Russia has increasingly relied upon its navy. For most of the
past decade, the primary role of the Russian navy was to protect
the “home waters” where its strategic missile submarines can
operate. In recent years Russia has returned to the blue water
deployment strategy, moving submarines far from the Russian
According to senior U.S. intelligence analysts the Russian navy
is operating in a manner very much like that of the Soviet
fleet during the Cold War. Acting upon the orders of President
Putin, Oscar II class submarines now patrol the coast of America.
In September 1997, an Oscar II guided missile submarine cruised
about 100 miles off Oregon and Washington. The Russian
submarine reportedly came within striking distance of three U.S.
aircraft carriers. The Pacific fleet Oscar II submarine then
returned to its base at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii in November
The ill-fated Kursk herself recently made a high-profile voyage
to the Mediterranean in September 1999. The submarine was due to return
to the Mediterranean later this year as part of a
planned Russian nuclear task group deployment to the Middle
At the same time the Kursk was patrolling the Mediterranean,
another Pacific Fleet Oscar II submarine cruised the western
seaboard of the United States, this time within missile range of
Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Kursk was one of eight operational Oscar II class cruise
missile submarines. Oscar II submarines are not considered
“strategic” missile carriers and are therefore not covered under
arms treaty limitations with the United States. It is the
“cruise missile” classification of the Oscar submarine that
allows the warship to avoid diplomatic treaty provisions while
still serving two combat roles, sea denial and city strike.
Officially, the primary role of Oscar II submarines is striking
out at U.S. carrier forces. In addition, Oscar II submarines
are capable of destroying American cities from sea. Oscar II
class submarines are equipped with the SS-N-19 “Shipwreck”
cruise missile armed with a single H-bomb equal to one half
million tons of TNT. Each Oscar II can carry 24 Shipwreck
missiles stored in banks of 12.
There is no question that some Russian warships such as the
Oscar II submarine are to be considered very potent nuclear
strike platforms. There is also no question that Russian naval
strength has seriously declined over the past decade.
The Russian navy has decommissioned nearly 200 nuclear
submarines in the last 10 years. Operational units are
suffering from severe manpower, funding and parts shortages.
Russia reportedly has only 20 first class attack submarines in
In response, the new Russian navy is frantically trying to
upgrade its nuclear attack submarine fleet with the Akula II and
Severodvinsk classes replacing older Victor I and II class
attack submarines. The increased pace of construction on the
Akula II submarines is in contrast to the surface fleet, which
has lost nearly one thousand vessels since the fall of the
Soviet Union. Russia has opted to retain all of the type 1144
Ushakov, ex-Kirov class, nuclear battle cruisers in service but
has commissioned no major surface warships in the last five years.
The loss of the Kursk is a major economic blow to the Russian
navy. The Oscar II nuclear submarine was one of the most
expensive warships built by Russia. The salvage efforts alone
are expected to exceed $100 million. Yet, the Kursk is not the
only problem facing the troubled service. The Russian navy has
suffered four other major incidents with nuclear submarines
- The K-129 sank in 20,000 feet of water near Hawaii in 1968
with three nuclear warheads. The Glomar Explorer did not recover one
nuclear warhead in 1974.
- In 1972 the K-8 sank in 13,000 feet of water off Spain with
two nuclear reactors and 12 nuclear warheads on board.
- In 1986, the K-219 sank in 18,000 feet of water near Bermuda
with one nuclear reactor and 50 nuclear warheads on board.
- In 1989, the Komsomolets sank in 5,300 feet of water off the
North Cape of Norway with one reactor and two nuclear torpedoes on
board. Over 80 percent of Norwegian fish for export are caught in the
same waters where the Komsomolets sank.
Current plans call for an additional 125 Russian nuclear
and their reactors to be dismantled by 2010. At the Russian
Pacific naval base at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii, over 20 former
nuclear submarines are in such bad shape that they cannot be
moved. None of the submarines are sea-worthy and therefore
cannot be towed to the scrapping yards.
To make matters worse, the Naval port of Vladivostok is
contaminated with both heavy metal and radioactive waste,
including cadmium, cobalt, arsenic and mercury. Until 1993,
this waste was simply being dumped into the Sea of Japan.
The problem-plagued Russian navy must be first viewed in
proportion to its clout inside Moscow. The Russian navy is not
the senior service and does not have the political power of the
Russian Army. The navy has been unable to help Russia’s most
pressing security concerns such as the war in Chechnya. As a
result, it has been hard-pressed to fight for resources.
The Russian nuclear missile fleet is also contracting. The
strategic missile submarines force has shrunk to around 25
submarines. While it may be getting smaller, Russia’s nuclear
navy is taking on a larger role in the strategic mission,
maintaining the 25 submarines with over 400 nuclear tipped
missiles able to strike the United States and Western Europe at
a moment’s notice.
The Russian navy can rightfully claim to be the world’s most
powerful after the U.S. Navy. Despite the loss of the Kursk,
and the radioactive legacy left by the Soviet Union, the Russian
navy still retains its sting.