Russia’s effort to extend the service lives of its Akula submarines and increase their capability to the level of new Yasen-M boats is progressing, but not as quickly as Moscow planned.
The Russian Navy counts on refueled reactors and new major systems to enable project 971 Akula-class SSNs to operate at least 15 more years. This would provide needed time for construction of new Yasen-M submarines. The modernization of the Akulas, to include possible deployment of Kalibr missiles on them, will bring them closer in capability to new fourth generation Yasen-M SSNs.
Akula-class SSN Vepr returned to service in the Northern Fleet around August 5, according to an OPK source. The submarine arrived at Nerpa, in Snezhnogorsk near Murmansk, in 2012 for repairs and modernization. Vepr was originally scheduled to rejoin the fleet in 2014, but this was delayed several times.
Vepr is the second renovated Akula. Kuzbass was modernized at Zvezda in Bolshoy Kamen between 2009 and 2016 when it returned to the Pacific Fleet. Kuzbass reportedly received Kalibr cruise missiles during its modernization. But that capability has not been demonstrated.
Vepr gives the Russian Navy maybe three operational Akula SSNs. Six Akulas, all 25 or more years old, are currently located at Zvezdochka, Nerpa, or Zvezda.
The Northern Fleet’s Leopard arrived at Zvezdochka for repair and modernization in 2011 , with a planned return to service in 2015. That deadline passed, as did ones in 2016 and 2018. Completion of work on Leopard is now expected in 2020 or 2021.
Volk arrived at Zvezdochka possibly as early as 2011 and repairs began in 2014. The Pacific Fleet’s Bratsk and Samara arrived in late 2014 on a heavy lift vessel via the Northern Sea Route. Serious work on Bratsk and Samara likely awaits the completion of Leopard and Volk. Volk may be ready in 2023.
Northern Fleet boat Tigr was towed to Nerpa in 2017. According to Izvestiya’s source in the Russian MOD, Tigr will be renovated, armed with Kalibr missiles, and returned to the fleet in 2023.
In mid-2019, a Vladivostok news agency reported the repair and modernization of Magadan had commenced at Zvezda in Bolshoy Kamen, although some initial work may have started in 2018. The submarine arrived at the shipyard in 2015 or even earlier. It will not to return to operational status before 2023.
On September 25, an MOD source claimed it will return in 2021 or early 2022. It will receive a new name given that Magadan has been assigned to a project 636.3 diesel-electric submarine under construction for the Pacific Fleet.
The Akula repair program first and foremost entails refueling the nuclear reactors and restoring the hulls of the SSNs. Reactor and propulsion system components – steam generators, turbines, turbogenerators, motors, gears, shafts, rudders, and propellers – likely require major work.
The modernized Akulas probably are receiving new major ship and combat systems including command, control, and communications, navigation, fire control, sonars and non-acoustic sensors, and weapons possibly including the Kalibr anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile system. Its land-attack 3M-14 missile has a range possibly up to 2,500 km.
Despite frequent announcements that Kalibr is being incorporated, no firing of the missile from a modernized Akula has been reported. A test launch of the new system would be a normal part of combat certification for returning to operational status. Moreover, when it occurs, the MOD can be expected to publicize it widely.
Delays in the Akula repair and modernization program are endemic. In 2016, Zvezdochka’s press-service reported that the shipyard routinely had to begin repair work – dismantling the hull and equipment – while awaiting design documents. Zvezdochka also indicated it faced difficulty in obtaining new or repaired components because some original manufacturers are defunct. The shipyard has retooled and re-equipped to support the program, but making changes inside its shops has pushed the completion of the Akulas to the right.
Russian shipyards are likely at capacity with submarine repairs. Zvezdochka has been maintaining and upgrading Russia’s Project 667BRDM Delta IV-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and it modernized Oscar II-class cruise missile submarine Orel. This work has slowed progress on the Akulas. Similarly, at Zvezda on the Pacific, modernization of Oscar IIs, specifically Irkutsk — now supposed to be finished in late 2022 or 2023 — competes with work on Akulas.
Despite these challenges, Moscow is committed to returning modernized Akulas to operation to retain its capability for long-range anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare while it awaits new SSNs. The first Project 885M Yasen-M SSN, Kazan, has been undergoing trials since 2017 and is expected to be delivered in 2020. The Russian Navy plans to add seven Yasen-M by 2027, but at the current pace of construction, it is unlikely to have its full complement of new production SSNs before the early 2030s.