TechRecommissioned Russian submarine K-132 Irkutsk: A 21st-century underwater hunter or relic of the Cold War?

Recommissioned Russian submarine K‑132 Irkutsk: A 21st-century underwater hunter or relic of the Cold War?

Submarine of the 949A project - illustrative picture
Submarine of the 949A project - illustrative picture
Images source: © Licensor
2:19 PM EST, February 13, 2024

The Irkutsk, following the K-239 Belgorod submarine of Project 949A, has returned to service after a prolonged stay in the shipyard. The Belgorod, having its hull extended to over 603 feet, was reconstructed to fulfill a special role — carrying one of Putin's superweapons, the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, mounted outside the hull.

Initially in the 1980s, the Irkutsk was built according to the same design as the Belgorod. However, it left the shipyard with entirely different capabilities. As a Project 949AM unit, it is projected to serve as a strike vessel, which, due to the substantial number of missiles it carries, should be capable of combating groups of ships and land targets.

Nuclear hunters

Project 949 vessels are among the largest submarines ever built. Fourteen units were produced in the 80s and 90s based on design plans that were developed in the 60s. Different from strategic boomers (nuclear submarines with intercontinental ballistic missiles), their role was to combat enemy ships.

Oscar type vessels are hence characterized by a very high maximum speed. These colossal vessels, each 505 feet long and having a submerged displacement of approximately 18,500 tons, can achieve underwater speeds of up to 32 knots (about 37 MPH). This is higher than most contemporary military vessels and is comparable to the swift destroyers from World War II.

The Oscars were also specially equipped to act as underwater hunters. Initially, submarines were equipped with torpedoes - including nuclear warhead rocket-torpedoes RPK-2 Vyuga - and anti-ship missiles P-700 Granit that are launched underwater. The mission of these heavily armed units was to locate and destroy the enemy's most valuable ships, primarily aircraft carriers.

New versions of Oscars

During almost 40 years of service (the first Oscars were built in the early 80s), the Project 949 vessels have undergone two significant upgrades.

Submarine project 949
Submarine project 949© Public domain

The first upgrade, introduced from the third vessel onwards during the 80s, was labeled as 949A (Antey type, NATO code Oscar II) and involved an extension of the submarine's hull to 505 feet. The additional space was necessary to accommodate more advanced electronic equipment and for the silencing of the engine.

Among the vessels of Project 949A was the infamous K-141 Kursk submarine, which sank under mysterious circumstances in the Barents Sea in 2000, leading to the loss of its crew of 118.

Some units of Project 949A that have not been decommissioned over time have been (or are set to be) rebuilt to the standard 949AM. The recently launched Irkutsk represents this version.

Project 949A ship K-266 Orioł
Project 949A ship K-266 Orioł©

Old hull, new equipment

This represents a significant upgrade - the submarines are fitted with new combat information and navigational systems, new electronic and communication equipment, and new sonar. The electronics used in these old units should be as advanced as in the latest Yasen-class vessels.

They are also newly equipped with Kalibr missiles or P-800 Oniks. Unfortunately, there is no reliable information about the number of missiles carried by the upgraded units. The TASS agency reports inconsistent numbers, ranging from 30 to even 72 missiles.

The readiness of the vessel is also reported ambiguously. Though the Irkutsk has been launched, it is unknown how long it will take to complete the fitting-out stage. One of the reports suggests that the submarine is due to re-enter service only in 2025.

Relics of the Cold War

Although the Irkutsk is a powerful and heavily armed vessel, and its upgrade - though we should be skeptical about the propaganda messages shared by TASS - likely significantly improved its capabilities, its fate typifies the problems of the Russian navy.

Project 949A submarine, K-150 Tomsk
Project 949A submarine, K-150 Tomsk© | Sergey Konovalov

This is evident, for example, from the time required for the modernization of equipment - Russian vessels, not only submarines, often spend not just years, but entire decades in shipyards for overhauls.

The Irkutsk, constructed in 1985-1987, entered service in 1988, and it was already decommissioned and sent for repairs in 1997. The refurbishing didn't start until 2001, and following the implementation of the upgrade to version 949AM program, the submarine was relaunched only in 2024 (though other TASS reports suggest it was in 2023). This reveals the pace of the modernization of Russia's key vessels.

Simultaneously, Russian vessels designed following the collapse of the USSR (like the problematic Project 677 Lada) necessitate modernizing old vessels due to a lack of modern units and the issues associated with those designed after the USSR's collapse.

Despite an update to the electronics, the propulsion and structural solutions represent the technical level of nearly 40 years ago. An illustrative example is the issue with the drive shafts of another Project 949A vessel, K-266 Oryol, which was supposed to receive modernized propellers, but this never occurred - because their development was halted 30 years ago. Consequently, instead of silently "creeping up" on aircraft carriers, the unit now causes so much noise that it's essentially useless.

According to Russian sources, upgrading Oscars to the 949AM standard should extend their service life by another 20 years. Nevertheless, resorting to units built in the 80s, even with effective modernization, appears to be more a sign of weakness than a demonstration of the strength of the Russian navy.

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