Tensions between Washington and Moscow are rising with a marked increase in competition in the undersea domain, as Russia continues to invest in a fleet of specialized submarines.
Russia is the only country with a fleet of special mission subs for seabed warfare and espionage and is expanding the capability. Other countries, like the U.S., also work well in this arena and have specialist capabilities, but these capabilities reside on multi-mission platforms.
Russia’s fleet includes two massive submarine motherships that each carry one or two deep-diving submersibles. These can be employed for covert seabed missions, including wreck plundering. The largest of these is BS-64, a stretched DELTA-IV-class submarine. This is one of the largest submarines in the world – bigger than the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class nuclear ballistic nuclear submarine. It will be joined by an even larger mothership, Belgorod, which conducted sea trials in June. This is second only to the 30,000-ton Typhoon class in terms of size.
The size and complexity of the specialized submarine force speaks to the importance and investment that Russia places on these capabilities. The deep-diving submersibles are operated on several nuclear-powered vessels. Three of them, two Paltus-class boats, and the better known Losharik, are compatible with BS-64.
These submarines are operated for the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research. This is generally known by the Russian acronym GUGI, (Glavnoye Upravleniye Glubokovodnykh Issledovaniy). Missions are believed to include work on undersea communications and sensor networks, hydrocarbon exploitation, submarine rescue and investigating wreckage.
Despite this investment, the GUGI fleet has suffered in a similar way to most of the Russian Navy and was unable to aid in key submarine crises.
In 2000, when Russian submarine Kursk was lost, Russia seemed unable to employ its once-extensive rescue capability. This happened again in 2005 when a Russian submersible, which was being used for seabed work that GUGI’s specialist submarines typically perform, needed rescuing. The Russians then had to turn to the British for assistance.
Many systems and key technologies have been sourced from the West. Starting during the Cold War, but increasing during the time when Russia enjoyed better relations with the West, they acquired key seabed warfare technologies. Typically these technologies dual-use, and they only form part of the wider capability. The first of note were the Mir-class deep-diving submersibles built in Finland during the Cold War. More recently, they include Remote Operated Vehicles from the United Kingdom. These can be used in oil exploration, but…
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