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By Mark Episkopos, The National Interest
Russia’s fourth-generation Borei-class was conceived in the early 1980’s as a great leap forward in Russian submarine technology; a new, modern design over its aging Delta and Typhoon predecessors. Armed with nuclear-capable Bulava missiles, the Borei line was meant to guarantee the submarine component of Russia’s nuclear triad for decades to come.
Approximately four decades after its inception, what has the Borei project accomplished? What are its prospects?
Whereas many other Russian modernization efforts involve iterative updates to Soviet-era weapons, the Borei class--or Project 955--represents an entirely new design concept. In fact, the Russian Navy entertained but eventually cancelled its Typhoon modernization project due to cost concerns.
In envisioning the next generation of Russian submarines, Russian engineers set out to make the Borei line significantly smaller and lighter than the Typhoon while carrying a more destructive payload. This, they accomplished in spades: Borei is twice as light as Typhoon at 24,000 against 48,000 tons, has a significantly smaller beam (ship width), and travels at a marginally faster speed.
Borei submarines offer these advancements in handling and maneuverability even as they accommodate a much more powerful payload. As previously reported by The National Interest, the RSM-56 “Bulava” is a 550 kiloton (kT) nuclear-capable warhead guided by a GLONASS-powered inertial navigation system. Specially designed for the Borei line, Bulava dwarfs Typhoon’s 100 kT R-39 Rif ballistic missiles.
With three Borei submarines in active service by 2006, the Russian Navy announced in 2008 that the rest of the seven Borei vessels planned through 2024 will be part of a new Borei II (also known as Project 955A) revision, featuring lower noise levels, additional communication featured, and revised crew living quarters.
While it was previously speculated that Borei II submarines starting from Knyaz Vladimir will feature twenty Bulava tube-launchers, current reports point to the same sixteen-tube launching mechanism being used across the whole Borei line.
On paper, The Borei project is a marked improvement on its predecessor and appears more than capable of satisfying Russia’s submarine nuclear deterrence needs. But there remains a growing problem that threatens to cripple Borei development if not kept in check: costs.
On the surface, Borei vessels appear remarkably cost-effective. After all, the older but similarly-performing U.S. Ohio-class submarines cost two billion dollars per unit as opposed to 890 million dollars per Borei vessel. But the challenge is that even these vastly reduced costs are hard to sustain because Russia is working on several large, concurrent projects within a much smaller defense budget.
These estimates do not factor in the submarines’ increased cost after the Borei II improvements, nor do they include the massive research and development outlays involved in designing a new submarine and its weapons systems. Bulava appears complete, but only on the heels of a tortured development process that included multiple malfunctions, navigation deviations, and even an engine explosion.
Meanwhile, military insider sources tell Russian state media that Borei’s next iteration, Project 955B, has already been cancelled for failing to meet “the cost/efficiency criterion.” Casting yet further doubt on Borei’s future are reports that the Russian Navy will not be moving ahead with its last two Borei submarine orders, scheduled for the mid 2020’s.
Further complicating the cost/benefit analysis, Russia must balance Borei spending against its other major ongoing submarine project, the Yasen class. Production costs for the first Yasen vessel, Severodvinsk, ran up to 1.5 billion dollars, with the second entry into the series projected to cost twice that.
At its core, the Borei line successfully performs a vital role in the Russian nuclear triad. But it remains to be seen how, or if, the Russian Ministry of Defense plans to consolidate the Borei project to make it financially solvent over the long term.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University. This article first appeared last year.