Russia’s Got a Mysterious New Submarine

Re-posted from The Daily Beast

David Zxe, The Daily Beast, Aug 21

On Aug. 11 at the port of Severodvinsk in northern Russia, a huge and imposing black shape emerged from a dry-dock, observed by ranks of uniformed dignitaries. The Russian navy’s latest submarine is 574 feet long, displaces no fewer than 18,000 tons of water and packs two nuclear reactors.

Named Moscow, she’s actually a refurbished, 1980s-vintage ballistic-missile sub that once prowled underneath the Arctic ice, cradling nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, awaiting Armageddon.

Today, as best as any outside observer can tell, the Moscow has a new mission. She appears to be part science vessel, part spy ship, part commando transport, and part “mothership” for mini-subs and drones.

But no one outside of the Kremlin and the Moscow’s future crew knows for sure.

“There’s a lot of questions here,” says Eric Wertheim, a leading naval analyst in the United States and author of Combat Fleets of the World, the definitive naval reference guide.

One thing is certain: Whatever her purpose, the Moscow is the most recent sign of Russia’s desperate effort to rebuild its dilapidated navy and, a quarter-century after the Cold War ended, once again challenge the U.S. Navy on—and beneath—the world’s oceans.

Special mission boat

Moscow began life as a Delta IV-class ballistic missile submarine, crewed by 135 sailors and armed with 16 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, each with four independent warheads that can split off from the rocket as it plummets toward Earth, maximizing the city-destroying power of each missile.

In 1999, the Kremlin ordered the Moscow into dry-dock in Severodvinsk for rework initially costing 443 million rubles, or around $7 million. The plan—to remove the submarine’s missile tubes and replace them with new equipment for covert missions, transforming the Moscow into what navies call a “special mission” vessel.

Where ballistic missile subs haul atomic weapons and so-called attack submarines armed with non-nuclear missiles and torpedoes silently stalk surface ships and other subs, special-mission boats handle, well, everything else that an undersea warship can do: testing new technology; quietly transporting naval commandos on deadly secret missions; supporting deep-diving mini-submarines and free-swimming underwater robots; and, perhaps most provocatively, gathering intelligence—and preventing the enemy’s submarines from collecting intel of their own.

The United States is the world’s leader in submarine technology and possesses the most technologically advanced special-mission subs, including four converted ballistic-missile submarines plus the mysterious USS Jimmy Carter, a one-of-a-kind spin-off of the Seawolf class of attack boats.

Entering service in 2004, the $3-billion Jimmy Carter is one of the Navy’s most secretive warships. The sailing branch does not comment on the vessel’s features and deployments. But Owen Cote, a submarine expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the ship probably has a “moon well,” a kind of floodable chamber that allows divers and undersea drones to exit and reenter the sub while the ship is submerged.

It’s unclear exactly what the Jimmy Carter does during her months-long deployments, but it’s possible she heads to the ocean floor so her divers and robots can place wiretaps on undersea cables, allowing U.S. intelligence agencies to listen in on intercontinental communications including Internet traffic. During the Cold War, U.S. special mission subs frequently penetrated Soviet defenses to bug Moscow’s communications cables.

These days there are better ways to tap into the fiber-optic cables that carry global communications. “I don’t think you need to use Jimmy Carter to do that,” Cote said. “It would be a waste of that asset.”

But one Russian ex-official insists that NATO, the U.S.-led European military alliance, still taps Moscow’s cables. “I note that every year a certain number of such devices is removed from our links,” retired admiral Viktor Kravchenko, former chief of the general staff of the Russian navy, told one Russian news site.

Indeed, Kravchenko claimed that the Moscow’s main mission will be to transport a nuclear-powered mini-sub that can descend to great depths to remove the wiretaps. The Moscow’s mini-sub could also place its own wiretaps, according to Valentin Selivanov, another retired Russian admiral and former submarine commander.

Like Cote, Norman Polmar—a naval expert who has advised the U.S. government on submarine strategy—dismissed all this talk of wiretaps. “There are very few Russian undersea cables that are tappable,” Polmar said. Besides, he added, “more stuff moves through the air.”

Cash is king

Still, Polmar cautioned against underestimating the Moscow. Whatever the submarine is for, it could be something American observers can’t even imagine. “Is there something surprisng in that submarine?” Polmar asked. “It’s possible.”

Polmar said he has visited, multiple times, all of the engineering bureaus that design Russia’s subs. “These guys are far more innovative than we ever were.”

But before the Moscow can take on secret missions, the Kremlin has to wrap up the submarine’s rework—a process that, so far, has taken a staggering 16 years… and might never get finished.

Russia’s naval shipbuilding industry still possesses impressive expertise, but has suffered from inconsistent and inadequate government funding ever since the Cold War ended. From a peak of hundreds of undersea vessels during the Soviet era, today the Russian navy can put to sea just a couple dozen submarines, roughly half as many as the better-funded U.S. Navy can manage.

“The trouble with all these naval issues is that, unlike some programs that are small, ships are systems of systems and require stable funding over a long period of time,” Wertheim said. And stability is the one thing the Russian economy—and by extension the country’s military budgets—definitely lack.

The Moscow left dry-dock on Aug. 12 but could still be years away from being combat-ready. A photo of her relaunch shows construction scaffolding on top of her hull. But Wertheim said he expects the Kremlin to push hard to complete the sub, despite the challenges. “They don’t want to lose that intelligence-collection capability.” (Sounds like SSN726 copy cat/ed) ^

How To Handle China

Chinese artificial island landing strip

CAPITOL HILL: Adm. John Richardson sailed through his Senate confirmation hearing this morning. But two ominous issues breached the surface, hinting at growing conflict between the administration and Hill Republicans over how to handle China.

Richardson, an experienced submariner nominated for Chief of Naval Operations, deftly dodged the difficult questions from Senate Armed Services Committee: Does US-China cooperation on nuclear reactors help their military? Should the US challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea? But as both Beijing and Capitol Hill step up the pressure, he may not be able to dodge for long.

“Admiral, is China an adversary?” Sen. Tom Cotton asked bluntly.

Adm. John Richardson

“China is a complex nation,” Richardson replied. “Many of the things they’re doing have an adversarial nature to them,” he said (italics ours), notably the construction of pseudo-islands in the South China Sea.

So why are we helping them build up their nuclear navy? the senator asked.

The Nuclear Question

The US has had a “1-2-3 agreement” on civilian nuclear cooperation with China since the Reagan administration, back when Beijing was a counterbalance to Moscow. That 30-year deal is up for renewal, but Cotton and fellow conservative Mark Rubio are opposing it. The grounds: US civilian reactor technology transferred to China for civilian purposes could end up in military hands. Specifically, Curtiss-Wright AP-1000 pumps — designed to cool Westinghouse nuclear reactors — were transferred to Westinghouse’s Chinese partners, who also just happen to make the pumps for China’s new ballistic nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs). Pumps are one of the noisiest components of a nuclear sub, so better pump technology makes subs harder to find.

“This is very troubling to me,” Cotton said this morning. “I imagine any increase in the capability and lethality of the PLA Navy would also worry you.”

“This is something I obviously watch extremely closely,” said Richardson, a career submariner. The details are highly technical and highly classified, the admiral went on, but the Navy has looked “very closely” at the civil nuclear agreement. He gave it this less than ringing endorsement: “I believe that in the aggregate, we would be better with a renewed successor agreement than without it.”

Cotton pressed him: “Even if you suspected or knew that the PLA Navy was going to divert civilian nuclear technology towards nuclear naval systems?”

“I can say with a fair degree of confidence we are better with this agreement than we are without,” Richardson said.

The admiral’s written answers to the committee’s questions in advance of the hearing go into more detail on the upsides: ” While it is impossible to state that there will be ‘no risk’ [of civilian technology being put to military use], the successor U.S.-China Atomic Energy Act Section 123 Agreement ensures continued U.S. access to China’s civilian nuclear complex, allowing for the development of a culture of best practices on nuclear security and safety, as well as the opportunity to ensure Chinese nonproliferation policies are consistent with international nonproliferation norms.” There’s also the attraction of selling US nuclear reactors to the largest and most energy-hungry country on the planet.


The South China Sea

In both this morning’s hearing and in his written testimony, Adm. Richardson made clear that China’s building program in the South China Sea was “destabilizing.” What he didn’t make clear was what the administration plans to do about it — even when the committee pressed him.

In fact, there are rumors of a disagreement between the White House and the military’s Pacific Command on a crucial question: whether to fly or sail within 12 nautical miles of the new Chinese bases. China claims its constructions in the South China Sea are permanent and inhabited islands, which would legally mean they are each surrounded by territorial waters and airspace for 12 miles in every direction. The US considers them to be artificial and temporary structures, which under international law means they have no legal impact on other nations’ rights of passage in the surrounding seas or airspace. The Chinese have made it clear they think that flying or sailing within 12 nautical miles of these structures would be an unmistakable challenge to their claims.

“Sailing inside 12nm is a key component to any freedom of navigation campaign that seeks to reject China’s claims to these man-made islands,” one Senate staffer told me. “Secretary [of Defense Ashton] Carter‘s speech in Singapore was excellent, but now it’s time we back up his strong words with very visible actions.”

“There seems to be a confusion in our policy,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said at the hearing. At the recent Shangri-la conference in Singapore, he said, “Sec. Carter stated we will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows (and that) turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air and maritime transit. However, PACOM commander [Harry] Harris just two weeks ago at the Aspen Security Forum stated it is US policy to afford a 12-(mile) limit around all (features) in the South China Sea… to include islands and formations.”

“It’s absolutely important that the Navy continue to be present in that region,” Richardson said, “(but) we do have to respect the legitimately claimed territorial boundaries.”

“Does that mean respecting that?” Sullivan said, pointing scornfully to a photo of China’s airstrip atop one of the structures known as Fiery Cross Reef.

“I’d have to at look exactly which of those claims are legitimate,” Richardson demurred. “It’s a dynamic situation there. There are competing claims down there…. We need to get down there, understand the truth, and make that very clear.”

“Mr. Chairman,” Sullivan said, turning to Sen. John McCain (himself no fan of Obama’s foreign policy), “I’ll be submitting questions for the record to make sure the policy of the United States is clarified.”

Good luck,” the irascible chairman growled.

Updated 3:20 pm with Senate staff comment.

Death Down Below: Are Submarines Set to Become Obsolete?

Re-posted from The National Interest


Death Down Below: Are Submarines Set to Become Obsolete?

As a member of the Australian Defense Minister’s White Paper panel, I’ve had many discussions about issues that paper will wrestle with (and a few that it certainly won’t, but that’s a post for another time). With the obvious disclaimer that I’m not about to divulge any white paper content, I thought it was worth addressing some of the questions that have come up repeatedly.

Naturally, questions about Australia’s future submarine plans are near the top of the list. Many topics are predictable enough. Where will they be built? How many do we need?

I’m surprised at how often I’ve been asked whether we’re wasting our money because submarines are about to become passé. That question is based on one of two premises: that the oceans are about to become ‘transparent’ due to new detection technologies, or that submarines will be replaced by unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Both propositions have a reasonable pedigree, and neither can be dismissed out of hand. And both technologies will have a significant impact on the future conduct of submarine operations. But when examined closely, they actually point towards an increased relevance for submarines.

Let’s start with the detection issue. The attribute that most contributes to the effectiveness of submarines is their stealth. An adversary faces significant uncertainty even with just the possibility of a submarine being present. A great deal of effort has to be put into anti-submarine warfare to have even a reasonable chance of nullifying their effect. Having a capable submarine somewhere in a theatre of maritime operations complicates planning everywhere—or at least within a large circle of possible locations that grows steadily with time.

The ability to quickly and reliably find submarines would certainly change their cost benefit calculus, and the notion of making the ocean ‘transparent’ isn’t a new one. The Cold War U.S. Navy (USN) put a great deal of effort into being able to track Soviet nuclear missile-carrying boats, building an array of networked underwater sensors under the Long Range Acoustic Propagation Project. Their effort met with considerable success and the USN often had a pretty good hold on Soviet submarine movements.

But there are two important caveats. First, those were earlier generation nuclear submarines, which were noisier than their current counterparts. Second, even when Soviet submarines were detected, precise localization wasn’t always possible. The arrays were heavily supplemented by other techniques, not least of which was the ‘tailing’ of Soviet boats by American submarines. (See the ‘ripping yarn’ bestseller Blind Man’s Bluff for a popular account). In fact, when the arrays picked up the sounds of the destruction of its own USS Scorpion, the USN still took four months to locate the wreckage. The simple fact is that reliable localization of sound sources in large ocean basins is a formidably difficult task that gets progressively harder as the difference between the source and background noise gets smaller—as is the case with modern submarines.

Of course, detection technologies and the ability to analyze collected data have also improved. I wrote about the effect of Moore’s Law on submarine detectability here, and it’s true that future submarines will face challenges in remaining hidden. They’ll also have to worry about techniques other than acoustics, such as wake detection, thermal signatures or even the light given off by sea creatures disturbed by their passage. Given enough data and enough signal processing power, even very subtle signs could be giveaways—potentially even from orbit.

Nonetheless, the real world is a noisy and untidy place. Covering very wide areas with sufficiently sensitive sensors with high bandwidth to link them together and having the ability to respond quickly and effectively to a detection—especially given a likely high ‘false positive’ rate—will be beyond even the best resourced forces. Much more likely is that high performance ASW capabilities will be concentrated on key focal areas, such as around task groups, near naval bases, and chokepoints such as critical sea lanes through straits and narrows. The old model of submarines getting ‘up close and personal’ in their adversary’s strongholds probably doesn’t have much future.

But in terms of avoiding detection, being under the water will always be preferable to being on top of it. And if the submarine can carry out its mission from a reasonable distance, there’ll still be ocean enough to hide in. To remain viable, future submarines will have to be even stealthier. They will need be able to stand off and deploy medium to long-range sensors and weapons—in a sense perhaps becoming ‘underwater motherships’ for sensor and weapon packages. In fact, as life gets harder on the surface, that ability will become more relevant, not less.

And that’s a neat segue to UUVs. In the next post I’ll discuss their strengths and weaknesses and explain how the complementary package of manned submarine and unmanned subsystems could come together to help defeat improved sensors.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

Baltic Sea Submarine Operations – Russia, Sweden and Finland.

Reposted from Australia by the Indian Ocean

Baltic Sea Submarine Operations – Russia, Swedeen and Finland.

Posted: 17 Aug 2015 03:08 AM PDT

 In the map above the lighter the blue the shallower the water. The average depth of the Baltic Sea is 53 meters but the maximum depth is 459 meters. 459 meters is more than deep enough for submarines to hide in – if they choose the right hiding places – and those hiding places do not conceal the presence of an opponent’s sea-floor (or tethered) sensors. (Map courtesy European Environment Agency)

The Baltic Sea presents a challenging and dangerous submarine operating area in peacetime due to its undersea geography. This geography includes overall shallow and highly variable sea depths, many rocks and islands making for many narrows and rocks to get stuck in or collide with. However there  also many sea-floor depressions/variations to hide in.

In peacetime and wartime the intensity of ASW surveillance makes submarine operations on the surface and even at snorting depth dangerous. In Baltic operations quiet on-battery and/or on-AIP operation may be essential. It is probably no coincidence that the two nations that have developed the most efficient and commercially successful AIP systems (Germany (with fuel cell) and Sweden (Stirling engine)) may well spend most of their operating time in the Baltic.

The approaches to sea bases and coastal cities/ports frequently have sensor protections using  undersea arrays such as:

–  Malsten station (old probably non-operational hydrophones/sonar and magnetic anomaly) and much more operational, modern and geographically dispersed equipment

–  approaches to Helsinki Harbour (hydrophones/sonar, magnetic anomaly and more modern sensors)

–  Russian Baltic Fleet Base at Kaliningrad Enclave much more extensive and intensive. Few details about Russian hydrophones escape the Russian information censors. Naturally Russians submarines have many types of ASW sensors and the RussianNorthern Fleet deploys test sensors

Russian Submarine Operations

Little seems to be known in the open-source world about Russian submarine operations in the Baltic.  Russian Kilo submarines and even Russia’s one or two Ladas appear unsuited due to their relatively large size and lack of (known) AIP.

Russia, of course, has relied on highly developed nuclear propulsion solution for its AIP-like needs. But the Baltic is the wrong environment for nuclear propulsion as nuclear is assumed to be noisier than AIP, tends to preference large submarine solutions far heavier than 2,000 tons (surfaced), promotes speed which is a major danger in Baltic operations and nuclear submarines are an expensive asset to be at risk from highly intensive Baltic ASW forces and dangerous natural geography of the Baltic.

Russia submarines may well have been detected by Baltic countries hundreds of times since 1945 carrying out what look suspiciously like intelligence gathering missions in those countries territorial waters. The number of Russian submarines publically reported may well have been kept secret from Baltic and international publics due to:

–  the need to keep secret the efficiency of anti-submarine sensors (including sea-floor arrays) in detecting Russian (or friendly countries)

–  the much greater political, economic and military power of Russia compared to all other Baltic counties. Non-NATO Baltic countries Sweden and Finland are particularly careful not to offend the Russian giant by publically identifying clearly Russian submarine acoustic signatures and radio transmissions.

–  normal diplomatic practice which keeps sensitive international issues secret

–  the natural secrecy of Governments-Navies relating to all submarine operations

–  for a defending Navy (like Sweden’s) to be publically seen as unable to counter submarine intelligence gathering against one’s country can be embarrassing all round.

–  as the weaker country, compared to Russia, Sweden is forced by Russia or finds it more politically convenient, to recant and deny there was any Russian submarine incursion in the first place

Note how the detection and weaker country recanting process plays out in Russia vs Sweden October 17-24, 2014:

“A large military operation is launched to search for an allegedly damaged submarine in Kanholmsfjärden in the Stockholm archipelago. Encrypted transmissions sent on an emergency radio frequency used by Russian units were recorded. The sources of the transmissions were identified as a submarine and a military site in the Kaliningrad [Russian Naval Base] region.[14][15][16][17] On 19 October [2014] the military said there had been three separate sightings and released a [photograph] of the unidentified submarine to the public.[18] There were also suggestions that the Russian Oil-tanker NS Concord was involved as a mother-ship for smaller underwater vehicles as it maintained a pattern of criss-crossing outside Stockholm during the investigation.[19] A Russian research ship equipped with a submarine holding bay, R/V Professor Logachev,[20][21] was also in the area and turned off its location transponder.[22][23]
Several days later, the hunt was still on as [Swedish] officials were certain that foreign underwater operations were still ongoing.[24] More than 100 sightings were now reported, said [Swedish]  Supreme Commander Göransson.[25] Paul Schwartz at Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, said the photograph could be a Russian Lada-class submarine.[26] Sources later said it was certainly at least one mini-submarine and that advanced image analysis “reveals part of a submarine superstructure with two masts behind it”.[27] On April 2015 Rear Admiral Anders Grenstad has told Swedish newspapers that the Armed Forces reported to the Swedish government that [despite the mountain of evidence]the suspected underwater vessel was in fact only a civilian “working boat” [Such is the need to deceive for bilateral relations between the Russian giant and its weaker Baltic neighbours].[28]

This October 2014 Submarine Matters article contains more detailed descriptions of recent  Russian mini-submarines in the Baltic.Tomorrow some surprisingly advanced Russian UUVs will be revealed.