Key point: Russia’s ballistic missile submarines will be in somewhat better shape in 2030.
In March 2017, Russia’s new Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine Kazan launched at the northern port city of Severodvinsk. Perhaps the quietest Russian submarine ever, the event was further evidence the Kremlin can still build capable and lethal subs capable of a variety of missions, including cruise-missile attack.
But it won’t be enough. The Russian navy — already badly depleted since the collapse of the Soviet Union — can’t quickly replace most of its existing nuclear submarine fleet, which is approaching the end of its collective lifespan. The outcome will likely mean a shrinking of the Russian nuclear submarine force in the years ahead.
By 2030, the bulk of Russia’s nuclear-powered attack and cruise-missile submarines will be in their mid-thirties at least — with some pushing into their forties. For perspective, the three oldest active American attack submarines, the Los Angeles-class USS Dallas, Bremerton and Jacksonville, are all 36 years old and waiting to be decommissioned during the next three years.
Submarines wear out in old age, particularly due to hull corrosion. Another serious concern is corrosion affecting components inside the nuclear reactor compartments, but data surrounding this subject are tightly guarded secrets among the world’s navies.
More to the point, naval vessels staying in service during old age require more maintenance and longer rest periods. Given that only around half of Russia’s submarine force — a charitable estimate — can be at sea at any given time, a force made up of mostly old boats will strain operational readiness.
The Kremlin’s relatively new multi-role Yasen class, of which two — the Severodvinsk and Kazan — launched in 2010 and 2017 respectively, cannot make up for the future retirements of Russia’s 11 Akulas, three Sierras, four Victor III attackers and eight Oscar II cruise missile subs, which are all getting long in the tooth.
The youngest Akula class, Gepard, entered service in 2000. Most date to the early 1990s.