Russia's Arcturus submarine concept. Image: Rubin Design Bureau

True to its long tradition of building impressive submarines, Russian design bureau Rubin unveiled a concept mockup of its next-generation Arcturus nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) at the Army 2022 exhibit, according to Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti.

The Arcturus concept features faceted shaping that resembles modern low-observable aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 to deflect incoming active sonar, according to defense analyst H Sutton in Naval News.

He notes that several next-generation submarines such as the Type-212CD, which is being built for Germany and Norway, and the UK Dreadnought-class SSBN feature the same external form. Rubin mentions that the Arcturus also has a new kind of anti-echoic coating, a technology Russia extensively uses on its submarines.

Rubin claims a 20% size reduction compared to previous Russian SSBNs due to improvements in submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBN) technology.

Defense analyst Joseph Trevithick notes in an article in The Warzone that the Arcturus appears to be smaller than the previous Borei-class SSBN, although it has a wider hull. He also mentions that the US and Sweden experimented with similar hull shapes during the Cold War.

Rubin also states Arcturus features a combined propulsion system that uses a shaftless power plant and full electric propulsion to increase maneuverability and reliability. Moreover, Trevithick points out that it may feature pump-jet propulsion, which is more efficient than typical propellers and can further reduce the submarine’s acoustic signature.

Rubin stresses that while stealth will remain the most important characteristic of submarines, detection technology is quickly evolving – meaning submarine stealth technology must also evolve to match these threats.

The source also notes that since submarines are getting quieter with each new design, active low-frequency sonar will play an increasingly important role in submarine detection.

In terms of SLBM armament, Sutton notes that Arcturus has 12 missile tubes, compared to the Borei class which has 16 tubes. As stated by Rubin, the smaller missile armament is made possible by improvements in SLBM technology, which means fewer missiles may need to be fired to penetrate missile defenses.

These missiles may be upgraded versions of the RSM-56 Bulava SLBM currently used by Russia’s Borei SSBNs, or even a submarine-launched hypersonic missile, which Russia tested in October last year.

A Kalibr high-precision ship-based land attack cruise missile is launched from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate as part of the Grom 2019 military exercise. Photo: Screen grab / Russian Defense Ministry / TASS

Most strikingly, the Arcturus can deploy underwater drones to detect hostile targets at an extended range.

Sutton notes that the Arcturus may carry two or possibly three Surrogate-V autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations.

He notes that the Surrogate-V is equipped with a large conformal array sonar, pump jet propulsion and a non-acoustic “sniffer” system designed to detect chemical and radiation trails from enemy submarines.

Sutton also notes that the Surrogate-V may be used as decoys, mentioning that Rubin in the past has built AUVs that it claims can mimic the signatures of other submarines.

In addition, Trevithick notes that the Surrogate-V could also be used as an “underwater wingman”, in the sense that it could scout out targets that could then be hit with the Arcturus’ weapons or by other Russian naval assets.

Rubin mentions that the Arctic will be the Arcturus’ primary area of operations, which is in line with its growing interests in the region.

A 2021 paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that global warming has made the Arctic’s significant oil and gas reserves more accessible to claimants like Russia, where energy revenues make up as much as 60% of exports and 30% of its federal budget.

The paper notes that this revenue is critical for keeping Russian President Vladimir Putin in power, both as emergency funds in case of political or economic turmoil and to modernize the Russian military. Given these figures, it is easy to see why the Arctic figures prominently in Russia’s national interests.

The 2022 Naval Doctrine of the Russian Federation emphasizes the importance of the Arctic, stating the need to develop the region and at the same time stressing the possibility of conflict. It also sees increasing foreign military presence in the region as an attempt to cut off Russia from the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait.

In military terms, the Carnegie paper states that Russia’s foremost interest in the Arctic is to secure its SSBNs in the Kola Peninsula against NATO attack, in line with its “bastion strategy” which aims to create protected areas for its SSBNs.

This area is guarded by a layered defense of surface warships, coastal missile batteries, land-based aircraft, nuclear attack submarines (SSN) and conventional attack submarines (SSK), ensuring the safety of Russia’s undersea-based nuclear deterrent.

The paper also mentions that Russia aims to preserve its ability to operate on NATO’s eastern side in the event of a major conflict. It notes that Russia’s Northern Fleet has direct access to the Barents and Norwegian Seas, and the Atlantic Ocean. Its capability to operate in those areas would likely be a decisive factor in any potential conflict with NATO.

A Russian sub breaks the icy surface in the Arctic. Photo: TASS

In addition, the source mentions the need to protect Russia’s economic interests in the Arctic, noting that the region’s vastness, remoteness, inhospitable climate, poor communications, lacking infrastructure and growing civilian activities increase the risk of maritime, nuclear and environmental accidents.

This necessitates the need for rapid-response military capabilities, or at least a constant military presence. The Arcturus may thus become a key asset in defending Russia’s interests in the Arctic.

However, Sutton and Trevithick note that Russia’s current economic situation, aggravated by Western sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine, may prevent the Arcturus from being built anytime soon.

Even so, Sutton notes that SSBNs are Russia’s ultimate insurance policy against NATO, while Trevithick mentions that the construction of advanced submarines is one area where Russia has consistently applied resources and obtained tangible results.

He also notes that US officials have stated that current generation Russian submarines are equal or near-equal to their American counterparts in terms of capabilities, and present a credible threat while operating near US shores.

Futuristic Russian submarines such as the Yasen nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine (SSGN) and Belgorod special mission submarine attest to Russia’s submarine technology prowess.