Days after announcing his decision to run in the March 2024 presidential elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the navy shipyard in the city of Severodvinsk in eastern Russia on December 11.
Here, Putin attended a pompous commissioning ceremony of two new nuclear submarines, which he praised as “unmatched in their class.
"I would like to greet you on this momentous day as the naval flags are being hoisted on the nuclear submarines Emperor Alexander III and Krasnoyarsk. These formidable missile carriers, unmatched in their class, start their service as part of our Navy."
The claim is partly true.
In their classes — Borei and Yasen, respectively — these two submarines may have no equal, because nuclear submarine classification is country-specific. In this case, the class is assigned by the Russian Navy.
However, there are some common characteristics that allow comparing different classes of nuclear submarines. These criteria include roughly: design and purpose — ballistic missile or attack submarines; size and configuration; generation; nuclear reactor type; specialized roles; technology and equipment — i.e., sensor and weapon systems; stealth features.
Based on these criteria, the Russian Borei-class are most comparable to the U.S. Ohio-class submarines, and the Yasen-class is comparable with the U.S. Virginia-class submarines.
Borei-Class Vs. Ohio-Class
The strategic nuclear submarine Emperor Alexander III is the seventh unit of Russia's Borei-class (or Dolgorukiy in NATO classification) ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and the fourth of the modernized Borei-A variety.
Both the USA and Russia have a nuclear triad: land-based missiles, bomber aircraft, and submarines. In the event of a nuclear attack, one country can destroy the other country's land-based nuclear weapons (missiles and bombers) completely.
The primary purpose of ultra-stealth submarines of Ohio and Borei classes is to remain constantly undetected by the enemy and retaliate if the home country comes under attack.
The Ohio-class submarine is more than twice as expensive to build as the Borei-class SSBN: $2 billion versus $890 million. This could be an indirect indication of the technological superiority of American boats.
“The acoustic signature of [Borei] is significantly stealthier than that of the previous generations of Russian SSBNs; nevertheless, the USN has been able to identify the main noise emitter, i.e. the hydraulic pump. As the pump ages, it tends to become noisier, allowing for easier detection of the submarine.”
In an interview with Newsweek, Jeffrey Edmonds, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, said Russia's Borei submarines are "peer competitors" with the Ohio-class. However, the U.S. underwater crafts are likely more advanced.
Yasen-Class vs Virginia-Class
The nuclear cruise missile submarine (SSGN) Krasnoyarsk is the fourth ship in the line of submarines of the Yasen-class (or Severodvinsk in NATO classification), with the first SSGN commissioned in 2014.
A suitable comparison for the Yasen-class submarines would be the Virginia-class SSGNs. The U.S. Navy has 21 of them.
In a March 2023 interview with Newsweek, Edward Geist of the RAND research corporation said the Yasen-M class (latest upgraded version of the Yasen-class) submarines are "the crown jewel of the contemporary Russian Navy and perhaps the pinnacle of present-day Russian military technology."
Russia, however, is significantly inferior in the number and quality of submarines of this class, according to Geist: "Russia cannot build enough of them to cancel out the fact that the United States has a larger number of submarines that are, on average, considerably better than their Russian counterparts."
Yasen-class SSGNs are quiet, fast, and "will require, clearly, a greater effort in order to track and neutralize," according to Mark Grove, a senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln's Maritime Studies Center at the Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth, U.K. But the Virginia-class submarines are "superior in pretty much every facet of operations to the Yasen."
In an August 2021 report for the Naval News website, open-source intelligence analyst H I Sutton wrote that Yasen-class SSGNs “represent the most modern and powerful attack submarines in the Russian inventory.”
Assessing Yasen and Virginia class submarines, Sutton noted that it is challenging to compare such aspects as sonar, sensors, and stealth "given the sensitive nature of these topics." Sutton concluded that both classes of submarines are “extremely difficult to counter.”
The advantages of the Yasen-class are that they are larger, carry more weapons, and “[t]hey will also be quicker to field hypersonic weapons” compared with their Western equivalents.
On the other hand, the Virginia-class submarines can have more cruise missiles, which are also more effective. They also carry the anti-ship-capable Tomahawks.
In December 2021, the National Interest website also compared Yasen and Virginia classes and called American submarines the winner in a hypothetical head-to-head confrontation:
“Severodvinsk [Yasen-class] may be slower, but it can dive deeper…
In terms of weapons, the two sides are fairly evenly matched…
The Virginia class is quieter and has a better sonar rig than its Russian opponent. In the world of submarine warfare, that’s an unbeatable combination.”