How Russia's 'Crown Jewel' Submarines Match Up to U.S. Sub Fleet

Russia's prized new nuclear submarines pose a formidable threat to U.S. and NATO sub fleets, but ultimately they can't compete with the U.S.'s underwater capabilities, experts have told Newsweek.

Russia has been looking to modernize its submarine fleet for years. Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to expand Russia's nuclear submarine fleet have sounded alarm bells among NATO members, and thoughts have turned to how the underwater vessels of Russia and the U.S. match up.

Michael Petersen, the director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute, previously told Newsweek there had been "indications that nuclear-powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along Europe periphery."

"From an undersea warfare perspective, Russia is the critical challenge that the United States faces," Petersen said.

Russian Submarine
The submarine "Magnitogorsk" at a rehearsal of the navy parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War, on May 7, 2015 in Baltiysk, Russia. Russia's new Yasen-class submarines are "very good" vessels, but fall short of those operated by the U.S. Navy, experts have told Newsweek. Host photo agency/RIA Novosti via Getty Images

Among Russia's fleet are the Yasen and the updated Yasen-M class submarines, which are the "the crown jewel of the contemporary Russian Navy and perhaps the pinnacle of present-day Russian military technology," according to Edward Geist of the RAND research corporation.

The Yasen-class vessels are nuclear cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), and it's estimated that Russia operates nine SSGNs, according to data from the non-profit Nuclear Threat Initiative. They are capable of carrying Russia's new Tsirkon, or Zircon, hypersonic missile, as well as long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, Geist told Newsweek.

The Yasen is a "force multiplier," designed to increase the Navy's combat potential, 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.

It is clear that the Russian military sees its nuclear submarine fleet as very important, he told Newsweek, adding they have "invested, in relative terms, very considerable amounts" of funding and industrial capacity in SSGNs like the Yasen-class.

The newest Yasen-class submarines will be quiet, fast, and will represent a "challenge" to Western capabilities, Grove argued. It "will require, clearly, a greater effort in order to track and neutralize" the high-tech vessel, he added.

But the problem for Moscow is the price tag tied to the Yasens, experts say. Yasen-class submarines are "extremely expensive," Geist said. The Yasen is, "even by Western standards, an expensive boat," Grove added. It is not yet clear how the Ukraine war and the economic sanctions slapped on Russia by Western countries will impact their military development, such as with the number of Yasens, experts say.

An appropriate comparison point for the Yasen-class subs in the U.S. Navy would be the Virginia-class vessels. The Virginias are one of three types of attack submarines operated by the U.S. Navy, along with the Seawolf and the Los Angeles, totaling 50 vessels.

But it's "doubtful" that the Yasen will be as effective as later Virginia-class submarines, Grove said. Indeed, the Virginias will be "superior in pretty much every facet of operations to the Yasen," he said.

This is not to write off the Yasen, however – it is "clearly a very good boat" in its own right, he said, adding it is hard to pull direct comparisons between the vessels operated by the differing navies. U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, who heads up the United States Northern Command, previously said the Yasen, also known by its NATO reporting name "Severodvinsk," was on "par with ours."

"While each Yasen-class SSGN is individually impressive, 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," Geist said.

Overall, "despite the Russians having some newer submarines, on the whole the U.S. submarine fleet is qualitatively and quantitatively superior," Geist added.