The series of sea-based missile launches conducted last week (Bulava, R-29RM, and R-29) was clearly part of a fairly large-scale naval exercise. On September 10 the Minister of Defense reported to President Putin that the exercise was successful. The report was brief and had some interesting bits of information in it:

Today, eight nuclear submarines are at sea on operational patrol or in transfer. Of these, five are strategic submarines and three – multipurpose [attack] submarines, but all they have nuclear weapons on board.
Let’s start with strategic submarines. According to the latest publicly available START data exchange, Russia has 17 submarines that can carry sea-launched ballistic missiles – five Project 941 (Typhoon), one of which has been converted to carry RSM-56 (i.e. Bulava) missile, six Project 667BDR (Delta III) and six Project 667BDRM (Delta IV) submarines.

Project 941 submarines cannot possibly be among those five on patrol – the division that included these ships was disbanded in April 2004 and Dmitri Donskoy - the submarine that is used for Bulava tests – obviously cannot carry nuclear weapons.

This leaves Delta submarines. Of the six Project 667BDR, two are deployed with the Northern Fleet - K-44 Ryazan and K-496 Borisoglebsk. Four more are in the Pacific - K-211 Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, K-223 Podolsk, K-433 Sv. Georgiy Pobedonosets, and K-506 Zelenograd. But according to the START data, the Northern Fleet submarines have only 29 deployed missiles, instead of full complement of 32, while the submarines in the Pacific have 56 deployed missiles for their 64 tubes. This means that the Navy began removing missiles from at least two submarines and it is highly unlikely that these two are available for patrol. (An alternative explanation for the empty tubes – that they are used for space launches – does not seem to work. In 2005, when the Borisoglebsk submarine was used for space-related launches twice, on June 21st and October 7th, START data listed 32 missiles at the Northern Fleet.) This leaves only four operational Project 667BDR submarines.

The situation with Project 667BDRM (Delta IV) submarines is a bit different. Far from being decommissioned, they are undergoing overhaul during which they are equipped with newly manufactured R-29RM Sineva missiles. But this still mean that not all of the START-accountable submarines are in active service. Two submarines – K-117 Bryansk, and K-18 Karelia – are currently in overhaul. Of the four others – K-51 Verkhoturie, K-84 Ekaterinburg, K-407 Novomoskovsk, and K-114 Tula – one (Novomoskovsk) has not been in overhaul yet, so it is reasonable to assume that it about to begin it, now that Tula has returned to the active service. Besides, Novomoskovsk was one of the submarines (with Karelia) involved in the failures of February 2004. So, I think it is reasonable to assume that Novomoskovsk is out and only three Project 667BDRM submarines are operational.

Would it be possible for the Russian Navy to have five of its seven operational submarines at sea? Certainly. We know that two of them were there – the Sv. Georgiy Pobedonosets and Ekaterinburg launched their missiles. Add two Project 667BDRM submarines fresh from overhaul, Tula and Verkhoturie, and one Project 667BDR (Borisoglebsk seems to be the only other sea-worthy submarine of this class) and you get five. But I really doubt that this deployment rate can be sustained for any period of time. Not that there is anything wrong with that – first, even one or two submarines on patrol would be perfectly adequate for any imaginable mission, and, second, as long as the Russian Navy can increase the number of submarines on patrol when necessary, they don’t have to keep them at sea all the time.

Attack submarines – in the next post.