“Black Holes” in the Ocean: Russia’s Non-Nuclear Submarines That Can “Silently Observe”

These are the only diesel submarines in the world from which salvo shooting was carried out in combat conditions.

The commander of a “Varshavyanka” was once asked if he wanted to serve on a larger submarine, to which he artfully smiled and replied: “You know, our boats are still not being found. These ‘black holes’ in the ocean are hard to identify, easy to lose and impossible to find… “ They’re small, fast and manoeuvrable. And they’re considered among the quietest of their class.

Because finding them in sea depths is problematic enough, NATO’s military has informally dubbed Project 636.3’s diesel-electric submarines “black holes” in the ocean.

The Navy of the Russian Federation has already enhanced its combat power in the Black Sea with these submarines – six submarines are actively serving as a part of the Black Sea Fleet. The Pacific Fleet is also waiting for them. It is planned that by the end of this year the Russian Navy ensign will be raised on the first of six submarines under construction for our far eastern borders. On November 1st two more were completed. The rest will replenish the Navy strike group, according to the Defence Ministry’s plans, before 2023. And they will be able to “silently watch” the events taking place in the Pacific region. However, “Varshavyanka” is now a concern for the West, being in the waters of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Birth of submarines

The name “Varshavyanka” came from the 1970s, when the boats of Project 877EKM (export version of Project 877 “Paltus” submarines) were supposed to be exported to the Warsaw Pact countries in large series. Under project 877EКM 18 submarines were built in 1983-2000, which still serve successfully in India, China, Vietnam, and Algeria.

The Russian Navy initially planned to replace its 1980s-built Project 877 boats with the Project 677 “Lada” submarines. However, due to numerous problems with their design, construction, and testing, in 2010 it was decided to build a series of submarines for the Russian fleet based on Project 636, the production of which thanks to export contracts had already been worked out by Russian shipyards.

Now the targeted construction for the needs of our fleet of submarines of project 636.3 is carried out at the Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg. It is a base enterprise of the industry (within the United Shipbuilding Corporation) and a center of non-atomic submarine building of Russia.

“The Pacific Fleet is equipped with new boats of Project 636.3 as part of the active renewal of the non-atomic component of the Russian Navy ‘s underwater forces. Built earlier series for the Black Sea Fleet in practice showed its efficiency and reliability,” said Nikolay Evmenov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy and Admiral.

This year the St. Petersburg shipyards turned 315 years old. They are the unconditional leader of the construction of submarines of this class and have successfully exported them since 1983. In just six years, from August 2010 to November 2016, the Black Sea series was built: since 2014 the company has transferred two ships to the fleet annually.

At the same time, the construction of the submarine series takes place in the conditions of a full production load and the large-scale reconstruction of the enterprise. The construction of new facilities and the modernisation of existing workshops is carried out without stopping production, and the construction of all orders is carried out clearly in accordance with contract obligations.

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The first experience of submarine shipbuilding at the Admiralty Shipyard dates back to 1912, when hulls for “Bars” class boats were manufactured. In 1931, the plant began to build hulls for “Щ” type submarines. Prior to the Great Patriotic War, 69 ships (or one third of the USSR’s submarine fleet at that time) came off the slipway. Then during the post-war period, small boats were replaced by large diesel-electric Project 611 submarines for ocean trips. Then there were Project 877 submarines that had very low acoustic field characteristics. Today this project is recognised and highly appreciated worldwide.

In 1970-1990, for St. Petersburg shipyards, the main achievement was the construction of titanium, complex-automated nuclear submarines of Project 705 – relatively small, but with high combat efficiency. The “Lyre” could pursue any submarine and break away from any pursuit, they only took about a minute to accelerate to full speed. They were the world’s only mass-produced liquid metal heat transfer fluid ships.

The modernised Project 636.3 under construction at the shipyards today belongs to the third generation of diesel submarines. It was developed by the Central Design Bureau of Marine Equipment “Rubin” by a team led by the chief designer Igor Molchanov.

The contract for the construction of a Pacific series of six submarines was signed at the Army 2016 Forum. This was a continuation of the implementation of the long-term plan of the Russian Defense Ministry to strengthen the combat readiness of the Russian Navy and the program of improvement of diesel-electric submarines. On the instructions of the military, “Rubin” modernised the main systems of the ship of base project 636: torpedo and missile weapons complex, information and control system, radar and hydro-acoustic complexes. A number of improvements have been made to ship-wide systems in order to increase the stealth of the submarine and improve the living conditions for the crew.

Silence and submersion

These non-atomic submarines (by NATO codification – “Improvised Kilo”) are designed to destroy surface ships and vessels, enemy submarines, patrols, watchers, intelligence, and protect communications in the near sea zone.

Compared to the nuclear “Borei” they are very small: the strategists of the Project 955 exceed “Varshavyanka” in displacement sixfold, two and a half diesel submarines will fit in one nuclear engine in length. Length is 636 by about 74 m, width is 10 m, maximum displacement does not exceed 4,000 tons. The strong hull provides the submarine with an operating depth of submersion of 240 m and a maximum depth of 300 m.

“Varshavyanka” is a two-hull submarine with modern contours, as well as a high reserve of buoyancy and unsinkability. Six compartments are separated by waterproof partitions, which, according to the developers, allows it to stay afloat in case of the emergency flooding of one of the compartments while maintaining combat readiness. The crew, engine, and other essential systems and mechanisms are in a strong hull capable of withstanding high water pressure. Outside there is a “light” hull that gives the submarine a streamlined shape. The use of noise absorbing elements ensures the high stealth of the submarine.

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The submarine is equipped with modern means to reduce its own noise to the natural background of the ocean, which gives the boat guaranteed pre-emptive detection and the possibility of attacking enemy ships with anti-ship missiles from a distance exceeding its detection, as well as the timely evasion of attacks.

The submarines are equipped with two 1500 kW diesel generators, one main propeller electric engine (about 5,500 hp), and one economic motor. In addition, the submarine has two standby diesel engines and two groups of accumulators. It has one propellor, with 7 fins.

By the way, the main shaft of the Project 636 submarine rotates along wooden guides made of iron wood – lignum vitae. It turns out his wood has been used in shipbuilding for a long time. The feature of it is that it releases natural lubricant, which allows to use nodes from this wood for 20 years. Not every metal bearing will be able to boast such a resource.

The surface speed of “Varshavyanka” reaches 17 knots (more than 30 km/h), and underwater – up to 20 knots. Its autonomy of navigation is 45 days, and its crew – 52 people. These submarines have the optimal combination of acoustic stealth and target detection range, the latest inertial navigation complex; its modern automated information and control system and powerful fast-acting torpedo-missile weapons ensure the global priority of submarines of this class in the field of non-atomic submarine building.

Main “Kalibr”

The main weapon of Project 636.6 is “Kalibr” missiles. The bow contains six 533-mm torpedo tubes, the warhead includes 18 torpedos or 24 shells, and cruise missiles of the “Kalibr-PL” complex. The range of use of these sea-launched missiles is more than 2,000 km.

According to the Defence Ministry, missiles of this type have low radar visibility and due to bending of terrain at ultra-low altitudes are hard to detect by any means of air defence. Their accuracy of hitting the target, despite the range of use, is several meters. The weight of a “Kalibr” warhead is 500kg.

The complex includes 5 different missiles developed on the basis of the anti-ship cruise missile 3М54E “Granat”. The export version of the complex (“Club”) can use ammunition of various types with a range of up to 300 km.

The ratio of target detection range to acoustic stealth in 636 is optimal: “Varshavyanka” can “see” the enemy at the maximum distance, get close to it and not be detected, watch it, and if necessary use its formidable weapons.

The first combat use of these submarines took place on December 8th 2015 during the military operation of the Russian Federation in Syria. The “Rostov-on-Don” submarine in the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched “Kalibr-PL” missiles at terrorist targets in the Syrian province of Raqqa.

This was the first time in the history of the submarine fleet of the Russian Navy that a missile attack was launched against a real enemy. During 2017 other submarines of this project – “Krasnodar” and “Veliky Novgorod” – launched similar attacks against Syrian terrorists, also showing their high efficiency.

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Concern of the West

In the United States and Europe it has been repeatedly admitted that Russia has a powerful submarine fleet and is investing in its improvement. The new Russian submarines, according to Western Admirals and Generals, are extremely effective and pose a great danger.

In an interview, Admiral James Foggo, Commander of the United States Navy in Europe and Africa, who simultaneously heads the NATO Joint Command in Naples, Italy, said about our “Varshavyanka”: “They have ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles in service, they are very effective combat systems. And from the places where Russians use them, they can hit any European capital”. “Will they do this? I don’t think so, but nevertheless we need to be aware of where they are at any point in time,” he added.

The Admiral claimed that Russia had expanded its submarine presence in the North Atlantic Ocean as well as the Arctic Ocean. ‘They’re letting us know they’re there. There are a lot more of them, and they operate in places where they haven’t acted before,” he said.

The Daily Telegraph wrote about the fact that “Varshavyanka” can operate in the territorial waters of Great Britain, while remaining invisible. According to sources, these submarines allegedly pose a security threat by monitoring British fleet movements in the North Atlantic and tapping into underwater communication cables. The interlocutors of The Daily Telegraph consider this to be a significant argument in favour of increasing funding to the Kingdom’s Navy.

“Varshavyanka”: “Take and use”

Project 636 has quite good export prospects. And this became possible because the submarine has good modernisation capabilities, initially it had successful layout solutions. And an important point – its low level of noise, because “a noisy submarine will not redeem any modernisation”.

“It is a kind of ‘Kalashnikov’: it seems like nothing special, but everything is simple, convenient, clear – take and use. Here there is the same principle. The competitiveness of this project is maintained by its continuous modernisation. The catalyst for success in the last decade, of course, has been the integration of the ‘Club’ missile complex. As soon as it was first implemented for India, it stimulated a lot of interest in the ship,” said the Deputy General Director of “Rubin” for Foreign Economic Activity Andrey Baranovin in an interview with Arms Export magazine in 2014, describing the export prospects of this submarine.

Experts note that ships of this class have a significant modernisation reserve, which allows to optimise the project to the requirements of the client. According to the developers, compared to foreign submarines of its class, “Varshavyanka” is characterised by its exceptionally powerful universal weapons, which are able to fight surface ships and submarines. It can also target ground objects – as long as none of the European submarines that are offered for export have such a possibility.

With the construction of a Pacific series of ships of this class in the Russian Navy, there will be much more, and these “black holes” will operate in places of the world’s oceans where they did not operate before. At the same time, everything is also secretive, fast, and quiet.

Roman Azanov, TASS

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