Later this fall (possibly this month) the first new Borei-class (sometimes spelled Borey) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) is scheduled to arrive at the Rybachiy submarine base near Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
[Update September 30, 2015: Captain First Rank Igor Dygalo, a spokesperson for the Russian Navy, announced that the Aleksander Nevsky (K-550) arrived at Rybachiy Submarine Base at 5 PM local time (5 AM GMT) on September 30, 2015.]
At least one more, possibly several, Borei SSBNs are expected to follow over the next few years to replace the remaining outdated Delta-III SSBNs currently operating in the Pacific.
The arrival of the Borei SSBNs marks the first significant upgrade of the Russian Pacific Fleet SSBN force in more than three decades.In preparation for the arrival of the new submarines, satellite pictures show upgrades underway to submarine base piers, missile loading piers, and nuclear warhead storage facilities.
The weapons storage facility is likely capable of storing several hundred nuclear warheads. Each Delta-III SSBN based at Rybachiy can carry 16 SLBMs with up to 48 warheads. In recent years the Pacific Fleet has included only 2-3 Delta IIIs with a total of 96-144 warheads, but there used be many more SSBNs operating from Rybachiy. Each new Borei-class SSBN is capable of carrying twice the number of warheads of a Delta III and so far 2-3 Borei SSBNs are expected to transfer to the Pacific over the next few years.
To arm the SLBMs loaded onto submarines at the missile-loading pier, the warheads are first loaded onto trucks at the warheads storage facility and then driven the 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) down the road to the entrance of the missile depot. During storage site renovation the warheads that are not onboard the SSBNs are probably stored in the second igloo inside the security perimeter or temporarily at the missile depot.
Implications and Recommendations
The expected arrival of the Borei SSBNs at the Rybachiy submarine base marks the first significant upgrade of the Russian Pacific Fleet SSBN force in more than three decades. The new submarines will have implications for strategic nuclear operations in the Pacific: they will be quieter and capable of carrying more nuclear warheads than the current class of Delta III submarines.
The Borei-class SSBN is significantly quieter than the Delta III and quieter than the Akula II-class attack submarine. A Delta III would probably have a hard time evading modern U.S. and Japanese anti-submarine forces but the Borei-class SSBN would be harder to detect. Even so, according to a chart published by the US Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the Borei-class SSBN is not as quiet as the Severodvinsk-class (Yasen) attack submarine (see graph below).
The Borei-class SSBN is equipped with as many SLBMs (16) as the Delta III-class SSBN. But the SS-N-32 (Bulava) SLBM on the Borei can carry twice as many warheads (6) as the SS-N-18 SLBM on the Delta III and is also thought to be more accurate. How many Borei-class SSBNs will eventually operate from Rybachiy remains to be seen. After the arrival of Alexander Nevsky later this year, a second is expected to follow in 2016. A total of eight Borei-class SSBNs are planned for construction under the Russian 2015-2020 defense plan but more could be added later to eventually replace all Delta III and Delta IV SSBNs.
With its SSBN modernization program, Russia is following the examples of the United States and China, both of which have significantly modernized their SSBN forces operating in the Pacific region over the past decade and a half.
The United States added the Trident II D5 SLBM to its Pacific SSBN fleet in 2002-2007, replacing the less capable Trident I C4 first deployed in the region in 1982. The D5 has greater range and better accuracy than its predecessor and also carries the more powerful W88 warhead. Unlike the C4, the D5 has full target kill capability and has significantly increased the effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear posture in the Pacific. Today, about 60 percent of all U.S. SSBN patrols take place in the Pacific, compared with the Cold War when most patrols happened in the Atlantic. The US Navy has announced plans to build 12 new and improved SSBNs and there are already rumors that Russia may build 12 Borei SSBNs as well.
China, for its part, has launched four new Jin-class SSBNs designed to carry the new Julang-2 SLBM. The Julang-2 (JL-2) has longer range and greater accuracy than its predecessor, the JL-1 developed for the unsuccessful Xia-class SSBN.
Combined, the nuclear modernization programs (along with the general military build-up) in the Pacific are increasing the strategic importance of and military competition in the region. The Borei-class SSBNs at Rybachiy will sail on deterrent patrols into the Pacific officially to protect Russia but they will of course also be seen as threatening other countries. Rather than sailing far into the Pacific, the Boreis will most likely be deployed in so-called bastions near the Kamchatka Peninsula where Russian attack submarines will try to protect them against U.S. attack submarines – the most advanced of which are being deployed to the Pacific.
And so, the wheels of the nuclear arms race make another turn…
For more information, see: Russian Nuclear Forces 2015
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.