Russia & USA: Strategic Nuclear Forces. Naval Component

By Alexander Ermakov, independent military expert. 

Naval Component 

The naval component of a modern nuclear triad is represented with nuclear submarines, which are one of the most impressive engineering developments and, at the same time, the most invisible national defence components operating in the silence of the deep sea.



In the USA, with the plainly obsolescent land and air components, SSBNs are currently playing the key role in order to ensure nuclear deterrence. So, 14 Ohio-class SSBNs are operational, plus four nuclear submarines of the same class modified into SSBN in 2002–2008 and able to carry up to 154 Tomahawk CMs. In the conditions of nuclear weapon reduction, a certain part of the Ohio-class submarines has been retrofitted because of their excessive firepower - these submarines have been armed with 24 solid-fuelled Trident II D-5 SLBMs, each of which may deliver eight low- or medium-power warheads (as a result of arms limitation; initially up to 12-14 warheads) within the maximum range of up to 11,000 km (probably, with small payload). As the START-III Treaty was signed, it was decided to reduce the amount of SSBN onboard launchers to 20; however, the biggest part of missiles is not fully armed – the average amount of munitions is four or five. According to the terms and conditions of the START-III Treaty, the parties should meet the requirements for the total amount of munitions only, but they may distribute them at their own discretion. In spite of these measures, by early 2018, when the parties should satisfy the terms and conditions of the START-III Treaty, the US SSBNs (the third part of deployed NW carriers – 240 of total 700) will take two thirds of munitions (approx. 1,100 of 1,550). At that, further reduction of the amount of submarines is not the best solution here as it will lead to a decrease in the amount of patrolling submarines (now, four-five submarines are on a patrol mission simultaneously).

The Ohio-class submarines will be replaced with new Columbia-class SSBNs (formerly known as SSBN-X or Ohio Replacement) by the early 2030s. It is planned to build 12 submarines armed with the same Trident II D-5 missiles (SLBMs are to be replaced only in the 2040s) in the amount reduced to 16. It is considered that a decrease in the amount of submarines and launchers would not have any effect on the total nuclear deterrence potential because new SSBNs will require rarer long-time maintenance while the operational capabilities of a lower amount of the Trident missiles exceed even the current limitations of the START-III Treaty. Further agreements related to arms reduction may make the USA reduce series production of these submarines or additionally decrease the amount of launchers.

Russia’s strategic naval forces are now in the process of critical modernization that explains why they include various types of systems. For the time being, the Russian Navy operates BMSs developed during the Soviet period and the newest systems, such as[i]:

– two Project 667BDR Kalmar-class BMSs: K-223 Podolsk and K-433 Svyatoy Georgiy Pobedonosets, both included in the Pacific Fleet. Another submarine – the K-44 Ryazan – is under repair; it is unclear whether it will be put into service or not;

– five Project 667BDRM Delfin-class BMSs: K-18 Karelia, K-51 Verkhoturye, K-84 Yekaterinburg, K-117 Bryansk, K-407 Novomoskovsk, all included in the Northern Fleet. Another submarine – the K-114 Tula – is under repair that will be completed in the late 2016 -early 2017;

– three Project 955 Borei-class BMSs: K-535 Yury Dolgorukiy included in the Northern Fleet, K-550 Alexander Nevsky and K-551 Vladimir Monomakh included in the Pacific Fleet.

The Project 667BDR/BDRM submarines are direct evolutionary developments based on the first Soviet Project 667A BMS. Each BMS of this class is armed with 16 liquid-fuelled R-29RMU2 (RSM-54) Sineva SLBMs supporting up to 10 warheads, with the maximum range of 8,300-11,500 km, depending on arming options. These submarines are being rearmed with modified R-29RMU2.1 Liner missiles that feature new warheads and improved antimissile defence penetration systems. Modified Project 667BDRM submarines are likely to remain operational until the late 2020s. By that time, the program to replace them with advance next-gen BMSs (currently under development) should be launched.

Older BMSs that belong to other classes (including the famous huge Project 941 submarines) should be replaced with the Borei-class submarines being built. The first three BMSs have already been handed over to the Navy, with additional four submarines being built and with the last 8th submarine, the keel-laying of which is to be started before the end of the year. The last five submarines will be built under the improved project; no accurate data on their design features is available, but the same weapon system is confirmed - 16 solid-fuelled R-30 (RSM-56) Bulava SLBMs, with six warheads and the range of up to 9,300 km. As a solid-fuelled missile, the Bulava SLBM offers the following advantages: potentially better ease of operation and compact structure (including reduced requirements for the submarine equipment), lower vulnerability to damage from antimissile systems. Although, speaking of the key parameter like the throw-weight-to-range ratio, this missile is inferior to the Sineva/Liner SLBM and its American equivalent. It should be noted that the throw-weight parameter loses its urgency due to arms reduction agreements while the range parameter has reached its logical limit long time ago. Nonetheless, the Bulava SLBM is likely to be replaced with a new missile in the foreseeable future.

After removing the Project 667BDR submarines from operational status and building all eight Borei-class submarines (to be completed in the early 2020s), Russia’s strategic naval forces will include 14 BMSs. Their status within Russia’s nuclear triad limited by the START III Treaty becomes questionable because the land component has always played the most important role. We should remember that under START-III Treaty’s terms and conditions each SSBN is accounted as the amount of nuclear weapon carriers equal to the amount of SLBMs carried by each submarine, apart from a larger amount of munitions. Probably, this will either make Russian developers retrofit a certain part of the Project 667BDRM submarines into special-purpose submarines or take measures similar to those taken by American submarine developers, i.e. artificially reduce the amount of launchers or arm a part of SSBNs with strategic cruise missiles for naval applications that are undergoing their rebirth stage.

[i] Project 667BDR/BDRM BMSs retrofitted into special-purpose submarines as well as the largest TK-208 Dmitry Donskoy BMS used for SLBM tests are not included

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