Since the beginning of the Ukraine Invasion in February, the Russian Navy’s four Improved-Kilo Class submarines in the Black Sea have been a regular sight in Sevastopol. The major naval base on Crimea’s west coast has been a starting point for many attacks on Ukraine. The Kilos have dedicated berths there, where they rearm with Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles.
Until recently it was not unusual to see three Kilos in the port at once, with one at sea. That has changed.
For the past few weeks, they have been concentrated at Novorossiysk, another naval base much further from Ukraine.
The Kilo Class Submarine
The Project 636.3 Improved KILO Class submarine is Russia’s most potent naval asset in the Black Sea. They are inherently more survivable in open water than their warship cousins. Especially against the Ukrainian which lacks any anti-submarine assets.
This was demonstrated by the dramatic loss of the flagship Moskva on April 13-14. There were many factors in the Slava Class cruiser’s loss. But submarines are, by their nature, immune to Harpoon or Neptune missiles. Russia’s surface fleet has already shifted out of range of the Harpoons.
Without a Ukrainian Navy to be sunk, the submarines, like much of the surface navy, is on cruise missile duty. Unlike surface ships Russian submarines can operate unimpeded throughout the Black Sea. They can launch Kalibr cruise missiles at targets throughout the entire country.
A slight disadvantage of the Kilo class submarines is that they only carry four Kalibrs. Russia’s surface ships are equipped with an 8-round vertical launch system. The Kilo’s can only launch the cruise missiles through two of their six torpedo tubes.
The Safety Of Novorossiysk
Novorossiysk sits on the Russia’s Black Sea coast, between Sochi and the now famous Kerch Bridge linking to Crimea. In recent years the naval base has been expanded and, during the Ukraine War, has been the home of many landing ships. Some submarines are normally based there but for much of the war Sevastopol became their hub.
Now they have largely moved back from Sevastopol. Submarines do still call at Sevastopol, and the older submarine Alrosa, which is undergoing post-refit trials, is still active there. But it is now normal to have three Kilos in Novorossiysk, and that is a change.
The move came shortly after Ukraine stepped up drone attacks on Sevastopol, targeting the Black Sea Fleet’s headquarters. The prominent HQ building was approached by drones which flew from the east, over the submarine berths. This may be part of the motivation for the change.
Given the war approaching Crimea, and Ukraine’s growing ability and confidence to attack Sevastopol, the retreat seems prudent. And it is difficult to disassociate it with the war threat.
The submarines do not however have to be based at Sevastopol in order to launch Kalibr missiles. These have enough range to be launched from near Novorossiysk and hit targets inside Ukraine. And the submarines have the ability to sail unmolested throughout the northern Black Sea.
As Russia moves its Navy around, reacting to Ukraine’s military moves, the location and activity levels of the submarines will continue to be of interest.