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The Belgorod Nuclear Powered Submarine, Photo Credit: OLEG KULESHOV/GETTY IMAGES The Belgorod Nuclear Powered Submarine, Photo Credit: OLEG KULESHOV/GETTY IMAGES

On April 23rd, Russia launched the world’s longest submarine, the special mission submarine Belgorod. Designed to support a variety of military missions, including the Poseidon long-range strategic nuclear torpedo, which was previously known as Status-6 AKA Kanyon, the sub is by far larger than anything operated by any other naval force, including the U.S. Navy. The six- hundred- foot- long submarine has more displacement than a World War I era battleship and can dive to a depth of 1,700 feet.

The submarine was laid down at the Sevmash Shipyard in July 1992 but its construction was suspended in 1997 due to economic constraints. Work on the unfinished submarine began again in 2012 following a redesign of the sub undertaken by the Rubin Central Design Bureau in St. Petersburg as a special purpose submarine. The Belgorod is set to become the Russian Navy’s largest submarine by its length with a length of 184 meters. When surfaced, the submarine has a reported displacement of around 15,000 tons.

The submarine, Belgorod, is planned to enter service with the Russian Navy in 2020 after successful completion of nuclear reactor and dockside trials. The submarine is based on the design of an earlier Cold War era 949A Oscar II-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarine (SSGN), while it is to be crewed by the Russian Navy, will be operated by the Main Directorate Deep Sea Research (GUGI) organization. The submarine will carry a deep diving midget submarine for covert special missions. It is expected to be deployed under the Arctic circle and used for the covert installation of a Russian underwater sonar network dubbed by the Russian media as HARMONY. Russia’s new multi-sensor submarine detection network HARMONY is similar in concept to the US Navy’s classic SOSUS system which is intended to detect submarines operating under the Arctic at ranges of 100km or more. The system will consist of ‘underwater sensors’ (sonar arrays and possibly pressure/wake detectors) and sonar buoys, and will communicate with control stations via satellites. The system itself, or components of it, are codenamed HARMONY.

Ship Commander Captain First Rank Anton Alyokhin Smashes A Bottle Of Champagne On Belgorod’s Lower Left Rudder During The Submarine’s Launch Ceremony on April 23rd, 2019, Photo Credit: Igor Ageyenko/Sputnik Via  AP

The Cold War era Oscar II class submarines carry an enormous assortment of seaborne weaponry, the primary purpose of which is to launch a devastating cruise missile barrage on unsuspecting US carrier battle groups. To the advantage of these huge underwater arsenal ships of sorts is their ability to be notoriously quiet and thus go undetected, additionally they also pack an arsenal of torpedoes for taking on other submarines or hunting vulnerable surface vessels.

In 2015, Russia announced that its eight Oscar II submarines will be reconfigured to carry more modern supersonic 3M55 Oniks and subsonic 3M54 Klub cruise missiles. The upgrade has the potential to bolster these submarines with a credible land attack capability as well as an updated arsenal of anti-ship weaponry. The upgrade supposedly increased the boat's missile magazine to 72. The ships combat, communications and sensor systems are also upgraded. These upgraded Oscar II class submarines are known as the Project 949AM class.

The preceding discussion on the Oscar II class submarines is because Russia's latest addition to the fleet, a larger and far more exotic version of the Oscar II class is built out of the previously unfinished hull of the planned Oscar II class submarine Belgorod. Instead of carrying all those missiles, this special-mission "research" submarine will carry a large array of special equipment, including submersibles, ROVs, spools of cable, airlock chambers for divers and even large pieces of cargo that can be mounted on the sea floor. It can also carry extremely large cargo on its back. This may include self-contained nuclear generators that can be placed on the seafloor to power equipment for very long periods of time autonomously. A roughly 100-foot-long plug in Belgorod's hull will help make room to accommodate these special capabilities. All the capabilities of which suggest towards the HARMONY.  Even though it seems that Belgorod is clearly being built with arctic operations in mind, but it would also likely venture outside the frigid waters of the far north to work as an espionage ship like the USS Jimmy Carter.

There have been fears from the US DoD that Russia has interest in not just tapping certain undersea fiberoptic communications cables, but in cutting them completely as an information warfare tactic. Being able to blind an area of the globe from communication (as most of the communication backbones depend on the internet) and the constant flow of information is a powerful strategic capability to seed chaos or disrupt activities which counteract against one’s narrative. Being able to mount an undersea cable cutting operation clandestinely, without exposing a ship to surface detection, would not only give Russia the element of surprise, but it will also give Moscow a somewhat credible level of plausible deniability—which has been an omnipresent tactic in its current hybrid warfare playbook.

It must be noted that Russia already has two other submarines that are supposedly capable of at least some aspects of undertaking such undersea clandestine missions—one a converted Delta IV nuclear ballistic submarine and the other a converted Delta III. Both of these submarines, along with the Belgorod, are also capable of acting as motherships for deep-diving midget submarines, including the shadowy nuclear-powered Losharik class.

What Russia needs with three massive and very costly spy and mothership submarines is surely to haunt the speculation of strategic thinkers world over, all that capability is a nice addition to the arsenal, but Moscow is not exactly rolling in rubles right now thanks to the US Sanctions, and prioritizing such a fleet over building more fast attack or AIP capable diesel electric submarines is a bit confounding which proves that their existence has to be part of a grander wartime strategy than just being used as espionage and underwater exploration vessels. Regardless of all the above, even just deploying the Belgorod alone is another clear signal of how committed Russia is to dominating the Arctic region for itself.

The deployment of the Belgorod also brings the Poseidon nuclear torpedo systems and their threats to a credible reality as two Poseidon-carrying submarines are expected to enter service with the Northern Fleet and the two other submarines are planned to join the Pacific Fleet and each of these submarines will carry up to eight of the Poseidon drones and, therefore, the total number of Poseidon’s in combat duty may reach to 32 vehicles. This could potentially offer Russia a way around the US missile defense systems and will allow Russia to have an alternative nuclear second-strike capability—one that is not vulnerable to US anti-missile defenses.

Although built to conduct underwater espionage, by far the most sinister mission for Belgorod is as launch vehicle for the Poseidon nuclear torpedo system. Poseidon, a 65 feet long torpedo is 6.5 feet in diameter, stands at twice the size of a standard SLBM and 30 times the size of a heavyweight torpedo with a range of thousands of miles and a top speed of 60 knots. Each Poseidon torpedo is believed to carry a 2-megaton thermonuclear warhead and is designed to go around U.S. missile defenses to strike coastal targets, including ports and cities. It can also be used to trigger devastating tsunamis to take on the US coasts by a mid-sea detonation which will evade any security measures deployed to protect the continental US from direct undersea attacks. Belgorod will reportedly carry up to eight Poseidon torpedoes.

Russia's disdain for America's ballistic missile defense capabilities has been made clear after the country broke a major arms proliferation treaty to develop and deploy a land-based nuclear tipped cruise missile in an attempt to get around the reach of these defenses, even though the missile defenses are nowhere near capable of fending off a large barrage of nuclear ballistic missiles. With this in mind, the Kanyon may be an attractive game changer from the Russian perspective, and so are the silent motherships which carry them—even though they might not be the fastest or the most economically feasible options on the table.

[National Interest, Navy Recognition]