Russia’s mega-sub stokes fears of a new naval Cold War

The Russian Navy took delivery of what is the world’s longest known submarine, the one its maker touts as a research vessel – but others say is a platform for spy and possibly nuclear weapons .

The Belgorod was handed over to the Russian Navy earlier this month in the port of Severodvinsk, according to the country’s largest shipbuilder, Sevmash Shipyard.

Experts say its design is a modified version of Russia’s Oscar II-class guided-missile submarines, stretched with the aim of eventually accommodating the world’s first nuclear stealth torpedoes and intelligence-gathering equipment.

Russia’s Belgorod-class submarine is the longest in the world (Oleg Kuleshov/TASS via ZUMA Press) (CNN)

If the Belgorod can successfully add these new capabilities to the Russian fleet, it could over the next decade set the stage for a return to Cold War scenes under the ocean, with US and Russian submarines pursuing each other. and chasing each other face to face. off.

At over 184 meters, the Belgorod is now the longest submarine in the ocean – longer even than the US Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic and guided-missile submarines, which come in at 171 m.

The Belgorod was launched in 2019 and was due to be delivered to the Russian Navy in 2020 after trials and tests, but these were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Russian news agency TASS reported. No timetable for the first deployment of the submarine was given.

What sets the Belgorod apart from all nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian fleet – or even all nuclear-powered submarines operating anywhere in the world – is its mission.

TASS reported that the submarine will carry the nuclear-capable Poseidon torpedoes being developed, which are designed to be launched hundreds of miles away and sneak past coastal defenses as they travel along the seabed.

“This nuclear ‘mega torpedo’ is unique in world history,” US submarine expert HI Sutton wrote on his Covert Shores website in March.

There are fears that the new Russian submarine could spark a new ocean cold war. (Thiep Van Nguyen II/US Navy/AP)

“Poseidon is an entirely new category of weapons. It will reshape naval planning in Russia and the West, bringing new requirements and new counterweapons,” Sutton wrote.

US and Russian officials said the torpedoes could deliver multi-megaton warheads, causing radioactive surges that would render entire swaths of the target coastline uninhabitable for decades.

In November 2020, Christopher A Ford, then Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, said the Poseidons are designed to “flood US coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis”.

A US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report in April said the Poseidons are designed as retaliatory weapons, designed to hit back at an enemy after a nuclear strike on Russia.

Russian nuclear submarine Yuri Dolgoruky tests Bulava missiles from the White Sea during training exercises held in 2018.
Russia is seeking to further increase its nuclear weapons capability. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP)

According to the CRS report, the Belgorod would be capable of carrying up to eight Poseidons, although some weapons experts say its payload is more likely to be six torpedoes.

Sutton wrote in 2019 that the Poseidon, expected to measure 2m in diameter and over 20m in length, “is the largest torpedo ever developed in any country”.

It is “thirty times the size of an ordinary ‘heavy’ torpedo”, Sutton wrote.

CRS reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin extolled the Poseidons in a 2018 speech, saying, “They are quiet, highly maneuverable, and have virtually no vulnerabilities for the enemy to exploit.”

If armed with conventional warheads, the Poseidons could be used against targets “including aircraft carrier groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure”, Putin reportedly said.

But there are doubts about the weapon and whether it will eventually be added to the Russian arsenal.

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“This is still a developing technology, both the torpedo and the platform,” said Hans Kristensen, nuclear information project manager at the Federation of American Scientists.

The Poseidon should not be ready for deployment until the second half of this decade, he said. CRS said it does not expect the Poseidon torpedoes to be deployed until 2027.

And Kristensen points out that the Belgorod itself is really a test ship for the next class of Khabarovsk nuclear submarines, the first of which could be launched this year.

Then there is the Russian military’s poor performance in its war against Ukraine, which analysts blame in part on poor weapons design and corruption that has seen the upkeep of Russian military hardware neglected.

“Ukraine reminds us that advanced Russian weapons are not silver bullets but suffer from reliability issues. There is every reason to believe that a nuclear-powered torpedo with intercontinental range will have its fair share of problems,” he said. Kristensen said.

But other experts caution against any assumption that the Poseidon submarine or torpedoes might not be what is advertised.

Russian difficulties in Ukraine have raised doubts about its military effectiveness. (Getty)

“Translating impressions from Russian tactical ground and air forces to Russian submarine and nuclear forces—specifically, impressions based on observing the execution of a pretty bad plan in Ukraine—could lead to an understatement threat to the skill and capability of these Russian strategic forces,” said Thomas Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submarine captain and now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.

“It would be a bit like watching the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and then questioning the ability of its ballistic missile submarines to carry out their nuclear mission – a conclusion that US adversaries would never draw. only at their own risk.”

‘Underwater game of cat and mouse’

The Belgorod may be just the first of a fleet of four submarines capable of carrying the Poseidon torpedoes, CRS said, two of which are destined for service in Russia’s Pacific Fleet and two in its Pacific Fleet. North.

Sutton of Covert Shores wrote in 2020 that Poseidon’s next three armed submarines, the aforementioned Khabarovsk class, “are likely to be the defining submarine of the 2020s as they represent a new and challenging adversary”.

“Other navies are unlikely to emulate it, but they will want to counter it,” Sutton said of the Khabarovsk class.

“The underwater cat-and-mouse game where US Navy and (British) Royal Navy hunter-killer submarines hunt down the Russians could be reinvigorated. A new Cold War in the Arctic, l ‘North Atlantic and North Pacific’ could happen, he wrote.

While the Belgorod could be the future Poseidon test launcher, Sutton said the sub would likely also function as an intelligence-gathering platform.

“It will be outfitted by the Russian Navy but operated under GUGI, the secret organization of the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research”, and will carry a range of submarines and submersibles “to carry out covert special missions”, a writes Sutton.

In a press release earlier this month, the Russian shipbuilder highlighted the Belgorod’s non-lethal capabilities, saying it opened up “new opportunities for Russia” to conduct “scientific expeditions and rescue operations in the most remote areas of the world ocean”.

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