Ship-Shape Submarines

Russia is ready for Project 75(I) competition

Vladimir ‘Vovick’ Karnozov

Moscow: India continues to buy a lot from overseas weapon manufacturers, but in the past few years, the focus has been shifting to license production and technology offsets. The process of selecting a specimen, which can be copied locally, is now more guarded. In such a situation, it is best for collaborators to have their products ordered by the armed forces of their home country.

Russia is ready for Project 75(I) competition

Seen from this perspective, chances of the Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering ‘Rubin’ and its industrial partners have gone up, especially, after the Russian ministry of defence ordered quantity production of Project 955/A nuclear-powered underwater cruisers, and Project 636.3 and Project 677 diesel-electric submarines. Export version of the Project 677, the Amur 1650, is on offer in India in the ongoing Project 75(I) competition for six units.

This summer saw two more Rubin-designed ships become a reality. On 30 July 2012 Russia’s President Vladimir Putin travelled to Severodvinsk to lay down the foundation of Duke Vladimir (named after the Kievan Rus ruler whose reign extended from 978 to 1015 AD) – the first in the series of five Project 955A underwater cruisers, coming after three Project 955s which have already been built. On August 17, Russian navy commander Admiral Victor Chirkov led a similar ceremony in St. Petersburg for the Old Oskol, a third in the series of six Project 636.3 diesel-electric submarines for the Black Sea Fleet.

Speaking to the media on these occasions, both Putin and Chirkov promised more orders for local shipbuilders. Putin said that 4.44 trillion roubles will be spent on construction of new ships for the Russian navy’s “multi-purpose groupings of general use”, adding that one-third of that sum will be provided in the next five years. Another important statement made by Putin on July 30 was: “By 2020, the navy will take delivery of 51 surface combatant and 16 multi-purpose submarines.”

According to the Armament Program 2011-2020, during the next eight years, the Russian Navy shall receive eight Project 955/A strategic underwater cruisers; eight Project 885 fast-attack submarines; 15 frigates and 35 corvettes. This will boost the share of modern equipment in the navy’s arsenal to 30 per cent by 2016 and further to 70 per cent by 2020. Putin stressed the need to equip new ships with modern long range rocketry. “It is exactly the weaponry that always determined power and worthiness of combat ships in wartime,” he said.

Priorities of the Russian Navy
Chirkov stated that the naval ship-building programme 2011-2020 “will be materialized completely.” In particular, the navy expects 14-20 non-nuclear submarines, most of which will be from the stable of Project 636.3 and 677. The admiral said, “We will go forward without changing earlier decisions. Instead, we will work so as to unify ships of various types and upgrade them as necessary so as to achieve a greater degree of cross-type unification, and ensure the newly launched ships carry state-of-the-art weaponry.”

Three years ago, the Russian Navy placed order for six Project 636.3 submarines. First of them, the Novorossiysk, was laid down at the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg in August 2010 (commissioning expected in late 2013) and the second, the Rostov-upon-Don, in November 2011. They have standard displacement of 2,350 t, underwater speed up to 20 knots, endurance of 45 days and compliment of 52.

Compared to Project 877 and ships which are already in service of the Russian Navy such as the exportable Project 877EKM and Project 636, the new Project 636.3 “is more stealthy, with new acoustics systems and means of communications. Besides, she has a higher degree of automation and newer weaponry. The new submarine is highly capable, and can stay in service for a few dozen years. The most important thing for us about these submarines is that with them the navy can go into the next decade with state-of-the-art technologies and capabilities.” Chirkov added that the Project 636.3 has no equal among western diesel-electric submarines simply because the Russian design has a much more powerful missile system.

With Project 636.3, Chirkov also noticed an improved comfort of the crew. “She has a good mess room, and fairly good living quarters – all this provides a sufficient level of comfort to enable the crews to carry out their tasks not only in coastal defense, but also on an a blue-water mission.” The Admiralty Shipyards holds contracts for construction of over 12 diesel electric submarines (including six Project 636.1 for Vietnam and six Project 636.3 for the Russian navy). Of these eight are being built.

In the meantime, construction of the Project 677 series had been temporarily frozen after completion of the head vessel (the Saint Petersburg) and putting her into the Russian navy register in May 2010. The reason behind putting this programme on hold was to allow sufficient time for the navy to test the head vessel at sea, and the industry to allocate and fix potential design flaws.

In July 2012, the MoD resumed funding for completion of two earlier-started hulls, the Kronstadt and the Sebastopol. These will be completed with minor changes to the baseline design. “Our (future) plans are based on the assumption that within two years all remaining issues pertaining to (indigenous) AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) will be resolved; we are planning to put the new propulsion system on the third and fourth hulls (of the Project 677),” said Chirkov.

The Russian Navy no longer suffers from problems that affected it several years ago. “We notice a higher degree of interest among young people in joining the navy. This results in more applicants going to the military schools and institutes, and a tougher competition to pass exams and get accepted. Besides, those who serve on submarines of the Northern Fleet and those based on the Kamchatka peninsula are on a contract (not conscripts). This proves that the importance of the navy has gone up in the eyes of the public,” said Chirkov.

Rubin’s New Leader

Director general, Rubin Design Bureau, Igor Vilnit
Director general, Rubin Design Bureau, Igor Vilnit

Director general, Rubin Design Bureau, Igor VilnitThe popularity of navy is good news for Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering ‘Rubin’. Speaking to FORCE, Igor Vilnit, who took over as general director in March 2012 from Andrei Diachkov, said, “Rubin will continue to work closely with Sevmash Shipyards in Severodvinsk, which builds Rubin-designed strategic underwater cruisers. “There is a big ship-building programme in place, giving both enterprises a high workload. This requires making right decisions on time regarding submarine development and construction so that governmental orders are completed in the shortest time possible and at the lowest expense.”

Vilnit joined Rubin in 1979 and since then has been involved in many military and civilian programmes of the company. When asked about his priorities as the new head of Rubin, he said the main one was to fulfill, efficiently and on time, the governmental orders for submarines. “There is a huge amount of work to be done. In some cases, it requires innovative approaches. Managing development and assembly of specimens for series production is a challenging task, particularly in the present environment of a market-driven economy and the post-crisis conditions.”

Rubin holds governmental contracts for development of nuclear-powered, diesel-electric submarines and special equipment. Besides, Rubin is working on civil programmes and will expand this activity.

Military technical co-operation with foreign countries is another area that Rubin has been involved in. “Bidding in international tenders, like those in India, gives a good chance to compete face-to-face with European rivals. It is a strong stimulus for further development and improvement,” says Vilnit. While the Russian ship-building industry now enjoys big contracts from the Kremlin, winning a foreign order brings in more money and bigger workload.

Another important priority for Vilnit is to improve Rubin’s team and take timely measures for its support and development. He believes in worthiness of special “social programmes” (complimentary to salaries and wages), from which the company’s employees can benefit, and also the company itself, as such programmes result in a better teamwork and mutual understanding among the employees. The team, he says, is well balanced in terms of skills and age. “It has some long-standing specialists and some young university graduates. Although we have always had people seeking a job at Rubin, nonetheless, we feel a shortage of middle-aged specialists. During the times of Perestroika, less people sought jobs in the defence industry. Rubin, like many other defence enterprises, was less attractive for ambitious university graduates.”

That said, Vilnit insists that the cadre problem is no longer acute for Rubin. “We have enough representatives of the younger generation who have amassed sufficient skills and knowledge through participation in the Project 955 and other projects, including development phase and construction of head vessels. And this secures the future for our enterprise.”

Rubin continues to master computer-aided design technologies. Although the process started 20 years ago, it was a big challenge, and still is. On certain projects the entire documentation package issued by Rubin is completely computerized. “These technologies are not new to us, but we are still mastering and perfecting them.” One of the challenges is to provide ‘a completely digital’ documentation package covering design and development of a vessel, manufacturing, delivery to the customer and a developer’s and manufacturer’s support throughout. This necessitates application of CAD/CAM/CAE, lean manufacturing and logistic support.

President Putin during the keel-laying ceremony of the nuclear submarine at Sevmash shipyard
President Putin during the keel-laying ceremony of the nuclear submarine at Sevmash shipyard

The Rubin team has tried many innovative technologies on maritime platforms, a purely civilian activity being developed in addition to the core business. The company started working on it in early 1990s, when military orders ran low. Although the situation has changed, Rubin is not going to give it up. “We started this activity 20 years ago, and have achieved considerable results. Good relations have been established with customers for maritime platforms, as well as overseas and local suppliers of major components. Today, Rubin is the leading company on maritime platforms in Russia,” says Vilnit.

Platforms are a very complex sea objects. “It is very hard to find your niche in a highly competitive environment, and easy to lose it. To stay competitive, you must improve all the time; the market-driven economy requires you to make efforts. It is as though the market is always asking you same old question, ‘are you going to give up’? Rubin shall never give up!” asserts Vilnit.

The company has developed a number of various platforms, and is now shaping one for rotorcraft operations. The work goes under respective contracts from RAO Gazprom fossil fuel giant and is in the course of Russian government’s federal programes for development of advanced civil technologies. The platforms in question may have different applications. For instance, they can facilitate transportation of workers to and from drilling platforms or oil rigs in the open sea. Rubin is also developing a platform with helicopter deck measuring 100×100 metres, which will be able to serve several helicopters at a time and withstand engine-out landings.

Next Generation
As of 2012, the Russian ship-building industry has brought out a fourth generation of submarines (long after after World War II). The line is formed by the Project 955/A strategic underwater cruiser, Project 885 fast-attack and the Project 677 diesel-electric submarines. Lead vessels of all the three classes have been built; now they will undergo sea trials.

So, what comes next? Will Russia work on the fifth generation submarine? Vilnit’s answer is in the affirmative. He notes that the life cycle of a concurrent submarine is normally over 50 years, starting from research and development, and going all the way through construction, operational service and withdrawal of last ship in a series. “In our industry, life cycles are very long, and therefore, from the start we have to think properly of a new design.”

The process of conceiving a next generation warship must be an unbroken chain of small steps forward. Formulating requirements and putting together specification for a next generation warship is “a constant, ever-going process”. It starts with collection and thorough analysis of comments and reports on in-service ships of the current generation, especially lead vessels in a series. “Following this approach, we have been collecting and analyzing data coming from the head ships which belong to the fourth generation, in order to formulate requirements and specifications for the fifth generation,” says Vilnit. In Russia this work (perfecting components) is being done not only at Rubin and other design houses, shipyards and their vendors, but also by dedicated MoD establishments. In co-operation with the industry and scientific institutes, the MoD runs various R&D programmes aimed at shaping the next generation. This persistent effort helps ship designers create a futuristic image of a ship. “Our design house is always in search of new, advanced solutions. Our industrial partners and vendors are companies specializing in acoustics, radio electronics and weaponry”.

On being asked whether this rather new idea of making silos (vertical launchers) on submarines which are able to fire both ballistic and cruise missiles, will have applications on future submarines of the Russian navy, Vilnit said that weaponry is the main thing about strategic underwater cruisers. Any new quality that the human brain works out must be tried by the designers. Their goal is to blend this new quality into design of the ship so as to ensure that during crisis such as wartime, the strategic cruiser will be able to accomplish her mission effectively. Rubin team works “tirelessly and without breaks” on making its submarines more efficient and combat-capable.

Unification of weapons systems is a trend in modern ship-building. “We have been following this trend,” says Vilnit. In technical terms, unification has some firm footing. “Having understood this, we also need to understand that any given missile cannot be launched from any given silo, not without some preparatory work.” Unification between launch systems is possible through a number of design solutions applicable to various missile types. Unification of components is a direction that Russian submarine designers have been paying attention to.

The former Soviet Union, and now Russia, have produced a number of titanium-hulled submarines. Today, most of Russian titanium output goes to aircraft manufacturers, notably Boeing and Airbus. Do Russian metallurgists produce high-quality titanium in sufficient numbers for the ship-building industry to continue building such ships? Rubin uses titanium in submarine’s structures. As a construction material, titanium features some very special qualities — it is strong and yet lighter than steel. This metal is harder to work with, and requires welding to be conducted in an artificial atmosphere whereas steel can be welded in the open. Making a submarine involves a lot of welding. Using titanium instead of steel makes the submarine more expensive but gives better performance. “The key question is to reduce manufacturing expenses. This can be achieved through advanced technologies applicable to structures made of titanium,” says Vilnit.

Rubin was responsible for development of the Project 685 deep-water fast-attack submarine. One such vessel, the K-278 Komsomolets, was built at Sevmash and served with the Soviet navy from 1984-’89. Having spent 450 days at sea, she demonstrated her ability to operate at a depth of 1,000 metres and more. “Rubin continues to work on the theme of titanium application in ship-building. We seek for new solutions that would be implemented in future ship designs. This is because the titanium has some good qualities that would give our future ships some advantage,” says Vilnit.

The Russian metallurgists are ready to supply titanium to local ship-builders in quantities sufficient to make submarines. “We meet regularly and talk,” said Vilnit, cautioning that one should not generalise and keep in mind that titanium alloys for aviation and those for shipbuilding are ‘world apart in their qualities’.

Diesel-Electric Submarines
Major demand for Russian diesel-electric submarines helped the Admiralty Shipyards to streamline their production. So far, 55 Rubin-designed Kilo-class submarines (Project 877/E/EKM/636) have been completed, and more are under construction. Normally, construction cycle for a Project 636 is three years.

In addition to 23 Kilo-class ships built for the Soviet navy, the local customer has recently placed order for six more, in customized version Project 636.3. This improved design has incorporated many innovations, some of which have been tried on exportable examples built for China, Algeria and Vietnam. Besides, the navy ordered a considerable number of new or improved onboard systems. The main reason behind the Russian navy’s decision to order six Project 636.3 ships was the high reliability of the baseline submarine. That apart, it has low acquisition costs and requires little maintenance.

These factors may influence certain overseas customers, including India, to decide in favour of buying an additional quantity of improved Project 636 hulls. This may provide a worthwhile ‘stop-gap’ solution before next generation submarines become available in sufficient numbers.

The Project 677 and its export derivative Amur 1650 are meant to supersede the Kilo class. Alexander Arsentiev leads this work in the capacity of chief designer; he reports to Igor Molchanov, recently appointed the head of Rubin’s Diesel-electric group.

Commander, Russian Navy, Admiral Victor Chirkov
Commander, Russian Navy, Admiral Victor Chirkov

Vilnit is thankful to Admiral Chirkov for his strong support to the Project 677. First, he approved of the improved design which takes account of sea testing already made on the head vessel. Second, the Admiral has made important statements recently about the Russian navy resuming funding for construction of series hulls. After these statements were made, “certain overseas customers approached us again,” said Vilnit. Today, Rosoboronexport and the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation along with foreign countries are interacting with these customers.

Meanwhile, lead vessel, the Saint Petersburg, continues her sea trials so that design flaws and manufacturing deficiencies, if any, can be discovered on time and fixed before series production begins. “Any new piece of advanced machinery requires careful attention in the beginning,” says Vilnit. At the time we spoke, the Saint Petersburg was at Baltic Fleet base in Baltyisk, undergoing preparations to depart for the Arctic waters where additional testing in oceanic environment shall take place.

Vilnit told FORCE that the Admiralty Shipyards resumed work on the Kronstadt and the Sebastopol. “They will be completed according to the improved design already available from Rubin.”

The Amur 1650 is on offer in India with AIP based on fuel cells and electrochemical generator employing reformation of diesel fuel to produce hydrogen. “Adding an AIP results in longer duration of underwater patrol. From a builder’s perspective, this requires relatively short amount of additional work to be done on a submarine, as an additional section (containing AIP) is inserted into her hull.” Vilnit says that both versions, the baseline with no AIP and the newer one with it, are on offer. “We will keep both versions on offer, to give our customers a choice. Difference in performance comes at a price.”

Rubin continues working on the Ion-Lithium battery for submarine applications. Such batteries are already used widely on the consumer market, but are not yet ready for naval service. Manufacturers are yet to achieve certain parameters — including electric capacity and specified parameters of the electrical current in discharge mode. The Ion-Lithium battery promises an increase in time of underwater low-speed patrol by 50 per cent, and in duration of full speed underwater cruise by three times. The Russian Navy commander has recently confirmed his interest in speeding up this work and promised more funds to complete it. Rubin specialists have made “good progress recently”. Vilnit adds, “We already have a full scale specimen of such a battery. I believe that in less than two years we can get our Ion-Lithium battery installed on a submarine and be ready for mass production.”

The Indian Connection
One of the success stories of Indo-Russian co-operation is building 10 Project 877EKM submarines for the Indian navy (Sindhughost class) and then keeping them up-to-date and seaworthy. Last in this series, the S65 Sindhushastra, was built as per an improved design, with the Club-S missile system (at that time even the Russian navy did not have it).

Starting in 2000, two Indian submarines underwent modernisation at the Admiralty Shipyards and four at Zvezdochka in Severodvinsk, during which they were equipped with the Club-S. In June 2012, the last of the submarines to be upgraded in Russia, the S63 Sindurakshak, was launched on water after repairs. She is due to rejoin the Indian Navy by the year-end. Three more Sindhughost class submarines are planned to undergo modernisation at Visakhapatnam under the supervision of Rubin and Zvezdochka advisors.

Russia is offering a second refit and modernisation programme. It can add from five-seven to 10 years of lifetime to these ageing submarines. The INS Vargi of Rubin’s Project 641 served for 36 years until being finally de-commissioned in 2011. Should the Indian side accept this offer, it may prove a timely and cost-effective measure to bridge the gap until induction of next generation submarines.

Defense procurement procedures require collaborators from foreign countries to work closely with the domestic manufacturers through massive offset programmes. In the case of Project 75(I), offset is said to be over 30 per cent of contract value. Meeting this requirement is quite a challenge. And yet, the Russian bidder — the Amur 1650 is officially offered by Rosoboronexport state arms vendor — is optimistic about it.

Vilnit is also optimistic. “I believe we can make it. We have been talking to both government organisations and privately-held companies so that we can use Indian-made components. As far as Rubin is concerned, we can also offer something in offset to our Indian partners. India is interested in latest technologies in design and development of modern naval and maritime equipment. We can offer something in this sphere,” he says.



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