Key point: Moscow is still working to rebuild capabilities that it lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Russian navy in mid-October 2019 sortied eight submarines in the country’s biggest undersea exercise since the Cold War.
The eight submarines, including six nuclear-powered ships, sailed from their bases in northern Russia into the cold waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. At the same time, an additional two boats -- the nuclear-powered Sierra-class attack submarines Pskov and Nizhny Novgorod -- sailed into roughly the same waters for tests and training.
The 10 vessels represent around 20 percent of the Russian submarine force. For comparison, the U.S. Pacific Fleet with its roughly 30 subs as recently as 2013 reliably could deploy eight boats on short notice. The U.S. fleet in total operates more than 50 submarines split between the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets. This number is shrinking.
The eight vessels in the planned, 60-day Russian exercise are practicing protecting a “bastion” of open ocean in which Russian ballistic-missile submarines can hide. “The aim of the massive operation is to get as far out to the North Atlantic as possible without being discovered by NATO,” Barents Observer noted, citing Norwegian intelligence sources speaking to news outlet NRK.
The Russian exercise seems to underscore Moscow’s new approach to undersea warfare. While the current war game reportedly is defensive in nature, the same submarines could conduct offensive operations from the same waters.
During the Cold War, Soviet submarines needed to pass through the maritime chokepoint between Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom -- the so-called “GIUK Gap” -- in order to reach the open ocean and close within striking range of NATO ports and ships. That’s not the case with newer Russian subs with their longer-range weapons.