In a move that harks back to the Cold War, the Russian Navy is quietly developing a whole new category of submarines, and their unique capabilities could influence the nature of undersea warfare. The first of the new type, Khabarovsk, is expected to be launched this month. In my view, this is likely to be the defining submarine of the 2020s because it represents a novel and difficult adversary.
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Other navies are unlikely to emulate it, but they will want to counter it. The underwater game of cat and mouse where U.S. Navy hunter-killer submarines stalk the Russians could be reinvigorated. But these new targets are not ballistic missile subs. Khabarovsk is instead designed to be armed with the gigantic Poseidon nuclear drone-torpedoes.
Russia has managed to keep many details about the submarine out of the public domain. Relatively little is known about this large nuclear-armed boat, certainly in comparison to Western types. So its launch is eagerly anticipated by defense watchers.
When will Khabarovsk be launched?
Despite rumors of its impending launch, analysis of the shipyard does not yet show any leading indicators. We know that that she is being built in Construction Hall 1 at the Sevmash yard in Severodvinsk in Russia’s Arctic North. These details may sound mundane, but it means that we can watch for any tell-tale signs of launch preparations.
In order to roll her out of the shed, the launch rails outside will have to be cleared. Then flotation devices will be prepared on either side of the launch rail. Their arrangement will be different for each type of submarine so this will be useful information in itself. Then the boat is winched out tail first.
The whole basin will then be flooded to float the submarine off. This presents its own problems because the Kirov-Class battle cruiser Admiral Nakhimov is undergoing an extensive upgrade there. She is likely watertight, but all the items associated with the work will have to be moved out of the way.
These things do not yet appear to be happening. And there is a large red barge blocking the most obvious route. Based on analysis of the satellite images, the barge has been in the same position since last July. But while a launch date of this month seems optimistic, it cannot yet be ruled out. Time will tell.
What Is Known About The Submarine?
The existence of the “Project 08951” submarine has never been a secret, but it is barely talked about in Russian sources. Gradually, from the few sources and old-fashioned analysis, a picture has emerged.
Khabarovsk will likely share a lot of elements of the Borei Class Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN). This should reduce cost and also make it more stealthy than many other submarines in service with the Russian Navy. The forward half will be taken up by six ginormous Poseidon torpedoes. This is what makes her a unique category of submarine.
Poseidon, also known as ‘Status-6′ and the NATO reporting name ‘Kanyon,’ is designed to be both nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed, giving it virtually unlimited range. It therefore would poses a threat to coastal cities such as New York and Los Angeles. The Russian Ministry of Defense describes it as a multi-purpose weapon and suggests that it could also target the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Battle Groups.
Actually Khabarovsk is not the first Russian submarine to be fitted for Poseidon. The equally enigmatic ‘special mission submarine’ (read ‘spy sub’) Belgorod was launched on April 23 last year. She will also be armed with 6 Poseidon weapons. But her role will be split, with her also acting as a mother submarine to the Losharik deep-diving midget sub. The combination of being a spy submarine and a strategic weapons platform at the same time seems contradictory.
Belgorod may be further delayed however because of repairs needed to Losharik. The nuclear-powered midget sub suffered a fatal accident on July 1 2019. So Khabarovsk may yet overtake Belgorod to become the first Poseidon carrier to enter operational service.
Khabarovsk will not be the last of these Poseidon-armed submarines either. Two follow-on Project 09853 are planned, bringing the fleet to four submarines each with six Poseidons. Even less is known about these other submarines.
Reshaping Submarine Warfare
Unless there is a change in Russian plans, Khabarovsk will likely be a new focus of Western anti-submarine warfare for the next decade, in particular the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy, whose nuclear submarine fleets have a long tradition of stalking Russian boats. The Poseidon-armed boats will present new challenges to these hunters.
In particular, building new weapons to intercept the Poseidon will take time. Its speed and depth might make it virtually untouchable to the current generation of advanced torpedoes. Possibly the U.S. Navy’s Mk.48 ADCAP (Advanced Capability) and the Royal Navy’s Spearfish torpedoes could just reach it. But the angles and ranges involved seem to make it a limited proposition. So new faster, longer ranged and deeper diving torpedoes may be on the cards.
And possibly that is part of the rationale behind Poseidon. Countering it will cost the West vast amounts of money. And it will mean compromises along the way. Other priorities may be sidelined to make way for countering Poseidon, which could weaken capabilities elsewhere.
Today, hardly anyone in the West has even heard of this submarine. But it is the one to watch for.