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Russia’s princely nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines

The three Russian Borei-class submarines of Project 955 and three more of the upgraded version Project 995A are the backbone of the Russian Navy

Submitted by Olivia Kroth…

They all have two things in common: they are named after illustrous Russian rulers and they are deadly because they carry nuclear-powered ballistic missiles. The three Russian Borei-class submarines of Project 955 and three more of the upgraded version Project 995A are the backbone of the Russian Navy, serving as a powerful deterrent in Russia’s defence programme. Project 955 and Project 955A submarines have been developed by the Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering in Saint Petersburg. The Design Bureau is a part of the United Shipbuilding Corporation. All Borei-class submarines carry 16 Bulava ballistic missiles. They are also furnished with 533 mm torpedo tubes. Currently, these submarines are operational in the Russian Northern and Pacific Fleets. The upgraded Project 955A strategic nuclear-powered submarine Knyaz Vladimir has undergone extensive sea trials. Now it is ready to join the Russian Navy, in June 2020.

K-549 Knyaz Vladimir (Князь Владимир) is the first upgraded Project 955A unit to enter service with the Russian Navy. Knyaz Vladimir was floated out on the 17th of November, 2017. It has been undergoing factory and sea trials for three years. This submarine is named after Prince Vladimir the Great (958–1015), who ruled as Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev and of Kievan Rus, from 980 to 1015.

He stemmed from the Rurik dynasty. All branches of the economy prospered under him. He minted coins and regulated foreign affairs with other countries. Through trade he brought in Greek wines, Baghdad spices and Arab horses. The memory of Prince Vladimir the Great is kept alive by innumerable Russian folk ballads and legends.

The Bulava (Булава) missile was developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, in 2013. It was accepted for service in the Russian Navy after its successful four-missile salvo launch tests, in 2018. The R-30 Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile is intended as the future cornerstone of Russia’s nuclear triad. The weapon takes its name from the Russian word for “mace”. Project 955 and 955A submarines all carry 16 of these missiles per vessel.

The missile has three stages. The first and second stages use solid fuel propellant, while the third stage uses a liquid fuel for high maneuverability during warhead separation. The missile can be launched from an inclined position, allowing the submarine to fire them while moving. It has a low flight trajectory and possesses advance missile defence evasion capabilities, making it resistant to any missile-defence systems.

Two more submarines of the Project 955A are currenctly under construction: Knyaz Oleg (Князь Олег), named after Prince Oleg of Novgorod, and Knyaz Pozharsky (Князь Пожарский), named after Prince Dmitry Pozharsky. Knyaz Oleg was laid down in July 2014, Knyaz Pozharsky began with the keel laying in December 2016. Knyaz Oleg will enter service with the Northern Fleet, Knyaz Pozharsky with the Pacific Fleet.

Oleg of Novgorod (879-912) was a Varangian Prince, who ruled the Rus people at the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th century. In the Rus Chronicles, Prince Oleg is called a wise man (вещий). According to a legend, romanticised by Alexander Pushkin in his ballad “Song of the Wise Oleg,” it was prophesied by pagan priests that Prince Oleg would take death from his stallion.

To defy the prophecies, Prince Oleg sent the horse away. Many years later he asked about his horse and was told it had died. He wanted to see its remains and was taken to the place where the bones lay. When he touched the horse’s skull with his boot, a snake slithered from the skull and bit him. Prince Oleg died from the snake bite, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

Dmitry Mikhaylovich Pozharsky (Дмитрий Михайлович Пожарский; 1577-1642) was a Russian Prince, known for his military leadership during the Polish-Muscovite War, from 1611 to 1612. Prince Pozharsky formed the Second Volunteer Army against Polish occupation of Russia during the Time of Troubles. In 1612, the Polish army withdrew after Russia’s victory in the Battle of Moscow.

When peace was restored, Prince Pozharsky was given high posts in the Muscovite administration. He managed the Order of Transport, Order of Police and Order of Moscow Judges. In recognition of his services he was granted extensive estates around Moscow. Prince Pozharsky became a folk hero in Russian culture. He is honoured in a monument on Moscow’s Red Square.

The first design work on Project 955 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines started as early as the mid-1980s. Construction of the first vessel began in 1996. All vessels were built by Russia’s Northern shipyard Sevmash in Severodvinsk. Sevmash (Севмаш) is a Russian joint-stock enterprise of the United Shipbuilding Corporation. The name Sevmash is an abbreviation of “Severnoye Mashinostroitelnoye Predpriyatie” (Северное Машиностроительное Предприятие), i.e. “Northern Machine-Building Enterprise”.

Sevmash is the largest shipbuilding enterprise in Russia. The shipyard’s main specialization is manufacturing ships, submarines and military equipment for the Russian Navy. Sevmash has over 100 subdivisions, with a work force of about 30.000 people. Based in the Arkhangelsk Oblast on the White Sea, its facilities occupy an area of more than 300 hectares. Since August 2007, Sevmash has been headed by Nikolai Yakovlevich Kalistratov.

Severodvinsk (Северодвинск) is located in the delta of the Northern Dvina River, with a population of nearly 200.000. Due to the presence of military shipyards, access to Severodvisnk is restricted. Foreign citizens need a special permit to visit the city. Its main role is the production and repair of submarines and military ships. A Russian naval-base supports sea trials of nuclear submarines.

The modern city of Severodvinsk developed during the Soviet period. It was first called Sudostroy (Судострой – “Building boats”) and received town status in 1938. Then it was named Molotovsk (Молотовск), after Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1957, the name was changed to Severodvinsk (“Northern Dvina town”).

Project 955 began with K-535 Yury Dolgoruky, commissioned in January 2013. This nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine is part of the Northern Fleet. As the flag of the Russian Navy was hoisted on this first submarine of Project 955, President Vladimir Putin promised that “vessels of this class will become a critical element of the naval component of Russia’s strategic forces, a guarantee of global balance, the security of Russia and its allies.”

The Russian President pointed out that “modernization of the fleet is one of our top priorities as part of strengthening the Armed Forces. Over four trillion roubles have been allocated for the State Armament Programme until 2020.” At the end of his address, he thanked all the people involved and wished the crew success, “I would like to thank all those, who took part in the creation of the Yury Dolgoruky submarine, for their hard work. I wish the submarine’s crew every success in their service for the benefit of Russia.”

The K-535 Yury Dolgoruky has a length of 170 metres, its width is 13.5 metres, with a displacement of 14.700 long tons surfaced, 24.000 long tons submerged. It can travel at a speed of 15 knots surfaced and 29 knots submerged. The crew comprises 107 men. The submarine is named after the founder of Moscow.

Yury Dolgoruky, the “Long-Armed” (1099-1157), was a Russian Prince from the Rurik dynasty. He reigned as Grand Prince of Kiev, from 1149 to 1151, and again from 1155 to 1157. A statue in the Russian capital shows him sitting on his battle-horse, clad in armour, stretching his right arm far away from his body, to point at the distance, as if he wanted to say, “All of this land is mine, all mine.”

The gesture reminds us of Tsar Peter the Great, who founded the Imperial Russian Navy in Saint Petersburg. He said, “A ruler that has but an army, has one hand, but he who has a navy, has both hands.” President Putin knows Russian history very well. He knows that Russia needs a strong navy to show its presence on all oceans of the world. Thus, the Russian Navy is witnessing a Renaissance, after years of neglect, when the former Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

In the 21st century, the Russian Navy is beginning to flex its muscles again, as plans were published that it intends to be present in all of the oceans around the entire globe on a permanent basis. Besides keeping the naval base in Tartous, Syria, the Russian Navy is also reviving its former Soviet naval bases in Cuba and Vietnam.

President Vladimir Putin was very happy about the Yury Dolgoruky’s commission: “This is a great event for the Russian Navy. The submarine Yury Dolgoruky is a serious, powerful weapon that will guarantee the security of our country and enhance our defence capability.” In the spirit of Tsar Peter the Great, the Russian Government now has two hands, not just one, to grasp the good fortune which is waiting in the future.

K-535 Yury Dolgoruky was closely followed by K-550 Alexander Nevsky (Александр Невский). This submarine was commissioned in December 2013. It is active in Russia’s Pacific Fleet. According to the shipbuilders’ information service, both submarines cost 23 billion rubles each. Both have high standards of silence, both are equipped with state-of-the-art automated systems. K-550 Alexander Nevsky, however, has improved missile tubes and living compartments.

It is named after Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky (Александр Ярославич Невский; 1221-1263). He served as Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev and Grand Prince of Vladimir, during the most difficult time of Rus’ history. In the late 13th century, a chronicle called the “Life of Alexander Nevsky” (Житие Александра Невского) described him as an ideal prince, soldier and defender of Russia.

Alexander Nevsky is reported to have paraphrased a sentence of the Bible (Matthew 26:52): “Whoever will come to us with a sword, from a sword will perish.” This has become a slogan of Russian patriots. The sentence is furthermore echoed by President Putin’s words that whoever attacks Russia will not live long.

In December 2014, K-551 Vladimir Monomakh (Владимир Мономах) was commissioned, after it had successfully launched a Bulava missile from an underwater position at the Kura test site in Kamtchatka. The Saint Andrew flag was hoisted on the submarine, on the 19th of December 2014. It serves in the 25th Division of Nuclear Submarines as part of Russia’s Pacific fleet, permanently based in Vilyuchinsk (Вилючинск). This is a closed town on the Kamtchatka Peninsula, with a population of nearly 23.000.

A squadron of submarines of the Soviet Pacific Fleet had been based in Vilyuchinsk, since August 1938. The local ship-repair industry began to develop in late 1959. In 1973, a monument was unveiled to submariners who died in performance of military duty. In 1996, a memorial was opened in Vilyuchinsk in honor of submariners who died in combat missions. The submarine base was modernized in the late 2000s with newly constructed residential buildings, a hospital and a nursery school. Furthermore, a sports centre with a water park was opened by President Vladimir Putin personally, in 2007.

The armament of K-551 Vladimir Monomakh consists of six 533 mm torpedo tubes, torpedoes, torpedo missiles, cruise missiles, 16 Bulava ICBMs and portable anti-aircraft missile systems. This submarine has a displacement of 14.488 long tons surfaced, 23.621 long tons submerged. It is 170 metres long, with a draught of 10 metres. The speed is 25 knots (46 km/h). The crew comprises 130 officers and men.

Russia’s Defence Ministry has created infrastructure to provide comprehensive maintenance for all of the country’s nuclear submarines: “We are coming to realize that not only the weaponry itself is important, but its life cycle is, too…”. Nuclear submarines’ maintenance should cover every stage of their life cycle, from development through salvage.

The submarine K551-Vladimir Monomakh was named after Vladimir II Monomakh (Владимир Всеволодович Мономах; 1053–1125) from the Rurik dynasty. He reigned as Grand Prince of Kievan Rus, from 1113 to 1125. His grandfather Yaroslav gave him the Russian name of Vladimir. His father and mother named him Monomakh. He played an important part in the development of Russia during the Middle Ages.

Vladimir Monomakh mentioned in chronicles that he conducted 83 military campaigns against nomad invaders of the Russian Great Steppe. In order to unite all the Princes of Rus in their struggle against these invaders, Vladimir initiated three princely congresses. From 1094, he controlled Rostov, Suzdal and founded several towns, notably his namesake, Vladimir, the future capital of Russia.

Vladimir Monomakh was already 61 years old, when he became Grand Prince of Kievan Rus. During his reign, he avoided fighting. As far as circumstances permitted, he became a prince of peace, and a number of most important legislative measures are attributed to him.

Maritime activities in Russia have always belonged to the highest of state priorities. The vital necessity of a powerful navy for the people of Russia is obvious. Many citizens of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and nowadays the Russian Federation have connected their lives with maritime professions. Since the earliest beginnings in the 9th century, Russia has considered and still continues to consider itself as a great maritime power.

So it comes as no surprise that the names chosen for Russia’s new series of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are those of military leaders and princes from the 9th to the 17th century, beginning with the Varangian Prince Oleg of Novgorod (879-912), followed by three Rurikid Princes: Vladimir the Great (958-1015), Vladimir Monomakh (1053-1125) and Yury Dolgoruky (1099-1157). Prince Alexander Nevsky (1221-1263) and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky (1577-1642) further expanded and consolidated Russian terrestrial as well as maritime power. Altogether, the time of these illustrous Russian rulers spans nearly 600 centuries.

Already the Varangians, from the 9th to the 11th century, based their power on maritime enterprises. Engaging in trade, the Varangians roamed the river systems between the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea. They controlled the Volga, Dnieper and Dniester trade routes. Since these early beginnings of Rus, the Russian State has continued to expand, grow and build up maritime sea power.

Today, the Russian Navy is present on the entire globe, patrolling all oceans of the world, holding exercises either by itself or jointly with other countries, for example with the Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Iranian Navy in Asian waters, furthermore with the Venezuelan Navy along the Coast of South America and with the Navy of South Africa around the Cape Peninsula, south of the African Continent.

From the first Varangian boats of the 9th century to the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines of the 21st century, the Russian Navy has come a long way.


Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.

Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com

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Olivia Kroth
May 24, 2020

Bulava missile firing test, footage by RT (Russia Today):

Olivia Kroth
May 24, 2020

Knyaz Vladimir submarine conducts its first Bulava missile launch:

Olivia Kroth
May 25, 2020

Russian nuclear-powered submarine base in Kamtchatka (TV Zvzedzda/in Russian):

Platon
Platon
May 25, 2020

Thank you, Olivia. You have captured the poetry of Russian defensive warfare.

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Platon
May 25, 2020

Poetry indeed, and a bit of history, too.

Olivia Kroth
May 29, 2020

The Knyaz Vladimir goes on duty, as TASS reports:

https://tass.com/defense/1161565

Olivia Kroth
Reply to  Olivia Kroth
May 29, 2020

Shipbuilders deliver latest Borei-A nuclear-powered sub to Russian Navy — The submarine commander noted that the crew had fully studied and mastered the ship during the sea trials and was ready to start accomplishing assigned missions — MOSCOW, May 28. /TASS/. The improved Project 955A (Borei-A) strategic nuclear-powered lead submarine Knyaz Vladimir has been handed over to the Russian Navy, the press office of the United Shipbuilding Corporation reported. “Today, on May 28, a ceremony was held at the Sevmash Shipyard (part of the United Shipbuilding Corporation) for signing an acceptance certificate for the strategic missile-carrying underwater cruiser Knyaz Vladimir,”… Read more »

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