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Kathleen H. Hicks


Kathleen H. Hicks
Andrew Metrick
Lisa Sawyer Samp
Kathleen Weinberger

Editor’s Note: These Excerpts are republished from the titled report dated July 2016 with permission of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC, 20036.

Chapter 1 The Russian Navy: Undersea Activities and Objectives

Russia’s dissatisfaction with the post—Cold War order has manifested an increasingly antagonistic foreign policy, as witnessed most recently in Ukraine and Syria.1Direct military action on land has been accompanied by probing air and maritime incursions in or near the airspace and territorial waters of NATO allies and partners. The Russian military’s buzzing in April 2016 of a U.S. destroyer (DDG),USS DONALD COOK, in the Baltic Sea is the latest in a series of increasingly reckless Russian behaviors.2Similar to its snap exercises on land, Russia’s air and sea maneuvers serve to test the responses of allied and partner forces while simultaneously creating a numbness to such activities; demonstrate Russian capabilities by exercising risky military tactics; send a signal regarding Russian dissatisfaction with the increased U.S. and allied presence along NATO’s eastern flank and intolerance of any Swedish and Finnish plans to draw closer to NATO; and reinforce Russian claims to a sphere of influence.3Russia’s current foreign policy trajectory, emphasizing an increasingly aggressive stance vis-à-vis the United States and Europe, is unlikely to change in the next decade.

Following the country’s poor performance during the 2008 Russia—Georgia War, the Russian military made significant investments in the reorganization of its forces and modernization of its equipment. In Ukraine and Syria, Russia featured sophisticated artillery and combined arms capabilities that had been augmented with new or repurposed technologies, such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to improve targeting and lethality. Russia has also demonstrated a range of effective electronic warfare capabilities that include jamming of satellite navigational devices and communications systems and distributing propaganda en masse via cell phone messages. Such investments have increased the efficacy of Russia’s military in a cost-and time-effective manner.

A number of key deficiencies and obstacles remain, however, and will continue to inhibit the Russian military’s capability and capacity. Low birth rates in the early post-Soviet period, along with a decline in the prestige of military service and retention issues, has led to a personnel shortfall that is further complicated by Russian military plans to phase out conscription and shift to a fully professional force. Russia has long relied on a system of two-year conscription to fill out its military. This was shortened to one year in 2008 and has been described as the beginning of a “slow-motion disaster” for the Russian military personnel system.4The Russian Navy and the Submarine Force has been, to some extent, insulated from the issues currently facing the Russian Army. The highly technical nature of these positions means that the Russian Submarine Force is overwhelmingly manned by professional contract sailors and officers. The Russian officer education system has generally produced very competent commanders who are intimately familiar with the capabilities of their submarines and crews. This familiarity is coupled with a high risk tolerance in carrying out their assigned missions.

Russia’s economic downturn also represents an undeniable challenge for the military. As a result of sanctions, plummeting oil prices, systemic inefficiencies, and the dramatic devaluation of the ruble, the Russian economy has weakened substantially since 2014. In turn, the Russian military is facing increasing budgetary constraints and has twice been targeted for budget reductions since 2015. Some investment areas, such as procurement, are suffering more than others, though this may not remain the case should economic difficulties persist. Submarine construction, for example, has so far been prioritized and shielded from the effects of the military’s belt-tightening. The State Armament Program(SAP) 2011–2020 allocates 26 percent of its 19. trillion rubles to the navy, totaling five trillion rubles.6Overall, Russia appears willing to accept some trade-offs with regard to its domestic social spending in favor of continued investments in a strong military and an activist foreign policy agenda.

Likely in recognition of these constraints, Moscow has been shrewd in how it exercises its military power, aiming to get as much bang for the rubleas possible and relying on its strategic nuclear deterrent to underwrite any shortcomings with its conventional forces. In Northern Europe, for example, the Russian Navy’s use of submarines to signal presence, reach, and power achieves an effect that is disproportionate to the forces committed. Indeed, Russia has a long history of emphasizing its maritime capabilities for the purpose of strategic signaling and targeted provocations.


A number of maritime incidents have showcased Russia’s use of the undersea domain as part of a broader strategy of coercion aimed at its neighbors, NATO, and the United States.These incidents include the probable territorial violations of Swedish and Finnish waters by Russian submarines; submarine activity near the UK submarine base at Faslane, Scotland; and reported suspicious activity near undersea infrastructure in the North Atlantic.

In a highly publicized incident in 2014, the Swedish Navy spent a week searching the Stockholm archipelago in the Baltic Sea with helicopters, minesweepers, and 200 service personnel after an alleged spotting of a Russian submarine in Swedish territorial waters.7The Swedish government has not offered any definitive conclusions regarding the incident, but open source reporting suggests that an emergency radio call (in Russian) was detected by Sweden’s intelligence service.8 Of course, this would not be the first time Russia has breached Swedish territory, nor is it likely to be the last. Another highly publicized incident occurred in 1981—the so-called Whiskey on the Rocks affair—in which a Soviet S-363 Whiskey-class submarine spent 10 days stranded on a rock in Swedish waters.

Russian submarine sightings in Sweden have taken on an almost Loch Ness–like mystique. While the frequency of supposed sightings likely gives too much credit to the supportable operating tempo of the Russian Navy, it is highly probable that the 2014 incident was in fact a Russian submarine. In this case, Russia could have been signaling its displeasure at Sweden’s growing ties to NATO; the alleged incursion occurred just a month after Sweden signed a host-nation support agreement with NATO at the Summit in Wales. This signal fits into a broader pattern of Russian rhetoric and actions vis-à-vis Sweden. It was recently revealed, for example, that Russia conducted a mock nuclear attack on Sweden during a 2013 war game. The Russian ambassador to Sweden also ominously warned of “countermeasures” should Sweden join the alliance.

A similar incident occurred off the coast of Finland in April 2015. In response to reports of a possible foreign submarine, the Finnish Navy dropped small-depth charges to issue a warning to the intruder. As in the Sweden incident, no official attribution was ever declared by the Finnish government. Although this incident does not appear to have been as purposeful or egregious a violation of sovereignty as the Sweden incident, unofficial reporting has strongly suggested that the undersea object was, in fact, a Russian submarine. Reports suggest that Russia semi-routinely skirts the edges of Finnish waters as submarines transit the Gulf of Finland from their base near St. Petersburg. These patrols and deliberate skirting of Finnish waters may serve to test the Finnish Navy’s undersea sensing capabilities. Increased Russian undersea activity has also been observed in the North Atlantic. Beginning in late 2014, the Royal Navy reported suspected Russian submarine activity off the coast of Faslane, Scotland, the location of the United Kingdom’s only submarine base and home of the entirety of the British nuclear deterrent: Vanguard-class submarines equipped with Trident missiles. Due to a lack of nationally owned, land-based antisubmarine warfare (ASW) assets, the United Kingdom requested allied assistance to track the suspected incursion. Such reports are especially disquieting for the British government as they reflect Russia’s potential ability to hold at risk the British nuclear deterrent and underscore the fact that the UK, a historically preeminent maritime power, is currently without fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). The Russian Ministry of Defense has denied any involvement in the three suspected cases of undersea territorial violations in Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom.

Press reports indicate that Russian submarines have likewise been operating in exceptionally close proximity to undersea cables in the North Atlantic and elsewhere. This has raised concerns among U.S. officials that Russia may be planning to exploit these key transoceanic linkages through tapping or injection of cyber payloads or by severing them outright.14Such capabilities would also be highly damaging in the Baltic Sea, given the large number of undersea data and power cables crisscrossing the region. There have been several reported incidents of Russian naval vessels disrupting the construction of the Nord Balt (formerly SwedLit) submarine power cable, resulting in diplomatic complaints from both Sweden and Lithuania.

The lingering uncertainty surrounding all the incidents described only increases the deterrent effect of Russia’s submarine activity. The ambiguity inherent in submarine warfarelends itself to a sense of Russian undersea omnipresence. This is sufficient to fulfill Russia’s ambition to signal that it considers the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and Arctic as falling within its sphere of influence and that it possesses the capability to hold at risk key allied and partner infrastructure and sea lines of communication.

Incidents like those in Sweden, Finland, and the United Kingdom are, at minimum, provocative and are rightly perceived by NATO allies and partners as evidence of increasing Russian aggression. It would not be fair, however, to ascribe all Russian military activities as having directed intentions. A great deal of Russia’s reported undersea aggression more accurately reflects a return to standard operating practices—exercises, sea trials, readiness drills, and transit between Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg—for submarine fleets. Certain legitimate actions may feel aggressive because Russia is resuming more constant activities from a very low, post–Cold War operating tempo as it begins to rebuild its Submarine Force after years of atrophy. Such misperceptions may be further exacerbated by the lack of muscle memory among allies and partners in dealing with the Russian undersea threat and the atrophy of their own response capabilities.


The Russian Navy’s strategy, doctrine, and structure have not radically changed since the days of the Soviet Navy. It mostly conducts the same missions with the same platforms as its Soviet predecessor, only on a dramatically reduced scale. The last major shift in Russian naval thinking took place under the direction of Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov in the 1970s and 1980s. At this time, the Soviet Navy transformed into a global force and began to develop capabilities reminiscent of Western naval forces. In general, the Russian Navy’s role can be understood as operating across three key lines of effort.

Sea-Based Deterrence

First, the navy is charged with maintaining a credible sea-based deterrent force on active patrol, with a high state of readiness, and protecting the ability of the sea-based deterrent force to carry out this mission.These tasks reflect the importance of Russia’s nuclear arsenal to overall national power.

The provision and protection of Russia’s nuclear fleet for strategic deterrence and denying an adversary’s freedom of movement will remain the guideposts for the Russian Navy. In support of this, Russia is already in the process of modernizing its ballistic missile Submarine Force and replacing, albeit slowly, its oldest Soviet-era attack submarine fleet. Targeted investments in overhauling older submarines leverage the technical excellence of the late Soviet submarine designs while offsetting their deficiencies in combat weapon systems through more modern upgrades. During the Second World War, both Germany and the United States used submarines to impose outsized costs on their adversaries. It was then that the Soviet Navy recognized how potent submarine warfare could be in the face of an adversary with superior surface capabilities.

Sea Denial

Second is the defense of maritime areas of geo strategic importance to include the Arctic, Barents, Baltic, and Black Seas, which represent the aeromarine approaches to Russia. To achieve this end, grand naval strategy offers two competing concepts: sea control and sea denial. A navy that embarks on the strategy of sea control seeks to achieve dominance of the seas in order to achieve national aims. Historically, sea control translates into blockades, amphibious operations, or carrier strikes against inland targets. During the Cold War, NATO’s maritime strategy was one of sea control. This would allow the successful resupply of forces in Europe and strikes against the Soviet flank should the Cold War turn hot.

The Soviet Navy recognized NATO’s sea control strategy and surface fleet superiority. It chose to respond not through direct competition but rather through a strategy of sea denial. This strategy has often been embraced by continental, land-centric powers facing maritime powers. At its core, it aims to prevent an adversary from using the sea to its advantage. For the Soviet Union, this meant preventing the United States and NATO from conducting sea-based strikes on Soviet territory. This would be achieved by killing the archer,or destroying U.S. and NATO vessels before they could carry out their missions. The sea denial goals of the Russian Navy are the same as their Soviet predecessors and include protection of vital military installations and assets—notably, the large complex of bases on the Kola Peninsula that house the Northern Fleet, the largest of Russia’s four naval fleets.

Russia has begun to reestablish a sea denial strategy using a layered defense approach through increased operations of surface ships and submarines in the North Atlantic and moving steadily closer to Russia’s territorial waters through the Barents, Arctic, and Baltic Seas. This is reflected in the estimate that Russia has increased its submarine patrols by 50 percent in the past year alone. Submarine warfare has long been a key element to Russia’s sea denial strategy,embodied most evidently by Russia’s emphasis on the guided missile submarine (SSGN). Unlike their U.S. equivalents, the Russian variants are designed to attack surface naval group formations with long-range, anti-ship cruise missiles. By contrast, the U.S. equivalent, the Ohio-class SSGN, is exclusively used for land attack missions and does not have a substantial anti-ship capability. The increased activity of Russian submarines has led to renewed U.S. and NATO interest in monitoring the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap, a strategic choke point that represents the Russian Northern Fleet’s gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.

Strategic Signaling

Third, and as previously mentioned, Russia’s naval power is also used to signal other nations of Russia’s intent and help to achieve overarching political goals. This buttresses Russia’s attempts to maintain and, where necessary, reclaim what it believes to be its traditional sphere of influence. A submarine’s stealthy veil can be lifted at an opportune moment as a tacit revelation of both presence and capability. Such reveals of capability (and adversary weakness) can impose significant psychological and financial costs on the signaled party; recall the massive and expensive search embarked on by the Swedish Navy as a result of a simple surfacing maneuver. A key attribute of Russia operations is the idea of reflexive control, or forcing your adversaries into a predictable course of action by manipulating how they perceive your intent.19This manipulation takes many forms and is part of Russia’s overarching information campaign. Due to the relative efficiency of such tactics, the low number of platforms required, and the opportunity for plausible deniability that is far greater than surface maritime or airspace violations can provide, the Russian Navy has seemingly embraced the use of submarines and tacit revelations as a reliable method of fear and coercion.

When applying these overarching objectives in the Baltic Sea, Russia’s naval activities have included efforts to monitor NATO naval activity; conduct targeted provocations and intimidation; complicate allied contingency planning to preserve Russia’s perceived sphere of influence, including by acting as a component of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) network; deter NATO military activity on or near its border; disrupt the sea lines of communications of NATO allies and partners; and ensure Russia’s territorial integrity. In the North Atlantic, Russia’s Navy is additionally focused on maintaining its sea-based nuclear deterrent by ensuring access through the GIUK gap; holding at risk key NATO assets; and protecting the naval approaches to its interior in order to protect its ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The activities of the Russian Navy in the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic demonstrate how important naval forces can be to broader coercion campaigns.



Today and Tomorrow

Russian naval capability development has been informed by the requirements of its sea denial strategy. Rather than investing heavily in carrier battle groups, Russia has emphasized submarine capabilities, certain surface warfare capabilities, and long-range anti-ship missiles. Over and above the requirements for sea denial, Russian has also demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the development and maintenance of its submarine-based strategic deterrent. In fact, many of the sea denial capabilities Russia has developed are meant to protect its SSBNs. While a detailed discussion of the relationship between the Russian Navy and the Russian nuclear deterrent is beyond the scope of this study, it is important to remember that the relationship exists and the protection of these weapon systems is a major factor informing Russian naval planning.

Russia’s Current Capabilities

The active Russian submarine fleet is considerably smaller than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today’s Russian Navy is believed to operate approximately 56 submarines in comparison to the 240 that the Russian Navy inherited from its Soviet predecessor. Russia has been slowly overhauling and modernizing the core of its undersea fleet while retiring the vast majority of its inherited vessels.

Russian submarines are generally believed to be very capable vessels when properly maintained. While the design and layout of many Russian submarine classes may seem unorthodox or even needlessly complicated to Western designers, the end result has been quite impressive. At the end of the Cold War, Russian designers and some Western analysts believed that the Soviet Union was on the cusp of overtaking the United States in terms of acoustic quieting, which would have represented a complete reversal of the Cold War’s regular order regarding submarine technology. Present day U.S. admirals have publicly acknowledged the prowess of Russia’s forthcoming Severodvinsk-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. Russian submarines still trail U.S. and Western vessels, however,in sonar performance; that is, they carry fewer towed arrays and, until very recently, an inferior sonar array design.

Russia maintains a host of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities ranging from dedicated surface warships to long-range, fixed wing aircraft, almost all of which were inherited from the Soviet Navy. These capabilities are not discussed at length given this study’s focus on Russian undersea activities. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that any nation operating submarines near Russian territory will have to consider Russian ASW capabilities into their risk calculus. The U.S. and European ASW capabilities needed to counter Russian undersea activities, however, will be discussed in Chapter 3. The following section explores the current state of the Russian submarine fleet and the maintenance and shipbuilding challenges faced by the Russian Navy.


The Russian Navy is emerging from its post–Cold War malaise. During the 1990s, its naval leadership, grappling with severe cost constraints, made hard trade-offs in order to triage and save some of the most advanced Soviet submarines. These efforts prioritized the Russian SSBN fleet. These SSBNs, in addition to a relatively small number of modernized diesel (SSK) and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), make up the core offensive capability of the Russian Navy.

The Russian Navy operates one class of SSK (the Kilo-class), four classes of SSNs (the Victor III-class, the Sierra II-class, the Akula-class, and the Severodvinsk-class), and one class of guided missile or SSGN submarines (the Oscar II-class). As with a large majority of Soviet and Russian naval systems that must typically contend with long development and production timelines, there is a high degree of variation even between single classes.2Table 2.1 below offers an overview of Russia’s Submarine Force. However, it does not include several classes of submarines in advanced stages of development or Russia’s fleet of auxiliary submarines used for special missions and systems development.

From an organizational perspective, the Russian Navy is divided into four fleets: Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, and Baltic. There is also one flotilla in the Caspian Sea. We focus here exclusively on the Northern and Baltic Fleets. The Northern Fleetis Russia’s largest and most formidable. The fleet is homeported at a collection of installations in the Kola Peninsula in Murmansk Oblast. In terms of its submarine order of battle, Russia claims its Northern Fleet includes 42 submarines.Open source analysis, however, suggests that the number of operational submarines is much lower, at approximately 22 to 31.3The Northern Fleet also includes a number of special mission and auxiliary submarines, which will be discussed in more detail later in this section. Table 2.2 represents the study team’s best estimate of the Northern Fleet’s current laydown based on open source material.

Table 2.1. Current Russian SSKs, SSBNs, SSGNs, and SSNs

Class Type Basic Characteristics
Kilo(Project 877 and 636) SSK Successful diesel submarine design produced in large numbers for both the domestic and export market. It is unclear to what extent the older Project 877 boats have been modernized.
Delta IV(Project 667BDRM) SSBN The final evolution of the Delta design and the backbone of the Russian at-sea nuclear deterrent. When the Deltas were first introduced, they were a step change in terms of acoustic performance. All remaining vessels will be retired as the Dolgorukiy-class are commissioned.
Typhoon(Project 941UM) SSBN The largest submarine ever designed. A truly massive platform for ballistic missiles. One vessel remains in service and is used as a test platform for a new generation of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
Dolgorukiy(Project 955) SSBN The latest Russian SSBN that is supposed to replace the entire existing fleet. This class has faced delays in construction and in the development of the primary weapon system, the BulavaSLBM; three are currently in service.
Oscar II(Project 949A) SSGN One of the largest submarines ever built. Created to sink U.S. carriers and their escorts with an extremely long anti-ship cruise missile armament.
Victor III(Project 671RTM) SSN Most advanced of the second generation of Russian/Soviet SSNs. First submarines used heavily to track U.S. ballistic missile submarines.
Sierra II(Project 945A) SSN First of the 3rdgeneration of Russian/Soviet SSNs and first to feature a single reactor. Titanium hull.
Akula(Project 917 and 971M) SSN Follow-on to the Sierra IIbut with a steel hull, increased displacement, and an improved combat weapon system.
Severodvinsk(Project 885) SSN/SSGN A multirole submarine designed to replace both Russia’s SSN and SSGN fleets. Tremendously expensive but exceptionallyquiet with a large missile armament.

Table 2.2. Estimated Northern Fleet Order of Battle

Type Believed Active Claimed by Russia
SSK 5 6
SSBN 6 8
SSGN 2 3
SSN 7-9 14
SSAN1 2-92 9
SSA3 0 14
Total 22-31 42

1. Auxiliary submarine, nuclear powered (SSAN).
2. Reporting on the status and operations of Russia’s fleet of auxiliary submarines is tremendously difficult due to the secrecy that surrounds their existence. The team is relatively confident that a small handful of these vessels conduct regular operations. The exact number is unable to be discerned.
3. Auxiliary submarine, diesel powered (SSA).
4. The one SSA is not an operational submarine; it is a test platform for new submarine technologies. This makes it difficult to characterize in this quantitative assessment.

The Baltic Fleet, in contrast, contains no nuclear-powered submarines and boasts only two diesel-electric Kilo-class SSK attack submarines that entered service in the 1980s. One of these submarines is currently down for repairs, with no clear date defined for return to service. The fleet’s one active Kilowas used in 2015 to exercise Russia’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities in the Baltic Sea and may have been responsible for the reported territorial violations discussed in Chapter 1.5 The size of the Baltic Fleet is restricted largely due to the extremely complex operating environment of the Baltic Sea itself. The Baltic Sea is very shallow with an average depth of 200 feet, requires navigation through an intricate archipelago and heavy sea surface traffic, is littered with what is likely the world’s highest concentration of unexploded mines and ordnance (UXOs) from the two world wars, and features unforgiving acoustic conditions due to its low salinity and large seasonal temperature variations. For these reasons, most submariners agree that if you can operate in the Baltic Sea, you can operate anywhere. The Baltic Fleet’s Submarine Force is ostensibly homeported at the Russian naval base on Kotlin Island in St. Petersburg, but often operates out of Russian naval facilities in Kaliningrad.

Russia maintains a fleet of smaller auxiliary submarines(SSA/SSAN) for special missions and deep sea research. The most advanced of these auxiliary submarines can be paired with converted SSBN mother ships to help offset the key weakness of these small submarines: a lack of range and self-deployment capability beyond Russia’s near seas.7The SSAN AS-12 Losharik, for example, is believed to be carried by a converted Delta IIISSBN, theOrenburg, and possess an exceptionally deep diving capability greater than 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). For comparison, modern SSNs are believed to have a maximum depth of approximately 1,600 feet (500 meters). The Losharik achieves this remarkable depth through a series of spherical pressure hulls.8A second repurposed SSBN, the Podmoskovye, a converted Delta IVSSBN, is thought to also be able to serve as a mother ship for auxiliary submarines.

Russia’s auxiliary submarines, also referred to as deep sea underwater stations, are operated by the secretive Directorate for Deep Sea Research (GUGI). The personnel that man these submarines are some of the most highly compensated in the entire Russian military, speaking to the dangerous and covert nature of their mission.10It is likely that Russian auxiliary vessels, including tele-operated or autonomous undersea craft, are equipped to be able to manipulate objects on the seafloor and may also carry sensitive communications intercept equipment in order to tap undersea cables or otherwise destroy or exploit seafloor infrastructure. In theory, this capability could enable collection of sensitive traffic carried on transatlantic cables and/or cyber attacks against secure computer systems, among other things. These vessels may also permit the Russian Navy to covertly place sensitive acoustic recording equipment near U.S. and European submarine installations.

The Northern Fleet is believed to have as many as nine nuclear-powered special mission submarines (SSANs) in total, but it is unclear how many of these are actually operational.11It also has one special purpose diesel-electric submarine (SSA), the Sarov, which is being used to test new submarine technologies, including acting as a mother ship for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). While the Sarov is shrouded in secrecy, what we do know is that it is highly unusual, as it has a nuclear reactor that is not mechanically connected to the vessel’s propulsion system.


Russia has improvedits submarine maintenance and repair capabilities since the low point of the 1990s, but it remains to be seen whether it will be able to keep up with the maintenance needs of a more active Submarine Force. Russia’s poor shipyard infrastructure and its large variety of classes and sub classes do not inspire great confidence in this regard. Reports suggest that up to 70 percent of Russia’s total shipyard equipment is in disrepair.14The inability to maintain and service submarines became the Achilles’ heel of the Soviet Navy. Russia must do better if it hopes to maintain its enhanced operational tempo.

There are also persistent questions about the supply chain feeding Russia’s shipbuilding and ship maintenance facilities. For example, the first two Dolgorukiy-class SSBNs incorporate hull sections from incomplete Akula-class and Oscar II submarines and steam turbines from a retiring Oscar II submarine.15The cannibalization of all available resources to build Franken stein submarines demonstrates supply issues with the Russian industrial base and calls into question the acoustic performance of these initial submarines, which slips with every mistake or imperfection. New investments in existing shipyards may help offset these issues, but long build times and extended sea trials suggest that issues of quality control persist in the Russian shipbuilding industry.

Separate from the shipyards used for submarine maintenance, Russia has two primary centers used for submarine production that are in much better shape: Severodvinsk on the White Sea and St. Petersburg on the Baltic Sea. Sevmash, the primary shipyard in Severodvinsk, is the largest shipyard in Russia and presently the only one building nuclear-powered vessels. The yard took extraordinary efforts to avoid mass layoffs during the economic downturn and has managed to maintain a capable core of shipbuilders for the time being.

Russia’s main production line for Kilo-class and other diesel-powered submarines is the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg. In a crisissituation, the Russian Navy could presumably add an additional submarine to its Baltic Sea Fleet by pulling a submarine in sea trials that is meant for export into the Russian Navy. St. Petersburg is linked to the White Sea and the shipyards in Severodvinsk and elsewhere by the White Sea Baltic Canal. This linkage may also permit Russia to quickly redistribute a small number of Kilo-class submarines from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic Fleet should the situation warrant.


Over the next five to 10 years, Russia is likely to continue its plans to develop several new ship classes—though, if history is any indication, it will struggle to realize its full undersea agenda on time and on budget. The most ambitious of its development programs are likely to be curtailed or delayed by Russia’s current economic and geopolitical situation, which is dramatically limiting its access to key foreign technologies and equipment. The depth and targets of these cuts, however, remain an open question. The following section explores Russia’s undersea development plans in greater detail and discusses the prospects for key Russian shipbuilding and maintenance facilities in the near-to mid-term.

Submarines and Undersea Capabilities

The Russian Navy aims to improve on its capabilities in the undersea domain. This includes the development of new submarines, new propulsion technologies, advanced sensors, and unmanned underwater vehicles. Current submarine procurement plans call for eight to 10 Dolgorukiy-class SSBNs, eight to 10 Severodvinsk-class SSNs, and a mix of diesel-powered SSK submarines.

As mentioned, the Northern Fleet currently operates one Dolgorukiy-class SSBN submarine. This vessel is likely slightly quieter than the late Akula-class SSNs and is comparable in terms of mission to the U.S. Ohio-class SSBNs. After very public setbacks due to issues with its main weapon system, the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the production line for this class seems to have turned a corner. Russia is looking to introduce a mid-production design change with either the third or fourth boat, which may carry additional SLBMs and feature a redesigned hull for improved acoustic performance. Unlike the earlier boats in the class, this mid-production design change is likely to include the production of true new buildSSBNs rather than vessels that rely on cannibalized components.

The Northern Fleet also operates a single Severodvinsk-class SSN, with the second boat currently under construction. The lead boat has been in sea trials since launching in 2013, and its future may be in doubt. This vessel was under construction for almost 20 years, having been laid down in 1993. Cost is an additional concern. The lead boat’s cost was frozen at 47 billion rubles and the second boat was reportedly going to cost 112 billion rubles.21This converts into about $1.4 billion (pre-ruble crash) / $700 million (post-ruble crash) for the first boat and a staggering $3.3 billion / $1.68 billion for the second boat. To put this in perspective, the current U.S. SSN Virginia-class is $2.6 billion per unit, which constitutes a much smaller percent of investment from the U.S. defense budget than a Severodvinsk-class SSN requires of Russia. (The United States spent $595billion on defense in 2015 while Russian spent $91 billion on defense in the same year.22) It is unlikely that Russia’s shipbuilding budget can support SSNs costing upwards of $2 billion, given its other priorities and fiscal constraints.

Despite these issues, and as previously mentioned, the end product appears to be a technically excellent submarine that has made Western naval leaders sit up and take notice. The Severodvinsk-class vessels are full of firsts. They are the first Russian submarines to be equipped with superior spherical bow sonars; previous Russian and Soviet systems had used an inferior cylinder design. They are the first Russian submarines to use Western-style vertical launch tubes for cruise missiles. They are also the first to be equipped with a life of the boatreactor; that is, a reactor that will not require a costly and disruptive midlife refueling. Taken together, the Russians appear to have a vessel that approaches and in some cases surpasses the most recent U.S. SSNs.

Russia is already considering a more affordable follow-on to the Severodvinsk-class SSN. The follow-on may include two separate designs: one to protect (or screen) surface strike groups from adversary submarines and the other to serve as a cruise missile submarine. Given past trends in Russian submarine development, one or two of these vessels may serve as an advanced technology test bed. The Soviet Union was engaged in a number of research and development (R&D) projects at the end of the Cold War that had the potential to transform undersea warfare. One such research stream was the use of composites and polymers to build a submarine hull with substantially reduced hydrodynamic drag that would have dramatically increased the maximum speed of submerged vessels. Such technologies may appear on a future Russian submarine, although the likelihood of costly R&D projects may be impacted by the current Russian economic situation.

Russia’s SSK ambitions are the most uncertain due to the development issues facing the Lada-class,the replacement for the Kilo-class. Problems with the initial prototype, the St. Petersburg, led to the suspension of the construction of the two additional Lada-class submarines.24The St. Petersburghas been in development since 1997 but was not commissioned until 2010. Its trials are set to continue through the end of 2016. During its development, the project has met resistance from Russian naval officials due to “shortcomings” revealed during the Northern Fleet’s operation of the Project 677 lead ship,St. Petersburg.”25Further delays seem all but guaranteed despite a top-to-bottom overhaul of the design over the course of its 19-year development and production timeline.

It appears that Russia may be moving on from the failed Lada-class altogether with a new design, the Kalina-class. These vessels may be equipped with the Russian air independent propulsion (AIP) system currently under development. (Diesel submarines with AIP systems are often referred to as SSPs.) The exact timeline for these vessels is unclear and likely dependent on the completion of the new propulsion system. The introduction of AIP technology has been described as a near-term goal for the past decade with little to show in terms of end product. Current reporting suggests that Russia is investing in a hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell AIP system similar to that currently used on German submarines. This system has completed shore-based testing, and Russia claims it will be ready for operation in the next five to six years.

Other Russian technological developments that, at minimum, should be acknowledged are non-acoustic methods of detecting and tracking submarines. The Soviet Union was very interested in ship-based and space-based technologies that could enable adversary submarine detection and subsequent tracking without a traditional sonar. These technologies would be transformative with regards to the ASW mission and submarine activities more broadly. Non-acoustic detection may degrade or outright remove a submarine’s defining characteristic, stealth. Shortly after the end of the Cold War, there was considerable debate regarding the maturity of the Soviet R&D activities and claims of operational efficacy. Any new claims regarding this technology should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism but cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Table 2.3. Future Russian SSKs, SSNs, SSBNs, SSGNs, and SSPs

Basic Characteristics

Class Type
Dolgorukiy II(Project 955A) SSBN Reported to include major structural revisions to the prior design. Increases the SLBM payload by 4 to 20 missiles.
Severodvinsk(Project 885M) SSGN/SSN Improved design for serial production with the goal to reduce the extraordinary costs of the initial submarines.
Severodvinsk Follow-On SSGN/SSN Reports have suggested that Russia is in the design stages of either a more affordable SSN or an exceptionally advanced SSN with game-changing technologies.*
Lada(Project 677) SSK/SSP Planned successor to the Kilo-class submarines that was supposed to be equipped with AIP technology. This class has faced extensive delays related to design and production. Unclear if Russia will move forward with this class.
Kalina SSP Potential replacement for the Lada-class design. May incorporate AIP technology, although the development of Russian AIP systems has been fraught with setbacks.

* Given Russia’s relatively bleak economic outlook, many will scoff at the suggestion that Russia is working on any revolutionary/transformative undersea capability. However, such advances should not be so quickly discounted. During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy invested in audacious and technically risky submarine development programs. The legendary Alfa-class with a titanium hull, liquid metal cooled reactor, and extreme submerged speed is the prime example.

Russia’s development of unmanned underwater vehicles is yet another advancement shrouded in mystery. UUVs may eventually revolutionize all facets of undersea warfare should the technology mature, as many predict it will. Russia has cleverly signaled the possible existence of a long-range UUV to be used as a nuclear delivery tool by accidentlyshowing a classified slide describing the system in the background of a televised briefing for President Vladimir Putin. However, many Western experts have doubts about the ability of Russia to indigenously develop this technology. Western experts have doubts about the ability of Russia to indigenously develop this technology. Unmanned systems require a mastery of technologies that Russia has never demonstrated a competency in developing or producing. Russia’s inability to build successful, large unmanned aerial systems reflects this fact. To offset its own technological weaknesses, Russia has purchased tactical UAS from Israel, and it is possible that Russia has reverse-engineered some Israeli designs. Russia may be able to purchase some systems or subsystems on the international market but will likely be unable to match future Western-style UUVs in terms of either numbers or capabilities.

The development of Russia’s future submarine fleet is likely to suffer due to a number of factors. International sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the Ukraine crisis, coupled with the severing of all access to vital Ukrainian industries, hurt Russian shipbuilding and modernization efforts. Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) struggled to develop an indigenous microelectronics industry. Much of this technology was imported from European sources. Russia also suffers from a shortage of machine tooling, a vital component for the manufacture of heavy industrial and military equipment. This shortage is directly tied to ongoing sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

While Russia is attempting to find workarounds to this challenge, it is unclear how successful it will be, and the timelines associated with finding viable substitutions are long. In September 2014, the Sevmash shipyard announced that it would no longer be importing foreign parts for submarine construction. Reports of cannibalization of certain parts from retiring submarines suggests that Russia has yet to bridge the gaps in its supply chains. While submarine construction has been prioritized, the Russian Navy’s set targets have not been met and delivery timetables for new equipment have consistently slipped right. This will likely only become more exaggerated should Russia’s economic downturn persist.

The future of Russian submarine design, construction, and maintenance may also suffer due to a looming precipitous drop-off in knowledgeable workers. The massive downsizing of the Russian Navy after the end of the Cold War included deep cuts to design houses and shipyards, which had a significant impact on human capital of the Russian shipbuilding industry. As a result of these deep cuts, there is a generational gap in many if not all Russian technical fields. Those with experience designing and building new submarines—most from the Soviet-era—are retiring without having trained qualified replacements. Consequently, while a core of highly capable submariner engineers, builders, and maintainers exist, it is unclear for how long and if it will be sufficient for the fleet expansion envisioned by the Russian Navy. These are skills that Russia has not historically imported from abroad, either through legitimate or illegitimate means, and doing so would prove challenging even if Russia chose to do so.


As discussed in Chapter 1, Russia’s renewed activities in the undersea domain have raised concerns among defense experts in Washington and European capitals who recognize that the West’s collective capabilities to meet this challenge have decreased significantly. The following sections consider the priorities of NATO and partner nations in the undersea domain; their available capabilities; and the ability of NATO and partner nations to work together to address key capability gaps.


The priorities for U.S. allies and partners in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea, while complementary, reflect some degree of unique national interest based on the particular geographic characteristics of each nation and the specific nature of the Russian challenge in each area. Broadly speaking, however, NATO and partner maritime priorities can be defined along three lines of effort: (1) Maintain the capacity to defeat adversaries and respond to aggression, as necessary; (2) ensure that sea lines of communication remain open, allowing for the free flow of goods and security of critical undersea infrastructure; and (3) ensure military access and monitor Russian naval activity, which are foundational to all. NATO allies have the additional task of safeguarding the alliance’s sea-based strategic nuclear deterrent.

In the North Atlantic, these priorities are largely achieved by monitoring and subsequently tracking Russian submarines and other naval assets. This is a mission that has remained constant since the late 1940s. During the first several decades of the Cold War, monitoring activities were driven by the need to keep an eye on Soviet ballistic missiles submarines. As ranges of SLBMs increased, monitoring activities shifted to tracking Russian attack and guided missile submarines. This task increased in complexity as Russia produced progressively quieter submarines. This increase in quieting dramatically blunted the NATO advantage in undersea sensing beginning roughly in the 1980s. Today, the need to monitor the strategic GIUK choke point is once again growing given an increased Russian operational tempo and the use of submarines as strategic signaling tools. This task remains difficult for modern-day allied and partner navies as the latest Russian submarines have reached near parity with some of their Western counter parts.

In the Baltic Sea, each nation prioritizes defense of its own territory, including several hard to defend strategic islands in the middle of the Baltic Sea. In support of ensuring their territorial integrity,Baltic Sea nations monitor Russian activities in an attempt to lessen their coercive effects and mitigate the advantage Russia gains from ambiguity. Undersea monitoring in the Baltic Sea must include key undersea infrastructure such as data and power cables that crisscross the region, as well as vital port facilities. In the Bay of Gdansk, adjacent to Kaliningrad, the main Russian threat is from submersibles and, however delivered,special operations forces. Here, guarding against little green frogmen will be especially challenging given the shallow depths and locations of assets on the seafloor.


In decades past, the NATO alliance built and maintained a strong proficiency in ASW, conducting regular ASW operations in the North Atlantic and undertaking robust scientific collaboration that could be leveraged for operational advantages. Once the Cold War ended and the Russia threat diminished, the focus on capability development shifted to conflict management and stability operations mostly beyond the European continent. At the same time, defense bud gets and force structure took deep and significant cuts, which led to divestment in ASW capabilities. Overall, today’s platforms are undeniably more capable than those they replaced but European nations (and the United States) are able to afford far fewer than they once did. While the picture remains mixed, the ability of many Western nations to reliably detect, track, deter, and counter Russian undersea activities has atrophied given lack of investments in readiness and matériel over the past decade and a half. Of course, state-of-the-art capabilities are insufficient without the human know-how required to operate them. Successful ASW is ultimately the result of skills honed over the course of regular, repeated exercises.

Broadly speaking, the capabilities needed for undersea warfare include submarines, surface vessels, fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and in-place sensors. In most cases, it takes all of these platforms and systems working in concert to achieve an effective ASW mission capability. This integrated capability needs to be undergirded by a coherent and cohesive doctrine and regularly exercised to build a true capability at both a national and alliance level. Table 3.1 provides an overview of regional undersea-related capabilities by nation.

In general, there have been real and worrying decreases in national capability and capacity for ASW operations by the nations most needed for credible undersea deterrence and defense in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Many of the platforms that are currently in inventory are aging and have questionable operational utility in certain maritime areas of operations.2These decreases are made starker by the increasing sophistication of Russian submarines. The reality of these reinforcing trends is that barring some revolutionary breakthrough in undersea sensing technology, it will take more assets than in the current inventory to locate and then track suspected Russian activity. Table 3.2 provides a brief snapshot of how NATO and partner submarine fleets have decreased since 2000. In addition to showing a nominal downward trajectory, the figures all reveal an increasing burden on the United States. In 2000, the United States accounted for about half of submarine capabilities of the nations considered in this study; by 2016, that number has risen to 65 percent.

Table 3.1. Relevant ASW Assets Based in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea

Submarines Fixed Wing Aircraft ASW Helicopters ASW-Capable Surface Vessels
Denmark 0 0 7 3 FFGs, 4 FFs, 2 AGs
Finland 0 0 0 4 PCs, 2 MLs
France 6 SSNs 12 35 1 CVN, 22 FFGs
Germany 5 SSPs 8 22 7 FFGs
Netherlands 4 SSKs 0 18 6 FFGs
Norway 6 SSKs 6 3 5 FFGs
Poland 5 SSKs 0 11 2 FFGs
Sweden 5 SSPs 0 0 5 FSs, 4 PCs
UK 6 SSNs 0 75 6 DDGs, 13 FFGs
U.S. 23 SSNs 44 95 5 CVNs, 10 CGs, 24 DDGs

Note: Auxiliary, miscellaneous (AG); aircraft carrier, nuclear-powered (CVN); destroyer,guided missile (DDG); frigate (FF); frigate, guided missile (FFG); corvette (FS); minelayer (ML); patrol craft (PC); submarine, diesel-powered (SSK); submarine, nuclear-powered (SSN); and submarine, air independent propulsion (SSP).


The Royal Danish Navy is responsible for the defense of the Danish mainland and its considerable overseas territory, namely Greenland. It is the fifth largest exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in NATO trailing France, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.3These factors contribute greatly to the force structure of the Danish Navy, which operates a comparatively large number of ocean patrol vessels, as well as one class of frigate specifically optimized for Arctic operations.

Table 3.2. Submarine Fleets (2000 and 2016)

2000 2016
Denmark 3 0
France 7 6
Germany 14 5
Netherlands 4 4
Norway 10 6
Poland 3 5
Sweden 9 5
UK 12 7
United States 74 71
Total 136 (62) 109 (38)

All of the major Danish surface combatants are equipped with a unique system knownas Stanflex, a modular mission payload system that allows vessels to be rapidly configured for certain missions.4Denmark operates three classes of frigates capable of carrying out the ASW mission for a total of nine vessels. It should be noted that theseships do not possess a towed array sonar system,instead relying on embarked helicopters to augment their hull-mounted sonar systems. One ofthese frigate classes is a unique hybrid vessel combining the missions of a frigate, troop transport, command ship, and minelayer into one platform. The modular nature of these vessels is what allows them to be reconfigured to meetthe requirements for each of these different missions.

Denmark previously operated a relatively robust Submarine Force but divested this capability completely in the middle of the 2000s. There are no announced plans to rebuild any form ofsubmarine force. Denmark is in the process of replacing its ASW helicopters with new MH-60Rs purchased from the United States. The Royal Danish Navy took delivery of the first of these aircraft early in 2016.


France is an interesting case due to the history of its relation-ship with NATO and the Mediterranean focus of most of its naval forces. The French Navy operates the only non-U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, maintains a fairly substantial surface fleet, has recently recapitalized its maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), and is in the early stages of procuring a new class of small SSNs. Despite France’s considerable ASW capabilities and capacity, it is unclear whether the French government would be willing to employ them in the GIUK gap or in support of operations in the Baltic Sea.

The majority of the French naval fleet, which includes the SSN force, is based in Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. At 20 knots, it would take a French naval vessel approximately sixdays to travel from Toulon to either the GIUK gap or the Baltic Sea. Given France’s core security concerns, its naval orientation toward the Mediterranean is understandable. The reality is that France is far more likely to contribute to any NATO maritime missions in the Mediterranean and broader Middle East than in the waters of the North Atlantic.

Regarding hardware, the European multi-mission frigate (FREMM), a joint development and acquisition effort between Italy and France, will form the backbone of the French surface ASW force. This vessel comes in several variants specific to each nation. The majority of the FREMM frigates that have been purchased by France are the ASW variant.6A previous frigate class is also being retrofitted with a towed sonar array as a stopgap methoduntil a new class can be procured in the mid-2020s.

Additionally, the French Navy has begun the construction of a new class of SSNs, the Barracuda-class, which are expected to enter service in late 2017. These vessels are noteworthy for their small size when compared with theirU.S. or UK counter parts and will represent a substantial upgrade for the French Navy. These submarines will have the ability to launch along-rangedland attack cruise missile, the Missile de Croisière Naval(MdCN), which is comparable to theU.S. Tomahawk.

France is one of the few nations in Europe that still maintains an MPA fleet, in the form of 12 Atlantique 2 aircraft. Whilethese aircraft are quite old, their avionics and sensor suites received an upgrade earlier this de cade.8Despite this, they will likely need to be replaced at some point in the coming de cades.


Finland takes an interesting approach to its military. The Finnish Defense Forces total just slightly over 8,000 professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Finland does have compulsory military service with over 20,000 active conscripts and nearly 1 million reserve personnel who could be called up.9Accordingly, the Finnish Navy is quite small and does not operate any submarines. It does operate a small number of corvettes equipped for the ASW mission to include sonar systems. Finland is planning to comprehensively overhaul its surface fleet by acquiring a new class of corvettes that appear to be more capable across a wider range of missions than the previous designs. This new procure-ment program, called Squadron 2020, may includeembarking a multirole helicopter.

Finland’s surface vessels are augmented by a system of sen-sors that monitor the maritime approaches to the country. A unique element of the Finnish Navy is its steadfast commitment to mine warfare. The Finns maintain a robust fleet of minelayers and a stockpile of advanced sea mines. This strategy is very much in keeping with their overall defense doctrine of absolute territorial defense. In a crisis scenario, the Finnish Navy could mine the approaches to key facilities and deny access to adversary vessels.


The German Navy is representative of the ASW capabilities resident in several relevant European nations. For the past fifteen years, NATO has emphasized its operations in Afghanistan. In response, the German Navy moved away from investing in capabilities needed for territorial defense. Therefore, the latest class of German surface combatant, the F125 Baden-Wurttenberg-class, has little to no ASW capabilities.

This surface fleet shortfall is partially offset by the excellence of the German submarine fleet. The Type 212 submarines, the product of a joint development program with Italy, are some of the most advanced air in de pen dent propulsion (AIP) submarines in the world. Their exceptional stealth, long submerged endurance, and small size makes them ideal for shallow water and littoral operations.While they would seemingly excel in Baltic Sea operations, it is unclear to what extent the German Submarine Force operates in these waters.

Notably, however,these vessels have no land attack capabil-ity. In fact, the German Navy does not possess any form of long-range land attack weapon foreither surface or subsurface vessels. There are understandable political sensitivities around the acquisition of such capabilities by the German Navy. However, given the current security environment in Europe and beyond, a limited investment into these systems may to be prudent.

Germany operates eight P-3C ASW patrol aircraft acquired from the Netherlands in 2006.10These second hand aircraft are quite old, but the German Navy is funding a major overhaul of the airframes, which will hopefully extend their service life consider-ably. However, this service life extension program will take eight years to complete and, given past experiences with such activities, may prove costlier than originally projected. These aircraftare based near the Jutland Peninsula and could be relevant for operations both in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea.

The Netherlands

During the Cold War, the Netherlands previously maintained a robust ASW capability to include surface vessels, submarines,and aircraft. While it still has a somewhat robust surface ASW capability thatincludes ship-based helicopters, the other legs of its ASW triad (submarines and aircraft) have atrophied.

The Royal Netherlands Navy operates four Walrus-class, diesel-powered SSKs.These vessels entered the force starting in 1992 and had a midlife upgrade in 2007, but they are not equipped with AIP systems.12The Walrus-class vessels are unlikely to be effective in the deep waters of the North Atlantic against modern SSNs. They may have greater utility in the North Sea or potentially the Baltic Sea. The Dutch government understands that these vessels are getting old and announced that they will be replaced in the 2025 time frame. Reports indicate that the Netherlands may be partnering with Sweden on submarine development and production.

The Netherlands previously operated a fleet of 13 P-3C MPA aircraft and was an active participant in NATO ASW missions during the Cold War.14During the early 2000s, all ofthese aircraft w ere divested and sold to Portugal and Germany. There are no announced plans to replace this capability.


Norway has long been a key partner in NATO ASW efforts. This is unsurprising given its proximity to both the GIUK gap and then-Soviet naval facilities in the Kola Peninsula. Forthese reasons, Norway’s ASW competencies, especially as they relate to personnel and organization, have not atrophied as greatly as other nations. However, the Norwegian Navy still has to contend with decreasing defense spending and a shrinking pool of assets.

Norway’s navy operates six Ula-class SSK submarines that, while relatively capable, are scheduled to reach the end of their already-expanded lifetimes in the early 2020s.15Whilethese small diesel submarines can operate effectively in the Baltic Sea, they most likely operate in the North Atlantic close to Norwegian shores. Norway’s geographic advantage means that its Submarine Force does not face a long transit time to patrol areas. It is unlikely thatthese diesel submarines, or a new generation of AIP vessels for that matter, would be effective at open ocean ASW missions against the new generation of exceptionally quiet nuclear submarines. This is due to their low tactical speed, smaller sonars, and decreased ability to operate towed arrays when comparedwith nuclear-powered vessels. Off board sensors and multiplatform integration could help offset this shortcoming, but the balance of power in undersea warfare tiltstoward SSNs in the open ocean.

In addition to its submarine fleet, the Norwegian Navy operates five large multipurpose frigates with ASW capabilities, including embarking an ASW helicopter. Norway is one of the few NATO nations that has maintained an MPA capability throughout the post–Cold War period inthe form of four P-3C aircraft. While this is a small number of airframes, Norway again benefits from its geography as the P-3Cs are based on the eastern edge of the GIUK gap. Given the age of its fleet and an inability to fund a full replacement program,Norway is considering leasing P-8s from the United States to meet its ongoing operational need for MPAs.


The Polish Navy operates a mixture of old Western and for-mer Soviet equipment, including two frigates, formerly U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry–class vessels, and five aging submarines. The submarines include four very small vessels (less than 1,000 tons) acquired from the Norwegians in the early 2000s and a singular Kilo-class SSK submarine inherited from the former Soviet Union.18While this SSK isgenerally well suited for the Baltic environment, its overall readiness is unknown and the other four small submarines are likely not combat relevant. Reports suggest that Poland is interested in acquiring a newclass of submarines with long-range land attack missiles and may be looking at a Swedish-designed vessel. This interest in new, advanced submarines suggests that the Polish armed forces may appropriately be pursuing a strategy of sea denial (vice sea control) that complements with the land-centric nature of their military.

Poland also maintains a small number of aging rotary wing ASW aircraft. These were supposed tobe replaced with anew Airbus-produced helicopter; however, this deal was opposed by the now-ruling party and may be reconsidered.19Regardless, it will be some time before any new ASW capabilities enter the Polish armed forces. At one point, Poland operated a network of undersea sensors in the Bay of Gdansk. If this network is still operational, it likely does not possess significant operational efficacy due to its age and mostly silent Russian SSKs.


Like others, the Swedish Navy is less capable across the full spectrum of ASW mission requirements than it once was, despite operating several excellent platforms that could be used in this mission. This suggests that the force has not maintained its proficiency in ASW from previous highs and that Sweden may lack some capacity to cover its large and intricate coastline. In this regard, Sweden is confronted by a geographic problem. Notonly is its coastline challenging to monitor, but Swedish officials must also concern themselves with the defense of Gotland, astrategic island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.

Sweden operates one of the most capable AIP submarine classes in the world, the Gotland-class. These three vessels are highly capable and designed for the Baltic Sea environment. The Gotlandsare so advanced that the United States leased one from Sweden in 2005 to test U.S. ASW capabilities.20The Swedish Navy also operates two older Sodermanland-class submarines that have subsequently been updated with AIP technology. These older boatswillbe replaced in the near-to mid-term by two new, highly advanced AIP submarines. The new A26 vessels will be a step change in terms of multi-mission capability—a major advance-ment for small AIP submarines. The A26s will also use Stirling engines vice fuel cells, eliminate the days-long fueling process, and boast a flexible payload capacity with the ability to deploy everything from torpedoes to divers.

The Swedish Navy’s primary surface vessel, the Visby-class stealth corvette, has a robust sonar suite but lacks the ability to track submarines at range, as it lacks a dedicated aviation capability. Sweden is currently acquiring a dedicated airborneASW platform in the formof the popular NH90 helicopter.

United Kingdom

The Royal Navy may be at its lowest ebb in terms of overall force capacity. The coming years should see the fleet try to reverse some of its losses and regain key capabilities. From an ASW perspective, the Royal Navy is looking to complete the acquisition of the last four of the Astute-class SSNs, take delivery of the first Queen Elizabeth–class aircraft carriers (CVs), begin construction of a new frigate class, and purchase a fleetof maritime patrol aircraft.

The Astute-class SSNs, the successor to the Trafalgar-class, are technically excellent, with press reports suggesting that these vessels are roughly comparable to the U.S.Virginia-class.22The fleet will total seven nuclear attack submarines (a one-for-one replacement of the previous class), with three boats currently in service. While a seven-ship fleet is small, the excellence of the vessels and their crews, and their basing location in Faslane, Scotland, makes them an idealpartner for ASW operations in the GIUK gap. Additionally, the exceptionally close defense relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom means that the two navies have an unrivaled operational partnership in the undersea domain.

The flagship naval acquisition program for the Royal Navy is the two-ship carrier class, the Queen Elizabeth. The Royal Navy expects to take delivery of the first of two CVs in 2017. It is difficult to overstate, from both a cultural and operational perspective, the importance of the Royal Navy regaining carrier capabilities. These CVs may be used in support of some ASW operations; however, they are most likely to be used as a highly visible signal of national intent and an offensive strike platform when required. Thesurface vessels that play a much more direct role in the United Kingdom’s ASW operationsare its 13 Type 23 frigates. These vessels will begin to come out of service in the early 2020s andwill be replaced by some combination of two new classes: Type26 Global Combat Ship and Type 31 General Purpose Frigate. The initial Type 26 program was a one-to-one replacement for the Type 23s, but the program was altered in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to include eight Type 26 ASW frigates andat least five of a lighter class, the Type 31.

The United Kingdom’s biggest shortcoming in the undersea domain is the lack of any MPA capability since the Nimrod platform was retired in 2010. As discussed in Chapter 1, this shortcoming was dramatically underscored in 2015 when the United Kingdom had to request assistance from NATO allies during a suspected Russian submarine incursion near Faslane. The 2015 SDSR committed the United Kingdom to rebuilding this capability by purchasing nine U.S. P-8 aircraft, but these will not enter service for several years.

United States

The U.S. Navy is theworld’s largest and most powerful naval force with 10 nuclear-powered carriers (CVNs), 22 cruisers (CGs), 63 destroyers (DDGs), and 53 SSNs in its total force.25Thisdoesn’t count numerous support vessels, amphibious warfare ships, or ballistic missile submarines. While the U.S. Navy has maintained unquestioned primacy since the end of the Cold War and is arguably the most capable it has ever been, other actors aregaining in both size and capability.

China’s Navy is asserting itself in the Pacific and the Russian Navy is finding its sea legs once more.

Under the Asia-Pacific Rebalancepolicy of the United States, the U.S. Navy plans to have 60 percent of its fleet homeported in the Pacific by 2020.26Assuming a 53 boat fleet, the number of SSNs homeported on the U.S. East Coast would need to decrease from 23 to 21 to meet stated goals. However, the total size of the U.S. SSN force is on the decline and is set to bottom out at 41 in 2029.27The U.S. Navy’s reliance on allies andpartners to respond to the Russia challenge will, therefore, only increase given other challenges to U.S. national security in the Asia Pacific andMiddle East.

There are also practical issues impacting the ability of the United States to fully engage in the Baltic Sea region. Given its size, a U.S. SSN would have an extremely difficult time navigating the shallow and uneven undersea environment of the Baltic Sea. The U.S.Virginia-class is 377 feet long anddraws approximately 30 feet ofwater.28By contrast, the Swedish Gotland-class has been optimized for this environment and is roughly 200 feet long anddraws approximately 18 feet ofwater.29The United States can contribute aerial and possibly some surface assets in this region,but is not best placedto lead an undersea response here.

In the broader North Atlantic, the United States no longer has all of the tools it once possessed to monitor subsurface activity. The efficacy of permanent undersea acoustic sensors against modern Russian SSBNs and SSNs is questionable. To increase its collection ability in this region, the U.S.

Navy has recently announced that it will operate maritime patrol aircraft from the former Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland on a rotational basis.30It will also be undertaking efforts to recoup some of the navy’s lost institutional knowledge regarding ASW and build greater officer proficiencies in integrated ASW operations.


NATO and partner nations do not currently possess the ability to quickly counter the Russia undersea challenge in much of the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Declining capabilities are not only to blame for this shortcoming; equally problematic is the lack of integration among relevant allies and partners. An effective ASW capability is built on different platforms, sensors, and personnel being able to combine forces in a coordinated manner. Unfortu-nately, NATO allies, including the United States, and partner nations have lost the ability to work together against a peer adversary in the ASW domain. The organizations, relationships, intelligence, and capabilities that once supported a robust ASW network in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea have not been seriously called upon sincethe early 1990s.

The most obvious way to approach developing an integrated, multinational ASW campaign isto leverage existing structures and multinational organizations. In this case, NATO is perhaps an obvious choice, though any format would need to be adjusted to include non-NATO partners Sweden or Finland. Sweden and Finland are, of course, key contributors to advancing joint priorities in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Given that anti-submarine warfare is extremely complex and highly classified—to the point that integrating undersea maritime forces is difficult even among NATO allies—conducting unified responses with partner forces adds an extra layer of complication.

Within the NATO context, the domestic political and national security concerns of Sweden and Finland must becarefully navigated, given Russia’sstrong aversion to the idea ofthese nations moving closer to NATO. So far, they have taken care to walk a fine line between ensuring their own territorial integrity and avoiding unnecessaryprovocation. Respecting these nations’ positions outside of the NATO structure while ensuring a unified approach to common security challenges is vital.

The European Union (EU) may be an alternative structure, though European collective defense through anEU body has faced major challenges and, of course, the EU does not include the United States. The Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) could also potentially play a rolein catalyzing enhanced cooperation and integrating ASW capabilities. This body aims to achieve defense cooperation among its member states and includes both NATO and non-NATO nations, but excludes relevant players such as Poland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Both the EU and NORDEFCO would also be limited in how far they could take cooperative efforts as they lack a standing command and control structure akin to NATO. Regardless, they may yet prove to be useful launching points for knitting togethera more unified response to Russian activity in the Baltic Sea region.These imperfect options highlight the seam in the European defense community between full NATO members and the vital partner countries of Sweden and Finland. There are, however, promising signs of increased integration between Sweden, Finland, and key security actors. At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, allied leaders established a forum called the Enhanced Opportunity Partnership to ensure Sweden and Finland remain closely integrated with the alliance.31Both Sweden and Finland also signed a host-nation support agreement with NATO in 2014 that allows both states to request NATO forces in times of crises.32These are steps in the right direction, but achieving a foundational level of jointness while respecting the sovereignty of both nations will require novel solutions and dedicated U.S. leadership.

Augmenting the multilateral approach with strong bilateral relationships can help bridge the lack of alignment between existing international structures and the current threat environ-ment. Close bilateral relationships will also be required to undergirdcurrent structures and augmentthese arrangements where necessary. The United States is well placed to play a key bridging role in the integration of ASW capabilities across the region and enable partnerships with key allies on very sensitive systems. The U.S. Navy and Finnish Defence Forces already enjoy a close and deepening working relationship and are partnering on some science and technology projects with real relevance to anti-submarine and undersea warfare. Likewise, the United States and Sweden recently signed an agreement that deepens their bilateral relationship and specifically calls out undersea warfare capabilities and training as a focus area. Similarly, the budding relationship between Poland and Sweden may help to bridge the gap in the Baltic Sea region. Increased cooperation between these nations could open the door for creating a host of synergies with regards to operations and acquisitions.

The United States will also need to leverage its bilateral relationships with close allies like the United Kingdom and Norway to develop and deploy a new generation of undersea sensing capabilities. In both cases, the United States has been willing to cooperate on very sensitive issues. The U.S. Navy and Royal Navy conduct tactical submarine combat exercises, for example, and the United States has helped outfit Norwegian survey ships with sophisticated electronic intelligence collection equipment. Leveraging strong bilateral relationships and NATO’s enhanced partnership initiative maybe the best path forward to simultaneously respect Swedish and Finnish neutrality and build a collective security system in the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic.

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