Christopher P. Cavas, Defense News, Jan 24
Despite Numbers, Experts Question Combat Effectiveness
WASHINGTON – The Russian Navy's submarine force is on a roll.
Four different kinds of submarines are under construction and more are coming. The country expects to lay down five new nuclear submarines in 2015.
The Navy is accepting Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines, and Kilo- and Lada-class diesel electric attack submarines. Six Kilos are being built for Vietnam and more are offered for export.
This rate of construction is beginning to look more like Cold War days rather than the lethargic shipbuilding rates prevalent since the 1990s.
By comparison, the U.S. only recently returned to building two nuclear attack submarines per year, and industry is gearing up to begin construction of a new class of ballistic submarines in 2021 – a three-subs-per-year construction rate not seen since the Reagan era.
Combine the revived Russian submarine construction rate with President Vladimir Putin's aggressive stances of the past year, along with the steady drumbeat of Chinese naval expansion, and the question might be asked – is a submarine race going on?
"I know a lot of folks like the term arms race, but I think it's more complicated than that," said Thomas Mahnken, a former U.S. defense official and now a professor at the Naval War College. "There's definitely competition going on – with the U.S., other NATO navies, China – but there's also modernization going on. An increasing portion of what Russia is doing is replacing aging systems or systems that already have been retired."
"I would be skeptical," cautioned Norman Friedman, a longtime naval analyst and author. "There's a history in that country of laying down things that don't get finished for a long time. No question they'll lay down the subs, but actually building them after that is a more interesting question."
The Russians frequently issue proclamations that they intend to increase naval construction, including statements about building a fleet of aircraft carriers. But ship construction remains modest, and the Navy remains largely a collection of Cold War relics. Yet Russia has a long tradition of building tough and innovative submarines.
"The Russians have put their money where their mouth is with regard to submarine construction and development," said Bryan Clark, a former U.S. Navy submariner and strategist, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They see that as a way to generate an asymmetric advantage over U.S. forces. If they can develop a really high-end submarine force like they did in the Cold War, it would create a problem for U.S. naval planners and strategists thinking through how to deal with a potential Russian threat – one that could emerge without a lot of warning."