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Zvyozdochka Shipyard Upgrading Russian Navy Project 971 Akula-class Submarines

Naval Industry News - Russia
Zvyozdochka Shipyard Upgrading Russian Navy Project 971 Akula-class Submarines
The Zvyozdochka Shipyard has been upgrading the Project 971 Shchuka-B-class (NATO reporting name: Akula I-class) nuclear-powered attack submarines, according to its press office. The Leopard nuclear attack submarine’s arrival to Zvyozdochka for repair in 2011 marked the era of the repair and modernization of the Project 971 boats. Today, the Volk, another ship of the class, operated by the Northern Fleet, is side by side with the Leopard in the shipyard. Their sister ships, the Bratsk and the Samara operated by the Pacific Fleet, are awaiting their turn.
The Northern Fleet’s K-157 Project 971 nuclear-powered submarine Vepr will join Russia’s Navy in 2016 after repairs, the Zvyozdochka Shipyard said in an annual report published on the Corporate Information Disclosure Center’s website.
Russian Navy Northern Fleet’s K-157 Project 971 nuclear-powered submarine Vepr.
Picture: Ilya Kurganov
Although Zvyozdochka has its hands full repairing and upgrading various surface ships and submarines and building a specialized vessel series for the Navy, it was chosen as the sole contractor to bring the Shchuka-B fleet up to date.

The thing is, it is Russia’s only shipyard able to tackle the large-scale nuclear-powered submarine modernization program. Therefore, the Navy decided to vest a part of the nuclear-powered attack submarine fleet combat readiness maintenance task with Zvyozdochka and its affiliate Nerpa. Moreover, Zvyozdochka is the shipbuilding’s most sophisticated company featuring a wealth of relevant experience in carrying out technically complex programs, e.g. the modernization of the Project 667BDRM (Delta IV-class) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) - the mainstay of the nuclear leg of the Russian nuclear deterrent triad. These considerations explain why the Pacific Fleet’s Project 971 nuclear-powered attack submarines have arrived for the upgrade specifically to the Yagry Island-based shipyard.

All of them are facing both repair and heavy upgrade, after which their designation will be altered. The upgrade will cover both the systems and the hulls. The improved performance of the third-generation Project 971M nuclear-powered attack submarines will bring them close enough to the fourth-generation Project 885 Yasen-class (Severodvinsk-class) boats. Essentially, a new ship will be created in the old hull.
The unavoidable retirement of the second- and third-generation subs from service and the increasing obsolescence of the Project 971 ones, which service record dates back over 20 years against the backdrop of the lack of proper repairs coupled with an extremely slow commissioning of fourth-generation submarines, makes the Navy pay special attention to maintaining the current nuclear-powered attack submarine forces of its Northern and Pacific fleets.

The on-condition repair in recent years has been unable to overcome the growing obsolescence of the radio electronics and other equipment, and the characteristics of the weapons suite are no longer on a par with the up-to-date standards. To maintain the readiness of the nuclear-powered attack submarines, the Project 971 ones are in need of repair and modernization that includes a number of compulsory elements, according to expert opinion. The measures to be taken should include advanced control, communication, navigation, sonar, action information and other electronic systems, cutting-edge missiles and torpedoes and nuclear security, survivability, habitability, reliability and noise reduction aids.

The overall repair and upgrade solutions will extend the class’s service life by 15 years. Since their service life equals a quarter of a century in case of supportive repair alone, the 15 years until the commissioning of enough fourth-generation nuclear attack submarines is a sufficient guarantee of the readiness of the attack submarine fleet.

To handle a large-scale job like that, even the shipyard, which had held a sterling record as nuclear-powered attack submarine repairer for decades, had to do a serious homework ranging from the design records coordination with the design bureau to the reconstruction of its manufacturing facilities. The routine approach ‘first the design, then the construction’ has been reversed, with ships coming for repair while the shipyard continues the R&D and re-equipment despite the clearance to proceed with the contract. Due to the hurry to fulfil the overall task, the shipyard has to lead the design bureau that has to modify the design documentation urgently, spending a lot of time on problems calling for quick resolution. The design bureau and shipyard being out of sync could not but result in the program’s slipping behind schedule, and this is only one of the aspects complicating the upgrade of the Project 971 nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The Project 971 class is made up of third-generation boats embodying the then most advanced scientific and technical solutions. The increase in the automation of controlling the systems led to a cut in the crew strength and a tighter layout of the submarine’s interior. The approach to building the Project 971 submarines has switched to modular design, with complete modules placed inside the hull. Certainly, this makes the complicated upgrade even more difficult, necessitating out-of-the-box concepts for implementing the program.

Taking the Leopard for example, one can imagine the difficulties facing Zvyozdochka. Once the dismounting of her equipment and hull structures and the hull and system repair determination began, the company encountered the sluggishness of designers dragging their feet on the design and production records release for months. The production and repair of the equipment by the original equipment manufacturers (OEM) poses another problem characteristic of not only these submarines, unfortunately. Many OEMs have ceased to exist with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The delays in the delivery of basic equipment and spares, tools and accessories needed for the repair have become a pain in the neck to Zvyozdochka.

The work is under way, nevertheless. The foundations are being laid for the equipment and for the testing of hull elements and ballast tanks. The electric installation work is in full swing onboard the Leopard after a long delay. The current pace of the work and equipment delivery indicates that the order will be fulfilled on schedule. The analysis of the errors made while repairing and upgrading the lead ship of the series will speed up the return of the remainder to service by far.

To do the job on time, the company will also have to invest in the re-equipment and reconstruction of Zvyozdochka production facilities. In addition, the shipyard has had to introduce a huge number of examples of support equipment, including benches for testing and calibrating the systems and mechanisms and repair tools. All of these were supposed to be tested on the Leopard. Figures show the scale of preparations made. Since the preparations for and the conduct of the dismounting of the sub’s equipment, more than 1,400 items of the hardware intended in support of the Project 971 submarines’ upgrade have been manufactured to date, which is half of the total number required. The development and commissioning of new tests stands continues, for which purpose more research and design institutes have been contracted.

As for the infrastructure, the reconstruction and building of several production and support facilities of the shipyard are in progress under the third-generation nuclear-powered attack submarine program within the framework of the 2018 federal program. The reconstruction of the low-pressure boiler room and Shop No. 10 have been completed and the re-equipment of Shop. No. 15 - the slipways of the shipyard - is being carried out at the expense of billions of rubles set aside by the government and provided by the shipyard out of pocket. Several facilities more are being built or re-equipped, including the hydraulics (the deep-water and shallow quays in the first place), ship lift and transport/transfer facilities, and screw processing shop.

Unfortunately, it is this combination of factors (delay in the technical re-equipment program that is time-consuming and labor-intensive indeed, preliminary design and organizational work drawbacks, and slippage behind schedule by subcontractors) that remain the cause of the delay in executing government-placed orders for the repair and upgrade of the Project 971 nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The situation is anything but new to Zvyozdochka that encountered the same problems when it launched the Project 667BRDM nuclear-powered submarines’ shipyard repair of many years. At the time, the initial difficulties were dealt with, and the repair of the strategic submarines then went like clockwork. There are reasons to believe that the Project 971 family’s repair and modernization will see their problems ironed out and that the upgraded Project 971M submarines will return to service on the dot, according to the press office of the Zvyozdochka Shipyard.

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