Sight Unseen – Russian Auxiliary Submarines and Asymmetric Warfare in the Undersea Domain
By: Kathleen Weinberger
Looking at the front page of the New York Times and other publications, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Cold War had returned. Russian foreign activities and, in some cases, aggression have been on the rise since Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. In the maritime domain, Russia’s once formidable submarine force is again prowling the waters of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Pacific, and Arctic.
Much attention has been given to the Russian navy’s fleet of attack submarines and their new class of ballistic missile submarines. Often overlooked, however, is Russia’s fleet of smaller “auxiliary” submarines, which have the ability serve as special mission vessels with unique and highly asymmetric capabilities. Russia maintains a fleet of roughly 6 to 10 special mission boats whose very existence is shrouded in secrecy. By comparison, the United States only operates a single special purpose submarine. The Russian vessels are much smaller than their U.S. counterpart, which makes them ideal for coastal infiltration and other missions close to the sea floor.
Russia officially claims that these submarines are for scientific research and ocean exploration. It is wise, however, to assume their role in covert activities and acknowledge the vulnerability they represent to international undersea cable networks, among other things. The now retired U.S. auxiliary “research and exploration” submarine NR-1 had specifications very similar to current Russian vessels and was known to have carried out many extremely sensitive military operations.
The majority of the auxiliary submarines in Russia’s fleet were commissioned in the late 1970s and early 1980s and have been placed in reserve. In April 2015, reports surfaced on Russian-language military sites that Russia’s three X-Ray class submarines, which are unarmed and used for covert intelligence gathering in non-permissive environments, were being modernized at the Zvezdochka shipyard for reintroduction into active, or at least operational reserve, status. While this claim has not been confirmed, it suggests that Russia is prioritizing the revitalization of this capability, a highly resource-intensive task.
Additionally, Russia has been developing an upgraded version of the X-Ray class, known most simply as the Losharik. This vessel, also unarmed, is even more mysterious then previous auxiliary submarines. The only high-quality photo that exists in the public domain was published, presumably on accident, by the Russian edition of the popular car magazine Top Gear in 2015. The most well-known activity of the Losharik was its participation in the “Arctic-2012” exploration mission, during which it reportedly gathered geological samples to support Russia’s Arctic territorial claims.
Speculation is rife as to the submarine’s intended purpose and true capabilities. It is likely that it has been prioritized for investment given its deep diving capabilities (at least 3000 meters or almost 2 miles), persistence at depth, and ability to manipulate its surroundings while submerged. During its Artic expedition, the 25-person crew stayed at depths of 2500 to 3000 meters for 20 days. Of further interest, and arguably concern, is the fact that the Losharik has been fitted to go inside a carrier submarine, a modified Delta-III ballistic missile submarine, repurposed to act as a mothership.
From an engineering standpoint, the greatest anomaly among Russia’s auxiliary submarines is the newly developed Sarov B-90, one of the so-called “fifth generation” diesel-electric submarines. While also highly classified, it is unique for its nuclear reactor not mechanically connected to the vessel’s propulsion system. This complex arrangement may provide some of the extreme stealth of a diesel electric submarine with the submerged endurance of a nuclear vessel. is noteworthy due to its oddity. Officially, this submarine is a testbed for new military technologies, but it has also been identified as a mothership for small unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). In 2014, it was announced that there were future designs for the Sarov’s UUVs to be armed with “missiles, mines and torpedoes”. There have not been any further comments that confirm or deny these plans.
So what kind of activities may Russia use these submarines for? As mentioned previously, these small submersibles may be used for covert infiltration activities in shallow littoral waters. While concerning, this is a relatively common capability of most modern submarines. What is more concerning is the ability of these vessels to operate near the seafloor to either emplace and service permanent undersea sensors or compromise undersea communication networks.
For these reasons, it is alarming that Russia has converted a ballistic missile submarine to serve as a mothership for the Losharik. This offsets the key weakness of these small submarines — lack of range and self-deployment capability beyond Russia’s “near seas.” The aforementioned U.S. submarine NR-1 is believed to be conceptually similar to the Losharik; however, it was paired with a surface vessel when deployed, dramatically curtailing the stealthiness of the operation. The Russian approach allows this auxiliary submarine to be employed far from its home base and in a highly covert manner.
A concrete example of what Russia could do with its mother ship/auxiliary submarine pairing is place high sensitivity, acoustic recording equipment near likely U.S. dive points outside of Kings Bay, Groton, Norfolk, Kitsap, et cetera, to capture the acoustic “fingerprints” of the U.S. submarine force. Such activities would aid Russian anti-submarine warfare efforts by developing a catalog of the U.S. submarine force. Another example of possible activities would be to tap undersea cables. In theory, this could enable collection on sensitive traffic carried on transatlantic cables and/or cyber attacks against secure computer systems.
While there is not yet publicly available, concrete evidence that either of these special purpose submarines have been used in such a manner, it is important for U.S. military planners and policymakers to be aware of their existence and their capacity to carry out operations detrimental to U.S. security. The disruptive nature of their activities fit well into current Russian thinking on warfare that emphasize covert activity, sabotage, and information warfare. In undersea warfare, where interactions are often painted in shades of grey, tactical utilization of these special purpose auxiliary submarines may allow Russia to gain a small, but critical, advantage if not adequately checked by allied operational and technical countermeasures.
Andrew Metrick, a research associate with the International Security Program, contributed to this article.