Russia’s got a big new nuclear-powered submarine armed with long-range hypersonic missiles.
If, as a resident of some country that isn’t Russia, that sentence alarms you – relax. One submarine does not a fleet make. Yes, the new submarine Arkhangelsk is impressive in some regards. No, she won’t reverse a decline in Russian naval power that began in 1991, and accelerated as Russia began waging war on Ukraine.
Arkhangelsk is the fifth vessel in the Yasen class of nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarines. She displaces 13,800 tons of water while submerged, making her nearly twice as massive as an American Virginia-class submarine.
All that space makes lots of room for weapons. A Yasen packs 10 torpedo tubes and 32 vertical cells for cruise missiles. The current Block IV version of the Virginia has just four torpedo tubes and 12 vertical missile cells.
But what really makes a Yasen special is what kinds of cruise missiles it carries. They include the Zircon, one of the world’s first operational hypersonic missiles.
“The weapons systems of these vessels are significantly superior to their foreign counterparts in a number of their characteristics,” Russian navy commander Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov said as Arkhangelsk launched in northern Russia on Nov 29.
Yevmenov is wrong. A lot of countries are developing hypersonic missiles, which technically means no more than a missile which travels faster than five times the speed of sound. ICBM warheads descending from space have always travelled much faster than this. In a modern context, “hypersonic” often refers to a so-called “boost glide” warhead, launched on a rocket stack like an ICBM but which makes its journey in a hypersonic glide within the atmosphere. Such weapons appear above the horizon much later than ICBMs, making them harder to intercept, and sometimes they can maneuver as they come, making the defender’s problem still more difficult.
Russia was the first to actually deploy a modern hypersonic missile – the ground-launched Iskander – way back in 2006. It is supposedly able to maneuver in flight, and it travels faster than Mach 5.
But Russia’s hypersonic missiles are overrated. Ukraine’s American-made Patriot air-defense batteries have shot down several Iskanders, proving that these hypersonics at least can be stopped with existing weapons.
The Zircon isn’t a boost-glide weapon, but rather a hypersonic cruise missile: essentially a robotic aircraft that flies at low or medium altitudes, for some of the journey at least at hypersonic speed. It’s believed that the Zircon is powered by a scramjet engine and Russia has claimed it can achieve Mach 8. Sure, a Zircon has a reasonably long range: 600 miles or so. But America’s subsonic Tomahawks fly a thousand miles and, while slower, might be a lot more accurate than a Zircon. One of the likely problems faced by the Zircon is that its high speed will mean that it ionises the air around it, creating a barrier of plasma around itself which will blind its sensors and cut off its communications. This will mean that it has great difficulty in homing in on a target object, or even striking a preset position accurately.
Even if this problem has been solved, Zircon may still be unable to defeat America’s Patriots or naval SM-6 interceptors. The Kinzhal, the air-launched version of the Iskander, is said to strike at no less than Mach 10: and Patriots have knocked down Kinzhals too. This was embarrassing for Vladimir Putin, as the Kinzhal was one of six “super weapons” he named in 2018 as being impossible for America to defend against. So was the Zircon.
Inasmuch as her missiles are Arkhangelsk’s greatest attribute, the new submarine might prove disappointing if and when she ever goes to war. And her launch doesn’t do anything to reverse the overall decline of the Russian fleet.
The Soviet navy never managed to match the firepower and flexibility of NATO navies, but the Soviets did at least deploy a truly global navy that could deploy large oceangoing warships to any ocean.
The Russian navy, by contrast, is rapidly devolving into a mostly coastal fleet. The post-Soviet economic chaos wreaked havoc on Russian shipbuilding. It’s worth noting that all of the Russian fleet’s large warships – its sole aircraft carrier and 14 cruisers and destroyers – began construction in the Soviet era.
It’s also worth noting that the Russian fleet used to have 15 cruisers and destroyers, but the Ukrainian navy – a fleet with zero large ships – sank the Russian cruiser Moskva with land-based anti-ship missiles in April 2022. Ukraine has succeeded in reopening its port Odesa to worldwide trade despite every Russian effort to blockade it since the summer: Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has lost control of the sea.
At a time when the average size of an American, British or Chinese warship keeps growing, the Russians couldn’t build big ships if they wanted to. The money and industrial capacity wasn’t there before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Today there’s even less money and capacity as ground forces consume more of the Kremlin’s budgets, and foreign sanctions squeeze the Russian shipbuilding sector.
Yes, the Russians are still building ships. But they’re building small ships: scores of patrol boats and corvettes plus a few frigates. The Americans, British and Chinese build surface ships displacing 5,000, 9,000 or 12,000 tons because that tonnage means endurance and stability. The Russians’ 4,000-ton frigates might have the endurance to sail the high seas; their 1,000-ton corvettes certainly don’t.
And even the smaller ships are getting harder to build. Before 2014, Russia imported its maritime engines from Ukraine. It should go without saying that Ukraine is no longer willing to sell naval components to Russia.
“By 2020, the Russian navy had received just 33 percent of the frigates planned under Russia’s State Armament Program for 2011 to 2020, and only 20 percent of the corvettes,” analyst Sidharth Kaushal wrote in a 2022 report for Royal United Services Institute in London.
“This reflects several deficiencies in Russia’s maritime sector,” Kaushal added. Leaving aside foreign sanctions, Russian shipbuilders also suffer from a lack of computer-aided design, bloated managerial structures and a tendency to build ships from the hull up instead of in smaller modules – a more efficient approach that all other major naval powers adopted years ago.
Russia still manages to build big submarines in numbers, and today the Russian sub fleet is about as big as the American sub fleet. But Arkhangelsk took eight years to build; America builds a Virginia in as little as two years, and usually no more than four.
All that is to say, admire Arkhangelsk as an impressive piece of engineering, if you must. But don’t fear her. She belongs to a sinking fleet.