Russia's Nuclear Submarines 'Critical Challenge' to the U.S. Right Now 

Russia is the "critical challenge" that the United States faces today and the primary threat to the U.S. homeland, the head of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) told Newsweek.

Michael Petersen, RMSI's founding director and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, was responding to remarks made by U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, who previously characterized Russia as the primary threat to the country due to the presence of its nuclear-powered Severodvinsk-class submarines near the U.S.

United States commanders and military observers have been sounding the alarm about the activity of Russia's submarine fleet off the U.S. coast as the war in Ukraine rages on.

There has been a buildup of Russian Navy forces in the Black Sea throughout the conflict which began when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine last February. There has also been an increasing number of Russian submarines off the U.S. and in the Mediterranean, according to officials.

Russian submarines
Russian submarines docked at the Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus on September 26, 2019. Russia is the “critical challenge” that the United States faces today, the head of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute told Newsweek. MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

"I do agree with that," said Petersen, of VanHerck's remarks. "The Russian doctrine is very clear. They are likely to attack the United States in those cases in which they feel it's necessary."

"China has a larger and arguably more capable Navy from a surface and air warfare perspective. But from an undersea warfare perspective, Russia is the critical challenge that the United States faces," he said.

Russia's Navy Modernization Drive

Petersen pointed to "The Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Operations for the Period Until 2030," which Putin signed on July 20, 2017. It reflects the Russian Navy's improved capabilities, its evolving strategic and operational role, and its future ambitions.

RMSI notes that the most urgent priority noted in the policy is both deterrence and punishment of foreign aggression.

"Of note, the document highlights the importance of long-range high-precision weapons and the potential use of non-strategic nuclear weapons as deterrence mechanisms. Importantly, at the operational level of war, the Fundamentals also emphasize the importance of striking fixed military and economic targets as a means of both deterring and punishing aggression," the institute said.

The Russian Navy commands one of the most diverse submarine fleets in the world. Some are capable of carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, which Moscow considers key to its strategic deterrent.

The nation has been working to improve its submarine fleet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Over the past several years in particular, Moscow produced a series of submarines that have the capability to reach the most critical targets in the U.S. and continental Europe.

Russia's Navy has "a high level of readiness for actions, including strikes on critically important enemy targets," the 2017 policy notes. "With the development of high-precision weapons, the Navy faces a qualitatively new objective: destruction of enemy's military and economic potential by striking its vital facilities from the sea."

It concludes by saying that by 2030, the country "must possess powerful balanced fleets in all strategic areas," including ships intended to carry out missions in near and far sea zones and ocean areas, as well as naval aviation and coastal forces equipped with effective high-precision strike weapons, and advanced basing and supply system.

The U.S. Navy is also undergoing a modernization drive and began building its largest and most advanced Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) in June 2022.

Petersen told Newsweek that what makes the challenge to the U.S. so difficult is "not just the technology, but the doctrine and the strategy of allowing for strikes on the continental United States as an escalation management tool."

"That's what makes it so dangerous," he added. "Russia's submarine technology is far, in a way, superior to China's undersea warfare technology. And they have the doctrine that allows them to exploit those strengths."

Petersen previously said there are indications that "nuclear-powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along Europe periphery," and that these "mirror Soviet style submarine deployments in the Cold War."

Severodvinsk-Class Submarines

He described the nuclear-powered Severodvinsk-class submarines spotted off the U.S. coasts as "a relatively new class of Russian submarine that is one of the most advanced and the most quiet submarines on Earth."

The Severodvinsk-class submarines have been in development since the 1990s, and Russia has three in its fleet, with "more to come," Petersen said.

"Because they're nuclear powered, they have extremely long endurance, and because they're quiet, they are extremely stealthy and difficult to locate," he explained.

"The Russians can use these submarines on long deployments, global deployments, to linger in a particular patrol box, and then on order, launch their missiles. And that's a really important part of Russia's strategy of escalation management."

He added: "Russian leadership believes that they can use these submarines as a way to maintain escalation, dominance."

'Dose Damage'

A critical piece of Russia's war-fighting strategy, Petersen said, is that they can inflict damage "in doses" on their adversary.

He made contrasts to the current fighting in Ukraine, which has seen Russia using both air assets and naval assets against the country's critical infrastructure. Peterson has said that the ongoing war in Ukraine is a good indicator of what the world is likely to see should a conflict break out between NATO and Russia.

"So you can imagine a scenario in which Russia is in a conflict in Europe, against the United States, in which it decides, we need to inflict pain on the continental United States in order to get the United States to leave the conflict, to get them out of this fight," he said.

"And so they give the order to a Severodvinsk-class submarine that is sitting off the east coast of the United States to launch cruise missiles into the U.S., and that's what I mean by this sort of dose damage, that sort of escalation management piece."

Newsweek reached out to Russia's defense ministry via email for comment.

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