Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Russia Facing A Sub Crunch

From Strategy Page:

December 23, 2013: In late 2013 the Russian navy announced that plans to refurbish its nine Akula class SSNs (nuclear attack subs) would take longer than expected. In fact, the first Akula will be out of service for three years for the upgrade. The other eight subs will get done more quickly, but the entire job will take at least a decade and probably closer to fifteen years. The refurb involves replacing most if the wiring and electrical systems as well as the missile handling equipment. Many mechanical systems will be replaced of upgraded. The end result will be a much quieter sub and that’s very important in undersea warfare.

In early 2013 the Russian Navy announced more optimistic plans for upgrading its nine Akulas. The first of these entered service in 1984, and fifteen were built. Several were cancelled after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and some have been retired already. The latest Akula entered service two years ago and was then leased to India.
These 8,100 ton boats were to be replaced by the new Graney (Yasen) class subs. That has not worked out so far because of problems with the Graneys. Moreover, the Russian Navy is not getting enough money to replace their rapidly aging nuclear subs, so it was decided to invest a year or two and over $100 million each for the existing Akulas to be upgraded and refurbished so they can remain in service for another decade or two.

The refurb on the first Akula will take at a lot longer (at least three years) because since the end of the Cold War in 1991 a lot of technical documents on the Akula have been lost and many of the skilled engineers and technicians for this sort of work have retired or gone to work in more lucrative non-defense jobs. This was not fully appreciated when the initial upgrade plans were announced earlier in 2013. So recruiting sufficient skilled staff and sorting out how to take apart an Akula and put it back together again will mean more time will be required to upgrade all nine of the Akulas.

Meanwhile, the Graney SSGNs (nuclear powered cruise missile sub) were delayed twice in 2012. Sea trials revealed that the nuclear reactor did not produce the required power and that the ability of the boat to remain quiet while under water was not what it should be. An underpowered and noisy sub is not acceptable, and the navy is demanding that the builder make it all better before 2014. That was not possible because of the shortages of qualified people to do this sort of work. This problem has produced a growing list of embarrassing failures.

Earlier, undisclosed problems with the first Graney have postponed it from entering service for at least a year. That will mean, if the latest delay is the last one, the first Graney will enter service twenty years after construction began. These problems are not restricted to the Graney, as other new subs are also encountering numerous construction and design problems.

In early 2011, the fifty man crew of the first Graney took their boat to sea, or at least around the harbor, for the first time. Sea trials were to begin three months later but first the sub took baby steps to ensure that everything worked. These harbor trials were seen as a major progress. Things went downhill again after that, with a growing number of delays as more and more problems were encountered.

Read the rest here.

     The short and sweet of the story is that Russia is have a problem with getting enough money to replace the Akula-class boats. Thus, the Russians are going to upgrade the existing Akulas to be useable for another ~20 years. However, the Russians are having trouble finding the technological know-how to make the upgrades. Not only that, but supposedly a lot of documentation of the Akulas was lost in the collapse of the USSR.
     This is indicative of how things are going to look for a lot of countries through the next few decades. All the ships that were built in the 1980s and 1990s to fight the Cold War are going to reach the end of their lifespan, leaving a gap in fleets. Some ships might have the potential to be modernized to get a few ore years out of them (like the Akulas), but the industry memory from their construction is gone. And, the money to build replacement will be unavailable as it gets put into other areas of government. Expect what the Russians are going through to be repeated here in the U.S.  in the near future as the defense budget is cut, and the deficit grows.

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