A pair of Russia's most modern attack submarines has been patrolling off the U.S. East Coast for the first time in more than a decade, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed Aug. 5. The deployment serves as an important signpost for the status of the Russian submarine fleet, and marks another Russian maneuver during a time of increased tension between Washington and Moscow.
Two Russian Akula-class fast attack submarines are patrolling the waters off the U.S. East Coast, The New York Times reported Aug. 4, citing unidentified U.S. defense officials. Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces, confirmed Aug. 5 the presence of the submarines. Although Nogovitsyn shrugged off the deployment as routine, it appears to be the first time that the Russians have deployed two submarines so far from home port in more than a decade. It is noteworthy for the implications for the Russian navy, as well as the timing given increasing tensions between Washington and Moscow. The deployment of two submarines simultaneously on a journey of at least 3,500 nautical miles (each way, and far from a friendly port) can be seen as a sign of renewed confidence on the part of the Russian leadership in the capabilities of both its submarines and its submariners, as well their intent and capability to project power. The submarines, unidentified by name or hull number in the story, are reportedly both of the Akula class (one of which is a more modern Akula II) and both are likely part of the Northern Fleet, which boasts six boats of the class. These are the most modern and capable attack submarines in the Russian fleet, often compared to the U.S. Los Angeles class. This is no small signal. STRATFOR has watched and noted as Russian ballistic missile submarine patrols have been on the rise. Despite what was essentially a halt to nuclear submarine operations in the wake of the 2000 Kursk tragedy as well as a fatal mishap last year aboard the Nerpa (K-152, also of the Akula class), Russia's attack submarine fleet now appears to be rebounding. And it is these sorts of longer deployments — demonstrating a greater endurance and returning submarine crews to a higher and more strenuous operational tempo — that could all begin to have a meaningful impact on the proficiency and ethos of the Russian submariner corps. It is particularly noteworthy that Russia was able to put two of these subs to sea and resume patrols off the U.S. East Coast at a time of heightening tension between Washington and Moscow, and with the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Georgia fast approaching. U.S. defense sources claim that they have had no trouble tracking the Russian subs. This is not hard to believe since the Russian crews have likely lost a great deal of proficiency in the finer points of submarine and anti-submarine warfare (though this sort of deployment is exactly how they might begin to regain some lost skills), and because this is a deployment that the Russians would want the United States to recognize. One of the two submarines has now departed the area (though it is not clear whether it is heading for Cuba or Venezuela to the south or returning north to its home port). Russia's point has been made, but it remains to be seen whether the Russians can sustain this tempo of submarine operations, which have felt the sting of budgetary strain and neglect during the post-Soviet days. Nogovitsyn may insist that all is routine, but if proficiently operated, the Akula is a serious and capable war machine that has not been so close to U.S. waters in many years. Undoubtedly, it is something the U.S. Navy will be watching closely.