Is Russia's Submarine Force Dying?

David Axe

The Russian navy’s submarine force, arguably the fleet’s most important component, is about to shrink. Potentially a lot.

There are 62 submarines of all classes in commission with the Russian navy. Fifty-five are front-line vessels and the rest are test and research vessels. There are 10 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, nine nuclear cruise-missile submarines, 14 nuclear attack submarines and 22 conventional attack submarines.

Most of the front-line submarines date from the 1980s and ‘90s. “There are still quite a few old, Soviet-era vessels carrying a major part of the burden, both attack submarines and ballistic-missile boats,” Iain Ballantyne, editor of Warships International Fleet Review, told The National Interest. “For how much longer such elderly vessels can be sent to sea while waiting for more new ones to enter service is debatable.”

“There are surely already question marks over a number of vessels,” Ballantyne added, especially the seven Delta-class ballistic-missile boats, or boomers. Just three of Russia’s boomers -- the first three of 10 planned Borei-class vessels -- are younger than 30 years old.

Just one of the nuclear cruise-missile boats -- the first of 10 planned Yasen-class vessels -- is younger than 24 years old.

Likewise only one of the nuclear attack boats, an Akula, is younger than 20 years old. Eight of the conventional boats are younger than 26 years old.

It’s rare for a submarine to be safe and economical to operate -- to say nothing of militarily effective -- after 35 years of service.

In other words, by the late 2020s or early 2030s, the Russian navy could lose all but 12 of its existing subs. If Moscow succeeds in producing all the Boreis and Yasens it plans to acquire, the total submarine fleet could top out at just 28 boats. Half its current strength.

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