Submarines can be armed with tactical nuclear weapons

Northern fleet submarine crew. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

- Probably, tactical nuclear weapons will play a key role in the future, the Russian Navy’s deputy chief of staff, Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev said in a surprise statement on Monday.


Tactical nuclear weapons were officially removed from all of the Northern fleet’s multi-purpose submarines in 1992. An agreement between President Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush (the older) from October 1991 stipulated such removal. This was two months before the breakup of the USSR. In January 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed the deal to remove all non-strategic nuclear weapons from naval vessels and scrap 1/3 of them. The rest were put into onshore storage facilities.

Since then, the Russian multi-purpose submarines sailing in the Barents Sea and other world oceans have not been armed with nuclear weapons. At least not officially. Speculations that Kursk, the submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in 2000, carried nuclear weapons were denied with the reference to the 1992 agreement.

The statement from the Navy’s deputy chief of staff, Vice Admiral Burtsev, is therefore either a confirmation that the Russian navy already have tactical nuclear weapons onboard some of their submarines, or a clear signal that multi-purpose submarines can be armed with such weapons of mass destruction it the future.

Quoted by RIA-Novosti Burtsev said: - The role of tactical nuclear weapons in the Navy may grow, (…), the increasing range and precision of tactical nuclear weapons makes them an important asset.

The International Herald Tribune writes that Russia in 2006 signaled it no longer intended to abide by the 1991 decision when then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russian submarines were carrying tactical nuclear weapons on patrol.

Last December, chief of the Russian military’s general staff, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, said Russia will keep its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which he said were necessary to counter a massive NATO advantage in conventional weapons, writes the International Herald Tribune.

The Northern fleet today operates two classes of multi-purpose submarines, the Akula-class which can be armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and the Oscar-II class which can carry both cruise-missiles and torpedoes. In addition, several of the Northern fleets surface vessels, based in Severomorsk, can be armed with tactical nuclear weapons. Among them is the navy’s flagship, the battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky.

With advances in the range and sophistication of tactical nuclear arms, Russian military leaders say low-yield nuclear warheads attached to cruise missiles fired from attack submarines make more sense than loading powerful bombs onto bigger strategic submarines, United Press International (UPI) reported with reference to RIA-Novosti.

The new Graney-class nuclear-powered attack submarine will reportedly has the ability to launch long-range cruise missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The first Graney-class submarine, to be named Severodvinsk, is currently under construction at the Sevmash naval yard in the town of Severodvinsk in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

As BarentsObserver reported in February, Sevmash General Director Nikolai Kalistratov said priority No. 1 in 2009 will be the construction of the submarines Yury Dolgoruky and SeverodvinskRIA-Novosti reported last week that the submarine will be delivered to the navy in 2010-2011.

According to a naval source speaking with RIA-Novosti the Russian Navy maintains a fleet of 60 submarines in active service, including 10 nuclear-powered strategic submarines, over 30 nuclear-powered multi-purpose submarines. There are some few spsial purpose submarines. The rest are diesel-electric submarines.

2/3 of all nuclear powered submarines belongs to the Northern fleet with homeports at the Kola Peninsula. The other 1/3 are based with the Pacific fleet in Russia’s Far East.

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