Reposting this Riddle piece that I hope some of you will find of interest, thanks to Riddle for getting it out so quickly – and no it was not an April fool’s article but the title worked.
Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, turns 65 this year and is likely to stay on as long as Sergei Shoigu remains minister of defense. Gerasimov looms large over the current era of Russian military reform and modernization, though both processes were initiated by his predecessor, Nikolai Makarov. During his tenure, the Russian military has also been bloodied in two conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, with the lessons learned subsequently integrated into exercises at home. Gerasimov is more the representative of Russian military officialdom than the author of any of its key doctrinal tenets, but under him the Russian armed forces have undergone noticeable improvements in capability, mobility, readiness, force structure, and combat experience.
Ironically, of the things Gerasimov has done to leave an imprint on the Russian armed forces, he is uniquely famous for something that he never authored, and which does not exist — namely, the “Gerasimov Doctrine.” In 2014 an erroneous belief of almost mythic proportions emerged in the Western press some Russia watchers; it centered on the notion that in February 2013, Gerasimov authored an article laying out the Russian military blueprint for actions in Ukraine and war with the West.
The “Gerasimov Doctrine” was a clever name coined by Mark Galeotti on his blog, though he never meant it to be taken literally that Gerasimov had a doctrine. In 2018 Galeotti published a mea culpa rebuffing any notion that Gerasimov had a doctrine, given the extent to which this term “acquired a destructive life of its own.” Unfortunately like a creature in a horror film it escaped, growing stronger, running amok in political and military circles, and forcing years of efforts among Russia analysts to beat it into submission. That effort proved a Sisyphean task; entire theories subsequently emerged proclaiming a Russian “chaos theory” of political warfare against the West, based on the erroneous belief that the Chief of the Russian General Staff is in a position to dictate Russian political strategy in the first place.
Military strategy, and operational level planning in conflict, support the strategy set by political leadership, but they are not one and the same. Strategy in a particular conflict is quite different from political strategy writ large. The military is a stakeholder, offering inputs into Russian political strategy, but it does not determine it. The deciding votes sit in the Kremlin. Military writing is quite useful for reflections of the thinking amongst political leadership, but what the military plans to do doctrinally, or debates doing, is not necessarily representative of political designs. It is the job of a military to plan for all sorts of unlikely contingencies, and at the end of the day it is an expensive solution in a bureaucratic search for problems it might help solve.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 led to a scramble for information on the Russian armed forces, its military thought, and its doctrine. At first, this yielded faddish terms and malformed interpretations. Over the years the “Gerasimov Doctrine” has become somewhat a professional joke among Russian military analysts, who see it as a litmus test separating those with bona fide expertise from the ever-growing field of self-proclaimed experts on Russian information or political warfare.
That infamous 2013 piece, titled the Value of Science in Prediction, was derived from Gerasimov’s annual speech at the Military Academy of Sciences, undoubtedly kluged together by a few officers into an article with a chart. Gerasimov laid out the general sentiments in Russian military thought on how the U.S. conducts political warfare via “color revolutions,” eventually backed by the employment of high precision weapons, with many of the observations derived from the Arab Spring.
That article represented the Russian military interpretation (or more correctly misinterpretation) of the U.S. approach to conducting regime change, combined with a bureaucratic argument designed to link the budget of the Russian armed forces, consuming trillions of rubles each year, to an external challenge defined largely as political.
In short, it was a kitchen sink of the salient inputs into Russian military thought at the time, summarizing the emerging trends in modern conflicts: wars are not acknowledged or declared when they start, asymmetric and non-military measures had grown relative to traditional military ones, the role of information warfare and irregular formations or proxies had grown in prominence, though high end conventional capabilities equally colored Russian military thinking, especially mass employment of precision guided weapons against a country’s critical infrastructure. Prior to Galeotti’s commentary, Gerasimov’s February 2013 article was completely ignored, and ironically, so were subsequent articles or speeches encapsulating further evolution in Russian military thought since 2013.
That line of thinking on the character of modern conflict has only further congealed under Gerasimov into what the Russian military has come to term “New Type Warfare.” This term represents the Russian view of how non-military instruments can affect a country’s information environment, internal political stability or economy, but are coordinated with conventional military capabilities that inflict strategic damage, such as long-range precision guided weapons and massed aerospace attack. Just last year Gerasimov restated this belief, alleging the U.S. has a ‘trojan horse’ strategy of sorts integrating political warfare and information warfare to mobilize the protest potential of the population, combined with precision strikes against critical infrastructure.
Given the almost complete absence of ‘deterrence by denial’ in Russian strategic thinking, doctrine has evolved around what Gerasimov has termed to be “active defense.” This is a set of preemptive nonmilitary and military measures, deterrence and escalation management approaches based on cost imposition. The Russian armed forces are geared towards being able to preemptively neutralize an emerging threat or deter by showing the ability and willingness to inflict unacceptable consequences on the potential adversary. As Gerasimov said, “acting quickly we must preempt our adversary with preventive measures, identify his vulnerabilities in a timely manner, and create the threat that unacceptable damage will be inflicted.” In practice this includes a range of calibrated damage, from single and grouped conventional strikes against economic or military infrastructure, to massed employment of precision guided weapons, followed by non-strategic nuclear weapons, and at the outer edges theater nuclear warfare.
Much hay has been made of Russian military thought on political or information warfare, but Gerasimov has always made clear that the thrust of military strategy is conventional and nuclear warfare. Use of military power remains decisive. Confrontation in other spheres, where non-military measures dominate, is handled by other ‘strategies’ and organizations with their own resources. The military sees itself as coordinating the two types of measures, as opposed to overseeing the various non-military lines of effort.
The Russian military response can be seen in the creation of inter-service combat grouping in each strategic direction, with relatively high readiness, and their ability to move across the Russian landmass to the point of conflict as tested in the Vostok 2018 Strategic Maneuvers. Mobility, readiness, and the ability of different services to work together grew in emphasis under Gerasimov’s tenure, along with attempts to engender flexibility at the tactical level, or what Gerasimov has termed the ability of commanders to come up with “non-standard solutions.” The Russian armed forces have also begun to articulate concepts for future expeditionary operations, called “limited actions,” and institutionalizing the experience in Syria.
Russia’s military continues to invest in capabilities and operational concepts to conduct non-contact warfare, able to engage with standoff weaponry, based on real-time intelligence and reconnaissance. The latest State Armament Program 2018-2027 places emphasis on quality and quantity of precision guided weapons, plus enabling technologies for recon-strike and recon-fire loops. Too much has been made of the discourse on non-military means, when in practice the Russian military has bought a tremendous amount of hard conventional military power and spent considerably on nuclear modernization. Since 2011 one could count close to 500 tactical aircraft, over 600 helicopters, to more than 16 S-400 regiments along with countless air defense systems for the ground forces, 13 Iskander brigades, thousands of armored vehicles, ballistic missile and multipurpose nuclear powered submarines, i.e. the list is extensive. Indeed, roughly 50% of the sizable Russian defense budget is spent on weapons procurement, modernization and R&D.
Despite the advancements in the Russian armed forces, doctrinal deterrence by defense is still seen as cost prohibitive, unattractive compared to approaches that actively limit damage to the homeland or the armed forces. Hence key capabilities, such as long-range precision guided weapons, have been integrated into strategic operations in the initial period of war that are just as offensive as they are defensive in nature. Gerasimov has served during a critical time between the 2014 military doctrine, and a forthcoming one, where some of the more relevant doctrinal developments in Russian military strategy have been in the application of limited force for the purposes of escalation management and war termination.
This text is from a chapter published in the edited volume: THE FUTURE OF THE UNDERSEA DETERRENT: A GLOBAL SURVEY by Australian National University, titled The Role of Nuclear Forces in Russian Maritime Strategy. I highly recommend you read the book, as there are many wonderful sections on other countries. Also the footnotes and references can be found there, as I’ve yet to figure out how to port them into this type of medium.
Although Russia is one of the world’s preeminent continental powers, Russian leaders have historically rendered considerable attention to sea power. Through sea power, Moscow could establish Russia as a great power in international politics outside of its own region. Sea power served to defend Russia’s expansive borders from expeditionary naval powers like Britain or the United States, and to support the Russian Army’s campaigns. With the coming of the atomic age, the Soviet Navy took on new significance, arming itself for nuclear warfighting and strategic deterrence missions. The Soviet Union deployed a capable nuclear-armed submarine and surface combatant force to counter American naval dominance during the Cold War. The modern Russian Navy retains legacy missions from the Cold War, but has taken on new roles in line with the General Staff’s evolved thinking on nuclear escalation, while adapting to the inexorable march of technological change that shapes military affairs.
The Russian Navy has four principal missions: (i) defense of Russian maritime approaches and littorals (via layered defense and damage limitation); (ii) executing long-range precision strikes with conventional or non-strategic nuclear weapons; (iii) nuclear deterrence by maintaining a survivable second-strike capability at sea aboard Russian nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs); and (iv) naval diplomacy, or what may be considered to be status projection. Naval diplomacy in particular rests with the surface combatant force, chiefly the retinue of inherited Soviet capital ships (cruisers and destroyers), which while ageing remain impressive in appearance. Meanwhile, the Russian Navy, like the Soviet Navy before it, is much more capable beneath the waves, arguably the only near-peer to the United States in the undersea domain.
Regionally, Russian policy documents convey a maritime division in terms of the near-sea zone, the far-sea zone, and the ‘world ocean,’ while functionally the Russian General Staff thinks in terms of theatres of military operations. The Navy is naturally tasked with warfighting and deterrence in the naval theatre of military operations, defending maritime approaches, and supporting the continental theatre. Russia’s navy remains a force focused on countering the military capabilities of the United States, and deterring other naval powers with conventional and nuclear weapons. Over time, it has also acquired an important role in Russian thinking on escalation management, and the utility of non-strategic nuclear weapons in modern conflict.
Continuity in Naval Strategy: The “Bastion” concept endures
Russian naval strategy has proven to be evolutionary, taking its intellectual heritage from the last decade of the Cold War. Nuclear and non-nuclear deterrence missions are deeply rooted in concepts and capabilities inherited from the Soviet Union; namely, the bastion deployment concept for ballistic submarine deployment, together with the more salient currents in Soviet military thought derived from the late 1970s and early 1980s, being the period of intellectual leadership under Marshal Ogarkov, Chief of Soviet General Staff at that time.
Strategic deterrence and nuclear warfighting in theatre proved anchoring missions for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. In the 1970s-80s it had become widely accepted that the Soviet Union adopted a “withholding strategy,” as opposed to an offensive strategy to challenge US sea lines of communication. The Soviet Northern and Pacific Fleets would deploy ballistic missile submarines into launch points in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, protected by attack submarines, and a surface force geared around anti-submarine warfare (ASW). US analysts termed these protected ballistic missile submarine operating areas “bastions,” and the name stuck.
The merits of the strategy were always questionable, since the Soviet Union was geographically short on unconstrained access to the sea, unlike the United States, while having a plethora of land available for land-based missiles. However, the Soviet Navy deployed a sizable ballistic missile submarine force (more than 60 strong) as part of a nuclear triad. Defending these bastions to maintain an effective survivable deterrent drove shipbuilding requirements for a surface combatant force, and a large submarine force to fend off penetrating US attack submarines. Consequently, ballistic missile submarines proved the linchpin in Soviet naval procurement, and capital ships were designed to defend the SSBN bastions rather than simply enhance anti-carrier warfare or forward strike missions.
Although from a competitive strategy standpoint it might have made sense for Russia to walk away from SSBNs, leveraging road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as a cheaper survivable nuclear deterrent, this was not the direction elected by the Russian General Staff. Russia’s military clings to a sea-based nuclear deterrent that is incredibly expensive, arguably indefensible from adversary counterforce attacks, and makes little strategic sense in light of the country’s current nuclear force structure. Russia’s current ballistic missile submarine force includes three Delta III-class (only one of which is operational), six Delta IV-class and three of the newer Borei-class SSBNs, for a total of ten operational SSBNs. The likely deployed warhead count at sea is somewhere in the range of 600–800. The bulk of the force, nine submarines, are stationed in the Northern Fleet, while three submarines are currently assigned to the Pacific. The Borei-class SSBN program, together with the newer Bulava SLBM, is the single most expensive item in Russia’s State Armament Program. Russia is set to procure eight to ten Borei-class submarines by the early 2020s, first phasing out the ageing Delta III-class, and subsequently the Delta IV-class.
The problem with this strategy is that in the 1990s the Soviet Navy melted away, reducing in strength from approximately 270 nuclear-powered submarines in the late 1980s to about 50 or so today, at an operational readiness that likely cuts those numbers further in half. Similarly, the large surface combatant force has declined precipitously, transitioning to a green-water navy, with limited ASW capability. Russia’s submarine force is less than twenty per cent the size of the late Soviet Union’s, and the surface combatant force is much smaller, to say nothing of maritime patrol aviation. Russia’s focus on the Arctic is driven in part by a desire to better secure this vast domain from aerospace attack, and provide the infrastructure to better defend SSBN bastions, especially as passage becomes passable for surface combatants.
It is worth noting that Russian submarine operations have re-covered after declining precipitously in the early 2000s. Since then, the Russian Navy has been buoyed by a sustained level of spending on training and operational readiness, military reforms leading to almost complete contract staffing in the Navy, along with procurement of new platforms. Senior Russian commanders frequently issue pronouncements about increased time at sea, training, and patrols, though a high operational tempo eventually inflicts a cost to readiness.
Russia continues to modernize its existing ballistic missile submarines, and field new ones, as part of a legacy strategy inherited from the Soviet Union. Continuity in the “bastion” strategy may provide the Navy with an argument for spending on Russia’s general-purpose naval forces, more so than it provides a survivable nuclear deterrent. Comparatively, Russia now fields a large force of road-mobile ICBMs, including RS-24 YARS (SS-27 Mod 2), and Topol-M (SS-27 Mod 1), with two regiments still upgrading to this missile. Despite the fact that a growing share of Russian nuclear forces is becoming road-mobile, reducing the need for sea-launched ballistic missiles, the Navy retains a prominent strategic deterrence mission, enshrined in key documents outlining national security policy in the maritime domain.
New Roles: Non-Nuclear Deterrence and Escalation Management
Relatively unchanged operational concepts for deploying SSBNs disguise tectonic shifts in Russian thinking about nuclear escalation, and the role of naval forces in strategies aimed at escalation management and war termination. There are profound changes occurring at present in Russian military strategy stemming from the debates in Russian military thought as far back as the Nikolai Ogarkov period of 1977–1984. In the 1980s, the Soviet General Staff began focusing on the rising importance of long-range precision-guided weapons, particularly cruise missiles, and their ability to attack critical objects throughout the depth of the adversary’s territory. Ogarkov, the Chief of the Soviet General Staff at the time, advocated for the belief that precision conventional weapons could be assigned missions similar to that of tactical nuclear weapons from the 1960s-1970s. These were the fountainhead of present-day Russian discourse on non-contact warfare, the dominance of precision-guided weapons on the battlefield, and their ability to decide the conflict during an initial period of war.
Observing modern conflicts in the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian General Staff came to adopt the need to establish “non-nuclear deterrence,” premised on the strategic effect of conventional weapons, and the consequent shift of non-strategic nuclear weapons into the role of escalation management. Nuclear weapons originally meant for warfighting at sea, and in Europe, were hence valued for their ability to shape adversary decision-making, by fear inducement, calibrated escalation, and management of an escalating conventional conflict. Non-strategic nuclear weapons were subsequently incorporated into strategic operations designed to inflict tailored or prescribed damage to an adversary at different thresholds of conflict.
The Soviet Navy was never designed to fulfill this vision, but the modern Russian Navy seeks to centre its role along these doctrinal lines as part of joint operational concepts called strategic operations. Soviet naval forces retained a strong nuclear warfighting mission, seeing tactical nuclear weapons as a critical offset to US naval superiority, and contributing land attack nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to general plans for theatre nuclear warfare in Europe. However, by acquiring the ability to conduct precision strikes on land with cruise missiles, along with other types of multi-role weapons, the Russian Navy could now contribute to both the conventional deterrence and the non-strategic nuclear employment mission.
Official statements by Russian military leaders, and doctrinal documents, emphasize the importance of precision-guided weapons in the Russian Navy, and the belief that under “escalating conflict conditions, demonstrating the readiness and resolve to employ non-strategic nuclear weapons will have a decisive deterrent effect.” According to different estimates, Russia retains roughly 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, a significant percentage of which appear assigned for employment in the maritime domain, either by the Russian Navy or land-based forces supporting the naval theatre of military operations. The means of delivery are decidedly dual capable, with the same types of missiles being able to deliver conventional or nuclear payloads with fairly high accuracy.
Russian strategic operations envision conventional strikes, single or grouped, against critical economic, military, or political objects. These may be followed by nuclear demonstration, limited nuclear strikes, and theatre nuclear warfare. To be clear, theatre nuclear warfare is not new to Russian nuclear doctrine, but was always the expected outcome of a large-scale conflict with NATO during the Cold War. For much of the 1960s through to the 1980s, the Soviet Union anticipated at best a two to ten-day time window for the conventional phase of the conflict. However, unlike the nuclear weapons of the Cold War, precise means of delivery, together with low-yield warheads, have rendered nuclear weapons more usable for warfighting purposes with a substantially reduced chance for collateral damage. Scalable employment of conventional and nuclear weapons leverage the coercive power of escalation, whereby strategic conventional strikes make the actor more credible in employing nuclear weapons in order to manage escalation. In the context of an unfolding conflict, these weapons are not necessarily meant for victory, but to break adversary resolve and terminate the conflict.
The Russian Navy, although limited in the number of missiles it can bring to bear due to constrained magazine depth, retains a prominent role in the execution of these missions, particularly in the early phases of conflict. In this respect, submarines like the Yasen-class, and others able to deliver nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to distant shores, should be considered as important elements of sea-based nuclear deterrence at a different phase of conflict, and perhaps no less consequential than SSBNs.
Again please check out the edited volume for other great works on undersea nuclear deterrence, by other authors, and for references.
The Russian Navy had an interesting 2019, and while it did not turn out to be the year the service hoped for in terms of procuring major combatants, there certainly were activities and exercises of note, as well as incidents that drew their fair share of negative publicity.
On the exercise front, August’s Ocean Shield 2019 proved to be Russia’s largest naval exercise in 30 years, followed by a sizable sortie of Northern Fleet submarines in October. The reports of the death of Russia’s submarine force, which occasionally crop up in Western media, appear to have been greatly exaggerated. A small task force, led by the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, circumnavigated the globe between February and August. The Russian Navy hopes such trips and the growing number of multinational exercises with countries like China will become regular occurrences.
The most prominent incident at sea occurred in June, when a Russian Udaloy-class destroyer passed within 100 feet of the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) during a helicopter recovery operation in the Philippine Sea. Judging by how 2020 has begun, that 2019 episode is unlikely to prove to be an isolated incident.
The year’s most dramatic news came in July, when a fire killed 14 crewmen on board Russia’s special-purpose “nuclear deep-sea station.” AS-31, nicknamed Losharik, is a deep-diving nuclear-powered submarine that belongs to the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI)—that is, Russia’s “other navy” that conducts special projects. It appears a fire broke out in the submarine’s battery compartment while it was docking with its mothership, BS-64 Podmoskovye, leading to an explosion. Losharik was saved, but much of the crew, consisting of senior officers (captains first rank), perished.
Russia’s unluckiest ship, the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, continued its historical streak of incidents and accidents when it caught fire in December while pierside undergoing repairs. The Kuznetsov had been damaged in 2018 when the drydock it was in, PD-50, sank dramatically, almost taking the carrier with it. Not only did Russia lose its only drydock in the Northern Fleet capable of hosting the Kuznetsov, a crane from PD-50 fell onto the flight deck, causing further damage. The December 2019 fire appears to have caused minimal damage, much to the disappointment of many analysts and defense officials in Russia who have come to see the ship as an albatross around the Navy’s neck. Despite everything the carrier has endured, many doubt if it will ever return to service as anything other than a floating museum.
At first glance procurement in 2019 appears to have disappointed, but the lack of tonnage being launched disguises some positive shipbuilding trends for the navy. Russia’s defense industry turned over one improved-Kilo-class submarine for the Pacific Fleet, and launched a second, out of a total order of six expected to be built. The Oscar-II nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine (SSGN) Omsk appears to have completed its overhaul and been restored to service. Several corvettes and guided-missile boats were launched, including the: Vasily Bykov–class Dmitry Rogachev, Karakurt-class Sovetsk, and Buyan-M Ingushetia. It appears that two previously inactive amphibious warfare ships (LSTs) were repaired for the Black Sea Fleet. Meanwhile others were undergoing overhaul, including the Akula-class nuclear-powered attack submarine Vepr, the diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine Alrosa, and the frigate Neustrashimyy.
The list of submarines that had been expected to enter service in 2019, but were pushed to 2020 includes the first Borei-A nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine Knyaz Vladimir, the Yasen-M SSGN Kazan, and the new diesel-electric Lada-class submarine Kronshtadt. Of these, the Knyaz Vladimir is still expected early in 2020, while the Kazan appears to have a number of issues discovered in spring 2019 that need addressing; she may not enter service in 2020 at all.
Among the navy’s procurement successes was news that the Belgorod, a heavily modified Oscar-class SSGN intended for GUGI’s use, was launched as expected in 2019. She is likely the longest submarine currently in existence, intended to deploy Poseidon (also known as “Status 6”) nuclear torpedoes and various unmanned undersea systems. Meanwhile, another Yasen-class submarine, the K-573 Novosibirsk, quietly left the slipway at the end of the year, two years faster than its cousin Kazan.
Among surface combatants there was disappointing news. The second Admiral Gorshkov–class frigate, Admiral Kasatonov, failed to complete trials and enter service. The same was true for the new heavy corvette Gremyaschy, and the large LST Petr Morgynov. On the one hand, these delays seem consistent with the country’s shipbuilding industry’s longstanding pattern of missing deadlines. On the other, 2019’s delays were mainly with ships expected to lead serial production in their classes and are expected to be shorter than in the past (such as the notorious periods of dolgostroi—Russian for “unfinished”— when ships languished for years awaiting completion). In fact, many of the ships in question have already undergone some testing, sea trials, and live-fire exercises. Consequently, 2020 may prove to be a big year for Russian ship acquisition.
There was other news of note, as two more Admiral Gorshkov–class frigates were laid down, along with modified Ivan Gren–class LSTs and another pair of improved-Kilos for the Pacific Fleet. The Ministry of Defense also signed contracts for two more Yasen-M submarines, bringing the total expected to nine, and two additional diesel-electric Ladas. The Navy announced its intention to lay down two large amphibious assault ships (LHDs) in 2020, with expected displacement of about 20,000 tons. Finally, the 37-year-old guided-missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, was spared a much-debated retirement.
Despite ongoing delays and complications in what is Russia’s worst performing defense-industrial sector, the Ministry of Defense continued to spend on naval procurement. Russia’s total annual modernization, repair, and research budget is almost 1.5 trillion rubles (almost $60 billion in PPP). Russia’s military expenditure remained flat in 2019, but its purchasing power still equals perhaps $180 billion. The past year demonstrated that constraints on the Russian Navy remain tethered to industrial capacity, technical, and operational limitations, rather than financial resources.
Originally published in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Reprinted with permission.
This is a follow up post to the A2/AD discussion dealing with Russian VKS and PVO-SV air defense, it is also meant to flog the discussion in this WOTR article on whether Russian A2/AD is a really a problem from a maritime perspective. Anti-access/area-denial has some purchase as a concept in the maritime domain, but it was meant to be a conversation about China. The term has been lackadaisically applied to Russia because defense ‘strategists’ group similar capabilities into a common functional problem. This then allows them to say ‘Russia and China’ = problem X, and even worse, if we buy capability Y to deal China then it will definitely work for Russia because we have now declared these to be the same problem set.
This post is not about operational concepts, but again the tactical side of things, as there has been some debate on the efficacy of Russian A2/AD systems. Hence I hope to tease out a conversation on how things work, or don’t probably work, and areas where I think we don’t necessarily know (or maybe just I don’t know).
In the Russian case what gets touted as A2/AD capabilities are just land based coastal defense systems, which for Russia is somewhere between Plan C or Plan D in order of echelonment for dealing with a blue water navy. It mostly misses the plot of Russian thinking about maritime strike. The Russian Navy has historically pursued a damage limitation strategy, starting with forward deployed guided missile ships/submarines, land based aircraft with anti-ship missiles, then offensive/defensive mining and CDCMs.
However, for littoral NATO states in the Baltic/Black Sea with small navies the missile batteries pose a pretty big problem, quite relevant for those who start within the alleged range rings. Think tanks and defense industry advocacy organizations often offer us these scary circles, but does starting within range of these systems equal automatic attrition? The answer is depends.
How capable are Russia’s coastal defense cruise missile batteries? (A2/AD things) Precision strike in the maritime domain depends heavily on queuing, and having a workable kill chain, because unlike buildings ships move around. This means having to address technical things like over the horizon targeting, satellite targeting, etc. Being able to find and fix the actual target is most of the problem. The range rings drawn based on missile flight range don’t mean anything, plus they probably don’t reflect the actual ranges anyway. Second, the most important leg in this supposed A2/AD chain is still land based aviation, both for queuing with maritime patrol aircraft, and the ability to conduct strikes against maritime targets.
The bulk of the Russian coastal defense force includes the BAL, which fires 8 x Kh-35E subsonic missiles per TEL. This system delivers a salvo of up to 32 missiles per battery, with subsonic anti-ship missiles at a max range of 260km. The Bastion-P fires the P-800 Oniks, which is advertised at 450/500km on a high trajectory, 300km combination medium-low, and 120km with a low-low flight profile. It is possible that P-800 Oniks actual range could be further than officially stated given some of the statements that occasionally come out of India about the capability of their Brahmos. Of course ships have numerous countermeasures, defenses, and can use geography to hide, so one should not presume that the Russian ability to hit a ship guarantees that a missile will connect with the target.
These CDCM batteries come with their own Monolit-B targeting radars. Russia’s defense export sites claim that they have an active radar mode (35km), over the horizon radar using waveguide (90km), over the horizon using refraction (250km) passive targeting mode to detect emitting radars (450km). We can take that with a grain of salt, but the numbers listed don’t seem especially fantastical. It comes in a pair of transmitting and receiving vehicles. They can receive targeting data via data link from airborne units, like Ka-31 helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft like Su-24MR or MP, or potentially the much longer range Il-38N and Tu-142 (Bear F). Russian forces also use larger over-the-horizon radar (OTHR) arrays, such as the high frequency surface wave Podsolnukh-E (OTH-SW) systems found based around Russian fleets (200-450km), or the much bigger Container (OTH-B) array located deep in Russia with a range of 3000km+.
One of the questions occasionally raised is whether they can they hit anything using the OTHR? It has been alleged that using OTHR is basically just firing blind, and I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not an expert on OTHR systems, but it would be a really poor investment to buy such long range missiles without investing in a viable targeting system for them, and to pair them with so many unhelpful mobile OTHR systems. The battery’s organic Monolit-B radar is relatively short range, but it is supposed to not only detect targets beyond the radar horizon, but also classify them, and one wonders whether that is all a big lie. OTHR has a lot of problems, but with modern signal processing technology the current generation of OTH-SW and OTH-B systems could be much better. I would not bet the ship on the proposition that Russian OTHR systems cannot effectively see and classify targets over the horizon.
Given the various forms of civilian traffic control, ship automatic identification systems, it may also be possible to easily cross reference signals to separate military from civilian traffic. In a Russia v NATO fight, most of the traffic will belong to combatant nations, and might be considered fair game by the adversary. ELINT based targeting seems to be another functionality of the Monolit-B, and is useful for space-based targeting, which we will get to late. The extent to which a target is cooperative makes a significant difference.
Of course coastal defenses often rely on Su-24MR or Ka-31 helicopters to confirm targets at longer ranges, and while these can be shot down, the numbers game doesn’t look great. Also the act of shooting down an aircraft with ship based air defense system means becoming a cooperative target that identifies you to passive means of detection. Coastal defense units are shifting to drones for recon-strike targeting, like much of the Russian ground force, which means there are simply going to be too many cheap ISR platforms in that tactical-operational range of 100-300km. There is a panoply of means to classify a target, from a guy with a radio on a fishing trawler, to an AGI, to drones, aircraft, and helicopters.
The second half of the package is the missile. Russian anti-ship missiles are advertised as having a sophisticated seeker with active radar, home on jam, ability to de-conflict with other missiles, and a complex flight profile. Soviet missiles were known to be quite smart, able to de-conflict with each other, execute search patterns to actively scan for targets. There is no reason to assume modern Russian missiles can’t do the same, but better. The missile can do quite a bit of the work of classifying and differentiating targets, i.e. it will figure out which one is a fishing boat and which one is an AEGIS destroyer on approach.
What about land based naval aviation?
The Russian A2/AD discussion often overlooks the fact that coastal defenses are just a backup for other defensive layers, from ships and submarines to the Russian air force, which is partly what makes it unworkable as an alleged strategy. It’s the last layer of defense for Russia’s maritime approaches, not the primary one. Against a blue water navy it is near useless since there is no reason cruise missile carrying platforms, or carriers, need conduct operations within range of Russian ‘A2/AD’ capabilities.
The USSR began to think along these lines in the early 1960s once carrier based aviation got longer legs, hence the damage limitation strategy. Basically the A2/AD business doesn’t solve any of Russia’s central problems with U.S. naval power projection, which is again why there is no strategy just based on these capabilities. They are a relatively close-in layer for defending Russian littorals and maritime approaches but not the basis of Russian strategy. (More on that in this article.)
Russian long range aviation took the Tu-22M3s from the Navy back in 2011, then got converted into the VKS Aerospace Forces in 2015. This means that part of the maritime strike mission is in the possession of the long range aviation component (LRA) of the VKS. We can add to this the Su-34 bomber, Su-24M2 tactical bomber, and the Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters assigned to naval aviation regiments. It is hard to know what might be operational from the Tu-22M3 force, but it is safe to assume that what’s left is a relatively small force compared to the heyday of Soviet naval aviation – a couple regiments strong at best. Tu-22M3s, even in small numbers, pose a challenge because of the range of their Kh-32 missiles.
The Su-34s are worth looking at, because the Russian VKS has received 125 of them and they have increasingly been practicing anti-ship strikes with Kh-31 and Kh-35 in exercises. The Su-30SM is also suitable for this role with 114 delivered, although a relatively small portion of these went to naval aviation regiments. Land based aviation is becoming more of a player in maritime strike and I think this space is worth watching. I will skip the Mig-31K because it’s not clear right now where it will get the queuing from to target the Kinzhal ALBM against high value naval platforms.
The main limitation on Russian naval aviation is the availability of Il-38N and Tu-142 long range maritime patrol aircraft. This means that Russian aviation looks good at the operational range of 300-500km, but anything beyond that starts to get problematic given the limited availability of long range ISR platforms. Limited availability is sometimes used as a euphemism for ‘they can’t do it,’ but what it translates into is intermittent coverage, or a high chance of running out of assets due to attrition.
Can space based means be used to target at sea? It depends.
The Soviet Union used two space based ISR systems for targeting: Legenda for maritime reconnaissance and targeting, and Tselina for radio-technical reconnaissance (ELINT). These constellations used nuclear powered, and solar powered satellites of the «УС-А» (active radar) и «УС-П» (passive detection). They provided targeting information at sea and transmitted it to ships or guided missile submarines, like the Oscar-II armed with Granit missiles.
However, both space based recon systems are considered to have ceased functioning some time ago, to be replaced by the Liana system which has had trouble getting off the ground. Liana was meant to consist of two Lotos electronic signals intelligence satellites, and two Pion-NKS radar reconnaissance satellites. Lotos had problems in development, consistent with much of Russia’s space program, but the first satellite went up in 2009. It was followed by three Lotos-S1 satellites, though none of the Pion-NKS satellites have been launched. Izvestia reported last year that both Pions were supposed to be launched by January 2020. Given I’m writing this on January 28, it’s safe to say that’s probably not going to happen this month.
According to numerous public sources a Russian constellation of ELINT satellites designed to listen for cooperative targets does exist (possibly 3x Lotos-S1), but the two Pion-NKS radar satellites do not. Once the Pion-NKS are launched though, which could be this year, the Liana system will be working with satellites able to see ships on the ocean’s surface and transmit that data to Russian forces. This will make a difference in kind when it comes to the Russian forces’ ability to target ships via any land based or sea based platform.
There are limitations to Russian A2/AD capabilities, but they were never meant as a strategy. The strategy was and remains damage limitation, which in part is based on layered defense, but also preemptive destruction of long range strike platforms. Coastal defense is about covering the littorals and key maritime approaches. The challenge began to loom because missiles got better, radars got better, and NATO expanded – so now what was a layer of coastal defenses has become an A2/AD capability affecting sea denial in much of the Baltic and Black Sea.
This places the emphasis on the wrong capabilities. The focus should be on ISR, and the potential for land based strike aviation to make an impact. I also think offensive and defensive mining gets overlooked as one of the most effective means of denying an entire area to an adversary because its not as flashy as modern missiles. Limitations in ISR make ‘a2/ad’ rather dodgy beyond tactical-operational ranges, and there are legitimate questions about what Russian OTHR can actually deliver without additional sources of target identification. That sets up a somewhat bifurcated threat, as the Russian ability to see is pretty good at tactical-operational ranges, and not so good beyond them.
These complexities of course do not stop defense intellectuals from trotting out theories that Russia has an ‘A2/AD strategy’ and will terribly coerce NATO in a crisis with shiny missiles. A real interdiction strategy would involve sea lines of communication. During the first half of the Cold War it was long held that the USSR had a SLOC interdiction strategy before the navy eventually conceded that actually it was chiefly a withholding strategy for SSBN bastion defense. There is no evidence that anything has changed on the Russian side, besides having far fewer operational submarines available to pursue SLOC interdiction.
However, we should not tilt towards cavalier or overly dismissive assessments. Russian forces are getting more eyes, buying more aircraft, drones, missiles, and upgrading maritime patrol aviation – so the trend line is clear. I think the extent to which ships become cooperative targets as they maneuver will have a significant impact on the ability of these various systems to detect and classify targets at longer ranges. That’s probably not a revelation, but it is interesting how much passive detection plays a role in the efficacy of Russian anti-ship targeting systems.
There were several articles in 2019 attempting to address the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) problem set, in my view an unfortunate term that got transported from the China watcher community and slapped onto Russia, even though it has preciously little application in Russian military strategy or doctrinal thought. In a late 2019 WOTR article, which proved quite long, I sought to tackle the operational level thinking in the Russian military for how different capabilities listed under the A2/AD umbrella are likely to be used, illustrating that no A2/AD defensive doctrine or strategy exists. Russian forces are organized around offensive/defensive strategic operations which do not suggest the intention to sit back in a defensive bubble and get eaten by a U.S. led aerosopace attack.
However, this post is about the tactical side of things, and a series of claims made by colleagues about Russian A2/AD capabilities being overrated that I think need addressing. Technology fetishism and threat inflationism seems to be giving way to a dismissive attitude in some circles which is equally problematic. In my view these capabilities are misunderstood. I will briefly tackle air defense and a couple items I think it’s useful to consider on this subject. Just to be frank, this is going to be fairly rudimentary because I’m not an engineer and math is not my preferred language – on the other hand readership dramatically declines with each math formula or table you include in a post.
The first challenge with Russian air defense is the almost wanton confusion between Aerospace Forces (VKS) fielded systems, ground forces fielded air defense systems (PVO-SV), and the Russian air force within the VKS, which is often missing from this picture. Basically, much of the writing presumes that Western forces can fight the S-400 on its own, and you have a number of reports from well meaning countries that attempt to simulate the battle of NATO versus Kaliningrad, as though Kaliningrad was a country and not a tiny grouping of Russian forces relative to the whole. Given Russian framing of any conflict with a coalition of states as a regional war, we need to think about how Russian forces organize for large-scale warfare in the TVD (theater of military operations), and in a geographical span running roughly from Norway to Turkey rather than some contrived pinky fight in the Baltics.
IADS belonging to VKS
Integrated air defense systems under VKS include the S-300 line of S-300PMU1/2, S-400, S-350 and point defense systems like Pantsir-S1. These systems are used to defend Russian critical infrastructure and ‘strategic deterrent forces’ assigned to execute strategic operations. They may cover Russian ground forces, but are not necessarily vested in defending them since the army has its own air defense component. While the S-400 may be ‘overrated,’ the echelonment of these systems creates layers of defenses at different ranges, but most importantly with different types of missile seekers. These systems provide overlapping coverage for maximum attrition, but what they really do is defend critical civilian and military objects at operational or strategic depths.
The 200km 48N6E2 and the 250km 48N6E3 is semi-active, but the much shorter range 9M96 series (60-120km) is active radar homing. The extended range 40N6 400km missile appears to have achieved initial operating capability, and also comes with an active radar seeker, although I’ve never seen the container for it. These systems excel at medium-high altitude, while the active radar homing missiles pose a challenge for pop-up attacks, low-flying aircraft, or helicopters. We will touch on low altitude penetration a bit later.
Although there have been claims that you can simply take out one engagement radar and thereby neutralize an entire battery of 6-8 TELs, it’s not clear that this is remotely true. That would somewhat defy the concept of integrated air defense and it’s probably not quite that simple given the proliferation of automated systems of command and control at all echelons of the Russian armed forces. It would be safer to assume the Russian VKS thought of that and there’s a Plan B + Plan C to ensure redundancy. This assumes that TEL #1 can only talk to fire control radar A, but cannot communicate with fire control radar B assigned to TEL #9, even though there are dedicated C3 vehicles deployed with them to enable high bandwidth communication.
Typically these systems are co-located with Pantsir-S1 batteries which provide defense against cruise missiles, and missiles intended to take out the S-400. There will also be plenty of EW systems to make life more complicated and effect disorganization on the incoming aerospace strike.
The main problem for Russian air defense is stealth and saturation. The former can offer considerable standoff relative to the effective engagement range, and the latter can simply overwhelm with munitions, decoys and drones. Low observation characteristics substantially reduce the effective range of fire control radars, which means that most of the range rings shown as ‘angry circles of death’ are meaningless. This is part of the reason why there is no Russian strategy based around bubble defense, because it’s not really possible against 5th gen, and even less so against cruise missiles. Hence there is no area denial, and not necessarily anti-access either – think more attrition, disorganization, and deflection.
However, statements about the advantage of low observation aircraft should come with caveats. Stealth does not mean invulnerability. The proliferation of increasingly mobile low-frequency Russian radars, like Nebo-M, which operate in the L-band, VHF, and UHF, means that stealth aircraft can be seen, just not necessarily engaged. These radar systems used to be quite large and clunky due to the antenna aperture required, but are now far more portable with shorter setup times. That said, any air defense network starts to develop gaps once you take down enough radars.
Most of the arguments about a Russian A2/AD strategy based on zonal defense amount to defense intellectual gobbledygook attempting to portray Russia as 1973 Egypt (limited offense followed by area defense). Here is a good example of how Russian writing depicts the problem of deflecting and attriting an aerospace attack. Note the emphasis is on the stack of threats in the aerospace domain, from low-altitude to space based assets, and the ability of Russian air defense to defense critical infrastructure/strategic deterrent forces.
Reading Russian military thought articles on the problem of U.S. massed aerospace assault, and the damage that numerous long range precision guided munitions could inflict, one gets the impression that they understand where things stand perfectly well – and they don’t like it.
That leads us to the second problem, the air force component of the Aerospace Forces, which is probably somewhere in the range of ~800 tactical aircraft. The majority of these have been modernized or replaced with new variants 2011-2019. These fighters are an integral part of the Russian air defense network, and will be looking to engage any aircraft penetrating it, which will be seen on low frequency search radars whether they are 5th gen or 4th gen.
A fair bit of writing presumes that one can perform a SEAD or DEAD mission, tackling VKS owned IADS separately, while the entire Russian air force sits parked and waits for its turn to fight, which is unlikely. Russian fighters will naturally fill the corridors or gaps between Russian air defenses, and will be guided by radar systems that can see low observation aircraft. The Su-57 seems well suited for that role. The limited availability of AWACS aircraft (A-50U) in the Russian air force is an enduring issue, but Russian fighters are primarily guided to intercept via ground control stations utilizing ground based radar. The air defense system as a strategic network is really a combination of radars, integrated air defense, tactical aviation, and missile defense.
Here is a list of aircraft deliveries I pulled from BMPD’s recent update.
My sense is that the 5th gen versus modern IADS + air force is the sort of thing that will either go really well, or quite poorly, without a lot of in between. Either way the Russian air force is likely to preemptively conduct its own aerospace assault, as part of the strategic aerospace operation, and together with long range aviation wipe out as many air assets as possible on the ground (covered in the WOTR article). Cruise missiles don’t really care if you have 4th gen or 5th gen on the runway. Remove air refueling and AWACS from the picture, things start to get less rosy.
What about Low-Altitude?
It has been asserted that one could simply negate the range of many of these systems with low altitude penetration, going in old school to negate the advantage of long range radar air defense systems. One can understand the visual appeal, complete with Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone playing in the background. There are a few problems with this theory. The first is that 5th gen aircraft are optimized for the medium-high altitude penetration mission – stealth loses a lot of its value if you can literally see the plane and shoot it down with almost any type of short range system (SACLOS/IR/SPAAG/bow and arrow).
It’s not clear to what extent any Western air force, with the exception of Israel, spends much time training for low-altitude penetration, and while the aircraft can do it, many pilots probably cannot. Without training, nap-of-the-earth flight is likely to result in disaster before Russian air defense can even have a chance to shoot something down.
The second problem is that it’s not a cure-all given many Russian radars are found raised on masts, plus most Russian systems carry a shorter range active radar seeking missile variant. As the S-350 proliferates in the VKS, and the Buk-M3 in PVO-SV, this will become even more of a problem. Naturally the earth’s curvature dramatically affects radar range against a low flying target, but there is a great deal of complexity that goes into assessing a radar’s effective targeting range over the horizon – especially since atmospheric conditions and terrain play an important role. I’m an expert on none of these things, but Russian search and fire control radars frequently come mounted on 24 or 40 meter masts. We should ask why.
Some basic calculators I found online show that all things being equal against a target flying at 100 meters your targeting range from a 5 meter height is only 27km, but from a 24 meter height you get 62km and from a 40 meter height 67km (hopefully I got those right). I’m not a radar expert, but the Russian military likes to put them on telescopic masts for a reason. If you can see the air defense radar in a 4th gen aircraft then it can probably see you. This problem might be solvable by pop-up attacks when dealing with semi-active radar missiles, but then you have a batch of 9M96 active seeking missiles to deal with because the radar only needs to see you for a brief amount of time and the missile seeker will figure out the rest of the problem.
It is also worth mentioning that the proliferation of Russian over the horizon radar systems pose a challenge for launching an aerospace attack undetected at any altitude. The relatively short range Podsolnukh-E, which uses the ocean as a conducting surface can see 450km out and being deployed with every Russian fleet. Strategic OTH systems like Container are located deep inside Russia and can see most of Europe’s airspace at ~3000km range. This simply means that Russian VKS will see an aerospace attack coming whether it is high, medium, or low altitude and without that element of surprise you get more attrition.
The last problem is that by avoiding VKS IADS an aircraft may quickly become best friends with Russia’s PVO-SV.
The PVO-SV problem for low or medium altitude
Air defense units belonging to the Russian land forces (PVO-SV) do not need VKS IADS, because they carry a thicket of their own air defense systems to cover the maneuver formations. These include Tor-M1, Buk-M2, various radar assisted gun systems, and MANPADS. The problem with attempting low altitude penetration or close air support against Russian ground forces is that they have a very high density of short range air defense systems able to reach to medium altitude.
Newer systems add to the challenge. Buk-M3 is much more capable than its predecessors, with active radar homing missiles (70km on 9R31M), a separate radar that can be raised on a retractable mast, and a containerized missile for quick reloads. These more capable systems are to be found in air defense brigades include S-300V4 and Buk-M3, while M2 is probably going to stick around in air defense regiments/brigade. Almost anything in the PVO-SV arsenal can shoot down cruise missiles, although that’s not their primary mission.
Meanwhile S-300V4 is really the mobile missile defense system for the Russian ground forces, designed to provide standoff capability against high value aerial assets like AWACS, or jammer aircraft. In terms of capability this has always been a more interesting system than the S-400, because of its ability to engage ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and maneuverable aerodynamic targets. This system was deployed to Syria, and largely unnoticed given the fixation on the S-400. Antey fielded a 400km missile against low maneuverability targets, 9M82 ‘Giant’, well before the 40N6 went into development for the S-400. The 9M83 ‘Gladiator’ missile is comparable to the 48N6 line, and the system components are tracked which makes them quite mobile. S-300V4s are due for an upgrade, and will be bought in increasing numbers for Russian air defense units assigned to fleets. I would watch this space – PVO-SV is going to get a lot more capable in the coming years.
So Russian A2/AD is overrated in large part because of our own technology fetishism and terrible understanding of how Russian forces are actually organized. It does not exist as a doctrine, or a military strategy, but we should not over simplify the discussion in attempts to debunk the tactical capabilities of Russian military technology. All you have to do to achieve air dominance is eliminate the VKS radars, the low-frequency radars, and the Russian air force – then you’re largely ok right after dealing with the countless PVO-SV air defense systems. Assuming you don’t run out of munitions early on into this process, or aircraft, and all the high value enabling platforms do not get attrited, then it’s a manageable problem.
In some respects Russian IADS are a sort of McGuffin plot vehicle. As long as time and munitions are spent on them, Russian critical objects are safe, and one way or another the IADS end up executing their mission – which is not to defend themselves but to defend that which is strategically significant for the success of operations in the TVD.
In my view the balance of aerospace assault vs air defense remains offense dominant (I understand offense/defense dominance is not a thing because Keir Lieber says so), but that is probably not enough to offer confidence in the initial period of war. The problem is that Russia’s military has always seen defense to be cost prohibitive, and there for focused on an offensive damage limitation strategy + functional defeat of the adversary. So whether you think Russian A2/AD systems are amazing, or overrated, just remember – there is no such doctrine or term in the Russian military and the conversation misses the plot on how Russian forces actually organize at the operational-strategic level.
For a better, but longer explanation on operational level organization in the TVD, and Russia mil strategy check here.
Update September 2: If one believes CNBC’s story here then the cause of the incident was a failed recovery attempt of a prior Burevestnik missile test from 2018. In recovering the missile from the bottom of the bay something exploded under one of the vessels, which also damaged the missile’s reactor, leading to the radiation release. So there was no missile test, no reactor test, no launch, and equally there was no RTG or some other device responsible. I will leave the rest of the text below without updates so you can see my thought process, right or wrong, early on in this episode before much information was available.
I was going to stay away from this because there simply was not enough information to tell what happened, and the hot take factory had already run away with the story on the basis of close to nothing. Here is the most likely scenario as I see it. The explosion was not a missile launch test, and it was not Burevestnik, no matter how much arms control wonks want to think it was. It’s just unlikely based on the scant information available about the incident.
I have a different view from Jeffrey Lewis here. The notion that Russian Burevestnik program was in major trouble after moving from Novaya Zemlya test site is also probably incorrect. I think Lewis’ own commercial satellite imagery confirms the story that VNIIEF, the Russian nuclear research institute in charge of this work, basically tried to tell but couldn’t get out in time because people already piled in with speculation.
They were testing the system on a platform at sea. According to some accounts the explosion blew the scientists into the water, which is why it took time for an accurate casualty count to come in as they were looking for their own people. It was not a missile launch, as such launches are easily detected by national technical means, and it was not on a rail launcher since we can clearly see one affixed on land at the test site. Why would they rail launch it from a platform at sea when they can fire it over the bay from the coast?
Update August 26: Looks like its not a RTG based on the isotopes detected, and instead a nuclear reactor. Also unlikely to have been a missile, and the initial explosion may have taken place underneath the platform rather than above it.
Let’s ask first order questions. Why did five leading researchers die? If it was a nuclear powered missile test why would they be near the missile? I know I’m always standing next to experimental missiles I’m testing, it’s the best way to see the explosion. If it was an experimental nuclear reactor (unshielded), why were they standing next to it at the time of the mishap? I know I always stand next to experimental nuclear reactors I’m testing. Typically when people stand around things, it is because they don’t expect them to explode or massively irradiate them.
The explosion was caused by a liquid fueled engine – why would there be a liquid fuel engine in Burevestnik? Subsonic cruise missiles have solid fuel as their boost phase. Ok here is the last question for Burevestnik theory enthusiasts. Imagine they are conducting a missile test on a small platform out at sea, and you believe that this is a missile powered by an unshielded reactor. I mean, kind of hard to shield a reactor on a relatively small cruise missile. In this theory Russia’s leading nuclear researchers are standing around an unshielded nuclear reactor on a barge, with the intent to turn it on. Forgive my skepticism.
I know you’re thinking, well maybe they lied about the platform and were testing it at the rail launcher site. So why were the scientists next to it then, and another question, why are there all these ships positioned in the flight path of the missile from the rail launcher? Wouldn’t the radiation from the reactor be a problem for them, the entire bay, maybe the towns?
Some in Russia have combined the two theories, suggesting that Burevestnik has a nuclear power component, but there is a separate liquid fueled engine for maneuverability. While interesting, its still unclear how either system actually powers Burevestnik and why a subsonic missile with maneuvering surfaces would remotely need liquid fueled thrusters or jets to maneuver. I’m raising this here to dismiss it because it doesn’t make much technical sense. We will get back to Burevestnik later.
VNIIEF’s statement, in classic Russian style, alluded to two types of projects without saying exactly what it was, a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator or a novel reactor type akin to U.S. Kilopower project. In my view they were indeed testing a novel Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator with a liquid fuel engine combo. (That turned out untrue after it became clear that the different nuclides produced could only come from nuclear fission).
The idea being to use the RTG as a long term electrical heating solution to maintain thermostatic temperature inside the various components of a liquid fueled engine, either in a booster phase, or the canister itself, of a missile that needs to get up to speed very quickly from launch. Basically an atomic battery for a liquid fueled engine where the components have to be kept at a certain temperature in prolonged storage, otherwise the weapon has to be permanently connected to a power source. This is certainly not as sexy as a nuclear powered missile, but it’s much more probable as the real story behind what happened. That’s the story IZ eventually went with and (I believed it was closer to the truth than all the Burevestnik mania, but it turned out not to be a RTG)
Some of my musings on alternate explanations:
If we ask which secretive missile the Russian military is working on, that is principally for the Russian Navy, has most likely a high power liquid fuel engine – it’s could well be Tsirkon. Since Tsirkon has to be canister stored, and quickly sprint to a high velocity for its scramjet to work, most likely this missile could benefit from a RTG. It could be part of the canister storage system, or fall off as a booster. Some have also suggested Skif, a SLBM designed to be fired from the ocean seabed, even though that would violate a treaty banning such weapons. If its a liquid powered engine, then I’m skeptical on Skif and leaning towards Tsirkon, because the latter is likely to have a powerful liquid fueled engine/scramjet combo, and is actively being worked on whereas I’ve really not seen evidence of Skif being a thing. (it was none of these things either)
While we’re in the speculation business on RTG use, it might also be a maneuvering satellite. That sort of weapon could use a sustained power source, in space, and possibly have liquid fueled thrusters. Just working through the non-Burevestnik list here. If the radiation emitted sounds too high for a RTG, and I’m not an expert here so I don’t know how much radiation you get if you blow one up, I suppose it varies considerably depending on the type of material used and how much of it they were using. RTGs are fairly simple in design, but perhaps this RTG was novel and therefore more powerful.
Equally likely it was a novel nuclear power source, but again it begs the question as to the cause of an explosion, and why leading researchers would ever be standing around such a thing on a platform at sea. The obvious answer is they were setting up equipment, but I don’t see them testing an unshielded reactor off the coast of a town near Severodvinsk.
Now let’s imagine that the RTG story is a canard meant to distract us (which it turned out to be in retrospect). It could be a novel nuclear power source, but for what? Well, probably 10-20 different projects, at least those that I can think of. I’m not ruling out a component related to Burevestnik, but saying that something was tested with infrastructure associated with Burevestnik tests is like going to Kaputsin Yar and just guessing which missile was involved at a range testing 10 different missiles.
The scientists, the explosion and a source of radiation were all co-located which suggests they were working on something with explosive potential and a source of radiation. The radiation released seems quite small for a reactor, just my impression based on commentary from people who follow the nuclear side of things but perhaps too high for a typical RTG. So the circumstances suggest it was something other than an unshielded reactor, involving an engine with liquid fuel propulsion, which should point us away from Burevestnik.
Moscow Times released a story from the hospital talking about exposure to Cesium 137 isotope, which while a byproduct of fission, is a source of gamma radiation. The thing is Cs-137 is total junk for power level and is basically one of the weakest isotope sources you can use for a RTG. Good PDF here with comparisons for those interested.
So after initially leaning towards the RTG story, it seems that was a distraction and instead we are dealing with a nuclear reactor. There are several options for nuclear reactor tests with military applications at sea, from Poseidon torpedo to various types of ATGU’s, undersea atomic power stations, to of course our reactor for Burevestnik. However, to release these different isotopes it is likely that fission might have had to take place at the site, whereas in a missile the reactor would not turn on until after boost phase, which creates obvious problems since the explosion and material was released from the platform.
Back to Burevestnik
I wonder why people assume that Burevestnik is an open air flow reactor/ramject powered missile? Just because in 1960s U.S. project Pluto used this combination on a large supersonic missile does it make sense to assume that’s what Russia is working on as well? The U.S. tried to build 1957-1964, and it doesn’t make much sense that it is what Russia would try to build in 2019. Pluto was a large supersonic missile, with rocket boosters and multiple warheads designed as a supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), while Burevestnik is a single warhead cruise missile shaped for subsonic or perhaps transonic flight. Its certainly not a mach 2 weapon.
Burevestnik clearly doesn’t look like a supersonic low altitude missile with those wing surfaces.
Given Burevestnik appears to be a subsonic, or a transonic missile, not meant for supersonic flight and therefore not utilizing a ramjet which is better suited for mach 2+ it is probably not an open air flow system. Ramjets are highly inefficient at slower speeds and the wings on the missile don’t exactly look like a mach 2+ weapon. Burevestnik is going to have probably one of two propulsion types, direct air cycle or indirect air cycle. Direct air cycle just throws the air into the reactor and out the back. Highly radioactive. Indirect cycle is probably liquid metal cooled. Air makes contact with a heat exchanger that’s carrying the liquid metal from the reactor and goes out the back, much less radioactive. Of course maybe there is a nuclear power source just powering a turbojet and they’re not using the air for propulsion at all.
Also I don’t think its index is 9M730, although it was initially reported as such. There are still too many assumptions here about an experimental weapon without enough images or information, so in my view it is best to hold back on the guesswork.
Comments and feedback as always welcome. If you have alternative explanations please send them in. I do not know what it was, but there’s enough information to suggest that the hot take factory is wrong on this one.
Reposting this article from Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme latest Russia issue brief, just released this week. I encourage taking a look at the article compliation in these briefings, because CCW’s work typically includes some of the best analysis on Russian defense, strategy, economic or energy issues.
Since late 2008, the Russian military has undergone a period of sustained reform, and modernization to compensate for almost twenty years of divestment which took place after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much has changed during the initial reform period under the then combination of Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of General Staff from 2008 to 2012, and again subsequently under the new tandem of Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov since 2013. Implementing reforms to previous reforms is a Russian tradition, but the vision being executed is born of a deeper intellectual pedigree. The modern Russian armed forces owe a great deal to the current generation of military leadership, which disbanded the remnants of the Soviet mass mobilization army. But, in truth, it owes far more to the intellectual heritage inherited from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Marshal Nikolai Vassilievich Ogarkov served as Chief of the Soviet General Staff.
The most recent decade of military transformation would be better known as the “Ogarkov reform inheritance”, since it represents the successful implementation of a vision he had for the Soviet armed forces in the early 1980s, which was only partly realized during his tenure. Looking across the changes implemented in the Russian armed forces, from the flattening of the command and control structure, to the execution of complex exercises with combined or inter-service groupings from different military districts, the deployment of recon-strike and reconfire loops, the integration of combat branches and arms around strategic operations in the theater of military operations, and the increasing emphasis on non-nuclear strategic deterrence, we can see that Ogarkov’s intellectual children have come home. This is not to dismiss the lasting influence of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Alexander Svechin or Georgii Isserson, whose writing is also used to underpin modern military thought. But none of those men lived through the Cold War, and many of the current ideas or concepts take their heritage from the Ogarkov period.
Ogarkov was a technologist at heart, arguing for a revolution in military affairs in 1982, to reshape the Soviet armed forces with a new generation of technology. Many of the latest weapon systems deployed in the Russian military date back to the 1980s in terms of design, and were conceived as answers to the capabilities then being deployed by NATO. More important, though, is the doctrinal thought that the Russian General Staff has visibly inherited from him, which drives the development of capabilities and concepts of operations for their employment, i.e. the Russian way of war. The goal is to establish a balanced force, consisting of general purpose forces for warfighting, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, a capable non-strategic nuclear force for escalation management, and a credible strategic nuclear deterrent.
It was Ogarkov’s vision to establish high readiness combat groupings of mixed forces, able to conduct defensive and offensive strategic operations in a theatre divided along strategic directions. This was the model for large-scale combat operations that has so heavily influenced latter day Russian planning for Joint Strategic Commands (OSK), combined arms armies as operational level headquarters, and the formation of high readiness combat groupings along said strategic vectors.
In his time, Ogarkov sought to reform how the military approached war at the operational and strategic level, unifying the work of the service headquarters and the general staff. His goal was to integrate services that they could create operational level groupings composed of combined arms units, which today is realized best at the level of the combined arms army. According to Makhmut Gareev, Deputy Chief of General Staff at that time, Ogarkov centered the General Staff as the ‘brains’ of the Soviet military. He sought the integration of air defense and the air force, seeing air power as decisive in the initial period of war, without which ground forces cannot effectively advance. Seeing the U.S. way of war as aerospace blitzkrieg, the Russian military has made air defense a strategic operation, unifying air defense, missile defense, and tactical aviation under the Aerospace Forces (VKS). In his own time, Ogarkov lost the fight internally to combine air defence and the air force as institutions, but, in the end, he served as progenitor for a reorganization of Russian air power and air defense around strategic operations to deflect U.S. aerospace attack (the Russian air force and aerospace defence forces were merged in 2015 to create the Aerospace forces).
It was Ogarkov who, together with other notable Soviet military leaders, such as Viktor Kulikov, Sergei Akhromeev, and Valentin Varennikov, restored operational-strategic and operational level training at the General Staff, with large scale command-staff exercises designed to explore operational art, and develop military strategy. Of particular note were Zapad-81, Vostok-84, Dozor-86, and Osen-88, testing concepts such as the Operational Manoeuvre Groups, reconnaissance at the tactical-operational level, destruction of enemy formations with fires and electronic attack through the depth of their lines.
Under recent Russian Chiefs of General Staff, including Yuri Baluevsky, Makarov, and Gerasimov, there has been a resurrection of the influence of annual strategic exercises, together with a robust annual training cycle, to work out questions of operational art, mobility, mobilization, service integration, and so on. Consequently, today the Russian armed forces, while not the largest they have ever been, are at their highest state of readiness in decades, beyond that of the Soviet military in the 1980s.
Ogarkov is equally notable for what he opposed. For example, he argued against the USSR’s habit of spending large sums of money on civil defence. In his view, the USSR was burying its money in the ground by arming civil defense units with vast quantities of obsolete equipment. Instead, he wanted to rearm the Soviet military with the next generation of conventional weapons, thus restoring its conventional military power after Khrushev had invested heavily in nuclear weapons in a bid to reach parity with the United States.
Like any good land force officer, Ogarkov was critical of the Soviet Navy’s megalomania, especially its desire to build a vast surface combatant force without the infrastructure to support operations. He singled out the Navy’s desire to waste money on aircraft carriers in an effort to match the United States. Although the Russian Navy may never be cured of such aspirations, in practice it is transitioning to a capable green water force with a more practical set of missions and a host of new capabilities to implement them. Still, if Ograkov had had his way, the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft cruiser, perhaps the unluckiest ship in the Russian Navy and notorious killer of naval aviation, would never have been built.
Perhaps most importantly, Ogarkov understood the chief problems of the Soviet military, which in the 1980s had fallen behind in communications, reconnaissance, battle space management, targeting, automated systems of command and control. These problems were demonstrated repeatedly in Chechnya, and finally in the RussiaGeorgia War of 2008. The modern Russian military has worked to solve the hereditary blindness of the Soviet Union, and is increasingly able to find, fix, and finish targets at tactical and operational depths, while implementing new systems of command and control across all echelons.
Although Russia retains its traditional military strengths in firepower, mass, and warfighting at the operational level, the Russian General Staff has now come a long way towards implementing Ogarkov’s vision of conventional warfare driven by information, real-time integration of fires and strike systems with intelligence and reconnaissance assets. From this, one can see the evolution of Russian combined arms maneuver enabled by noncontact strikes, fires, and a growing share of precision guided weapons added to the legacy heavy firepower mix.
Ogarkov’s view held that the military should not be employed to resolve cases that were principally political crises, demanding political solutions. He was publicly opposed to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. This characteristic hesitancy to employ conventional military power has to some extent stayed in the Russian political and military leadership, typically exhausting other instruments of national power to achieve political objectives, and methods that fall short of war, prior to the introduction of high end conventional military power.
Nikolai Vassilievich was also one of the first senior Soviet leaders to conclude publicly that political victory in a nuclear war was impossible, instead seeking answers to what Soviet leadership at the time called the ‘independent conventional war option’. Under his leadership, the USSR began to develop concepts for a high intensity conventional war without depending on nuclear weapons, as a riposte to similar developments taking place in the U.S. establishment that culminated in the development of the AirLand Battle concept. As Ogarkov pursued this military transformation, however, his vision proved to be a costly strategy at a time when the USSR was in economic crisis instead seeking to reduce the unsustainable costs of military competition.
The present day Russian General Staff envisions a capable general purpose force, together with a non-nuclear deterrent that is able to deliver tailored or prescribed damage against critical objects of political, economic, or military significance. Rather than compete with NATO in long-range conventional weapons, an unwinnable contest not only for Ogarkov’s Soviet Union but also today’s Russia, the military has chosen an approach based more on reasonable sufficiency. Where Ogarkov had the right idea but wrong scope and execution plan, was in seeking to match U.S. technological might in a large-scale conventional war. It was overly symmetric, and economically ruinous. It also made less sense given that the USSR never believed that a war between nuclear powers could be kept conventional.
Given an asymmetry of interests at stake, in most crises the Russian military thinks it can meet the requirements of strategic operations with a much cheaper ‘strategic’ conventional deterrent, because its coercive impact would be greatly magnified by the presence of a capable non-strategic nuclear force. The latter can be employed as part of scalable nuclear operations in theatre, from demonstration employment to escalation management, or warfighting. This vision evolved from the early 1980s debates of Ogarkov’s General Staff, with an important caveat: while Ogarkov did not believe that nuclear weapons could be used as an instrument of policy in practice, it is unclear that the current Russian military leadership shares such views given the somewhat different nature of the stakes in the contest.
The Russian General Staff has made considerable progress in building a military to answer the technological advancements and the concepts of operations developed by the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. what they perceive to be the modern character of war. It was largely Ogarkov’s answer – a military transformation envisioned by the USSR General Staff in the 1980s, even as the Soviet Union itself hurtled towards state collapse. Albeit fitful and perhaps incomplete, the restoration of Russian military power was decades in coming, and now it is here. Whether the United States will be able to successfully adapt to these developments, innovate, invent, and evolve where necessary, remains the open-ended question for our generation of analysts and strategists.
There’s a great deal more that could be said of Ogarkov’s influence, ideas and legacy, so this is an abridged exposition. Comments and feedback are always welcome.
Thoughts and a quick overview of what is known about the fire that took place aboard AS-31 Losharik (referenced as AS-12 in most stories). Also some clarifications since there are conflicting media narratives and facts surrounding this developing story.
BLUF: On July 1 the Russian special purpose submarine project 10831, AS-31 ‘Losharik’, designated as a nuclear deep-sea station (атомная глубоководная станция) suffered a catastrophic fire killing 14 crewmen, with 4 survivors (at first I heard 5 were rescued). The submarine itself seems to have been not far from its base and was towed back. The now official version as I understand it suggests that the fire occurred at fairly shallow depths (at 280m), originating in the battery compartment of the submarine. The cause was a short circuit in the electrical system. Details are unclear but the gist of it is that while the fire started in the battery compartment, the cause was electrical. Supposedly Losharik was conducting bathymetric surveys in the Barents (that’s the official story anyway). Most of the crew died from inhalation of noxious fumes/smoke attempting to save the submarine – this story retold in IZ.
Update as of July 10th: Fontanka which does great investigative journalism ran a story based on several sources claiming that the cause of the fire, and subsequent explosion, was a lithium-ion battery aboard the submarine. Losharik was docking at the time with the carrier submarine, though according to this story it was BS-136 Orenburg (this bit is unlikely since Orenburg is out of service). The battery was used to power Losharik’s maneuvering systems (this bit kind of made sense, still unclear why the energy from the reactor was not sufficient). According to Fontanka, the submarine recently received a lithium ion battery, which experienced a short circuit during docking operations. This in turn led to a rapid discharge, overheating, and an explosion in the battery compartment. The resulting fire killed all crew members in the first three compartments of the submarine.
Apparently, having little prior experience with lithium ion batteries on submarine, beyond project 677 Lada, which is yet to undergo serial production, they put a Li-ion battery onto Losharik. The advantage of this battery type is that it does not produce hydrogen gas, which must be contained and removed on diesel-electric submarines. BMPD blog ran a great commentary as to the ridiculousness of placing this type of battery onto a submarine so early into development, compared to the Japanese who invested decades into this technology. I’m no expert on batteries so will withhold judgment as to whether or not installing this type of battery, without extensive testing on other submarines, made sense.
Barents Observer ran a story based on sightings by some fishermen as retold in a local news paper, they claim the submarine surfaced near Ura Bay around 9:30 pm (northwest of the entrance to Kola Bay), although this sighting may have been of the carrier submarine BS-64 Podmoskovye. They of course didn’t want to be identified because they were out fishing illegally. I’m skeptical of first hand accounts from fishermen late at night. Media tend to jump on these eye witness tales, but such stories tend to be of questionable veracity.
Most of the versions of this narrative I’ve heard suggest Losharik was quite close to its base, operating near home waters. A subsequent story indicates that there was a civilian on board, and this individual was evacuated prior to the crew’s decision to close the hatch to prevent the fire from spreading – supposedly the died not from the fire but noxious gas inhalation.
On July 5th Putin met again with Shoigu, where Shoigu reported that they are still assessing the timelines and scope of work required to carry out repairs, but given the nuclear reactor compartment was not damaged, he was optimistic the submarine could be made operational within a fairly short time. He further confirmed the fire began in the battery section of the ship and spread from there. In his characteristic style Shoigu said that repairs were not only possible but absolutely necessary. We will see how long it actually takes to get AS-31 operational again.
Electrical fires are not uncommon aboard submarines, as are fires stemming from battery compartments. This problem plagues the Russian submarine service more so than Western counterparts. Of course it is also possible that the Russian MoD has come up with a straightforward explanation for what caused the fire in order to give the media a plausible story to run with, while we do not know what actually happened given the nature and mission of this submarine. Hence the story of some sort of short circuit or electrical arcing leading to a fire makes sense, but at the same time should be taken with some skepticism. Russian submariners carry gas masks and personal life saving kit on them at all times specifically for such incidents.
At first glance the crew complement for that voyage appears unusually composed of senior officers. This is not that unusual for GUGI which is a small, officer heavy service, with technical and engineering specialists. Everyone aboard such a vessel could be an officer given the technical or scientific expertise required, and it could be that such a large number of captains are actually detailed to AS-31.
However it is difficult to believe that the typical compliment, 20-25 crewmen, would consist of 7 Captains first rank, including two who had been awarded as heroes of the Russian Federation (Filin and Dolonsky), unless they were conducting some important research mission or perhaps test. Standard complement or not, either way, the deaths of these senior officers are likely to be a great loss not just for the Russian Navy, but also for GUGI’s technical efforts.
The official casualty list can be found here. It shows a loss of 7 captains first rank, 3 captains second rank, 1 Lt Col from the medical service, two captains third rank, and a captain-lieutenant. I think comparisons to Kursk are unhelpful, and out of place here, but it is a significant tragedy for the Russian submarine service. The crew belongs to GUGI’s military unit 45707 based in St. Petersburg. The two captains who held Hero of the Russian Federation honors earned them as part of earlier research missions in the Arctic and Antarctic. Captain 1st Rank Dolonsky was the actual captain of the submarine.
The nuclear deep-sea station
AS-31 is an unarmed submarine designed for special missions, examination or installation of infrastructure along the ocean floor, research, measurement, and the like. It’s an ideal undersea salvage craft to pick up various bits of technology, munitions, or sensors that sink to the bottom. Yes it can locate or probably cut undersea cables. The submarine has retractable arms to manipulate objects, but is not designed for advanced weapons testing. There is a different set of GUGI subs that perform this mission. The name Losharik is a nickname derived from the visual appearance of its specially designed pressure hull, composed of interlinked spherical compartments made of titanium.
HI Sutton does good cutaways and 3D models, although I fear that this resource is overused as a single-source of visuals on Russian special purpose subs. There’s a strong chance that the interior might not quite match what people imagine it to be. Still the cutaways are quite useful to get a general sense of what it might look like.
Rough specs based on conflicting sources, none of which especially agree with each other:
approximate length 74 meters (or 69)
2100 tons displacement when submerged
composed of 7 spherical compartments (some show as 6)
diving depth 3000m + (perhaps up to 6000m)
speed 6 knots submerged
I doubt the submarine’s voyage had anything to do with the timing of NATO’s ASW exercise in the Norwegian Sea, Dynamic Mongoose, though it is possible this submarine would be sent to pick up anything interesting left on the ocean floor – it is capable of such missions. It does not appear the submarine was operating anywhere near the Norwegian Sea.
Losharik was developed during 1988-1990 by the Malakhit design bureau, built at Severodvinsk during the 1990s. Delayed due to financing, it entered service in 2003, and according to some sources was considered operational some years later. The submarine made a well known research voyage to chart the outer edges of Russia’s continental shelf at the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges. According to one story Losharik sustained damage to its manipulable arms during this mission and underwent repair. The submarine then went through sea trials in 2017, together with BS-64 Podmoskovye, which was just launched in 2016.
Although BS-136 Orenburg is often cited as the carrier mother ship for Losharik, a modified Delta III SSBN, BS-136 is probably not operational and most expect this submarine to be officially retired. There was news as far back as 2013-2014 that BS-136 Orenburg was going to be written off in the near future. The submarine is too old to merit life extension, and is likely to be scrapped. Therefore the carrier is most probably BS-64 Podmoskovye which has been operational since 2017. I will edit this post later with links.
New photos from TASS show clearly it was BS-64 involved, as it is now parked at Severomorsk with a tent over the hatch, and vehicles surrounding it.
GUGI and the 29th Submarine Division
AS-31 belongs to GUGI, the Defense Ministry’s Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (10th Department). This is a specialized service that is not part of the regular Russian Navy, but answers directly to the Ministry of Defense as an intelligence and special missions organization. GUGI operates special purpose submarines, ocean going research ships (for example Yantar-class), and divers known as ‘hydronauts.’ Often media accounts conflate the work of GUGI, and its ships/submarines, with that of the regular Russian Navy, and it’s submarine force, which is not the case.
Losharik belongs to the 29th Submarine Division (previously listed as a separate brigade). This is a separate division in the Northern Fleet, based at Olenya Guba next to the town Polyarny. It is often erroneously reported as being at Severomorsk, or headquartered there, neither of which is true. The bay is near the main Northern Fleet submarine base of Gadzhiyevo on the Kola Peninsula. Other submarines of the 29th include the smaller special-purpose diesel-electric classes and larger modified motherships, based on reconfigured SSBN or SSGN hulls.
Submarines belonging to GUGI include:
1-3 project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM) atomic deep-diving station
1-3 project variants of 1851/1 Nelma (X-RAY) and (PALTUS) carried atomic deep-diving stations
BS-64 Podmoskovye (modified Delta IV SSBN), mother ship for AS-31
BS-136 Orenburg (modified Delta III SSBN) non-operational, expected to be written off
K-329 Belgorod (modified Oscar II) recently launched from shipyard. Multipurpose platform able to carry smaller submarines, drones, nuclear powered torpedoes, etc.
Other special purpose submarines that may be associated with the service:
B-90 Sarov diesel-electric submarine, appears to be a systems development/testing platform (not part of the 29th)
Project 09851 Khabarovsk, laid down in 2014, currently under construction – may be just a dedicated Poseidon carrier, or a GUGI submarine with different functions
A brief slideshow of GUGI’s various children
Concluding thoughts: It’s natural to ask what this tells us about the state of the Russian Navy or the submarine service, and the fair analytical answer is fairly little. GUGI and its ships are not part of the regular navy, they are not subject to the op tempo of exercises, patrols, etc. What we can see is that fires remain a problem aboard Russian submarines, even the most specialized ones with crews that consist entirely of experienced officers. This problem is more characteristic of the Russian submarine service. Other countries’ submarine services are great at crew training and maintenance, but have a tendency to run into things (no names). Unfortunately we’re not going to find out if the official story on the source of fire is true, or if some piece of boutique tech was the real cause.
If you’re not following the Su-57 because you rightfully believed that Russia was not going to procure these aircraft in sizable numbers, that the program was in limbo, or that this aircraft’s potential didn’t add up to much, now is a good time to take a second look. I think a fair bit of commentary and writing has been overly dismissive of this program based on earlier prototypes shown, and does not account for the different design philosophy and missions in mind that Russian MoD had behind the Su-57 when compared to U.S. approach to 5th generation aircraft. It’s also worth noting changes taking place to the design as it begins to mature.
I rarely write about aerospace and will walk into this subject cautiously.
BLUF: The Su-57 is a high maneuverability air superiority fighter, with a substantially reduced radar cross section compared to 4th generation Russian fighters, designed to work as part of Russian air defense to counter stealth aircraft near or within Russian airspace. This fighter is meant to team with Russia’s sizable 4th gen air force, and VHF/UHF ground based acquisition radars, to establish local qualitative advantages and help close corridors in Russian air defenses. The Su-57 is an affordable, producible option to bolster Russia’s air defense network. It will pose a major challenge for any 4th gen aircraft, and concern to stealth optimized 5th gen aviation. Yes it is a stealth 5th generation aircraft, but it is not a F-22 or F-35 clone, and the design philosophy is not based around mission requirements similar to U.S 5th generation aircraft. This fighter is tailored to Russian needs, though it has features intended to make it attractive to an export market.
On May 15th Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would sign a contract for 76 Su-57 fighters, this will buy three regiments of 24 aircraft, plus a flight of 4 possibly destined for Lipetsk combat training center. The actual contract is likely to be signed at MAKS-2019 show late August. According to Kommerstant the contract is valued at 170 billion RUB (this figure is too low), which will fully load the production line at Komsomolsk-on-Amur plant, though at a rather low profit margin of 3-5%. This plant is already busy with Su-35 orders. Alongside the Su-57 announcement, Putin also declared that a contract will be signed in 2020 for 100 Mi-28NM helicopters and 114 Ka-52M helicopters (Ka-52M variant to be created by 2022). The Su-57 buy appears to be scheduled for 2019-2028, though keeping in mind that the state armament program for 2018-2027 is revised every five years, so in 2022 there are likely to be course corrections.
Putin remarked that Russia has bought more than a thousand fixed and rotary wing aircraft 2011-2018. This is true, about 468 fixed wing tactical aviation and somewhere around 600 helicopters (I’ve not found exact figures for helicopters). The original state armament program (2011-2020) hoped to buy 52 serially produced aircraft. After 2015 the timeline began slipping to the right, and the expected order size drastically reduced. The expected order dropped to 15 aircraft by 2028, with earlier explanations from Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov that can be summed up as ‘Russia’s 4th gen aircraft are perfectly fine for our requirements so we don’t need Su-57 right now.’ This suddenly changed last week to ‘we’ve not built anything like this platform in 40 years and are going to invest in 5th gen. Such a reversal is not uncommon in Russian defense practice. Russia’s purchase of 76 aircraft is considered an initial installment, Russian air force requirements were considered to be 200-250 Su-57s. Considering the aerospace sector’s performance 2011-2018, they could readily build in the 2020s once serial production is established.
Su-57 is the official designation of the aircraft developed under the PAK-FA program (Перспективный авиационный комплекс фронтовой авиации), so far producing 11 prototypes, marked T-50-1 through 11. The USSR conducted research into low observable aircraft in response to the U.S. Advanced Tactical Aircraft program, yielding technology demonstrators such as the Mig-1.44 and the S-37. In 2002 Russia and India agreed to jointly develop a derivative of the PAK-FA aircraft as part of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft Program (FGFA) for India. The deal was signed in 2010, with an initial investment of $295 million to jointly develop the design between Sukhoi and India’s HAL. The overall program was valued at $6 billion, with 35% allocated to Indian enterprises. In 2012 work stalled due to disagreements over financing and technology transfer. Moscow sought $5 billion from India to continue working on the program, valued at $10 billion. An arrangement was supposedly worked out in 2016 envisioned both sides investing $3.7-4 billion into the program over 6-7 years.
Mig 1.44 demonstrator
India sought more than 50 modifications to the aircraft, ranging from engines to stealth characteristics, meanwhile HAL’s role in the program declined to 13%. Delhi kept changing its mind about how many, and what type of FGFA aircraft they intended to procure, originally seeking 214 fighters with 48-66 of them modified two-seat versions. Subsequently Indian requirements changed to 144 single-seat fighters, and were further reduced to 127. In early 2018 India walked away from the program citing shortcomings in stealth and avionics. Some Russian analysts interpreted this decision as the result of the technical and financial disagreements, along with Indian disappointment that they were not going to develop the Indian 5th gen aircraft they wanted on the basis of the Russian PAK-FA. Other sources suggest that Moscow wanted India to fund at least half of the R&D, but Delhi had already spent an estimated $8 billion on 36 Dassault Rafales (in a deal mired in controversy), and essentially had no money in the procurement budget to seriously invest in FGFA.
Instead India was to receive an export version of the T-50, and in this scenario they backed out, leaving the development risk to Russia, with the option to come back and buy the Su-57 if Sukhoi proves successful. Why India believed they could co-develop a 5th generation aircraft program with Russia, gain experience and tech transfer, for a fraction of what similar such programs typically cost, remains a mystery. Similarly, some Western analysts and commentators began writing off the PAK-FA when India backed out, as though the $4 billion that Russia never actually received from Delhi was going to make or break Russia’s 5th generation program (a country that spends 1.5 trillion RUB on R&D and procurement per year). Many of these predictions of Russian next gen weapons programs entering ‘death spirals’ are simply wrong.
Reasons for the delays found in defense news articles typically reference something about a lack of money, sanctions, or other analytical spaghetti thrown at the wall. There is no evidence that the PAK-FA program suffers from these problems. A simpler reason is that developing a 5th generation aircraft is not all that easy especially if you’re integrating a host of new capabilities, from an AESA radar, to a low observable air frame (or at least an attempt at one), a new engine, flight control system, etc. Suffice it to say Sukhoi encountered challenges – here are a few visuals to illustrate:
It is difficult to talk unit cost because the aircraft is being bought in two phases, one with the AL-41F-1 engines and another with the Izdeliye 30 engine, which is currently undergoing testing. Since key components for the real Su-57 are not yet completed, it is challenging to estimate the actual price per unit. Currently it is estimated as a $2.5 billion USD program which works out at ~$35 million per aircraft. That seems deflated and cheaper than the Su-35, i.e. it just can’t be true. Ilya Kramnik at Izvestiya expects the overall cost of the program to be 400-500 billion RUB, as opposed to 170 bil RUB, which would make the recently announced price tag reflective of just the initial batch of serially produced aircraft. Plus United Aircraft Corporation is going to haggle over the relative price of all the aircraft it is building for the MoD such that the ultimate price per aircraft is going to only be tangentially related to the actual production cost. Most of the estimates on price seem to cluster at $45-54 million USD, or about half the cost of a F-35, not that everything should be measured in prices relative to U.S. acquisition programs.
As I have argued in earlier articles, based on purchasing power parity (PPP), as opposed to pointless conversions into average USD currency values (the kind offered to us by SIPRI), Russia spends roughly $150-$180 billion in overall military expenditure. Of this about 75% is the national defense order, with roughly 50% of that budget allocated to procurement and R&D (maybe an effective $50-$60 billion). This aircraft will have a USD based export price tag at some point, but the cost to the Russian defense budget needs to also be understood in terms of effective spending value, calculated based on PPP. This is a domestically produced aircraft, which thanks to Western sanctions, is going to be made with probably almost entirely Russian components, especially after India withdrew (not that HAL was going to do much anyway). At 2.3-2.5 billion RUB per aircraft the program works out right now to an effective $80-100 million of spending per unit produced.
Aircraft design and purpose
I think the Su-57 is a misunderstood aircraft in terms of design philosophy, purpose, and program viability. The Su-57 is a compromise between reducing the radar cross section and building a highly maneuverable air superiority fighter, with great performance at high speeds, and at different altitudes. It has innovative features which should qualify it for the 5th gen moniker, some of which I will cover later in this piece (engine, flight control, sensors, materials, etc.) That said, the Su-57 does not represent an aircraft solely dedicated to stealth and beyond visual range combat on the basis of first look/first kill.
The Su-57 is not necessarily intended to compete on stealth with U.S. F-22/F-35, though depending on the aspect, it may be quite comparable. It is not meant for penetrating integrated air defenses, conducting deep strike missions, or conducting offensive counter air within enemy air defenses. To compare its design for such roles is to engage in mirror imaging. The Su-57 appears intended to engage enemy stealth aircraft within its own air defenses, guided to target by ground-based low frequency radars, leveraging its own low observation properties to get closer to the adversary, and a mix of on-board sensors that can help with detecting low observable aircraft once within close range (IRST). I suspect it is intended to plug gaps or corridors in Russian air defense that may exist for very low observable aircraft.
The Su-57 has a SH121 multi-functional system consisting of N036 Byelka radars, which feature five active electronically scanned array radar antennas. Three in the X-band, one primary nose mounted, two smaller radars in the cheek position, plus two L-band matrices in the wing edges. Those can be used for IFF and electronic warfare, probably not powerful enough for any real stealth search/detection capability. Between the five AESA antennas, and the dedicated ECM suite in the tail, the Su-57 should be a capable electronic warfare platform, and leverage EW strengths to compensate for any shortcomings in stealth. The fighter could be used to establish local areas of air superiority against 4th gen aircraft, and get close enough to a stealth optimized aircraft to become a problem, especially with passive forms of detection like IRST. The Su-57 can carry the latest generation of Russian standoff strike weapons, and may have a role in intercepting high value air assets as well, such as AWACS. It has already been shown firing a Kh-59MK2 air-to-surface standoff guided missile.
There was no discernible Russian desire to build an advanced sensor fusion platform that could integrate with a other ISR infrastructure, or for the aircraft to serve as an ISR platform for the rest of the force. They were not seeking a stealth optimized strike and recon platform for penetrating strikes. On the whole, there is considerable doubt in Russian circles on the viability of stealth in general, and a strong belief that aircraft must retain high performance flight characteristics – including so it can survive in a post-stealth world. Russia deployed low observable cruise missiles well before the Su-57, and in general, there is stronger interest in making long range guided weapons low-observable rather than planes. There is some suggestion this plane will team with Okhotnik-B or prospective drone platforms, but that may be aspirational at this stage. The potential Su-57 pairing with Okhotnik-B is unclear, but the Russian drone is remarkably large, and may offer an additional sensor suite for queuing.
From a stealth perspective, there are problems with the airframe design as is, but these were conscious choices by the designers. It has features of a high altitude interceptor, maneuverable dogfighter, and effort was made towards reducing the RCS via shaping compared to previous Russian 4th gen fighter designs. The patent filed acknowledges that the core requirements were a contradiction (that never happens in acquisition programs!), therefore the aircraft is inherently a compromise. The fighter features maneuverability at high angles of attack, great aerodynamic performance at supersonic speeds, and good aerodynamic performance at subsonic speeds, supercruise in the final engine, an internal bay capable of large payloads, and a substantially reduced radar cross section probably in the .1-.3m² range just based on shaping. When factoring in radar absorbing material, radar blockers, etc. it could be quite lower than .1m² and grant the aircraft very low observability.
Patent text for those interested:
“Изобретение относится к многорежимным самолетам, эксплуатируемым на сверх- и дозвуковых скоростях полета, в широком диапазоне высот полета. Преимущественная область применения изобретения – многорежимные сверхманевренные самолеты с крейсерским полетом на сверхзвуковой скорости и малым уровнем заметности в радиолокационном диапазоне.
Создание самолета, способного выполнять задачи в широком диапазоне высот и скоростей полета, обладающего возможностями сверхманевренности и, при этом, имеющим малую заметность в радиолокационном диапазоне длин волн, является сложной технической задачей.
К аэродинамической компоновке такого самолета предъявляются требования максимизации аэродинамического качества (увеличению подъемной силы и уменьшению силы лобового сопротивления) на до- и сверхзвуковых скоростях полета, обеспечению управляемости на сверхмалых скоростях полета. К внешней форме планера предъявляются требования по снижению радиолокационной заметности. Все перечисленные требования являются противоречивыми, а создание самолета, отвечающего подобным требованиям, представляет собой определенный компромисс.”
Disclaimer: Here we start to enter swampy waters. I’m not an engineer and can only discuss this topic in layman’s terms. I’m happy to be yelled at by actual engineers or people from the aerospace industry.
The Su-57 features a substantially reduced radar cross section compared to a typical Russian 4th generation aircraft, but this is a somewhat abstract way to discuss the subject. When we think about having low observation qualities or a small radar cross section (RCS) we are thinking about detection and engagement ranges from a particular type of radar, at a select band, and aspect. An aircraft could have a small RCS in m² when looking at it head on, but become rather visible from the rear aspect, sides, or when looking at it from below via ground based radar. It could have a tiny RCS to a X-band fire control radar, but be clearly visible to a VHF radar employing a wavelength of 1 meter or longer. A more technical paper, for example this one, explains the subject reasonably well:
“if a typical air-defence radar could detect a target with an RCS of 1 m² (small fighter) at 200 nautical miles (NM), it would detect a target of 5 m² RCS (large fighter) theoretically at 299 NM (however, the upper limit of most ground radars is set to 255 NM). A reduced RCS fighter of 0,1 m² RCS would be detected at 112 NM and a stealth fighter of 0,001 m² RCS would be detected at 36 NM. The same logic applies to any kind of radar. However, concerning fighter aircraft radars, as well as air-to-air missile seeker radars, the respective ranges are considerably shorter compared to the ones of a ground radar. In theory, the RCS of some simple objects, such as a perfect sphere, can be well defined. In practice, most targets are rather complex objects and their RCS usually fluctuates considerably, as they move with respect to a radar.”
Some commentators see the Su-57s design as a the wrong approach, unable to replicate a F-22 or F-35. As a consequence the design choice is incorrectly attributed to Russian inability to design a stealth aircraft, or some innate deficiency in the aerospace sector, for the simple reason that it’s inconceivable Russians might understand all the same things about modern air combat, and pursue a different design philosophy. This is mirror imaging. The Su-57 is not the result of a failure to execute. There are significant gaps in industrial capacity between the U.S. and Russian aerospace sector, materials, precision molds, additive processing, electron beam welding, yielding tight tolerances etc., but this is not the primary input into the Su-57 design.
The U.S. has placed most of its 5th gen eggs into the basket of stealth optimized platforms meant for beyond visual range combat, air defense penetration, and offensive counter air (if I’m wrong please yell at me). A substantial amount of money has been invested in this philosophy. The Chinese have to a large extent copied these designs, because that’s what they do. Russians think differently about stealth and the role of tactical air power in general. It is there to be one element of an integrated air defense network, and to support the ground force at the tactical-operational level, not to conduct aerospace blitzkrieg. Despite having access to plenty of information on stealth, a technology that’s at least 40 years in exploitation at this point, they developed different requirements for the aircraft.
Russia’s aerospace sector knows how to make good airframes, though not with the same tolerances, close fits, or materials. The Su-57 airframe has aspects that were clear structural choices not to invest heavily in stealth optimization at the cost of other requirements, the T-50 patent filing showed a planned RCS of .1-1m² based on shaping, though it does not include composites, radar absorbing, and radar blocking materials. So the target performance is a bit of a question mark. The biggest sources of radar reflection appear to be conscious choices.
There are oft cited statements in 2010 by the chief engineer, Alexander Davidenko, that the RCS was .3-.4 square meters, which is far higher than the potential .001-.01 m2 on a F-22. Unfortunately this is not exactly what he said. Davidenko said in 2010 that the F-22 has a .3-.4 m² RCS and that they are working with similar requirements for radar visibility. The actual RCS is undoubtedly a state secret, and Davidenko may have the wrong RCS for the F-22. He is also most likely giving out an average RCS as opposed to the RCS from a particular aspect. The point being is that he never said what the T-50 RCS actually is, from what aspect, in what frequency, or whether it was an average assessment.
Some see these comments as being in reference to shaping only, not the net RCS reduction after radar absorbing materials are factored into the equation. Those statements are also quite dated at this point, not reflective of improvements to successive air frames, though it’s reasonable to assume that the average Su-57 RCS would be somewhere in the .1-.3 range – but much lower from the frontal aspect.
Comparing Su-57 RCS to F-22 RCS is not especially helpful for two reasons. First, neither number is actually known, and the internet is awash with derived RCS figures that are relatively baseless. Second, there is no such thing as a general RCS value. The RCS is a conversion from the measure in decibels (dBsm), which varies depending on radar frequency, power, aspect of the aircraft being seen by the radar, and other factors.
It is doubtful that the Russian defense industry could build something optimized to the level of F-22 or F-35 from all aspects, because of the dedicated industrial processes required. It would entail considerable developmental risk, investment, and little payoff given the requirements. Yet the Su-57 does appear to be a very low observable design, particularly from the front aspect. The unit cost would also prove prohibitive for Russia to procure it in meaningful numbers. An optimized stealth aircraft that could not be built, or prove financially ruinous, would have been a brilliant yet somewhat pointless design. The airframe has good potential, and successive prototypes show attention to further RCS and IR signature reduction, though shortcomings are going to remain.
Judging the design based on the first series T-50 prototypes, without further investments in optimization, or the actual Izdeliye 30 engine, is probably a bit premature. Borisov made clear they would be revising the design, and a detailed look at the prototypes shows changes. After the first five prototypes, there were visible changes in the next three, according to Piotr Butowski. Three of the latest airframes (T-50-7,8,9) have an internally reinforced fuselage, panels that close the fuselage have been replaced with composite materials, the rear boom housing an EW suite has been lengthened, there are changes to the underside of the tail section, wingspan has increase from 14 to 14.1 meters – and the fuselage lengthened from 19.7 to 20.1 meters according to Butowski. The prototype T-50-9 was the first to feature a full electronic suite, which will be installed on the serial production model, as opposed to earlier examples that demonstrated partial kit.
One forum had a good example of differences in this image:
There is a 2.5 year gap between #5 and #6, with the latter series showing modifications. The prototypes currently produced are meant to test different components of the aircraft – they are not the same, and as such looking at an image of any specific model and taking it for an example of the serially produced variant could prove a mistake.
The inlets – these are a clearly a compromise in favor of performance over stealth, as Bill Sweetman wrote, “They are serpentine but the curvature is insufficient to obscure the entire engine face (as on the F-22, F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon), so they also feature a radial blocker similar in principal to that used on the BoeingF/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Unlike the F-22 inlets, however, they feature a variable throat section and spill doors on the inboard, outboard and lower surfaces of the ducts. The result is a complex multiple-shock pattern at supersonic speed, which the Russians consider essential for efficient operation at Mach 2. The inlets also feature clamshell-like mesh screens and diverter slots to keep foreign objects out of the engine, as used on the Su-27 family.” The radar blocker could be a strong solution if it bounces radar waves multiple times inside the inlet prior to any return, then the blocker may prove quite effective, though its unclear the impact on performance. Currently the inlet design forms one of the main reflective surfaces looking head on at the aircraft.
The engine – the original AL-41F-1 (Izdeliye 117) is underpowered for the airframe, it is an interim power plant derived from the engine currently on the Su-35 and used on the prototypes, while Izdeliye 30 is developed. The AL-41F is a modernized variant of the AL-31, supposedly with 15% more power. Some batches of Su-57s will have to be bought with this engine, and perhaps retrofitted later. Izdeliye 30 is not expected to be completed until 2025, but will offer supercruise, delivering supersonic speeds without having to use the afterburner. It is not only more powerful, with 3D thrust vectoring, but also supposedly more efficient (17-18% according to Butowski). Top speed is set as Mach 2, supercruise at Mach 1.3. Izdeliye 30 has begun testing on one of the prototypes as of December 5, 2017 where it was seen launching from M.M. Gromov flight test center. That engine’s appearance seems to have a reduced cross section from the rear aspect in mind, when compared to the standard AL-41F-1.
Izdeliye 30 being tested on the left
The oft touted feature is 3D thrust vectoring, compared to 2D on the F-22, or no thrust vectoring on the F-35. This is useful at high altitude, for maneuverability within visual range, and certain scenarios, but is not an especially useful feature for beyond visual range combat. The Su-57 will be able to out fly most aircraft, if it can get near them and not be shot out of the sky at long range by a superior 5th generation platform – the latter scenario remains in question.
Radar – The aircraft features the N036 Byelka radar system with five AESA arrays, 3 X-band and 2 L-band. These have good potential to be used for electronic warfare, and IFF, along with the dedicated L402 ECM suite in the tail. The L402 Himalays ECM uses its own arrays and those of the N036. The N036 is a first generation AESA, and it will be the first AESA mounted on a Russian fighter. The wing leading edge extensions house two L-band matrices covering a combined 270 degrees. It’s doubtful that the L-band matrices have the power to search for a stealth aircraft in any meaningful way. They can determine range and bearing of a target, not height. Their resolution is insufficient to provide guidance to weapons. Turning them on will reveal the position of the aircraft using them well before they are likely to detect anything. L-band is typically reserved for large ground based radars because of the antenna size required to make effective use of this wavelength. Beyond IFF, and EW, it’s unclear what the L-band matrices are for – perhaps utility can be improved via networking between multiple aircraft. Could be part of a kitchen sink approach to countering stealth, reminiscent of the USSR sticking lots of non-acoustic detection sensors onto its submarines to compensate for capability gaps in acoustic detection.
IRST and DIRCM – The front mounted IRST turret is 101KS Atoll, a useful passive IR sensor, though having the ball turret in the front compromises stealth looking head on. It rolls back to reveal a surface covered with radar absorbing material, but that sphere is a no-no for stealth optimization. The 101KS might make the difference in the aircraft’s ability to search and target stealth aircraft, particularly in an environment contested by heavy use of jamming. Again, here the wavelength matters, as individual IRST may offer passive detection at relatively closer ranges, whereas there is investment in the U.S. in long wave IR detection as a counter-stealth technology. Overall the IRST system makes more sense than L-band for stealth hunting, but they would need to do something about the turret shape. The system does much better searching when queued, which the aircraft could attain via datalink from air defense radars.
Other electronic features of note include the 101KS-O directional infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) turrets, IR sensors to help improve pilot awareness, and recent testing with the 101KS-N externally mounted targeting pod. These features don’t appear well integrated into the airframe, and in their current configuration further compromise stealth characteristics. They may form part of an integrated missile approach warning system. Targeting pods represent useful features for multirole functionality, but better geared towards the aircraft’s competitiveness on the export market.
T-50-9 with DIRCM mounted (system can be seen behind cockpit)
Airframe design – early prototypes suffered stress fractures in the airframe, which required internal reinforcement. This was one of the issues that led to delays in the PAK-FA program. The overall design appears cramped, with uneven surfaces along the underside, round shapes, exposed grills in the first series of T-50s, etc. Some of these deficiencies have been addressed between T-50-5 and T-50-6 (this seems to be where the 2.5 year gap may have gone). T-50-9 is the first exemplar of both RCS improvements and the full onboard electronic kit. Izdeliye 30 should help further reduce the rear aspect RCS together with the IR signature, plus latest prototypes show cowlings and other modifications to the engine housing.
Early T-50-4 variant
The aircraft features a refueling probe, and has a rugged undercarriage with large wheels for those lovely Russian runways. The internal weapons bay appears to carry 4-6 medium range missiles, or 4 standoff guided weapons, plus two R-73 short range missiles in side compartments (I’ve not seen these open to offer proof). Given the bay size, the aircraft should be able to deliver standoff tactical nuclear weapons, i.e. it’s a good candidate for the dual capable aviation role.
I would not discount the Su-57. It is not a 5th generation stealth aircraft design gone bad due to failure to execute. The program has legs, and it’s going to amount to something. Even though the U.S. is quite dominant as an aerospace power, it’s important to remember we exercise analytical humility in looking at why other countries may choose a different design, based on the context of how they see air defense and their requirements. The fighter will allow Russia to attain qualitative air superiority over a 4th generation air force, and work with its own integrated air defense to counter penetrating stealth aircraft. It is a reflection of the Russian philosophical approach to the tactical aviation component of its Aerospace Forces (VKS), intended to support the strategic air defense mission first, and engage in standoff strike as part of offensive aerospace operations.
The Su-57 also reflects Russian skepticism on the money and effort that should be invested into stealth optimization and reduced RCS, representing what one could call the ‘good enough’ solution to the overall air superiority problem. Maybe that’s a mistake, and they should have just cloned the F-22 to the best extent possible, but the F-22 and F-35 work in part because they belong to a large infrastructure of logistics, stacks of ISR, datalinks, support platforms, and all the pieces that make the U.S. succeed as an expeditionary aerospace power. Russia is primarily a land force, where the other services provide support at tactical-operational levels to a strategic land campaign in the theater of military operations. An F-22 clone seems somewhat overkill for that mission, and a F-35 clone makes no sense at all for an air force that has no need to operate within integrated enemy air defenses.
The fighter will also offer Russia’s aerospace sector experience in producing a 5th generation aircraft with the attendant materials/composite requirements. In this regard it reflects limitations of Russia’s military industrial complex, but even if they could replicate the same industrial processes, the unit price could prove prohibitive given all the other competing modernization priorities. Moscow can purchase several regiments of these aircraft at a fraction of the price of Western analogues, and with multirole features the fighter could prove attractive on the export market. Current program cost and production requirements are within the industry’s ability to deliver, assuming they can get the engine work completed 2020-2025. Sticking to timelines is not something industry does well. However, I would not be surprised if India came back to buy it after shifting all the risk and development cost to Russia. The airframe is likely to evolve over time into something less observable – the overall direction is better optimization for stealth.
Comments/criticisms welcome as always. Dealing with aircraft requires a tremendous amount of technical knowledge and is at best a layman’s area for me, so maybe the less I touch on it the better.
Update: had some good feedback on how to interpret patent, and a few other design items. Overall update is that patent numbers should be interpreted as providing average RCS based on shaping only, prior to RAM application, and other features (radar blockers/IRST coating) suggest that the front is VLO optimized. So I’ve gone back to edit a bit – overall conclusion remains the same, but I’m more convinced about the aircraft stealth characteristics than how I looked at the design initially, though I was much more positive on Su-57 than many of the posts out there to begin with.
Here is a closing shot of Putin walking away as billions in RUB of Russian taxpayer money finds a new home.
I’ve been traveling too much lately. Back for a while, with pen in hand. As part of a discussion last week in Stockholm, I composed this brief on main drivers of Russian grand strategy for the Stockholm Free World Forum. The paper is meant to be concise and readable, rather than a comprehensive exposition. It lays out many, though perhaps not all, of my views on what drives Russian strategy. You can download the original PDF here.
Russia is seemingly resurgent in international politics, entrenched in an escalating confrontation with the United States, while posing an increasingly global challenge for a state that was only recently regarded by the former U.S. President as a regional power in decline. Politics are often a matter of perception. In Western conception Russia typically exists in one of two analytical states, decline or resurgence. Such depictions are often paired with another dichotomy, a Russia that is tactical and opportunistic, or one driven by a coherent centrally organizing strategy. These conceptions are not especially useful. Opportunism should be assessed within the framework of a Russian leadership with a vision, and relative consensus on the country’s desired role in international affairs, i.e. tactical decisions made in pursuit of a desired end state. Decline and resurgence are relative terms, based more on perception, than useful metrics of economic and military power.
Moscow has been tethered to historical cycles of resurgence, following periods of decline, with stagnation often following mobilization. Yet stepping back from this pattern, one can readily see that over centuries Russia has been, and remains today, an enduring great power. Russia is best characterized as a relatively weak great power, habitually backward in technology and socio-economic development compared to contemporaries. Hence Moscow’s strategic outlook has always been shaped as much by perceptions of vulnerability, threats foreign and domestic, as it has by ambition and a drive for recognition.
The Soviet Union was by far the weaker of the two super powers, despite having proven a capable adversary to the United States in the latter half of the 20th century. Similarly the Russian empire, despite moments of geopolitical strength, found itself contending with more capable and technologically superior adversaries in its own time, and centrifugal forces from within. Russian decision making, strategy, and military thought remains deeply influenced by the country’s history, a shared vision among the ruling elite of Russia’s rightful place in the international system, and a strong belief in the efficacy of the military as an instrument of national power.
Past it not necessarily prologue, but history has a profound influence on Russian strategy, the state’s theory of how to attain security for itself and expand influence in international politics. While lacking the economic dynamism of present day competitors, the Russian state has a demonstrated propensity to take on stronger powers, that is compete effectively in international politics well above its relative power, or to put it more simply, bench above its weight. At the same time, Russia has suffered from periods of stagnation, internal instability, and occasional state collapse, often engaging in cycles of rebuilding rather than building.
The Russian strategy for great power competition begins with a decision to establish credible conventional and nuclear deterrence, positively shaping the military balance, which paradoxically grants Moscow confidence to engage in indirect competition against the United States. This is a strategy of cost imposition and erosion, an indirect approach which could be considered a form of raiding. As long as conventional and nuclear deterrence holds, it makes various form of competition below the threshold of war not only viable, but highly attractive. Moscow hopes to become a major strategic thorn in America’s side, engaging in geopolitical arbitrage, establishing itself as a power broker on the cheap, and effectively weakening those institutions that empower Western collective action. Ultimately, Russia seeks a deal, not based on the actual balance of power in the international system, but tied to its performance in the competition. That deal can best be likened to a form of detente, status recognition, and attendant privileges or understandings, which have profound geopolitical ramifications for politics in Europe.
The Russian challenge
Russia measures itself first and foremost against the United States, and when seeking recognition, attention, or pursuing a deal, it is Moscow’s desire to parlay with Washington more so than any other power. Moscow sees NATO as America’s Warsaw Pact, not a collective defense alliance where the policies or views of the individual states matter. The Russian challenge, and consequently the inputs into Russian strategy, can be narrowly defined as a contest born of conflicting visions for the security architecture of Europe, Russia’s drive to restore a privileged sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, and a fundamental difference in normative outlooks on the conduct of international relations, that is how states should behave in international politics and therefore what the character of the international order should be.
Russian leaders seek a revision of the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, having concluded that they have no stake in the current security architecture of Europe. Moscow sees the post-Cold War period as one akin to the treaty at Versailles, an order imposed at a time of Russian weakness. Russian borders today most closely mirror the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty signed by Bolsheviks with the Central Powers of World War I, and while Russia may not be principally expansionist, it has always sought geographic depth against the stronger powers of Europe. Having no stake in the current European security framework, Russia’s leadership has instead pursued a traditional strategy for attaining security via establishment of buffer states against political-economic or military blocks. This is a strategy of extended defense, borne of vulnerability, and a consensus that emerged after Operation Barbarossa 1941 in Russian strategic circles that Russia must never again be placed in the position of fighting an industrial scale conflict on its own territory.
Buffer states are not neutral by design, but represent a zero-sum calculus, in that they are either Russia’s buffers against NATO, or conversely NATO’s buffers against Russia. Moscow believes it must impose limited sovereignty on its neighbors, so as to control their strategic orientation. Russian leaders have come to see neighbors as liabilities, who will often side with opposing great powers. This process has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy, by using force to impose its will, Moscow inspires the apprehension and hedging behavior among its neighbors which drives them to balance and contain Russia in the first place. Though Moscow always seeks to redress these trends through non-forceful instruments to retain its influence, when faced with loss or geopolitical defeat, it invariably resorts to use of force, casting itself as the revisionist threat to its neighbors.
Beyond chasing security, Russia seeks to restore a privileged sphere of influence, believing itself to be the rightful hegemon in its own region, and reintegrate the former Soviet space to the extent possible around its own leadership. However, Moscow lacks the economic means, or an attractive model of development for other states, still witnessing a steady fragmentation of influence over its ‘near abroad.’ There are other forces at play. A century ago Russia found itself between two dynamic rising powers, Germany and Japan. Today it is sandwiched between two expansionist economic powers, China and the European Union, both more attractive to neighboring states.
Russian long term thinking is driven by a vision of Moscow at the center of its own sphere of influence, but in practice Russian policy is defined by loss aversion, trying to check the slow unraveling of Russian influence in what once constituted the former Soviet empire. Not unlike other powers, Russian strategy is deliberate, but also the product of reactions to crises, and partly emergent in practice. Moscow sees the United States as instrumental behind this geopolitical entropy, and while Russian elites do not see their country in decline, they are nonetheless vexed by the gravitational pull of more dynamic states, versus their own lackluster economic stagnation.
Beyond extended defense, and restoring itself as a dominant regional hegemon within its own region, Russian strategic culture has not shed itself of the perception that the country is a providential great power. Moscow views this status as de facto hereditary. Russia has a special role in the world because it is Russia, and Moscow believes it has a mission. Born of its Soviet inheritance, today Russia sees itself as being responsible for international security, in large part because of its strategic nuclear arsenal and substantial military power, and equally because it can play the role of a conservative counterweight to American ideological revisionism. Whether in Syria, or Venezuela, Russia considers itself a defender of the international status quo, and of the nation state system, while seeing the United States as a radical force revising international affairs.
The Russian outlook is hardly dissimilar from other classical great powers, most of whom practiced a form of great power exceptionalism and hypocrisy. Yet Moscow’s vision lends intellectual coherence to the baser drives of its foreign policy, beyond mere pursuit of security at the expense of the sovereignty of others, or simply more power. Russia is a cynical power, but Russian elites do have a vision, and a story they tell themselves about the ‘why’ in Russian foreign policy. The current Russian conception of their role in international affairs is inextricably linked to the United States, which is why Moscow is on a perpetual quest for recognition, and a deal with Washington.
A clash of visions
Less recognized is the fundamental clash in outlooks on international politics, and the conduct of affairs among states. Moscow wants to sit on all the institutions governing the current international order, and be engaged in contact groups or forums of discussion for various international issues, that is to advance its interests and be seen as a system determining power in international affairs. This is not unusual, nor is it the source of the conflict with Washington. The problem is that Russia retains a view of the international system that sees only great powers as having true sovereignty, and the ability to conduct an independent foreign policy. Small states inherently have limited sovereignty from this perspective. More importantly, the purpose of international politics is to ensure stability or ’predictability’ of relations among the great powers, avoiding a great power war. Therefore, in Russian conception, not only are nuclear powers first among equals, but the interests of other states are subordinate to this pursuit. Moscow thinks that a world stabilized by spheres of influence (Yalta 1945), and arbitration among a concert of powers (1815 Concert of Europe), is the more stable system and one where it has the greatest chance of pursuing its own interests.
Notably, this vision places primacy on military strength and status as a nuclear power, over the economic performance. Russian leaders have also come to believe that because the West places emphasis on individual sovereignty, and human rights, over the power of the state, it inherently does not see authoritarian regimes as being legitimate or having legitimate interests. Thus emerges a mutually exclusive outlook on international politics, where Russia feels it is on one side of the argument with China, promoting a conservative international order with preference towards the interests of great powers, and on the other an ideological vision that promotes the independence of smaller states and the liberty of individuals within their respective political systems.
The U.S. may see Moscow’s agenda as fundamentally retrograde, but the visible ideological core at the center of Washington’s foreign policy consensus has convinced Russia’s leadership that the United States will always seek regime change in Russia, and will never recognize Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime as having legitimate interests. Moscow’s interpretation of U.S. intent tends towards the paranoid, indulging in unfounded narratives of U.S. organized political subversion on Russia’s periphery. Yet at the same time Washington’s vision for Russia’s integration with the West always had an unstated regime change component, presuming it would encourage Moscow to make a democratic transition. Moscow correctly perceives a missionary impulse at the core of U.S. foreign policy.
The ways of Russian strategy
Russia has always been better at leveraging military and diplomatic instruments of national power as opposed to its economy. Moscow invested heavily in the restoration of conventional military power, building a balanced military that includes a general purpose force for local conflicts, a non-nuclear conventional deterrent, and a capable nuclear arsenal for theater nuclear warfare. This allows Moscow to impose its will on neighbors via limited conventional operations, but more importantly engage in coercive bargaining and manipulation of risk against the United States and NATO. Inherent in Russian strategy is the presumption that interests at stake favor Moscow in these contests, allowing Russia to threaten long range conventional strikes in crises where adversaries may well back down. Scalable nuclear escalation is always on the table – something to think about. As a consequence the challenge for the West is not simply a capability gap, but a cognitive gap in understanding what matters in the modern character of war between great powers.
Russian military strategy is heavily influenced by outlooks on the current and emerging character of war, seeing it as one based on blitzkrieg with long range precision guided weapons, and a contest for information superiority. The Russian General Staff sees warfare as systemic or ’nodal’ in nature, whereby a military system has critical nodes which can destroy its ability to fight, and similarly a political system has elements essential to its political will or resolve in a crisis. Russian operational concepts are geared towards shaping the environment during a threatened period of war, and achieving success in a contest of systems during the initial period of war. There is little notion in Russian military thought of a conventional-only war with NATO, or that beyond a decisive initial period of war, there are likely to be other sustained phases, i.e. one side will be proven successful in the early weeks of the contest. From the outset, Moscow is resolved to the prospect of employing non-strategic nuclear weapons should it find itself on the losing side of the war.
In contests Russia has used military power on the basis of reasonable sufficiency, not seeking overmatch so much as coercive power to achieve desired political ends. Recent wars have demonstrated some efficacy in pairing indirect warfare with conventional military power, but it is ultimately hard military power that has achieved desired outcomes in local contests. The Russian General Staff values the utility of political warfare, and believes that a conflict will start with organized political subversion, information warfare and the like. However, they see this sub-conventional challenge as the leading edge of a spear, where the true coercive power comes from Western technological military power and awesome arsenal of precision guided weapons. Moscow sees non-contact warfare, and aerospace blitzkrieg, as the defining elements of the Western way of war. These are paired with political subversion to create color revolutions within the Russian self-ascribed sphere of influence. Conventional elements are therefore the finishing stroke of an undeclared war which begins with non-militay means.
Buttressed by a growing conventional and nuclear deterrent, Moscow is more confident in pursuing indirect competition via hacking, political warfare, and other forms of coercion against the United States, in the hope of imposing costs over time. This is both a form of retaliation for Western sanctions, and a more ’medieval’ approach to great power contests, leveraging the ability to reach in and directly affect political cohesion among Westerns states. It is more effective when considering Western efforts to reduce the role of the nation state, and establish interdependent economies based on the freedom of movement of goods and labor. Russia pairs cost imposition against the United States with a series of gambits on the global stage to establish an arbitrage role, or become a power broker, in contests, conflicts, or issues that the West cares about. The end goal is to create transaction costs for U.S. foreign policy, force the West to deal with Moscow, with the eventual desire of compelling a negotiation on core Russian interests described above.
A third effort is centered on key powers in Europe, creating asymmetric dependencies via energy pipelines, trade, or other deals with their respective elites. Russia is more powerful than any European state, but much weaker than the European Union. Moscow’s problem in the relative balance of power is self-evident, hence Russia seeks to weaken European ability for collective action, and the role of institutions that limits its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. Russia is less interested in NATO cohesion, and more concerned with the attractiveness and economic expansionism of the EU. NATO in Russian conception is simply a platsdarm for the projection of U.S. military power.
The EU is not simply a European project, but also an outgrowth of U.S. grand strategy. That is, Europe does not enjoy strategic autonomy from Washington. Russia refuses to accept a European theater of military operations where the U.S. enjoys military dominance, while its ally the EU has economic and political primacy. Therefore, to the extent possible, Russia will work actively to encourage centrifugal forces on the continent, hoping they will restore the political primacy of the nation-state, and the reemergence of a concert-like system of powers over that of political or military blocks. Russian political influence, information operations, and similar efforts are bound by this overall vision not for geographic revisionism, but for the restoration of Russia’s relative power in European affairs.