Despite international sanctions stymieing Russia’s economy, the Kremlin manages to keep the nation in the global military conversation. This is in large part due to a creative approach investing in new weapons technology: getting the best doomsday bang for the struggling Russia buck, or more aptly, ruble.
This allows Russia to field notably capable, and not so capable, weapons technologies in extremely small numbers, giving the country boasting rights even where true strategic capability is lacking. Now, with the unveiling of Russia’s newest submarine, Belgorod, defense experts are trying to determine what the massive new submersible is: a strategic asset worthy of concern, or a trophy ship unveiled for the press.
Officially known as Project-09852, the Belgorod submarine is longer and displaces significantly more water than America’s largest Ohio-class submarines, weighing in at a positively immense 30,000 tons when submerged. At 604 feet long, the Belgorod is a true one-off design, starting its life as an Oscar II-class cruise missile submarine.
Initially, the government halted its construction due to a lack of funds. Then it decided to green light completion of the unfinished hull, converting it into a “special mission” submarine due to a lengthy addition to the ship’s midsection and a number of other unique modifications.
According to the Kremlin, the Belgorod wasn’t designed as a sub-hunting attack vessel or as a ballistic missile launcher. Instead, it’s meant to serve as a mothership of sorts for special operations mini-subs and even Russia’s latest doomsday torpedo, the Poseidon, an autonomous undersea drone that carries a 100-megaton nuclear weapon.
However, the unusual timeline involved in the Belgorod’s construction may neuter its real value as a stealthy covert mothership. Because of the long delay between developmental construction as an Oscar II-class sub and its resurgence as the Belgorod, the majority of the ship’s hull (barring the extension in the middle) is already older than the sailors tasked with manning it. So even with the modern technology installed within the gargantuan ship, there’s a solid chance it won’t be as quiet as more modern sub designs.
This doesn’t mean the Belgorod won’t offer the Russian military some new undersea capabilities. It might not be able to operate in heavily-congested or -defended waters as easily as the country’s modern Severodvinsk-class subs, but it has a large undersea platform for the Kremlin to deploy new defensive technologies in its coastal waters, like the Harmony submarine detection network. Because of Belgorod’s ability to operate at depths of up to 1,700 feet, it could also aid in efforts to gain access to and either sabotage or conduct espionage through the massive undersea cables that provide internet connectivity between continents.