Key point: It's a difficult call.
The United States Navy’s submarine force emerged from the Cold War as the undisputed masters of the undersea realm. The elite, all-nuclear submarine force watched as its Soviet submarine force rivals rusted away pierside, the newly founded Russian Federation unable to maintain them.
After more than twenty years of American submarine supremacy, a new challenger has arisen from the deep. Slightly familiar and almost two decades in the making, it’s an unusual challenge to U.S. naval superiority, but nevertheless one with a long, lethal pedigree. How does this new old upstart, Russia’s Yasen-class submarine, compare with the new backbone of the U.S. submarine force, the Virginia class?
The Yasen (“Ash Tree”) class of submarines was conceived as early as the mid-1980s by the Malakhit Central Design Bureau, one of the Soviet Union’s three main submarine bureaus. Construction of the first submarine, Severodvinsk, began in 1993 in Russia at the Sevmash Shipyards, but lack of funding delayed completion for more than a decade. Severodvinsk was finally launched in 2010, and commissioned into the fleet in 2013.
The Yasen class measures 390 feet long and displaces 13,800 tons. It has a crew of just ninety, far fewer than its American equivalents, suggesting a high level of automation is built into the submarine. In shape it resembles the earlier Akula class, but much longer behind the conning tower and a hump to accommodate vertical launch tubes. According to the authoritative Combat Fleets of the World, Severodvinsk has a OK-650KPM two-hundred-megawatt nuclear reactor, good for the life of the boat, which drives it to speeds of up to sixteen knots surfaced and thirty-one knots submerged. Other reports peg it slightly faster, at thirty-five knots. It can run quiet underwater at twenty knots.