The US Navy has the best submarines on the planet today. However, Russia’s Yasen-Class subs are certainly a big upgrade for Moscow and make Washington quite nervous for many obvious reasons: Since Russia’s first Yasen-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine, Severodvinsk, entered service in late 2013, two decades after its construction began, other subs of the class have followed at quicker intervals, and Russian leaders are now considering adding even more of these subs to a fleet that has already impressed and worried NATO commanders with its ability to avoid detection and strike at valuable targets.
The second sub of the class, Kazan, was laid down in July 2009 and commissioned in May 2021. It was followed by Novosibirsk, laid down in July 2013 and commissioned in December 2021, and Krasnoyarsk, which was laid down in July 2014 and is reportedly set for delivery in late 2022.
More Yasen-class keels may be laid later this year, a person in Russia’s defense industry told state media this month, adding that Moscow is considering adding two subs to the nine already built or planned.
Submarines are a relative bright spot in Russia’s mixed record of naval modernization. That undersea fleet — and in particular the Yasens, which NATO calls the Severodvinsk class — has made an impression on Russia’s neighbors.
“I remember my first meeting with Jim Mattis as defense secretary. The most important thing I brought with me to the meeting was a picture of the Severodvinsk-class submarine because that was so important for us to convey to the US that this was really one of the big strategic challenges that we saw,” Ine Eriksen Søreide, who served as Norway’s defense minister from 2013 to 2017, said during a Hoover Institution event on Wednesday.
Yasen-class subs are just some of the new ships, missiles, and aircraft that Russia has acquired in recent years, but their ability to attack targets on land and at sea make them a particular concern.
With those subs, said Søreide, who was Norway’s foreign minister from 2017 to 2021, Russia “can now effectively shut off the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and by that also hampering the reinforcements to Europe in a situation of crisis.”
Norway’s coast runs from the Kola Peninsula, where Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet is based, to the Baltic Sea, which the Severodvinsk was spotted sailing to this month, giving the country a front-row seat for the development and deployment of many Russian weapons, but Søreide’s warning likely didn’t surprise US officials.
A 2009 report by the Office of Naval Intelligence assessed the Yasen class as the quietest of Russia’s and China’s nuclear-powered subs at the time. In 2014, the officer responsible for submarines at US Naval Sea Systems Command said he so admired the Severodvinsk that he put a replica in his office.
“We’ll be facing tough potential opponents. One only has to look at the Severodvinsk,” Rear Adm. Dave Johnson said at a conference that October. “I am so impressed with this ship that I had Carderock [naval test center] build a model from unclassified data.”
Yasen-Class: ‘Very highly precise weapons’
In addition to being distinctly quiet, Severodvinsk is armed with dozens of cruise missiles capable of attacking warships and land targets. Severodvinsk also test-fired Russia’s new Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile in late 2021.
The three follow-on subs are considered Yasen-Ms and are similarly armed but have upgrades that include new sensors, new quieting technology, and a nuclear reactor updated to make less noise.
Those subs’ long range and newfound land-attack capability worry NATO military leaders, who see a threat to physical infrastructure, such as ports, that would be vital to resupply and reinforcement.
“For the first time in Russian history, the Russian Navy is able to lay off a European coast or in some cases even the continental United States and present a land-attack cruise missile threat … with very highly precise weapons,” Michael Petersen, director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, told Insider in 2020.
In a reflection of their concern, NATO navies have in recent years practiced getting convoys across the Atlantic and to disembarkation points in Europe — operations that haven’t received much attention since the Cold War.
Shortly after Kazan joined Russia’s Northern Fleet in June 2021, Gen. Glen VanHerck, who oversees US military operations around North America, said the sub was “on par with ours.”
This spring, VanHerck again cautioned that Yasen-class subs “are designed to deploy undetected within cruise-missile range of our coastlines to threaten critical infrastructure.”
“This challenge will be compounded in the next few years as the Russian navy adds the Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile to the Severodvinsk’s arsenal,” VanHerck added.