U.S. Cruise Missile Strikes in Syria – Brief Analysis

I’m going to skip the policy analysis and work on the facts of this strike and the Russian response. The al-Shayrat airbase was chosen because according to U.S. sources on April 4th a Syrian Su-22 deployed some kind of munition with chemical weapons.  On April 6th two U.S. destroyers fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the base, although technically it was 61 since one failed to launch and had to be replaced, while another missile ditched into the sea (60 planned – 1 launch fail, + 1 replacement, -1 malfunction resulting in sudden conversion into torpedo). The official story is that 59 hit targets.

What did the missiles hit? This base hosted two squadrons of Su-22M3/M4 bombers and one squadron of Mig-23ML/MLD fighters. For those who don’t know, these are legacy aircraft from the Soviet Union, long retired in Russia. If memory serves Su-22s were taken out of service in the Russian air force back in 1998, but are still flying in Poland.  These squadrons were distributed in three different parts of the airbase, and it looks like the missiles hit two out of three sectors. As a consequence they got 5 Su-22M3s, 1 Su-22M4, and 3 Mig-23ML fighters for a total of 9 aircraft destroyed (Pentagon claimed 20, but so far we can only count 9, then subsequently in a recent press release the Pentagon changed the story to 20% of Syrian air power destroyed.) The squadron of Su-22s located in the northwest of the base seems largely untouched, which is why one of the planes was shown on video launching from the base within the same day.

Photo of Syrian Air Base with markings for the three squadrons (found on BMPD)

Additionally the missiles took out a SA-6 radar site (Kub), some ground equipment, and what was first described as a M-600 missile launcher (Iranian produced SRBM). Bunkers, fuel, ammunition and general stores were also hit. Although there were early rumors on twitter suggesting that there were visible containers of chemical weapons, these proved to be nonsense, and were actually generic containers for cluster munitions and other types of ordnance (twitter experts best experts). The runway was left untouched since it is quite long, simple to repair, and plugging cruise missiles into runways is not the most efficient use of the weapon.

What wasn’t there? Su-24Ms that Russia had recently handed over to Syria, which are much more capable than the aging Su-22 bombers, and actual Russian aircraft. Back in April 2016 this base was being used as a forward operating strip for Russian attack helicopters during an earlier phase in the campaign. Supposedly some Russian personnel were at this facility, but that story increasingly sounds like a guesstimate.

Destroyed Mig-23ML

Russian air defense

The short answer is that their air defenses were meant to defend Russian forces, not Syrian assets, and probably not armed to take on a 60 cruise missile salvo anyway. The primary Russian fear was that a country like Turkey or someone else might hit concentrated Russian assets in Latakia. From their positions these air defenses probably had little to no chance of hitting cruise missiles meant for a different airbase, and the U.S. likely routed the strike package in such a way so as to make it impossible.

There is an often spotted S-400 system at Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia, together with Pantsir-S1 short range air defense and medium range point defense Buk systems (not many photos of the Buk but supposedly its there). The common depiction of the S-400s capabilities is also pretty inaccurate.  For one, it does not have a 400km range missile (the 40N6). That long range missile has never been seen in operation, nor a new canister for it, which suggests it’s still not ready for prime time. So the actual maximum range is 250km, which still makes it a great system, but cuts down on the imaginary 400km firing ring. Furthermore the system is at the airbase, and there is a mountain range running north to south just east of Latakia, so naturally the radar is going to have a hard time seeing most of eastern Syria – and the Russians have admitted as much in their own press.

S-400 at al-Hmeimim Airbase

Last year Russia deployed a S-300v4 to Tartus (often confused for S-300VM or Antey-2500). This system is designed for intercepting missiles and large aircraft at long ranges. Unlike the S-400, which does not have a 400km range missile, this one actually does though it’s not designed for cruise missile interception. However, unlike the S-400 which is regularly seen in pictures and satellite imagery, the S-300v4 remains elusive, either because nobody is looking at Tartus or because it’s moving about.  Either way it was doubtfully well placed to do anything about this strike.

In either case, these systems and their attending short range brethren might do well if cruise missiles were fired at them or close to them, but not at some other facility, especially if they hug the ground and use terrain masking. It’s possible Russian electronic warfare systems might have affected the guidance system, but these would have to have powerful ranges and why give away many of the system’s technical capabilities on behalf of the Syrians? Hence Russian air defenses, despite being painted as a giant red circle in news coverage are actually quite limited in what they can do against cruise missiles fired from an unknown point, headed on an unknown trajectory and towards a target they’re not intended to defend.

Update: posted flight path of cruise missile strike from Russia’s Izvestia – not vouching at all for veracity, but good map showing how the strike package may have been directed specifically away from air defenses. I would not use this as a hard source on the flight path.

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Closing out with a Fateh-110/M600 missile launcher at the airbase that’s seen better days. There is some debate on whether its really a Pantsir-S1. Syrian mod Fateh looks very similar in chassis to the Pantsir-S1, but on Pantsir jacks are behind 2nd wheels set whereas Fateh 1st, and the destroyed vehicle’s jacks are clearly behind the first axle.

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Thanks to coverage from diana_mihailova and BMPD blogs, also easiest place to get access to damage photos.

Submarine Operations of Russia’s Northern Fleet 2016 (press release)

Below is a condensed translation of a press release from the Commander of the Northern Fleet timed for March 19th, submariner day in the Russian armed forces. This release contains quite a few useful public figures, which anyone working on submarines knows is a distinct rarity. I also reorganized the text, grouping the data in a manner that makes more logical sense, while deleting a lot of extraneous information (the typical this is great, and that is also great, etc).

According to  Vice-Admiral Nikolay Evmenov (CDR NF):

The Northern Fleet has long abandoned the use of conscripts to crew its submarines, pay has markedly improved, together with the perceived prestige of service.  The net result is a boost in fleet performance and professionalism, with fewer breakdowns or accidents, etc. Staffing level for current submarines is at 97%-100%. Nuclear submarines currently under construction already have crews formed for them, including those planned to be accepted into service 885 Kazan (Yasen-class) and 955 Knyaz Vladimir (Borei-class).

Submarine crews continue to undergo training and further advance their qualifications in between deployments, this was the case for 12 crews in 2016 and is expected to increase to 15 crews in 2017.  Improvements to existing training centers were made in 2016 for points Delta, Kama, GKP-67, and Bars. These facilities are for training in ship handling, navigation, torpedo employment, etc.

The Arctic represents the primary zone of responsibility for the Northern Fleet, and therefore training is oriented around the special conditions and circumstances of operating in sub-polar regions. In 2016 two SSBNs conducted training in the conduct of operations beneath the polar ice cap. Equally notable is that in 2015 the Borei-class SSBN, Yuri Dologorukiy, conducted her first voyage and training exercise for that submarine class in the Arctic.

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The training tempo continues to intensify year on year. In 2015 the fleet’s submarines conducted 70 deployments, for a total of 1050 days, having traveled 176,000 nautical miles. Then in 2016 the same number of crews made 75 deployments traveling 184,000 miles. According to the Northern Fleet commander’s official statistics, the average time at sea per crew has been 40 days, for a total of 350 exercises and training missions. In 2017 they plan for 400.

I would note these figures are oddly round and probably represent some statistical creativity, as all such releases do, but they give us a sense of Russian submarine operations in the country’s largest fleet.

In 2016 the Northern Fleet’s submarines conducted more than 30 combat exercises involving torpedo or missile test firing. The best SSBN for the year was K-51 Verkhoturye (Delta IV), best SSGN in cruise missile tests K-119 Voronezh (Oscar II), and best in torpedo practice K-480 Panther (Akula I).  In total, more than 50 submariners received government awards, and more than 800 marks of distinction.

The diesel-submarine grouping within the fleet, consisting of Kilo-class submarines, spent roughly 280 days at sea, for a much smaller total of 28,000 miles in training.  Submarines B-808 Yaroslav, B-471 Magnitogorsk, B-177 Lipetsk, completed 15 exercises with high qualifying marks. Each of them put on more than 3,000 nm in training.  Apparently the crew of B-471 got an award in combat exercises while operating on a different Kilo, the Vladikavkaz. Crews of the new diesel submarine squadron being deployed in the Black Sea (improved Kilo project  636.3) also had undergone training in the Northern Fleet. Best crew among the diesel squadron overall in 2016 was that of B-471 Magnitogorsk.

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Along with receiving new submarines, the Northern  Fleet is also modernizing the base infrastructure for submarine forces, and building new housing for submarine crews. This includes a plan for 8 new buildings for a total of 492 apartments, which when built will resolve all the issues of housing for submarine crews (implies there are probably still some issues in terms of housing for the sailors). Piers in Gadzhiyevo are receiving new equipment intended for the newest Borei-class SSBNs, meanwhile construction is in progress for additional weapons storage.

On the whole this is an interesting round up, and in terms of statistics gives us an impression of measurements they feel comfortable releasing. The data is public, and one can work through the figures to see increases in activity/operations, particularly if they do a similar release next year. No doubt a good deal of the numbers released are ‘true lies’ – stat padding, and there is only good news here, but it’s still quite helpful of the Northern Fleet’s Commander to offer up this information. Since the Pacific Fleet was left out of this press release, we can only hope that their commander decides to do one of his own, offering more information.

The Russian Defense Budget and You

IHS Janes’s story “Russia announces deepest budget cuts since 1990s” got a lot of attention this week, claiming the Russian defense budget will be reduced by $1 trillion rubles or 25%. It is also wrong and has a bombastic headline to boot.  Here is a concise assessment of Russia’s defense budget, the cuts, and the reasons.

Bottom line, the Russian defense budget is going from 3.09 trillion RUB in 2016, to 2.84 trillion RUB in 2017, a reduction of ~7%, which about 1-2% harsher than announced in October of last year. The original estimate for the 2017-2019 budget plan was a 6% reduction over that period of defense spending. The cuts amount to about 250 billion RUB. Including planned cuts for the coming two years, the 3 year average is still a ~6% reduction.

The Russian defense budget is undergoing a sequester to tamp down growth, but is not experiencing large scale cuts, especially relative to other federal departments who were dealt 10% reductions.

The defense budget in 2016 was 3.09 trillion RUB. However, Russia had a problem with debt in the defense industrial complex. Manufacturers had been withdrawing commercial loans to cover the costs of production (i.e. they must have been producing on IOUs from the MoD), but this resulted in financing costs, and those costs were being carried over into the price of equipment being produced. This was no small issue, the interest rate + inflation resulted in some notable costs to the manufacturers, and financing this debt was having a waterfall effect on the state armament program.

Eventually the ministry of finance had to pay them down, so in December 2016 they made a onetime payment of 700 billion RUB to clear this debt (though some sources average it up to 800 billion). Added to 3.09 budgeted, this brought the overall amount spent on national defense to ~3.9 trillion RUB in 2016. Statistically, that resulted in a spike of spending to 4.7% of GDP, but in reality an important chunk was this singular debt payment.

The budget figures announced for 2017 reduce the budget by 7%, to 2.84 trillion. Janes did the following math, 3.9 trillion – 2.84 = 1 trillion RUB reduction or -25%.  To put it mildly, that is not the right interpretation of what is happening. The annual planned reduction is really just north of 200 billion RUB.

The future planned reductions are much smaller at 3.2% in 2018, and 4.8% for 2019. This would amount to 3% and 2.8% of GDP respectively, and perhaps 17% of the government budget. Though the figures do not include other spending on national security. My understanding is that these were based on really low oil prices of 40/barrel as well.

However, based on the past two years the defense budget is probably going to be reduced by less. 2015 saw only a 3.8% reduction, and 2016 a 5% reduction, relative to much louder announcements. Meaning, we should expect MoD to claw back some % points from Ministry of Finance planning. Here IHS Janes also seems to indicate that the 2017 defense budget is the first significant reduction after a period of extended growth, when in reality it is the 3rd straight year of budget reductions, and when everything is reconciled, the degree to which it is a reduction is debatable.

We should note there is always inflation, which is a tax on everything, and it is steadily eating away at the budget. The real sequester is the inflation rate that the budget must absorb.

I would add that by spending to reduce the defense sector’s debt, the MoD in reality has also reduced its procurement costs for the future so it’s unclear how the 7% reduction in the budget plays out relative to likely lower purchase prices since the budget is no longer forced to absorb financing costs for these debts. In conclusion, the Russian defense budget will remain very much alive, while the state armament program will continue to truck along with reduced expectations.

NOTE: I edited this article from originally saying the 2015 budget was 3.07 tril to 3.09 tril – with minor adjustments that follow, but the conclusions remain.

Because budget and spending figures are not that exciting, below I offer a photo of our chief budget analyst, my dog Ivan.

Ivan

Russian Special Forces

Below is a Q&A I did with the Cipher Brief that outlines much of what we know about the Russian special operations community.  The rest is on their website. 

The Cipher Brief: How are Russian special operations organized within the military?

Michael Kofman: The best way to parse through a myriad of Russian special designation units is to break them into three categories: elite infantry primarily for reconnaissance in ground, airborne, and naval services (Spetsnaz GRU), special purpose units belonging to intelligence agencies (Alpha and Vympel), and the Special Operations Command (SSO or KSSO). The last one is of particular note as a recent development and arguably the most interesting of all, since it represents a Russian special forces capability that featured prominently in Crimea and Syria.

Spetsnaz GRU are sometimes shorthanded as Russian special operations forces, but this is a common misnomer. Spetsnaz are elite infantry intended to support conventional unit formations. These units consist of eight Spetsnaz brigades, one Spetsnaz regiment (25th), four naval infantry Spetz units, and the 45th VDV (Airborne) brigade with a total complement of 9,000-10,500.  Currently the Russian armed forces are integrating Spetsnaz units into brigades and divisions, adding a company to each reconnaissance battalion. These units are almost invariably under the purview of the main intelligence directorate for Russia’s General Staff, the GRU.

Meanwhile the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, fields two specialized units for counterterrorism and defending strategic infrastructure at home, named Alpha and Vympel respectively. Less mentioned is the FSB’s Directorate S (Smerch), a special reconnaissance outfit founded on the basis of the FSB’s economic counter-intelligence unit, and likely larger than Alpha or Vympel.

The rest of the discussion focuses on KSSO.

Russian Navy Part 4: Naval Aviation Taking Flight Again…Slowly

This if the fourth and final installment of my article series with Norman Polmar, the last issue focuses on Russian naval aviation.

Naval aviation is perhaps the component of the Russian Navy most frequently ignored and difficult to analyze. The air group aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which recently conducted combat sorties over Syria, is only a small part of the country’s overall naval aviation force. While the carrier’s deployment to the eastern Mediterranean in late 2016 made world-wide headlines, the rest of Russian naval aviation is undergoing a revival.

Russian carrier aviation currently is based on a single ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov. When she sailed from the Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean last fall with several major surface combatants in company, the carrier’s air group consisted of: ten Su-33 Flanker- D’s, five newer MiG-29 Fulcrums, and an assortment of Ka-27 Helix antisubmarine helicopters and Ka-31 Helix airborne early warning helicopters. Several of the new naval variants of the Ka-52K Katran attack helicopters also were on board the carrier during operations off Syria. The Su-33 Flanker-D is primarily an air superiority, all-weather fighter, capable of carrying a variety of unguided bombs. The MiG-29K multirole fighter, meant to be the Su-33’s replacement, carries laser and electro-optical-guided precision munitions.

The Admiral Kuznetsov’s combat debut off Syria in November went relatively poorly. The ship has a notoriously faulty pressure-fired boiler system and is underpowered, belching black smoke as she sails. As a consequence of her limited top speed and ski-jump design, aircraft takeoff weights were constrained. The carrier air group’s greatest limitation, however, is not technical but human. Russia reportedly has more planes than carrier-qualified pilots. Early in operations off Syria, a MiG-29K reportedly suffered an engine problem, lost power, and crashed into the sea. The pilot survived. Three weeks later a Su-33 broke an arresting cable on landing and rolled off the deck for a second aircraft loss. The air group subsequently transferred to the Russian air base in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that more than 400 sorties were flown from the carrier while off Syria, more realistic estimates place the number closer to 150.

The Admiral Kuznetsov’s main role has always been “status projection” or political presence rather than power projection. Russia retained the ship and sustained a nascent carrier aviation component for the appearance of being a major naval power. The aircraft carrier, with embarked fixed-wing fighter/attack aircraft, is a type of capital ship that few countries possess, conferring a degree of prestige on any nation able to send one to sea.

Kuznetsov on its Syrian deployment

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After her Mediterranean deployment, the Admiral Kuznetsov entered a multiyear overhaul and modernization at the massive Sevmash shipyard at Severodvinsk in northern Russia. While in the yard, the carrier will receive a modernization package, focusing on the flight deck, arresting gear and air craft handling components of the ship. Speculation remains on whether or not more serious problems will be addressed such as the ship’s notoriously troublesome propulsion.

The Russian government periodically announces plans for new carrier construction. Beginning in 1967, when the missile cruiser-helicopter carrier Moskva joined the fleet, the Nikolayev shipyard on the Black Sea produced a second ship of that type, followed by four vertical/short take-off and landing carriers of the Kiev class, and then two “conventional” aircraft carriers of the Riga class, one of which is the Admiral

Kuznetsov. Although only one of those eight ships today remains under the Russian flag, a Kiev-class carrier now serves as India’s Vikramaditya, and the Admiral Kuznetsov’s sister ship serves as the Chinese Liaoning. Any future Russian carrier construction is expected to take place at the Sevmash yard in northern Russia, as Nikolayev is now in Ukraine.

The real “teeth” of Russian naval aviation are land-based aircraft, and this is where interesting changes are in progress. Each of the four Russian fleets has a dozen or more Su-24 Fencers—variable-swept-wing attack aircraft intended for the maritime strike role and capable of carrying Kh-31 and Kh-35 air-to surface missiles. These workhorses are being replaced by a new generation of strike aircraft: the Su-30SM, a heavy, multirole fighter attack aircraft, reportedly with a six-ton payload. Already in service with the Black Sea Fleet, the aircraft began to be delivered to the Baltic and Northern Fleets in late 2016. These planes will likely be configured to carry the air launched versions of the advanced SSN-26 anti-ship missile as well as older anti-ship missiles now in service, offering substantial advancement over previous strike aircraft.

The Su-34 Fullback will also take part in the naval strike role. Derived from the Su-27 Flanker airframe, it is a capable, long-range aircraft, perhaps better classified as a medium bomber.

Russia’s principal aircraft in the strike role are the 60 or more Soviet-era Tu-22 Backfire medium bombers. During tumultuous military reforms in 2009, the Russian General Staff transferred the Tu-22 Backfires from the Navy—where they probably were not being well maintained—to the Long-Range Aviation (LRA) component of the Air Force. They remain under LRA control although still are assigned the anti-ship maritime strike role. They carry the infamous truck-size Kh-22 (NATO AS-4 Kitchen) missile and its upgraded variant, the Kh-32. Backfire bombers carried out combat missions over Syria in 2015 and 2016,dropping unguided bombs, a secondary role for which they were not well suited, but one that nonetheless shows there is still a functioning LRA component in the Russian air arsenal.

Tu-22 with Kh-22 missiles

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In addition to strike aircraft, Russia retains several large Tu-142 Bear-F long-range, antisubmarine aircraft, derived from the venerable Tu-95 Bear platform. The Tu-142s are undergoing modernization, as only a few remain operational in the fleets. They occasionally have been spotted over Syrian coastal waters. Similarly, Il-38 May maritime patrol and submarine hunting aircraft are being upgraded to the    Il-38N configuration with the Novella system, a high-resolution radar, and other new equipment. The Mays are being prioritized for the Pacific Fleet along with the updated Tu-142s. From ships, the antisubmarine role is conducted by Ka-27 Helix helicopters carried on Russian cruisers and destroyers that remain operational, along with newer frigates designed to replace them.

It is difficult to discuss Russian naval aviation without mentioning the saga of Russia’s 2010 deal with France to buy two large, Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. These would have been highly capable, multirole ships for the Russian Navy, modified for larger Ka-27 and Ka-52K helicopters. The deal was scuttled in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea, which resulted in Western sanctions and a political climate that made going forward with the deal impossible for France. After more than a year of discussions, Russia and France amicably parted ways, with the ships being sold to a mutually acceptable third party—Egypt—with funds provided by Saudi Arabia. Moscow made out like a proverbial bandit, recouping its initial deposit of 800 million Euros and doubling its money in rubles when converting at the 2015 exchange rates. Meanwhile Russian funds invested in developing the Ka-52K also were recovered because Egypt bought the Russian helicopters separately for its new ships.

One element of Russian naval aviation often overlooked by Western analysts is its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Post-Soviet Russia inherited some 20,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons. While that number has been reduced by more than 75 percent, according to Russian statements, it still leaves a notable number of tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of the Russian Navy and Air Force.

Overall, Russian naval aviation might be a small force, but it too is benefiting from a bow wave of modernization across the Russian military. Though mainly shore based, it retains viable capabilities for conventional and nuclear combat.

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute. Copyright U.S. Naval Institute.

A COMPARATIVE GUIDE TO RUSSIA’S USE OF FORCE: MEASURE TWICE, INVADE ONCE

My latest article examining Russian use of force, published on War on the Rocks.

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In the 20th century, the Soviet military’s penchant for area of effect artillery and armored firepower had earned it the reputation of a large hammer always in search of nails.  This popularized impression stuck with Russia long after the Soviet Union’s demise, but today’s Kremlin employs military power in a much more nuanced manner to pursue its objectives.  In recent conflicts, Russia has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to apply this instrument of national power to achieve desired political ends, doling out force in prescribed doses in the quest for decisive leverage.  Although Russian military power remains a blunt force instrument, the state wields it more like a rapier, demonstrating discretion and timing.

In a previous article on the key pillars of Russian strategy, I argued that Moscow favors an emergent strategy based on “fail fast and fail cheap” approaches. The Russian military itself has a long way to go in terms of modernization, but conversely, America’s political leadership needs to reexamine how great powers, with far fewer resources, use the so-called “big stick” to get the job done.  The unipolar world order appears to be rapidly melting, while great powers are back on the agenda.  When it comes to use of force by peer rivals contesting America’s interests, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

The United States may not wish to emulate Russian approaches, but American strategists should certainly study then.  Those who fail to learn from the experience of others must inevitably gain it at personal cost.  As Mark Twain  is said to have remarked, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”  To take another step along the journey of understanding Russian strategy, I explore how Russia changes facts on the ground, compels its adversaries, and achieves much of this on the cheap.  The goal is to examine Russian use of force and draw lessons for an era when American use of power must become judicious, timely, and better married to something that resembles political objectives.

Read the rest here.

Russian Navy Part 3: Impressive Beneath the Waves

Third installment in my article series with Norman Polmar on the Russian Navy for the USNI Proceedings Magazine.

The modern Russian Navy, similar to its Soviet predecessor, looks best underwater. Russia’s fitful attempts to revive its surface fleet could leave some observers unimpressed, but such criticism misses the point that the country’s current naval power largely resides in its subma­rine force.

Russia has retained the industrial ca­pacity and knowhow to produce capable submarines. Today the navy is recapital­izing its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force, which has the highest naval priority, modernizing its nuclear-powered guided-missile and at­tack submarine (SSGN/SSN) force, and still pumping out venerable diesel-electric submarines (SS), which are upgraded to launch land-attack missiles.

In 2015, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov (now retired), lauded a 50 percent in­crease in submarine patrols, but this fresh life comes from a force that had been largely missing from the world’s oceans in the preceding 15 years. Russia’s op­erational submarine force consists of an estimated: 12 SSBNs, 8 SSGNs, 11 SSNs, and 20 SSs. There also are several spe­cial-purpose nuclear and diesel-electric submarines.

While this undersea force is but a frac­tion of the Soviet strength during the Cold War—which approached 400 (largely die­sel) submarines in the 1960s—the current emphasis on submarine development and construction is readily evident.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, submarine production slowed and then came to a halt. The first prototype Yasen-class SSGN—the Severodvinsk—was laid down in 1993 and the first Borey-class SSBN—the Yuri Dolgorukiy—in 1996, but construction on both ceased soon after. In the decade or more of that hiatus, both sub­marines were extensively redesigned, and when they belatedly went to sea they were very different from their original designs.

Prior to the arrival of the first Borey, Russia’s sea-based deterrent consisted of three Delta III and six Delta IV submarines plus one Typhoon in limited service as a missile test ship. The Delta IIIs, completed between 1979 and 1982, are outdated and have seen relatively little time at sea com­pared to their U.S. counterparts.

Three Borey-class SSBNs have been completed. The Aleksander Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh are now in the Pa­cific Fleet, while the Yuri Dolgorukiy is in service with the Northern Fleet. Five additional Borey SSBNs are under con­struction, all scheduled to enter service by 2021, although construction delays are common. These ships each carry 16 solid-fuel Bulava missiles, given the NATO des­ignation SS-N-32. The missile itself had a troublesome development history largely due to production quality issues, but de­spite several test failures it has been de­clared operational since 2013. The Bulava is reported to sacrifice range and warhead payload for increased survivability against ballistic missile defenses.

Russia has not announced the scrapping of any Delta IIIs, but its strategic forces are now significantly above the 1,550 de­ployed nuclear warhead count agreed to under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Re­duction Treaty. This limit must be met by February 2018, and likely will require the decommissioning of several older SSBNs.

The lead unit of the Yasen class SSGNs—the Severodvinsk—represents the most advanced undersea adversary now faced by the U.S. Navy. Launched nearly two decades after being laid down, she was extensively redesigned and is Russia’s first truly multipurpose submarine. The Severodvinsk is capable of antisubmarine, antiship, and land-attack missions. Among the more interesting features are a large bow sonar dome for the Irtysh-Amfora sonar system and an amidships battery of eight vertical-launch cells that can carry 32 Kalibr (SS-N-27/30 Sizzler) or Oniks (SS-N-26 Strobile) cruise missiles. These antiship and land-attack weapons are par­ticularly significant after Russian surface ships and submarines fired long-range mis­siles into Syria in 2016.

The Severodvinsk, lead ship of Yasen-class

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The Severodvinsk spent more than two years on sea trials, reportedly hav­ing significant propulsion and noise-level problems that delayed her commission­ing. Subsequent submarines of this design have been modified with changes said to include a different sonar arrangement. Six are reported to be under construction.

Russia’s older SSGNs—the Oscar II se­ries—are receiving facelifts, with several undergoing modernization. Some of the Oscars will have their existing 24 missile tubes for the P-700 Granit (SS-N-19) mis­sile refitted to carry 72 Kalibr or P-800 Oniks missiles. The Granit missile was principally an anticarrier weapon. Armed with the latest missiles, the Oscar II will be more versatile.

Now in development is a new Rus­sian “hunter-killer” submarine. This SSN will have the primary role of countering Western SSBNs. The new SSN is prob­ably a significant program, but very little is known about it other than construction is slated to begin in the near future.

An Oscar-II class SSGN

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While all nuclear submarine construc­tion is now undertaken at the massive Severodvinsk shipyard in northern Russia, four other shipyards are producing diesel-electric Kilo submarines. There are sev­eral variants of the Kilo, first completed in December 1980. More than 20 were built for Soviet/Russian service, and about 40 units were built for export to Algeria, China, India, Iran, Poland, Romania, and Vietnam. An improved version, known as Project 636.3, is one of the defense in­dustry’s most popular exports, carrying the export variant of the Kalibr antiship and land-attack missile. Russia recently completed an order of six for Vietnam.

Six improved Kilo submarines are being added to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is being revived at a remarkable pace. An identical squadron has been promised to the Pacific Fleet by 2021. One Kilo fired Kalibr missiles at targets in Syria as part of the Russian air-ground-naval interven­tion in the Syrian civil war.

The construction of modernized Kilos continues in part because of the Russian failure to produce a submarine with an ef­fective air-independent propulsion (AIP) system. Three submarines of the Lada class were begun, but after difficulties with the AIP plant only the lead unit, the Sankt Peterburg, was completed in 2010—with conventional diesel-electric propulsion. She now is in the Northern Fleet. The two unfinished Lada-class sub­marines are scheduled for completion in 2018 and 2019, but the class as a whole has been a failure. It is unclear what Rus­sia ultimately will do with Sankt Peter­burg’s sister ships once finished. Hopes for an AIP submarine now are being placed on the Kalina class, a new design likely to employ AIP, about which little is known publicly.

The continuation of non-nuclear sub­marines offers several benefits to Russia: the ability to conduct operations in re­stricted waters where nuclear submarines are impractical (Baltic and Black seas); coastal defense missions; and special op­erations where larger, nuclear submarines are not required and could be considered a liability; as well as ease of production compared to nuclear submarines. Armed with land-attack missiles, cheaper diesel submarines can range the European and Asian theaters while staying relatively close to home waters. They also are easy to produce and a good source of hard cur­rency for Russia’s shipbuilding industry.

Beyond combat submarines, there is another Russian submarine force that answers to its own command. The Navy’s General Directorate of Under­sea Research (GUGI) maintains several special-purpose undersea craft. Some are conversions of older submarines, such as the Delta “stretch” SSBN designs, while others are new construction units. These special-purpose submarines—nuclear and diesel-electric—are employed in several roles, including supporting submarine weapon and systems development; con­ducting deep-ocean antisubmarine proj­ects; and mapping and possibly interdict­ing seafloor fiber-optic cable networks. Some of GUGI’s submarines serve as mother ships for deep divers such as the “Losharik” special-purpose subma­rine. Others may deploy underwater drones with nuclear warheads such as the recently revealed “Status-6” weapon, which will be carried externally. Many press reports credit the Status-6 with incredibly high speed, long range, and a multi-megaton warhead—claims that likely are unrealistic. But even if those performance figures are off significantly, it still will be an innovative weapon and need to be countered.

Podmoskovye, a modified Delta-stretch SSBN, designed to dock smaller submersibles in the bottom half of the hull.

podmoskovye

Russia’s submarine fleet may be a dwarf force compared to its Soviet predecessor and even its contemporary U.S. Navy adversary, but it is still the heart of the navy’s combat capability. Its SSBN replacement program con­tinues apace, while new SSGN/SSN designs promise to test the dominance the U.S. Navy has grown accustomed to in the undersea domain. Given the troubled state of the Russian economy, it is difficult to predict how long the country can sustain the current levels of construction and readiness, but for now this force has been imbued with fresh life. Russian submarines produced in this decade will shape the underwater military balance well into the 2030s.

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute. Copyright U.S. Naval Institute.

The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

You can read the rest here.

Russian Navy: Part 2 – One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

The second installment of my series with Norman Polmar.  This article originally appeared in the January edition of the Proceedings Magazine.

The surface combatants in today’s Russian Navy are an eclectic mix of mostly Soviet-era designs built in the 1980s and early 1990s—from guided-missile cruisers to a host of small missile boats, frigates, corvettes, and legacy flotsam inherited by the five fleets.

The Russian Navy still has “capital ships”—including the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Petr Velikiy and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, which recently made her combat debut off Syria. Similarly, three Slava-class missile cruisers are in service, as well as at least two operational Sovremenny-class destroyers, and eight Udaloy-class large antisubmarine ships. But after this short listing of major warships, one begins to count the smaller, lesser ships and craft. Two Neustrashimyy-class frigates in the Baltic and a pair of Krivak frigates assigned to the Black Sea Fleet bring up the rear guard, together with two newer Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three of the Admiral Grigorovich design. Perhaps another 60 corvettes, patrol boats, and missile boats—many with advanced missiles—round out the current surface forces. Thus sails the remnants of the massive, ocean-going fleet built by Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov.

For the past two decades, the Russian Navy’s principal purpose has been status projection, showing the flag to demonstrate Russia as a great power outside its land boundaries. Squadrons of two or three ships—sometimes including the Petr Velikiy—typically would undertake port visits or exercises, always with a tanker and a tug in escort, given the frequency of breakdowns among Soviet-era ships.

Indeed, some of today’s Russian Navy ships are akin to floating naval museums: the Smetlivyy, a Kashin-class guided-missile destroyer, launched in 1968, is still in service. Despite being overhauled in the 1990s, she impresses no one. Russia’s amphibious ships also suffer from aging. The Ivan Gren-class tank landing ships (LSTs), intended to replace the aging Alligator and Ropucha classes, so far number only one ship, with only one other yet laid down. The first ship of the class took 12 years from laying the keel to entering service. The Alligators and Ropuchas now vary in age from 25 to nearly 50 years. Remarkably, with life extensions and modernization, these LSTs remain in service and are supporting Russian forces fighting in Syria. They should not be underestimated. In fact, five landing ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet demonstrated the ability to land a battalion during exercises in Crimea as recently as September 2016. The two French-built Mistral-class helicopter-carrying landing ships (LHAs) were embargoed after the Russian seizure of Crimea and have been sold to Egypt.

The Russian Navy’s vision for next-generation warships began with corvette and frigate construction programs—in part because they are ships Russian shipyards still can produce in significant numbers—and then moves on to larger ships in the next decade. However, large, nuclear-powered destroyers of the so-called Lider class, promised to be laid down in 2019, are unlikely to be completed in the 2020s, if at all. Such projects are announced regularly to domestic applause, but they are likely to remain on paper for a decade if not longer.

The restoration of the Russian surface fleet has met with harsh realities. First, about one-half of the Soviet shipyards building warships were “relocated” outside of the country when the Soviet regime fell in 1991. No different from the rest of Russia’s defense industry, shipbuilding has survived in large part on export orders from other countries. Ships being built for foreign navies, as well as those for domestic service, have suffered long delays and cost overruns. Some shipyards worked slowly in the hope of extending work, while their prominent owners embezzled funds and often fled the country.

Russia also was entirely dependent on Ukraine for gas turbines for large ship propulsion, a legacy of the integrated defense industry of the Soviet Union. When ties were broken after the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014, Russia found itself in possession of engines for only two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates then under construction. Other ships of these classes were left with empty engineering spaces.

Lead ship of the class Admiral Grigorovich below.

Admiral_Grigorovich-class_frigate_project_11356_Russia_1.jpg

Russia’s solution to this predicament has been to delay both frigate lines awaiting future indigenous turbine production, expected no sooner than 2018, and to sell existing Grigorovich hulls to India as part of a large arms deal, with the expectation that Ukraine will supply India with its gas turbines. Domestic frigate (and larger ship) production will stall while Russia tries to develop domestic gas turbines. In the meantime, the only new surface combatants at the Navy’s piers will be corvettes and lesser craft.

Another problem—how to repair gas turbines traditionally overhauled in Ukraine—has been partially solved by the Russian firm Novik, located in Samara on the Volga River. Novik has completed maintenance and repair on a Neustrashimmy-class frigate. There may be a line of ships waiting for such overhauls, especially given the current, high operational tempo. Western sanctions following the Crimea seizure also have taken their toll, cutting off supplies of German MTU diesel engines for some corvettes and forcing a shift to less reliable domestic engines.

The State Armament Program, announced in 2011, breathed new life into Russian shipbuilding. Valued at 20 trillion rubles at the time ($670 billion), the program allocated roughly one-quarter of its expenditure to military shipbuilding, but delays are likely to continue as the gas turbine and diesel propulsion issues are being solved. The Russian Navy’s near-term vision is sacrificing displacement and endurance to build smaller warships with families of advanced defensive and offensive systems. They are a philosophical break from specialization to smaller, multipurpose designs stressing flexibility and long-range offensive firepower. Russian frigates and corvettes either already feature these weapons or are under construction with them integrated into the design. These ships combine highly capable antiship and land-attack missiles fired from vertical-launch cells that can house all Kalibr (NATO designation SS-N-27/30) missile variants or Oniks missiles (NATO designation SS-N-26 Strobile).

Larger displacement ships feature the Poliment-Redut surface-to-air missile (still in testing), while smaller ships will employ the short-range Pantsir-M variant. Close-in weapon systems have been upgraded, and many ships come with Paket-NK for the antisubmarine/antitorpedo roles. Now in development is the Tsirkon family of hypersonic missiles, planned for deployment on the modernized Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov and other future ships.

Thus, the smaller warships joining the Russian fleet can conduct strikes across Europe, or range hostile ships at great distances. Although their individual magazines may be limited, these ships are easily massed. A typical Russian corvette displacing roughly 1,000 tons is armed with 100-mm and 30-mm guns, eight vertical-launch cells, and advanced electronic warfare and sensor packages.

There are interesting additions to the Russian fleet of oceanographic research ships that regularly conduct “research” near Western underwater infrastructure and communication cables. The 5,200-ton Yantar oceanographic research ship was completed in 2013 and is reported to be equipped with two deep submergence vehicles. The Vishnaya-class 3,470-ton intelligence collector Viktor Leonov visited Cuba in 2015, just as U.S.-Cuban relations were undergoing major changes. Plans to construct armed icebreakers with antiship missiles may produce a unique, hybrid ship class. Meanwhile, Russia has not expanded naval sealift—instead reflagging commercial ships as needed.

Yantar research ship below.

Although reinvigorated, and relatively well-funded at this time, Russia’s Navy will retain one foot in its Soviet past at least through the 2020s. Its transformative vision is not without merit, but it is threatened by delays, outdated shipyards, shortages of engines, and other problems. The abundance of new ship designs demonstrates the Russian Navy continues to suffer from the Soviet disease of distributed “classality,” the inability to produce more than a few warships of any given type before moving on to another design, leading to a diverse and difficult-to-maintain force.

Despite its limitations, the Russian Navy has a viable vision for its future—not as the major blue water fleet that was Admiral Gorshkov’s Cold War goal—but as a force that can show the flag in distant waters and support Russian political-military interests in bordering seas.

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute. Copywrite U.S. Naval Institute.