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Tales from the Silent Service

The Russian Belgorod (K-329) Oscar II Class Submarine

On June 25, 2021, the Russian Navy began sea trials of its new Belgorod K-329 submarine. And, while the development of this submarine has essentially remained secretive it is known that notably, it’s the largest submarine developed globally in the last thirty years. And it is a modified design of the Oscar II class (NATO designation) Russian nuclear submarine. It was originally laid down in July 1992 as a Project 949A cruise missile submarine (NATO designation Oscar II class) designed to attack NATO carrier battle groups using long-range P-700 Granit, SS-N-19 “Shipwreck”, anti-ship missiles, and targeting data provided by the EORSAT satellite system via the submarine’s “Punch Bowl” antenna. But later on, a redesigned and partly built hull was used to reconfigure it as a special operations vessel, capable of operating unmanned underwater vehicles. The vessel was re-laid in December 2012. But, due to chronic underfunding, its construction was suspended and then later resumed at a reduced rate of progress before the ship was redesigned to become a unique vessel; the first Russian fifth-generation submarine, according to the Ministry of Defence. The K-329 Belgorod, along with the Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System, was one of the last weapons systems presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual speech on March 1, 2018. It was tested at sea in fiscal period 1H2022 and then commissioned by the Russian Navy in July 2022. The submarine was delivered to the Russian Navy on 8 July 2022.

The Belgorod will reportedly be the first submarine to utilize the Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System, an autonomous, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle under development by Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering the largest among the three Soviet/Russian submarine designer centers, having designed more than two-thirds of all nuclear submarines in the Russian Navy and is located in St Petersburg.
Capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads, the ocean multi-purpose system is an unmanned submarine designed to deliver a deadly cargo to the enemy ashore and to nullify the missile defense system of the alleged enemy. And the Western press has already baptized the new project as a “weapon of retribution.” In reference the “Status-6” in 2015, the BBC World News television network broadcasted a report that alleged that Russia is creating a robotic submarine capable of transporting a nuclear charge up to 10,000 kilometers at a depth of 1,000 meters.
The Belgorod K-329 was launched in Severodvinsk, Russia, in the north of Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia, located in the delta region of the Northern Dvina River, near the White Sea in April 2019. And then it was later moored to a quay in Severodvinsk to be fitted out and system tested for safety and to ensure that all of its systems were operating satisfactorily. Russian media has regularly reported on tests of the submarine’s weapon launching system and its responses, which has provided Western sources with a glimpse into its progress. The submarine’s scheduled maiden launches this year were delayed by the arctic ice; while it was expected to start trials in April, the submarine had to be moved back into the sheds and undergo degaussing (hull demagnetization), only launching in late June.
While detailed specifications of the submarine are unknown to the public, its size places it in an exclusive class among modern submarines. And her hull has been estimated by Western intelligence agencies to be 584 feet long with a beam of 49 feet across, and having a displacement of greater than 19,000 tons of water. These dimensions are significantly larger in all regards than the Russian Oscar-II class submarine on which it was based. Moreover, the Belgorod K-329 Submarine is larger in all respects than the current largest Western submarine, the United States Navy’s Ohio Class.
The intended mission of the Belgorod K-329 submarine has posed a challenge for Western analysts because the first of its two main missions are to be a host submarine for deep diving nuclear-powered midget submarines. The larger Belgorod K-329 submarine would effectively ferry these smaller submarines around the seas and serve as their mothership. The midget submarines are designed to work on cables and other objects on the ocean floor. So, and being smaller and deeper-diving they have the capability to tamper with or cut cables installed on the seafloor, and that poses a concern to NATO, as intelligence agencies are fearful these could include the undersea internet cables which are crucial to connecting Western countries and enabling their internet to function properly. Adding to the concern is the classification of the Belgorod K-329 submarine as a ‘special mission’ submarine, which in naval parlance is a euphemism for multitudes of clandestine activities.
The second of the submarine’s missions is that of nuclear strikes and deterrence. And the submarine is earmarked to carry six intercontinental “Poseidon” torpedoes capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads. These Poseidon torpedoes, not to be confused with Cold War era USN Poseidon ICBM Missiles, are a new category of weapon that has not previously been used by other navies, making them especially notable. With a length of greater than twenty feet, these torpedoes serve as underwater drones with an effectively unlimited range. More worrisome, their expected performance of seventy knots at a depth of 1,000 meters (3280 ft.) means they cannot be sufficiently countered with existing Western weapons. These two missions seem to be profoundly contradictory because performing one will likely compromise the other. While the nuclear deterrence role requires remaining safe and isolated, the host submarine and ‘special mission’ aspect will require that the submarine be in the open and in the way of possible detection and surveillance. Therefore, Western intelligence agencies are still unclear on which of these will be the submarine’s primary assignment. While the Russian Defense Ministry has announced that the submarine will be utilized in the Pacific Fleet, Western analysts are concerned that it will be used in the Arctic and North Atlantic, where it poses a larger threat and the Russian Navy has already increased its submarine activity in recent years.
Additionally, the Belgorod K-329 submarine in its current form has a critical design flaw that enables the West to track its movements. This submarine, as well as other submarines in the Russian Oscar Class, are equipped with counter-rotating screws that are located closely together and turn in opposite directions. And while this seems innocuous, it results in a void of pressure that is created between the individual screws that causes a distinct, low-frequency resonance that can be traced by other navies sonars
Thus, while a significant amount of uncertainty remains surrounding the Belgorod K-329 submarine, it undoubtedly demonstrates the increasing tension between Russia and the West. And, its development has Western analysts and intelligence agencies questioning their security protocols as well as the Russian Navy’s intentions, expounding the complete lack of trust between NATO member countries and The Russian Federation. Illustrative of this is that earlier this year the British Royal Navy announced that it would deploy a ‘spy ship’ on the seafloor in an effort to prevent the Russian midget submarines from sabotaging the United Kingdom’s internet.
This is likely a precursor to an increase in deployed ships from a host of Western countries in order to prevent Russian naval dominance. In May, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that Russia was the United Kingdom’s “number one adversary threat” and that the United Kingdom’s waters were “regularly visited” by Russian submarines. Wallace added that Russian naval assets have been detected by the United Kingdom in their waters greater than 150 times in the last seven years.
Of course, it’s common knowledge that Russian submarines regularly visit U.S. waters, and ours theirs as I can personally attest to from my USN service during The Cold War. And, it’s been a dangerous and sometimes deadly cat and mouse game that’s been played out beneath the world’s oceans between the Russian/Soviet and all NATO submarine capable navies since just after the end of WWII that’s presumed to continue far into the future.
Copyright © 2022 James Fasino