Russia's submarine program: How big a threat?

U.S. Navy alarmed by Russian submarine buildup
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    U.S. Navy alarmed by Russian submarine buildup

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U.S. Navy alarmed by Russian submarine buildup 03:01

Story highlights

  • Michael Kofman: There has been a steady uptick in Russian submarine activity
  • Russia's submarine force is just one element in Moscow's overall restoration of the military, he says

Michael Kofman is a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Russia's submarine fleet, asleep after two decades without a mission or money to patrol the sea, is starting to show life again. This week came reports that Russian attack submarines are "prowling" the coastlines of Scotland, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean Sea in numbers not seen in years.

The reports come after an extended Russian absence from the underwater domain that had led most NATO members to either drawdown, or in many cases completely abandon, their anti-submarine warfare capabilities. Until 2014, the relationship with Russia was politically irksome, but militarily stable, while the Russian submarine force remained parked, in many cases rusting away at the pier.
    Following the Kursk accident in 2000, when a Russian Oscar-class submarine sank with all lives aboard, the submarine force's operations were almost entirely suspended. The U.S. Navy had focused on supporting the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, all the while planning for a potential air and sea battle in the Pacific. Meanwhile, European navies chose to contribute to counterpiracy operations, and other multinational missions, as opposed to preparing for a peer adversary like Russia.
    Michael Kofman
    Since then, there has been a steady uptick in Russian submarine activity. But the real changes have come as a result of Russia's $670 billion modernization program, announced in 2011. Russia's existing Soviet-built nuclear attack submarines are being refurbished and modernized, increasingly able to go back out on patrol again. Meanwhile, new generations of ballistic missile submarines are being deployed to its Northern and Pacific fleets, revitalizing Russia's aging sea-based nuclear deterrent.
    A much more sophisticated, and supposedly quieter, nuclear attack submarine class is soon to become operational, with its lead ship still undergoing sea trials. This more silent generation of submarines, called the Yasen class, stands to make a large dent in the technological edge of the U.S. Navy, and it is this sub in particular that has Western defense officials nervous. The Soviet submarine force had many advantages -- it was fast, dived deeper, and maintained a vast fleet -- but it was also very loud and easy to track.
    With Russian submarines more likely to enter the North Atlantic through the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. gap, a familiar geographical region from Cold War sub hunts, U.S. allies like Britain are back to investing billions of dollars to buy P-8 patrol aircraft. Keflavik airbase in Iceland is being reactivated, while other nations are looking to conventional submarines of their own to bolster a naval presence in the North and Baltic seas.
    Nowhere is the change more visible than in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is deploying a squadron of six improved Kilo class submarines, armed with Kalibr anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles. Together with the Russian naval squadron off of Syria's coast, this conventional submarine fleet allows Russia to contest the Eastern Mediterranean, where U.S. fleets typically transit to support CENTCOM's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    A similar squadron is promised to Russia's Pacific Fleet, in addition to modernized ballistic missile submarines currently being stationed there. These changes are worrisome in light of other challenges the United States faces, such as China's growing navy, and the lack of either capability or capacity of many European allies to conduct anti-submarine warfare.
    Yet the reality is that Russia's submarine force is a mere shadow of the dreaded Soviet submarine fleet, which counted in the hundreds.
    For all the talk of its operational readiness, barely half the force is believed to be ready to put to sea at any given time. Much of it remains in dire need of modernization. New designs like the lauded Yasen class continue to have problems, spending years in sea trials, while the construction schedule of both new Borei SSBNs and Yasen SSNs suffers from delays, and the shipbuilding program as a whole remains in question given Russia's economic woes.
    Russia has yet to develop air independent propulsion for its conventional submarines, or field a capable new diesel-electric submarine design to replace the venerable Kilo. Thanks to the Kalibr missile, its submarine force has much improved land attack capabilities, comparable to those of the long established U.S. Tomahawk, but in much smaller quantities.
    And while the rate of Russia's submarine force operations may have increased significantly, at least if one is to go by the statements of senior Russian naval officials, these figures are likely impressive only compared to the almost nonexistent levels of the early 2000s. Suggestions in the press that Russia's submarine force is operating at "Cold War levels" are exaggerations at best. That's highly improbable for a fleet barely a fifth the size of its predecessor and at half readiness. This is a force coming out of a coma, posing traditional challenges to NATO in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, but it is a dwarf compared with Soviet submarine operations during the Cold War.
    Of course, given the reduced size of the U.S Navy, particularly in the European theater, and gaps in high-end capabilities among NATO allies, even this small force can pose a problem to track and hold at risk. Military officials are therefore right to be worried in the context of the current confrontation with Russia and unstable relationship.
    Ultimately, Russia's submarine force is just one element in Moscow's overall restoration of the military as a useful instrument of national power. Whether or not it is able to sustain this level of operations remains very much in question.