Key point: The full extent of the Yasen-M upgrade package remains unclear…

The United Shipbuilding Corporation is expected to lay down the second Yasen-M submarine later this week, forging ahead with Russia’s most expensive post-Soviet submarine project.

Sevmash shipbuilding company director Mikhail Budnichenko told the Russian state news agency TASS that the keel-laying ceremony for Novosibirsk, the second Yasen-M submarine, will be held on December 25. Budnichenko added that two additional Yasen-M submarines will be laid down during the 2020 annual victory day celebration commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, as part of a procurement contract signed in the summer of 2019.

The Yasen-M line is a modernization package that is meant to account for the sixteen-year gap between the first commissioned Yasen vessel– Severodvinsk– and the upcoming Kazan submarine.

TASS is calling Novosibirsk the “first serially-produced submarine of the 885M ‘Yasen-M’ project” to be laid down; this, despite the fact that Kazan— the flagship Yasen-M vessel– was launched back in 2017 and is currently undergoing trials with the aim of being transferred to the Russian Navy in December 2020. There are two factors worth noting about this discrepancy. First, there is still some debate as to whether or not Kazan should be considered a serial Yasen-M unit, or as something of a technical intermediary between the original Severodvisnk and the recent line of Yasen-M vessels beginning with Novosibirsk. Secondly, TASS may still be correct in spirit even if not in letter; Novosibirsk is due to be commissioned before Kazan, which is undergoing additional testing after the discovery of “design flaws” in its “complex control systems.” 

The full extent of the Yasen-M upgrade package remains unclear and may vary across the eight models that are scheduled to be produced over the coming decade, but is widely believed to encompass a lower acoustic signature,  modernized onboard electronics loadout, shorter hull, and an expanded weapons suite. The latter notably includes the upcoming Kalibr-M cruise missile, which– at 4,500 km versus 1,500- 2,500 km– boasts nearly twice the range of the original 3M14 “Kalibr” cruise missile off which it is based.

As previously discussed by The National Interest, The Yasen-M line is expected to occupy the same performance league as the U.S. Virginia class of fast-attack submarines. There is, however, one category in which Yasen appears to win decisively: price-performance ratio. A serial Yasen-M unit is projected to cost no more than 50 billion rubles or roughly $1.6 billion, while the average price of a Virginia-class submarine is about $2.8 billion. This is a clear victory in relative terms, but one that rings hollow in light of the fact that the Russian Navy commands an exponentially smaller budget than its U.S. counterpart. $1.6 billion per Yasen-M unit may be a globally competitive price, but is still a massive strain on a Russian defense budget of around $70-90 billion.

Yasen-M is competing for resources against the Borei-A class, a line of heavy ballistic-missile strategic submarines are significantly cheaper at only $700-800 million per unit. Earlier predictions maintained that the Yasen-M line may be terminated prematurely due to financial concerns, but Russia’s Defense Ministry is apparently so confident in the project’s sustainability that they’ve decided to expand the Yasen-M line from six to eight planned submarines earlier this year. Attack submarine development has historically taken a backseat to a slew of more ambitious Russian naval projects over the past several decades, but the Kremlin is now sending a clear signal that they’ve recommitted to completing the Yasen line.

Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.

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