Russian Strategic Submarine Patrols Rebound

Russian SSBN patrols tripled from 2007 to 2008.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russia sent more nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines on patrol in 2008 than in any other year since 1998, according to information obtained by Federation of American Scientists from U.S. naval intelligence.

The information shows that Russian missile submarine conducted ten patrols in 2008, compared with three in 2007 and five in 2006. In 2002, no patrols were conducted at all.

Return of Continuous Russian SSBN Patrols?

For the past ten years, Russian remaining 11 SSBNs have not maintained continuous patrols, but instead carried out occasional patrols for training purposes. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in on September 11, 2006, that five SSBNs were on patrol at that time. But since that number matched the total number of patrols conducted that year, it revealed a cluster of patrols rather than a continuous at-sea presence.

The United States, France and Britain, in contrast, continuously have at least one SSBN on patrol. In the case of the United States, two-thirds of its 14 SSBNs are at sea at any given time, of which four are on alert.

Figure 1:
Russian Submarine Patrols 1981-2008

Russian SSBNs conducted 10 patrols in 2008, the most since 1998. Attack submarines conducted seven patrols, the same as in 2007. Click on image for large graph.

The ten Russian patrols in 2008 raise the question whether Russia has now resumed continuous SSBN patrols. Neither the duration nor the dates of Russian SSBN patrols are known, but if they east last more than 36 days and do not overlap, then Russia could have a continuous at-sea deterrent. If the patrols cluster like in 2006, then the posture might still be sporadic.

The Voyage of Ryazan

Although not specified in the information obtained from U.S. naval intelligence, one of the Russian patrols probably was the 30-days under-ice voyage of the Delta III-class submarine Ryazan from the Northern Fleet on the Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea to the Pacific Fleet on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific.

Figure 2:
Delta III SSBN Navigating Icy Waters

One of the 10 SSBN patrols probably involved the transfer of a Delta III SSBN from the Northern Fleet to the Pacific Fleet.

The voyage occurred shortly after Ryazan completed a successful test launch of a ballistic missile – probably an SS-N-18 – from the Barents Sea on August 1, 2008. The missile type was not announced, which is unusual, but its payload flew across Northern Russia and impacted in the Kura test range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

At end the of August, Ryazan departed the Northern Fleet and sailed submerged along Russia’s ice covered northern coast through the Bering Strait before it headed south to the ballistic missile submarine base in Vladivostok, where it arrived on September 30.

Arms Control Implications

It would be ironic – now that the Obama administration has proposed reductions in strategic nuclear forces and Kremlin seems to respond favorably – if Russian SSBNs returned to the Cold War practice of continuous deterrent patrols.

SSBNs continuously roaming the oceans are one of the last symbols of the Cold War when long-range nuclear missiles were hidden in the deep to survive a massive first strike. United States SSBNs continue a patrol rate comparable to that of the 1980s, France and Britain try to keep one or two at sea at any time – two apparently collided last month, and China and India are trying to build SSBNs fleets too.

Many still see SSBNs as purely retaliatory weapons passively hiding in the oceans. But as U.S. and Russian nuclear forces are reduced further and China and India join the SSBS club, forward deployed submerged nuclear weapons could become some of the most problematic challenges for nuclear arms control.

10 thoughts on “Russian Strategic Submarine Patrols Rebound

  1. With Putin still leading the country one has to remember his background, before there was an FSB, there was the KGB……disinformation was always an important part of their role…..these are old SSBNs, a few Delta IIIs and Delta IVs. That in theory are still viable….they carry liquid fueled missiles, one has to wonder if the age of these subs and their repair state and the same for their SLBMs are up to par for prolonged missions anywhere except parked along side the pier. The Yuri D…..Russia’s new boomer has been ten + years in the making at a shipyard which has lost most of her experienced workers, she’s going to sea eventually without the new (unproven) Bulava ICBM…..that’s a deterrent to what?

    Reply: I wouldn’t ride off the Delta IVs yet, which are being upgraded. Although not perfect, the Severodvinsk shipyard has gotten an infusion of money and is actually completing subs – even though it takes a while. HK

  2. Would it be likely that Russia, in one facet of its attempt to mitigate the proposed missile defense shield, is looking at redeploying SSBN’s in a deterrent posture? However, I would still think the cost of SSBN patrols and the probability of US shadowing would reduce the cost benefit of SSBN’s patrols for Russia to little more of a glorified training exercise or show of force to China.

  3. HK….I agree to a certain extent……the fact that it takes so long to actually deliver, or repair Russian nuclear subs should be a concern… might say more about the quality of the workers vs amounts of new cash. Liquid fuel is dangerous since it slowly eats away the SLBM from the inside out. Thats one reason the Russians are trying to convert the solid fuel (mobile) Topol ICBM for submarine use as the Bulava SLBM. I also agree that by moving some of her better warships to the Pacific, Russia may be worried about possible Chinese moves there. The PLAN has her String of Pearls (two tiered defense chain) and is moving to secure basing rights in the Indian Ocean……Her ideal situation would be a highly mobile fleet of warships on both sides of the Strait of Malacca….South China Sea and Indian Ocean….all about oil….and a few other things. Needless to say, The US and India are also worried…..Once the PLAN has a working aircraft carrier and mastered how to handle all the problems associated with carrier air ops, the situation will be much worse in the Pacific.

  4. [Edited] Hey, don’t say too bad words about ‘aged liquid-fueled’ missiles on Deltas; before you say something, you need to learn that Russia has produced 63 BRAND NEW SLBMs of RSM-54 (SS-N-23) ‘Sineva’ class. In 2008, this missile performed a record flight with a range of 11,540 km. These ‘Sinevas’ are so advanced, that even incorporates an option of satellite-radio correction of the flight trajectory, additionally to the traditional astro-inertial correction.

    The SS-N-18 launch mentioned above was from the ‘Ryazan’, I think. It was an interesting ‘hybrid’, with a brand new flight control system (including satellite radio correction of trajectory and so on) and built into the old ‘hull’ of the traditional SS-N-18, without changing a missile form-factor and / or types of launch appliances / rigs.

    Finally, here the few shots of Project 955 “Kasatka” class, formerly known as “Borey”: <a target="_blank" href=""<picture1, picture2, picture 3, picture 4, and picture 5.

    Reply: Thanks for the pictures. As for the GPS-guidance of the Sineva, I have noticed many claims by Russian military officials but haven’t seen anything “independent” about the splendor of the modified missile. So it’s hard to know whether that is a fact or boasting.

    Your statement about 63 Sineva is also interesting because I have so far only heard about enough missiles to arm one boat (16). Can you provide a reference for the claim that they have delivered 63 missiles? HK

  5. > As for the GPS-guidance of the Sineva, I have noticed many claims by Russian military officials but haven’t seen anything “independent” about the splendor of the modified missile. So it’s hard to know whether that is a fact or boasting.

    – Statement about R-29RM / R-29RMU ‘Sineva’, from the official broshure of Makeev’s Design Bureau:

    [i]”R-29RM missile of the D-9RM system: The missile boasts a number of new technical solutions, [among them] use of high-accuracy astroinertial control system, flying along ‘flexible’ trajectories and the use of RADIO CORRECTION via ‘Uragan’ navigational satellites substantially increased the firing accuracy”.[/i]

    Here the few pages scanned from the official Makeev’s broshure, written both in Russian and English:

    The full broshure is 76 pages long and 36 MB in size.

    It’s interesting to note that also in 2008, Sergey Ivanov reported to the President Vladimir Putin in one of their official meetings at Kremlin, translated by Russian TV, that ‘GPS-accuracy’ was achieved for ‘Sineva’ intercontinental flights; as I understand, the term ‘GPS-accuracy’, – mean at least 15 metres CEP.

    – As for statement about 63 ‘Sinevas’ produced:

    December 3, 2007: Head of Roskosmos Anatoly Perminov have a face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir Putin, when Mr. Perminov report to the President that ‘during the last 3 years, 63 (sixty three) SLBMs were produced‘:

    (In Russian: “Руководитель отрасли сообщил, что за последние три года, ракетно-космическая отрасль изготовила 63 межконтинентальные баллистические ракеты для запуска с подводных лодок”).

    Please note: you need to have cyrillic fonts installed to read the sentence above properly.

  6. By the way, – ‘Uragan’ is just an alternative name (so called ‘ministry-of-defence code’) for GLONASS (GLObal NAvigational Satellite System). The word ‘Uragan’, – means ‘Hurricane’ in Russian. 🙂

    In a few words, GLONASS / Uragan, – is the same thing as American GPS.

    Presently, Russia has 19 fully-functional GLONASS satellites deployed on their orbits, and it’s enough to have 18 Uragan / GLONASS satellites, to cover all the territory of Russia with GLONASS navigational signal.

    There’s a need to deploy 24 satellites to cover all the Earth with GLONASS / Uragan signal, so there’s a plan to launch two ‘Proton’ 25-tonn heavy-class space-launchers later in 2009, to fulfil the creation of the ‘minimal constellation’ of 24 GLONASS satellites.

    So the ‘short formulae’ is: 19 sats deployed + 6 later this year = 24 – 25 sats to the Q1 2010.

    Each ‘Proton’ deliver to their orbits three ‘GLONASS-M’ satellites, and Russia performed 9 succesfull ‘Proton’ launches during 2008, as a part of the world-leading launch statistics:

    2007 – 26 space launches performed
    2008 – 27 space launches performed
    2009 – 39 space launches scheduled, 3 performed till February 2, 2009.

    As to ‘Sineva’ navigation system, it was shown on Russian TV in June 2008, how the prototype of R-29RMU ‘astroradioinertial’ bus performs some operations with GLONASS antennaes at the stand of Makeev’s Design Bureau museum.

    Some pics grabbed with my TV-tuner (sorry, only aerial TV from the not quite good antennae):

    – Attachment of assembled bus at R-29RM ‘Sineva’ SLBM:

    – A prototype of R-29RMU bus demonstrates some operations with GLONASS antennaes at the stand of Makeev’s museum:

  7. This is all very interesting inforamtion however, who is afraid of what? Russia of China? China of US? US of N. Korea? N. Korea of Russia? India of Pakistan? The cold war is over. Everyone needs to concentrate on fixing the global economy and environment or there will be nothing left to blow up and no money to do it with….

  8. I think Russia had money in 2008 from the Oil price boom. What are the implications for Russia when Oil prices have crashed? No more funding!

  9. > I think Russia had money in 2008 from the Oil price boom.
    > What are the implications for Russia when Oil prices have crashed?
    > No more funding!

    – Russia presently have $382 billions in one fund, – so called ‘Gold and Сurrency State Reserves’ + near $200 billions in another one, so called ‘State Reserves Fund’. So the total is $582 billions USDs in Russian ‘State Reserves’.

    Now let’s count: the cost of one Project 955 SSBN (‘Borey’-class) is 1 billion US dollars (more precisely – $960 mln. per sub).

    – So Russia can produce 582 ‘Boreys’ with her present State Treasure only… 😉 Of course, – real plan is to produce 8 ‘Boreys’ only: the first one (‘Yuri Dologurkiy’) is already produced and scheduled to sea trials in March – May this year; two ‘YD’ followers – are at staples right now.

    The fleet of 8 ‘Boreys’ should be an adequate answer to the current and future US Ohio-class SSBN fleet, – 12 – 13 ‘Ohios’ at present and maybe 10 – 12 ‘Ohios’ in future, after conversion of few ‘Ohios’ to SSGNs.

    As to ‘oil prices’, – we must remember, that the oil export is only 10 % of Russian Grand Domestic Product (GDP). Yes, oil is important part of Russian earnings… But it’s not the ‘one and only’ source of currency for Russia.

    For example, – Russia earn on weapon export, $8,35 billions in 2008 and another $8,56 billions, is scheduled to 2009.

    Quite enough to build up to 8 ‘Boreys’ per year 🙂 , as well as there will enough money to built a fleet of another modern subs, – such as Project 885 ‘Granay’, for example, – a fleet of SSGNs equipped with 24 2-mach ‘Onix’ cruise missiles, or with naval version of ‘Iskander’ / SS-26 ‘Stone’ SRBM, known as ‘Iskander-MRK’ (a ‘Russian answer’ on US NTACMS program).

    Today’s interesting news:

    The basic requirements to the next-gen Russian aircraft carrier, were revealed as ‘60000 tonns nuclear-powered ship’.

    So, it seems like it will be ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ again – but nuclear-powered ‘Kuznetsov’, with stealthy PAK-FA aircrafts onboard as well as with ‘close integration with a space-tier’ of Russian defensive systems.

    Estimation cost of each next-gen CVN is near $2 billions; total of 4 – 6 CVNs, preliminary planned to produce.

  10. The patrols are a likely response to several broken United States promises. The US had promised, in no uncertain terms, that NATO will NOT expand into Eastern Europe. United States policy, however, saw:

    NATO membership for Poland and the Baltic states, which are bailiwicks of Russophobia.

    The NATO attack on Serbia and the creation of Kosovo.

    Continued United States discourse over potential NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

    The unilateral United States cancellation of the ABM treaty.

    In short, the Russians have reason to doubt United States motives and no longer trust its word. The bottom line is that membership offers for Ukraine and Georgia must be quietly withdrawn and we need to recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the non-Baltic parts of the former USSR.

    An open question to the Russophobes: do you plan to live in Georgia? If not, then please clam up.

    Reply: The overall relationship and the bumps in the bilateral road over the past several years may certainly be factors in the increased number of patrols, but we haven’t actually seen much in the public about the official justification. Another factor is probably very simple: a new influx of money into the Russian Navy’s budget that makes it possible to resume patrols. Whether the patrols will be sustained or the 10 are a flux remains to be seen. HK

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