Deploying Off Florida’s Coast: How Powerful is Russia’s Yasen-M Class Attack Submarine

The Russian Navy has deployed a Yasen-M Class nuclear powered attack submarine to lead a flotilla to Cuba, reflecting broader trends towards increased interest from Moscow in military operations in Latin America. The warship will dock in the Cuban capital Havana from June 12-17 alongside the the Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov, the oil tanker Pashin, and the salvage tug Nikolai Chiker. The deployment has been widely interpreted as one of many responses to escalating U.S. military support for Ukraine, including provision of longer ranged missiles to Kiev, permitting them to be used against targets deep inside Russia, and providing personnel and targeting data by aircraft and satellite to facilitate such attacks. “As part of Russia’s regular military exercises, we anticipate that this summer, Russia will conduct heightened naval and air activity near the United States. These actions will culminate in a global Russian naval exercise this fall,” one U.S. official commented. “This is about Russia showing that it’s still capable of some level of global power projection,” he concluded, with the U.S. Navy preparing to closely monitor exercises in Cuba.  

Russia’s blue water naval capabilities have diminished very significantly since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with no new destroyers or cruisers laid down for domestic use, while the carrier fleet previously projected to reach six ships by the turn of the century fell to just one – a ship that has fallen into disrepair and is rarely operated. The frigate Admiral Gorshkov, although much smaller than destroyers of larger navies such as China and the United States, has thus emerged as Russia’s prime ocean going surface combatant. In contrast to the surface fleet, the Russian submarine fleet has received very significant continued investment, meaning new generations of nuclear powered ballistic missile and attack submarines are still capable of deploying across the world’s oceans and are genuinely competitive in terms of performance with the their most capable counterparts abroad. The Yasen-M Class, as Russia’s most capable type of attack submarine, epitomises this. 

Four Yasen-M Class attack submarines have been commissioned into service in the Russian Navy since mid-2021 – two each in the Northern and Pacific fleets – with four more under construction. When the first ship of the class was launched in December 2019 it was dubbed the world’s  “deadliest submarine ever” by the American paper the National Interest, reflecting broader concerns that the class could shift the balance of power in the open oceans significantly in Russia’s favour. The warships can deploy all existing classes of Russian cruise missile with vertical launch cells accommodating up to 32 missiles, while also carrying ten torpedo tubes and an Igla-M short ranged surface to air missile system. The ships are considered likely to have been prioritised to receive the world’s first hypersonic cruise missile, the Zircon, which was first delivered to the Russian Navy in 2019, with the first launch of the Zircon from a Yasen Class ship having been carried out in October 2021. With a 1000 kilometre range and Mach 9 speed, the missiles are considered extremely challenging to intercept. 

The capabilities of Yasen-M Class submarines have been highlighted with considerable concern by U.S. officials in the past, with head of U.S. Northern Command and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defence Command Air Force General Glen VanHerck having described the ships as close competitors to the U.S. Navy’s top attack submarines in terms of their quietness. He stressed at the time that the expansion of the fleet would present a new and unprecedented threat to the U.S. mainland, with their ability to launch cruise missile strikes across American territory, before disappearing into the ocean, being particularly difficult to defend against. Where during the Cold War the United States had to contend only with the Soviet Navy’s nuclear powered submarine fleet, these capabilities have since proliferated with Russia leasing such ships to India, while China has developed its own highly sophisticated class the Type 093, and North Korea has been developing such a ship for over a decade. 

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