameter of 533 millimeters. The first Borei-class submarines were equipped with outdated USET-80 torpedoes with an 18-kilometer range; whereas, Borei-As are most likely equipped with a new torpedo complex, the 50-kilometer-range Fizik-1. However, Maxim Klimov (captain 3rd rank in reserve) claims that this complex lacks testing, probably due to its expensive launch (Mina030.livejournal.com, May 22). Moreover, given that large-scale production of the Fizik-1 began relatively recently, it is rather likely that supplies to the fleet and, in particular to Borei submarines, remain extremely low.
Despite fewer torpedo launchers, the Borei-A has two more anti-torpedo complexes: two Modul-D and six Lasta models. Yet, according to Rear Admiral Anatoly Lutskiy, the Modul-D was designed in the 1980s, and is far less effective against modern torpedoes (Marine collection, T.1960, No. 7, 2010, p. 59). Klimov adds that the Lasta complex was created without any adherence to proper weapons development standards (Mina030.livejournal.com, May 22). Finally, there is no information regarding the tests of M-15 anti-torpedoes (the ones used by the Lasta complex) conducted by Borei-As. Its significant weight and dimensions severely limit the ammunition allowance.
The long commissioning of the Knyaz Vladimir has slowed down the entire Borei-A project. The second Borei-A submarine Knyaz Oleg was supposed to enter the Russian navy this year as well. But it is obvious that this will not be possible after all. The submarine is not even launched; and once it is, the vessel will require a full year of operational tests. The situation was almost certainly aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic, which stopped work at the Sevmash plant for a week; and operations were resumed by only part of the personnel. The supply contract for two more Borei-A submarines was to be signed in 2020, with the two final submarines of the class to be ceremonially laid down on May 9 (RIA Novosti, November 29, 2019). But this did not happen. The signing was postponed to August, and the launch to 2021 (TASS, February 21). In light of the previous experience of Borei submarine construction, the terms for the next submarines will surely be postponed repeatedly; although the last Borei-As may, at least, be equipped with more advanced weapons.