The fire at the USS Miami nuclear submarine of the Los Angeles class, which was undergoing maintenance, drew attention to the state of the U.S. Navy submarine force. Nowadays the «silent service» is gradually changing, and becoming more and more universal.
Judging by the facts published in the open sources today, the circumstances of the fire on the American submarine that happened on the night from the 23th to 24th of May, 2012 in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard dock in Kittery, Maine, are very similar to the events on the Russian atomic submarine missile carrier Ekaterinburg. The accident on the Russian nuclear submarine occurred on December 29, 2011 in the dock of the Shipyard no. 82 in the village of Roslyakovo (Murmansk region), in the North of the European part of Russia.
In both cases the fire, which lasted for several hours, had broken out in the front part of the vessel. In both cases, the cause of the fire was, apparently, a violation of safety rules during the overhaul. In the Yekaterinburg case the inflammation of construction waste and wooden scaffoldings was named the cause of the accident. In the USS Miami case the source of the inflammation is not named yet.
In both cases nobody was killed, but several people suffered from smoke. In Russia there were nine people, in the USA - seven. This is where the similarity ends, and the differences begin. On the Russian submarine the fire was contained in the hydro acoustic complex enclosure in the front part of the submarine, and the inflammation of the crashproof hull and the spreading of fire through the compartments was prevented. On the American submarine two nose compartments were burning. In this connection concerns are already being expressed about the USS Miami performance capabilities and expediency.
The USS Miami (SSN-755) nuclear submarine is of the Improved Los Angeles class. She joined the Navy in 1990. At the shipyard, the submarine was undergoing repair and modernization, and after that she was supposed to remain in service at the Fleet till 2025. Previous Los Angeles class submarines are now being withdrawn from the Fleet; they are being replaced by new submarines of the Virginia class.
The new submarines, formally belonging to the same class that the Los Angeles ones, possess better performance capabilities. In addition to the standard armament of four torpedo tubes and launchers for cruise missiles, the Virginias have the airlock for light divers, and a deck fastening for a container or an ultra-small submarine. The equipment of the boat also includes unmanned underwater vehicles.
Alongside with capability to fight surface and underwater targets, submarines of this class have a more significant potential for carrying out special operations. It dramatically increases the importance of submarines in local conflicts, in which they have been previously used almost exclusively as cruise missiles carriers. The Virginia’s main advantage is its relatively low price and simplicity of the project that allows producing larger series. Years ago, towards the end of the Cold war, the United States had planned to replace the Los Angeles class nuclear submarines by larger, more rapid and more deep-water Seawolf class nuclear submarines. However, after the collapse of the USSR, the price of these submarines was considered unreasonably high.
All attempts to apply the American approach in Russia have failed. Submarine cruisers of Project 885 Yasen are being built for the Russian Navy - large, heavily armed, fast and deep-water submarines, which are considered to be the Seawolf class submarines’ rivals. The head ship of this class - the Severodvinsk – has been under construction for almost 17 years (from 1993 to 2010), and it is passing final tests now. The construction was delayed due to lack of finance, besides in 2000-ies the project was seriously redesigned with the use of modern equipment that has also elongated the period of construction.
The pace of serial submarines’ construction should increase: next year it is planned to launch the second submarine and to hand it over to the Fleet in 2014. But in any case the Yasen class submarines will be larger and more expensive than the Virginia class, and taking into account the difference in the military budgets of Russia and the U.S., it looks absolutely unjustified. Limiting the Yasen class submarines to a small number of vessels (2-4) the way the United States have limited their Seawolf class submarines, and developing of a relatively cheap universal nuclear submarine of a new generation seems to be the best choice for the Russian Navy.
Otherwise, the Russian submarine fleet faces the threat of a dramatic reduction of the number of submarines.