The Russian Navy may test new weapons off Norway this week. Russian media reports that the exercises will involve the nuclear-powered submarines B-534 Nizhny Novgorod and B-336 Pskov.
We do not yet know which weapons are involved, but they can each carry up to 40 heavyweight torpedoes or a mix of torpedoes and missiles. One possibility is that they may have been upgraded to launch the Kalibr cruise missile which is similar to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk. We may find out soon.
According to people familiar with the situation, Russian submarines have been more adventurous in recent years. Their crews tend to serve aboard the same submarine for longer than their western counterparts. So they are expert at their specific systems, translating into a potent operational capability.
These two submarines are Condor Class boats, known as Sierra-II by NATO. They are the most modern attack submarines to be built out of titanium instead of steel. Titanium is a lightweight metal which is very resilient to the stresses of diving deep. It is also more difficult to work with and only Russia has managed to build submarines out of it. The Losharik deep-diving submersible, on which 14 submariners lost their lives on July 1, is also made out of titanium.
The submarines were built in the 1980s but have been overhauled since then. Today both are based at Vidyayevo in the famous Kola Peninsular region in the Arctic Circle.
They will also practice deep-diving, something which is not possible in the shallower waters nearer to their base. Their maximum depth is believed to be over 1,700 feet where the water pressure is more than 730 pounds per square inch (psi).
This exercise should not be confused with an expected missile launch from Russia’s newest ballistic missile submarine. That test is part of the final phase of K-549 Knyaz Vladimir’s induction into service and will take place from the protected waters of the White Sea. Based on analysis of open sources, I expect it to also occur this week between October 28-31.
While media attention sometimes highlights the submarine forces of the Persian Gulf and South China Sea, these tests are a reminder the Russian Navy is resurfacing further north. During the Cold War the Norwegian Sea was a major focus of NATO anti-submarine forces. It leads to the North Atlantic which was where many in NATO believed Russia would try to cut off transatlantic shipping. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Russian Navy slowly retreated from this arena, making fewer and fewer patrols. But this situation is reversing.