Russian Nuclear Missile Submarine Patrols Decrease Again

By Hans M. Kristensen

The number of deterrence patrols conducted by Russia’s 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missiles submarines (SSBNs) decreased to only three in 2007 from five in 2006, according to our latest Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In comparison, U.S. SSBNs conducted 54 patrols in 2007, more than three times as many as all the other nuclear weapon states combined.

The low Russian patrol number continues the sharp decline from the Cold War; no patrols at all were conducted in 2002 (see Figure 1). The new practice indicates that Russia no longer maintains a continuous SSBN patrol posture like that of the United States, Britain, and France, but instead has shifted to a new posture where it occasionally deploys an SSBN for training purposes.

An Occasional Sea-Based Deterrent

The shift to an occasional sea-based deterrent became apparent in 2007, when then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov declared on September 11 that five SSBNs were on patrol at that time. Four months later, I received information from U.S. Naval Intelligence showing that those five patrols were all Russian SSBNs did that year. Combined, the two sources indicated a cluster of patrols at approximately the same time rather than distributed throughout the year.

Figure 1:
Russian SSBN Patrols 1981-2007

Click on image to view higher resolution
Russian SSBNs conducted only three deterrent patrols in 2007, a decline from five in 2006.

The reason for the shift is unclear. Perhaps the Russian navy is still not over the financial and technical constraints that hit it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. SSBNs can launch their missile from pier side if necessary, although such a posture essentially converts each SSBN into a very soft and vulnerable target. Russia might simply have decided that it’s no longer necessary to maintain a continuous nuclear retaliatory force at sea, and that a few training patrols are all that’s needed to be able to deploy the SSBNs in a hypothetical crisis if necessary.

SSBN Patrol Areas

Little is known in public about where Russian SSBNs conduct their deterrent patrols. However, in 2000, U.S. Naval Intelligence released a series of rough patrol maps for Soviet/Russian SSBNs that showed the locations of the patrol areas used by Delta IV and Typhoon class SSBNs in the late-1980s and 1990s (see Figure 2). The few SSBNs that occasionally sail on patrol today probably use roughly the same areas.

Figure 2:
Russian SSBN Patrol Areas Late-1980s-1990s

Click on image to view higher resolution
Russian SSBN patrol areas today are probably similar to those used in the 1990s.

In Perspective

The decline in SSBN patrols is in stark contrast to Russian bomber and surface fleet operations in 2006-2007, which are said to have increased in scope and reach. For now, at least, SSBN patrols are not used to “signal” Russian status.

Approximately 20 percent of Russia’s strategic warheads are sea-based. But with the upcoming replacement of old Delta III SSBNs and their three-warhead missiles with the new Borey SSBNs (the first of which is scheduled to enter service later this year) with six-warhead missiles, the SSBNs’ share of the posture might increase to approximately 30 percent by 2015.

Overall, the Nuclear Notebook estimates that Russia currently has approximately 5,200 nuclear warheads in its operational stockpile, including some 3,110 strategic and 2,090 non-strategic warheads. Another 8,800 warheads are thought to be in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.

Additional information: Russian Nuclear Forces 2007, Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

14 thoughts on “Russian Nuclear Missile Submarine Patrols Decrease Again

  1. After reading your reports about china’s navy submarine patrol and now this i have a very simple question: what’s the definition of a “patrol”? Does it have a minimum duration? Does it imply any kind of predefined operation?

    Reply: The definition is actually classified, believe it or not. That was my first question to U.S. Naval Intelligence when they first released the data. But after talking to several insightful people I believe a patrol is a lengthy (many days) deployment outside territorial waters. In one of my earlier blogs there is a description of the U.S. military’s use of the term patrol. HK

  2. Since the Typhoon Class SSBNs can launch their missles at dockside to hold CONUS targets at risk, the Russians would find it a total waste to do too many strategic patrols, especially when they have enought nukes to be confident of MAD. Now that money is not that tight in Russia with crude selling at triple digits, the small number of patrols seems to be by design. The proximity of those patrol areas in Fig. 2 to Russia is also consistent with the strategy.

    Since the Typhoon Class SSBNs can launch their missiles at dockside to hold CONUS targets at risk, the Russians would find it a total waste to do too many strategic patrols, especially when they have enough nukes to be confident of MAD. Now that money is not so tight in Russia with crude selling at triple digits, the small number of patrols seems to be by design. The proximity of those patrol areas in Fig. 2 to Russia is also consistent with this strategy.

    If the Chinese strategy mimics that of the Russian, 094/JL-2 combo or later versions may be geared toward the same goal without the need to patrol.

    UK and France will pretty much have to patrol, because their countries are too small for either first strike or retaliation. It is simply not safe not to patrol.

    United States will do all the patrols it wishes while other countries can always find cheaper or more cost-effective means of deterrence. As we know, money is no issue to the US when it comes to military spending. Thus, effectiveness is not as valued as it would be in other countries.

  3. I think the Russian military is having to make some very serious decisions about their strategic calculus. While they’re attempting to regain some of their old glory on the world stage they’re having to counterbalance that with regrowing their infrastructure in both military and civil sectors. The Soviet/Russian Navy has always had something of a defensive edge to it. While they had a huge force of submarines designed to disrupt NATO trans-Atlantic supply routes, a big chunk of their fleet was designed to keep NATO Navy’s out of traditionally Russian areas of operations. As Mr. Feng pointed out the Russian Navy can use their Typhoon force at the dockside in the short term, and should the situation deteriorate send them a few miles off the coast and operate during a crisis. Unlike the Cold War environment where the strategic situation can deteriorate relatively quickly (remember the panic over Able Archer ’83), the Russian government would realize that they will have some warning about an impending nuclear crisis whereby they could get these submarines to a level where they could fire from their docks (little notice), or more ideally to a level where they can idle of the Russian coast (given a little more notice).

    Russia has had to make some hard decisions about military spending in recent years. A good example of this would be the constant pushing back of the Varyag refurbishment project for the Indians. One of the key reasons that contract has taken so long to fill is the diverting of Russia’s very limited shipbuilding capabilities to the completion of the Yury Dolgoruky, the first Borei Class which will provide the backbone to any future SSBN force. As such, it would appear they took the majority of their specialty dockworkers and equipment, let the Varyag idle, and went to work on the Dolgoruky. With such difficulties with the rebuilding their Naval force it stands to reason the Russian military would place more of an emphasis on their road-mobile Topol force and theater-level munitions, should they be faced with a situation like Georgia or the Ukraine joining NATO, where it is more likely they could be faced with a NATO army setting up shop in their backyard. The infrastructure for building these land-based forces is much easier to develop and hasn’t atrophied nearly as much as the very precise nature of naval construction. I figure the next big thing for Russian nuclear planners will be how to overwhelm the missile defense system being installed in Poland and the Czech Republic, which is a mission that will more than likely be assigned to a ground force.

  4. Quick correction: the carrier being sold to India is the Admiral Gorshkov, not the Varyag. The Varyag was sold to China to be turned into a “casino,” even though its more likely to provide a model by which the Chinese can attempt to build an indigenous carrier of their own.

  5. Jian Feng, OB: Russia does not have operational Typhoon subs now. Last active sub – Dmitry Donskoy – was converted to Bulava testbad.

  6. What role does extended deterrence play in the perceived requirement for SSBN patrols in the United States? What role do SSBN patrols play in first strike counterforce nuclear targeting policy i.e. do SSBN blue water patrols lower the warning time and hence add to the prompt hard target kill capability of Trident II D5 SLBMs? I notice that under prompt global strike options that the D5 will have more accurate RVs. So, could the whole issue of patrols demonstrate subtle, but key, differences in strategic nuclear war planning postures?

    Reply: Absolutely. That is one of the reasons operational details about SSBN patrols are so secret. Little is known about the role of SSBNs in extended deterrence today. During the Cold War the United States assigned a few SSBNs for NATO scenarios. And SSBNs have targeted China for decades, most likely in Taiwan/Japan scenarios, and North Korea is a potential targets for SSBNs today. Modern SLBMs probably play a central role in the opening salvos of strike plans due to their ability to be launched from patrol areas much closer to the targets than fixed ICBMs. The US Navy has test flown the Trident II D5 at compressed trajectories down to only 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 km), considerably less than its maximum range of 7,400+ km. With the compressed trajectory the impact occurs approximately 12 minutes after launch. HK

  7. I’d like to know more about the 54 US patrols. Who are we aiming all those missiles at? Only at countries that also have nuclear capabilities or perhaps some non-nuclear countriews as well?

    Reply: It is US nuclear policy that its “nuclear forces must be capable of, and be seen to be capable of, destroying those critical war-making and war-supporting assets and capabilities that a potential enemy leadership values most and that it would rely on to achieve its own objectives in a post-war world.” The targets are in any country that has Weapons of Mass Destruction and is considered a potential adversary. However, during normal operations, the aimpoints (targets) are not loaded in the missiles’ guidance computer, but they can be loaded in a few minutes by pressing a button. The target assigned to a missile is determined by the particular attack plan the submarine is ordered to execute in a given scenario. By loading different strike packages, the missiles can be “shifted” to different targets and can also quickly be retargeted after an initial strike or if the target moves. Some of the potential targets are in countries that do not have nuclear weapons. HK

  8. Check, however I would be interested to see what level these submarines are at right now. While they’re not in active service, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised that they were keeping them at a minimal level of service, so in the event of a crisis they could spool them back up to a semi-ready status.

    In all honesty, however, the Russian ground fleet is already pretty robust to begin with. The road mobile force provides a very effective assurance of at least a limited counter-value response.

  9. Also, lets be frank: the Bulava hasn’t exactly had a stellar test-record. The Topol system is pretty well proven at this point.

  10. Thanks for the answer and for the pointer!
    (feel free to delete this comment after reading, i looked for a direct contact form but couldn’t find it)


  11. [edited] I have a question in terms of the TYPHHON Class submarines….I have watched on Google Earth the base in Zapatnaja litsa on March 2008. There were three of them on the docks. Some weeks later there was only one of them on the dock. Two disappeared and the third had changed the position. Since that , I am looking at the same place , and nothing has changed. I thought, that there is only one of them in process. But i believe that there are minimum four of them on patrol. We know that TK 208 “Dimitri Donskoij”is on duty. But what happened to TK 20 “Severstal , TK 17 “Archangelsk” and finaly
    TK 12 “Simbirsk”? Does someone know about this?

    Reply: None of the Typhoons are thought to be operational and deploying with missiles on patrol. Their SS-N-20 missiles were withdrawn from service in 2004. All patrols – of which where are not that many – are done with Delta IV and Delta III. The Dimitri Donskoij has been converted to a test platform for the Bulava missile. A statement by the Russian navy last week appears to show that the boat will be further modified to deploy with the Bulava on operational patrol, possibly due to the slow production rate of the new Borei-class SSBNs. HK

  12. During the Cold War and the Vietnam Era I served on one of the “41 For Freedom”, SSBN630.
    The United States was probably 220 million population, and the Soviet Union about 270 million. The technology at the time was such that we patrolled up north of Russia, and they patrolled a few hundred miles off our coasts. As the range and accuracy of the weapons increased we swapped patrol areas years afterwards and Russia patrolled in it’s “strategic
    bastion” near it’s northern ports. It became easier and cheaper for them to defend their boomers there and they didn’t have to worry about Sosus tracking them down here.
    For the future of SSBN’s I see Russia building eight new SSBN’s by 2018, and China coming on line with some of their own. However, our aging Trident fleet will be ready for
    deactivation during the 2020’s and we are, as far as I know, only planning construction of about 18 Virginia Class SSN’s before the Tridents reach the end of their service.
    China and Russia are spending billions of dollars on future SSBN construction for a reason. They know everything that we see here!

  13. As a followup to my comments of August 19, 2009 it appears that the United States in addition to planned construction of about 18 Virginia Class SSN’s in the next decade is conducting preliminary planning on a SSBN-X replacement for the Trident fleet which will
    start to be retired in the late 2020’s. The US will probably build 12 to 14 new SSBN’s
    of a new design by 2029. They may use the Virginia Class design and power plant, or a new
    design possibly based on the existing Ohio Class SSBN’s. With this in mind, it looks like
    everybody will have new SSBN’s in the next decade or so.

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