() — The Russian Navy has taken delivery of what is the world’s longest known submarine, one that its manufacturer touts as a research vessel but others say is a platform for espionage and possibly nuclear weapons.
The Belgorod was delivered to the Russian Navy earlier this month in the port of Severodvinsk, according to the country’s largest shipyard, Sevmash Shipyard.
Experts say its design is a modified version of Russia’s Oscar II-class guided-missile submarines, made longer with the aim of eventually accommodating the world’s first nuclear-armed stealth torpedoes and intelligence-gathering equipment.
If the Belgorod can successfully add those new capabilities to the Russian fleet, in the next decade it could set the stage for a return to Cold War scenes under the ocean, with American and Russian submarines tracking and hunting each other in tense wars. encounters.
At over 184 meters (608 feet), the Belgorod is the longest submarine in the ocean today, longer even than the U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic and guided-missile submarines, which come to at 171 meters (569 feet).
The Belgorod was launched in 2019 and was expected to be delivered to the Russian Navy in 2020 after trials, but they were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported. A timeline for the submarine’s first deployment was not provided.
What distinguishes the Belgorod from any of the nuclear-powered submarines in the Russian fleet, or from any of the nuclear submarines operated anywhere in the world, is its mission.
TASS reported that the submarine will carry the Poseidon nuclear-capable torpedoes under development, which are being designed to be launched from hundreds of miles away and to slip past coastal defenses by traveling along the seafloor.
“This nuclear ‘megatorpedo’ is unique in world history,” wrote US submarine expert HI Sutton. on their Covert Shores website in March.
“Poseidon is an entirely new category of weapon. It will reshape naval planning in both Russia and the West, leading to new requirements and new counterweapons,” Sutton wrote.
Both US and Russian officials have said the torpedoes could deliver multi-megaton warheads, causing radioactive waves that would leave swaths of the targeted coastline uninhabitable for decades.
In November 2020, Christopher A. Ford, then Under Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, said that the Poseidons are being designed to “inundate US coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis.”
A report by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) in April said the Poseidons are intended to be retaliatory weapons, designed to strike back at an enemy after a nuclear attack on Russia.
According to the CRS report, the Belgorod would be capable of carrying up to eight Poseidons, although some weapons experts say its payload is more likely to be six torpedoes.
Sutton wrote in 2019 that the Poseidon, expected to be 2 meters (6.5 ft) in diameter and over 20 meters (65 ft) long, “is the largest torpedo ever developed in any country”.
That’s “thirty times the size of a regular ‘heavyweight’ torpedo,” Sutton wrote.
Doubts about the torpedo
The CRS reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had touted the Poseidons in a 2018 speech, saying, “They are quiet, highly maneuverable, and have hardly any vulnerabilities that the enemy can exploit.”
If armed with conventional warheads, the Poseidons could be used against targets “including aircraft carrier groups, coastal fortifications and infrastructure,” Putin reportedly said.
But there are questions about the weapon and whether it will eventually be added to Russia’s arsenal.
“This is still a developing technology, both the torpedo and the platform,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
The Poseidon is not expected to be ready for deployment until the second half of this decade, it said. The CRS said it did not expect the Poseidon torpedoes to be deployed until 2027.
And Kristensen points out that Belgorod itself is really a test ship for the upcoming Khabarovsk class of nuclear-powered submarines, the first of which could launch this year.
There is also the Russian military’s poor performance in its war against Ukraine, some of which analysts blame on poor weapons design and corruption that has led to neglect of the military hardware maintenance Russian.
“Ukraine is a reminder that advanced Russian weapons are not silver bullets, but suffer from reliability problems. There is every reason to believe that a nuclear-powered torpedo with intercontinental range will have its fair share of problems,” Kristensen said.
But other experts warn against any assumption that the Poseidon submarine or torpedoes may not be what is advertised.
“The transposition of impressions from the Russian tactical air and ground forces to the Russian nuclear and submarine forces, in particular, impressions based on observing the execution of a rather bad plan in Ukraine, could lead to a dangerous underestimation of the competence of those Russian strategic forces and their capability,” said Thomas Shugart, a former U.S. Navy submarine captain and now an analyst at the Center for a New American Security.
“It would be akin to watching the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and, as a result, questioning the ability of its ballistic missile submarines to execute their nuclear mission, a conclusion that US adversaries would draw only at their peril.”
“Cat and mouse underwater game”
The Belgorod may be just the first of a fleet of four submarines that could carry the Poseidon torpedoes, the CRS said, with two destined for service in Russia’s Pacific Fleet and two in its Northern Fleet.
Suton, of Covert Shores, wrote in 2020 that the next three Poseidon-armed submarines, the aforementioned Khabarovsk-class, “will likely be the defining submarine of the 2020s because they represent a novel and difficult adversary.”
“Other navies are unlikely to emulate it, but they will want to counter it,” Sutton said of the Khabarovsk class. “The submarine game of cat and mouse in which the hunter-killer submarines of the US Navy and the Royal (British) Navy stalk the Russians could be reinvigorated. A new Cold War could come in the Arctic, the North Atlantic and North Pacific,” he wrote.
While the Belgorod could be the future Poseidon test launcher, according to Sutton the sub would likely also operate as an intelligence-gathering platform.
“It will be manned by the Russian Navy but operated under GUGI, the secret organization of the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research,” and will carry a range of small submarines and submersibles “to carry out special covert missions,” Sutton wrote.
In a press release earlier this month, the Russian shipbuilder highlighted the Belgorod’s non-lethal capabilities, saying it opened “new opportunities for Russia” to conduct “scientific expeditions and rescue operations in the most remote areas of the world ocean.” .