Russian Navy abandons Project 677 Lada vessel due to technical shortcomings, turns focus to USSR-era designs
The Kremlin's propagandist, the TASS agency, citing unofficial sources, reported the decision to scrap Saint Petersburg after just two years of service. The TASS statement appears to be the final word in rumors swirling around for several months regarding the vessel's future, which holds significant prestige for Moscow.
The B-858 Saint Petersburg was supposed to be a prototype ahead of the construction of a 20-unit series of a new type (Project 677), designed from scratch in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. However, things did not proceed as the Russian decision-makers had planned.
The concept for new, non-nuclear units for use in enclosed waters (primarily the Baltic and Black Seas) was developed from 1989-1996 by the Central Design Bureau of Marine Engineering Rubin in Petersburg.
The new unit was intended to succeed the older diesel-electric powered vessels - Project 613 and 633 units, and over time, the Project 636 units (for the Russian navy) and 877 Paltus (export variant), known in name as Warszawianka (to which ORP Orzeł belongs).
The Rubin design office developed the export variant 677 Amur concurrently with Project 677 Lada, and in 1997, construction started on the prototype vessel, Saint Petersburg. The unit was finished in 2004, and its flag was formally raised in 2010.
However, despite appearances of success, the vessel was not operationally ready upon its commissioning. Instead, it was manned by a crew for "experimental utilization," during which many technical issues were discovered.
These issues were addressed temporarily due to cost concerns; there was no substantial reconstruction of the vessel. Yet, the unit was officially commissioned in 2020, seventeen years post-launch.
The Project 677 Lada Submarines
The issue for Russia is that before the prototype Saint Petersburg was thoroughly tested, the production of batch units had already started. Even though substantial changes were introduced compared to the prototype, as Tomasz Grotnik of the Military Research and Analysis Team explained, it was decided in 2012 that Project 677 Lada was flawed and did not meet expectations. The construction of the vessels should be stopped.
The author of this critical view, Admiral Wysocki, was swiftly dismissed, and his successor, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was less critical of the Project 677 vessels. Thus, in 2013, the halted project was resumed by another political decision, and construction continued while promoting non-existent vessels as specialized underwater hunters.
It should be noted that the vessel's design has significantly improved (and was simplified compared to the ambitious assumptions a quarter of a century ago), and numerous changes were introduced in the constructed units. Concurrently, a decision was made to build twelve Lada-type vessels instead of the intended initial twenty.
Despite the Russians formally declaring their intent to complete the currently under construction and order additional Ladas, tests that have been delayed by years (the first batch vessel, Kronstadt, was tested in 2018) suggest that not all issues have been resolved. Hence, despite the navy's objections, the testing of Project 677 vessels was curtailed due to the intervention of Minister Sergei Shoigu.
As a result, Moscow announced a victory on January 31, 2024. As described by Karolina Modzelewska, the Admiralty Shipyards in Saint Petersburg ceremoniously commissioned the first batch vessel of Project 677 Lada, i.e. B-586 Kronstadt.
Another vessel - B-587 Velikye Luki - is awaiting the conclusion of tests, and the Russian Defense Ministry has ordered additional units, the Vologda and Yaroslav ships, along with another one with an undisclosed name.
Old is often better than new
In the article "Russian military novelties are projects from the USSR Era," I highlighted that the Kremlin's power rhetoric refers to "new" models of military equipment, which are essentially modifications of designs developed during the USSR era.
This is happening primarily because the Russian defense sector is currently facing a severe shortage of personnel: the generation of engineers educated during the USSR era is dwindling due to retirement and age-related attrition, leaving behind few trained successors.
In the last decade, the creators of key weapon systems used by Russia have died - Pavel Simonov (Su-27), Mikhail Kalashnikov (AK system weapon), Rollan Martirossov (Su-34), Pavel Kamnev (Kalibr missiles), and Sergei Nepochodimy (Iskander missiles).
Russia is losing not only personnel but also invaluable institutional memory. Considering Russia's demographic decline and forecasted economic difficulties, its reconstruction may prove impossible.
Although the Kremlin is putting on a brave face to compensate for the failure of their construction program, praising the Lada-type vessels, the Russians have once again reached for old projects. The modernized Project 636.3 was developed based on the export version of old Paltusies and has propelled Russia's conventional submarine construction since 2009.
Of course, the project improved; the vessels now have new capabilities (including the launch of Kalibr missiles), but after their failed attempt to build a new generation vessel, the fact that Russia is building more Warszawiankas serves as a commentary on its current shipbuilding quality. The saviors of the Russian submarine fleet are "new" vessels, whose design originated in the 1970s.