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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

AS-31 Losharik: Is Russia’s Spy Submarine On the Brink?

Oscar II-class Submarine 3
Image Credit: Facebook posting from Danish Navy.

Where is Russia’s Losharik Spy Submarine Now? – While Russia’s AS-31 Losharik submarine gained most of its fame outside of Russia as a result of a deadly 2019 fire and accident which nearly saw the vessel lost at sea, little is known for certain about this unique submarine. While the mysterious craft remains under repair, it will likely serve alongside the much larger Belgorod special-purpose submarine, which entered active service earlier this month, when it returns to the sea.

What is the Losharik

Usually referred to by its unofficial nickname Losharik, the AS-31 is also known as the AS-12 or Project 10831. Construction of the Losharik first began in 1988, in the final years of the Soviet Union. Still, construction was temporarily halted after the collapse of the Union, before being restarted in the early 2000s. Completed in 2003, the submarine was officially accepted into Russian service in 2010.

The basic structure of the Losharik helped to give the vessel its nickname. Just like a fictional horse from a Soviet cartoon which was made up of a series of spheres, the Losharik is a composed of seven spherical compartments which allows it to withstand the massive pressures of depths of up to 6,000 meters (and is a portmanteau of the Russian words loshad’ and sharik, meaning horse and small ball respectively).

Likely powered by a single E-17 nuclear reactor and a single propellor, the vessel’s hull is built from titanium and has a comparatively small displacement of 2,100 tons while submerged.

With a crew of 25 officers, the exact mission-set of the Losharik remains hazy, although some have speculated that it is capable of tapping or otherwise severing the transcontinental internet cables which connect Europe with North America.

The Almost-Wreck of the Losharik

The Losharik’s infamous almost-end came in July 2019, when 14 Russian sailors were killed as a result of a fire in the vessel’s battery compartment.

At the time of the accident, the ship was operating in waters in the Motovsky Gulf near the Rybachy Peninsula, only 50 kilometers from the Norwegian border. According to later reporting by the Russian news outlet Kommersant, all of the crew could have been saved if they had decided to evacuate the ship in a timely fashion after the fire broke out, but had instead prioritized fighting the fire.

Ultimately, the casualties from the crew of the Losharik, as well as the four members of the submarine Podmoskovie (which was acting as its mothership at the time), died as a result of an explosion in the battery compartment.

Following the deadly accident, the Losharik was transported to the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, where it began a lengthy repair and refit process.

While the exact details of the accident and what activities the submarine was performing are not fully clear, the high concentration of first- and second-rank captains in the casualties of the fire implies that the Losharik was on a highly sensitive or essential mission at the time.

What is the Losharik’s Future?

According to Russian state media, repairs for the Losharik were delayed from 2020 to 2021, at which point the process began. According to the Barents Observer, the nuclear reactor core was removed in March 2021 as part of the repair process. However, Russian sources claimed that the hull of the vessel had been practically undamaged by the accident, and that the reactor itself would not need to be replaced.

According to Russian state media sources, the Losharik is planned to return to service in 2025, four years after it began repairs. When that happens, the secretive vessel could be associated with the similarly-secretive Belgorod heavily-modified Oscar-II class submarine, which is capable of both hosting smaller submarines and launching Russia’s nuclear-tipped Poseidon torpedoes and was launched this July.

Since both are associated with and subordinated to the so-called Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research of the Russian Defense Ministry, it can be expected that the vessel will be involved in secretive projects as soon as it is returned to service, including those beyond the purview of “deep-sea research.”

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.