New article originally appearing in The National Interest on Russia’s Navy. Co-authored with my colleague Jeffrey Edmonds.
Russia still depends on the remnants of a blue-water navy inherited from the Soviet Union, but a new force is slowly rising to take its place both above and beneath the waves. This navy will be different, with a strategy of its own. The United States should not fear the Russian Navy, but it should respect and study what Moscow is trying to do with its naval forces. Failure to understand an adversary’s capabilities, and the logic behind them, is a good way to someday become unpleasantly surprised by them. Learning from that kind of experience usually comes at the expense of lives.
Imagine in a not so distant future a group of Russian Kalibr missiles closes in on a U.S. destroyer at supersonic speed, sprinting to target in their terminal phase. In this moment the captain will find little comfort in the stack of articles behind him arguing that the Russian Navy is no more. That Russia had spent so little on the corvettes that fired this salvo, and the United States so much on the ship about to receive it, will leave a great deal to reflect upon in the aftermath.
Analysis of Russian military capabilities tends to either portray the Russian military as a giant or as though it were on the verge of disappearance. These narratives trend towards the factually incorrect and profoundly unhelpful. This is why we study adversaries: to understand their strategy, doctrine, and the capabilities they’re investing in so as not to speak nonsense to power, but instead offer sound analysis and perspective.
The modern Russian Navy is not designed to compete with the U.S. Navy, but instead to counter it, and to support the strategy of a twenty-first-century Eurasian land power. Russia may be far less powerful than the Soviet Union, but it remains a great power nonetheless, with a military capable of achieving overmatch on its borders. Russia’s armed forces are strong enough to impose substantial costs in a conflict, and the country fields a capable nuclear arsenal that it won’t shy from using. The Russian Navy plays an important role in that strategy, and should not be overlooked despite its shortcomings.
The Russian Vision
Things would be simpler were Russia engaged in a futile attempt to compete with U.S. Navy, overspending on ships it can’t afford, pursuing missions that make little sense given the country’s geographical position and economic constraints. The recently signed Russian Naval Doctrine through 2030 makes bold claims about Russia’s desire to maintain the status of the world’s second naval power. While the Russian nuclear submarine force still holds second place in capability, and its ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet in particular, there is no shipbuilding plan to turn the navy into a global competitor with the United States or China.
Such pronouncements reflect the tradition of Russian leaders looking to the navy for status projection on the international arena, as a prominent symbol that Russia is a great power, able to show the flag far from its geographical confines. We need to look skeptically at official statements designed to make the Russian Navy feel more secure about its relevance (and budget), instead analyzing the strategy and procurement driving changes in the force. The Russian Navy is coalescing around four principal missions: defense of Russia’s maritime approaches and littorals, long-range precision strike with conventional and nuclear weapons, power projection via the submarine force, and defense of the sea-based nuclear deterrent carried aboard Russian SSBNs.
Alongside these missions is the traditional requirement for naval diplomacy for which Russia will always keep a few capital ships, even if they are as unlucky and unreliable as the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier. Upholding Russia’s status in international politics is one of the Russian Navy’s most important roles. Status projection might rank on par with power projection. Indeed, during the hard times of the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian Navy did little other than flag waving trips and ports of call. Naval diplomacy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, remains one of its chief tasks.
The Russian vision is to build a navy that can successfully keep the United States at arm’s length and integrate with layers of defenses, long-range anti-ship missiles, ground based aviation, submarines, coastal cruise-missile batteries and mines. In this manner Russia wishes to deny the United States access from the sea and make forced entry operations costly. Next, the Russian Navy is increasingly positioned to conduct long-range attacks with conventional weapons against fixed infrastructure targets, and plays an important role in nuclear escalation if called upon. The latest doctrine explicitly states the navy’s role in both long-range conventional fires and nonstrategic nuclear-weapons delivery as a means of deterring adversaries and shaping their decisionmaking in a crisis. While the numbers of current cruise-missile shooters may be relatively small, the next state armament program, GPV 2018–2025, intends to spend more on the missile count.
Russia’s demands for power projection are quite low. Its armed forces don’t play away games, and are geared towards fighting just across the street. That’s where Russia’s core interests and priorities lie. As such, long-range aviation can handle missile strikes at considerable distances from the country’s borders. The submarine force, however, simply has to help defend SSBN bastions and present a credible threat to the United States. This is of course easier said than done, but Russia is probably by far the most technologically sophisticated adversary the United States faces in the undersea domain. Incidentally it also has the world’s second largest nuclear-powered submarine force.
How the Russians Plan to Get There
Russia began with a corvette and frigate construction program—in part because it’s what the shipyards could reliably build—in the hopes of moving on to larger ship classes later. This was a logical approach to reviving the shipbuilding industry, the worst of Russia’s defense-industrial enterprises.
That said, there’s much more to these ships than meets the eye. One thing the Russians have learned is that one does not need a lot of tonnage to pack a potent missile system. The surface combatant force is not being organized around platforms, but around an integrated family of capabilities. These include vertical launching system (VLS) cells with Oniks (SS-N-26), Kalibr (SS-N-27A/30), Pantsir-M for point defenses, Redut VLS cells for air defense, and Paket-NK anti-torpedo systems. Larger ships will carry Poliment-Redut air defense, phased array radar and be more versatile in the roles they can perform. A Russian corvette comes with a seventy-six-millimeter gun or a one-hundred-millimeter gun, close-in weapon systems (CIWS) and typically eight VLS cells. These ships tend to be low endurance, but the firepower-to-price ratio is a bargain, and they can comfortably do their job while just outside port.
Russian frigates, both the Admiral Grigorovich-class (four thousand tons) and the new Admiral Gorshkov-class (5,400 tons) ran into trouble because they depended on Ukrainian gas turbines. Cut off in 2014, Russia was set back five to seven years with engines for just three Grigorovich frigates and two Gorshkovs. Since then, Russia’s defense industry has already restored the ability to repair gas turbines and built the testing facility to develop its own design. The delay cost Russia’s shipbuilding program about five years, but it spurred a crash effort to produce an indigenous gas turbine, which seems to be making rather good progress.
Similar problems encountered with the cutoff of German MTU diesel engines, used in some of the new corvettes, were worked around with domestic analogues or Chinese variants. Russia’s shipbuilding program is through the worst of the delays caused by sanctions and the breakdown of defense cooperation with Ukraine. The shipbuilding industry as a whole has been going through a difficult recovery period, having taken a twenty-five-year hiatus, but it would be wrong to assess this unpleasant past as inherently representative of the future. For example, Russia has been building a large new shipyard in the east, called Zvezda, with the assistance of the Chinese. Intended for commercial production, this shipyard just installed a 1,200-ton crane, which is a necessity for modular construction and no small leap for Russian shipbuilding.
Older Ships Can Kill Too
Currently held views on Russia’s naval capabilities are decidedly dated. In reality, Russia’s Navy has probably not seen operational tempo and readiness levels like this since the mid 1990s. Russian ships, including notoriously unreliable ones like the Sovremenny-class destroyer, are conducting increasingly longer voyages, while the force as a whole is spending much more time at sea than in the two preceding decades. A large part of the fleet is still Soviet inheritance, requiring tug boats to escort small groups, but this supposedly rusting navy is maintaining presence while the submarine force is also no less active. Nowhere is that more visible than in the resurrection of the Black Sea Fleet after the annexation of Crimea and the constant rotation of ships through the Eastern Mediterranean. The oft-unacknowledged truth is that the Russian Navy is a lot more operational now than it has been in many years.
The surface combatant force remains an eclectic mix of legacy Soviet platforms serving alongside new frigates and corvettes. Over 30 percent of the Soviet-era ships are receiving major modernization programs, but a good deal will be phased out in the 2020s. Russia will likely keep the Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers for quite longer, as flagships and status bearers, especially when Admiral Nakhimov completes its expensive modernization. Beyond that, much of the inherited Soviet force is expendable, especially the ancient tank landing ship (LST) fleet, which is hardly required for expeditionary operations and needs little to no modernization. Russia supplied the bulk of the tonnage for its operations in Syria with four used Turkish cargo ships that it probably bought at a pittance—so much for the Russian Navy being unable to sustain expeditionary operations without dedicated capacity. Necessity is not always the mother of procurement, sometimes organizations innovate.
Russia couldn’t get the frigates it wanted, and so it is doubling down on larger and larger corvettes until the engine problem is solved. When it comes to ship classes much can get lost in translation. Often when Russians say “corvette” they mean the firepower of a frigate, and when they say “frigate” they mean the firepower of a destroyer. There are also signs that older Soviet ship classes, like Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, will be armed with Kalibr VLS cells. This would adapt Soviet hulls to better serve the strategy and vision behind the new navy Russia is trying to build, and thus extend their utility.
However, the Russian surface force still suffers from “distributed classality,” a disease inherited from the Soviet Union. Its chief symptom is building too many different ship classes with too few ships in each class. This, of course, is not a problem but a feature of Russian procurement, since it allows the Ministry of Defense to keep shipyards busy and employed building countless corvette variants, most of which will feature the same families of weapon systems. Part of the problem is also that the Russian Navy is learning what it wants—and what works—by building three to four ships in a class and then determining that changes should be made. The transition, like all remodeling jobs, is messy and will continue to look this way into the 2020s.
The Russian Navy Looks Best Underwater
Like the Soviet fleet, the Russian Navy’s best ships are submarines. This force is perhaps one fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor. Russia’s SSN roster includes ten Akulas, eight Oscars, three Victor IIIs, and perhaps three Sierras. The SSBN fleet has six Delta IVs and three Delta IIIs, along with three of the eight new Borei-class being built. The diesel-electric force consists of fourteen Project 877 kilos, six improved Project 636.3 kilos in the Black Sea Fleet, with another six being built for the Pacific Fleet.
While some of these submarines will begin to age into the 2020s and 2030s, several have had life extension and modernization packages already applied, and most have seen little in terms of operations through much of the 1990s and 2000s. Currently, a number of Russia’s SSNs and SSGNs are sitting in slipways receiving upgrades. Many of these subs have not been ridden very hard, and given Russian naval strategy centered on defending maritime approaches, they don’t have to venture far from home. Some believe that Russia’s submarine fleet is quickly approaching the end of its collective life span by 2030 and can’t be replaced in time. On the off chance they’re completely wrong, anyone thinking about forced-entry operations, or an easy trip into a Russian SSBN bastion, should probably bring life rafts.
Russia plans to upgrade some Akulas and Oscars, perhaps half, with new systems and missiles. In the case of the Oscar SSGNs, the conversion will produce a seventy-two missile package, with Kalibr or Oniks loaded. The rest will be retired, probably leaving Russia with four to six Akulas, four Oscars and no Victor IIIs by 2030. Sierra-class submarines will stay on since their titanium hulls are likely to outlive most of the readers of this article. Meanwhile Russia is building five more Borei-class SSBNs, and is completing the second ship of the Yasen-class SSGN (known in the United States as Severodvinsk-class), the Kazan. The Kazan (Project 885M) is an improved version of the Severodvinsk and the true lead ship in this class. Five more have been laid down, although given the submarine’s high cost, Russia is unlikely to build all of them, and might cap the class at a total of six or seven.
Despite the problems in Russian shipbuilding, submarine construction has actually fared quite well. Russia can produce a diesel-electric Kilo in about eighteen months, and can complete an order of six quite quickly. The entire diesel-electric fleet could be replaced with upgraded Project 636.3 submarines in eight to ten years. These submarines are cheap, quiet and can range much of the critical infrastructure in Europe with their Kalibr missiles. Success with air-independent propulsion continues to elude Russian engineers, but the 677 Lada-class is still going ahead in limited production as a tentative improvement on the Kilo.
The eight new SSBNs are due to be completed by 2021, and seven Yasen-class SSGNs by 2023. Assuming these deadlines slip to the right, as they always do, it would probably still leave Russia with eight new SSBNs and six advanced SSGNs by the mid-2020s. The refit packages on Akulas and Oscars will make Russia’s submarine fleet more multipurpose and versatile, allowing the same ships to perform new missions.
In the interim, Russia is designing a fifth-generation submarine that will serve as the base for a new SSN, SSGN and follow-on SSBN. These ships are intended to be modular, and the SSN variant particularly cheap to produce. Russia currently has twelve nuclear-powered submarines in construction or laid down. Not all are being worked on, but it’s evident that Russia can build quite a few nuclear-powered submarines at the same time. Assuming the first fifth-generation submarines are laid down by 2023–2025, Russia could begin recapitalizing retiring Soviet submarines by early 2030s. Most likely the Russian Navy will have thirteen less SSNs and SSGNs by 2030, made up for by six new Yasen-class SSGNs along with whatever additional submarines are built between 2025–2030.
The Yasen-class is of special note, since it is integral to Russia’s strategy of holding the U.S. homeland at risk in the event of a conflict. According to official statements, the submarine is the most technologically advanced adversary the United States faces in the undersea domain. Yes, Russia can only afford to build a handful, but this should bring little comfort and no cause for cheer. A single Yasen-class in the Atlantic can deliver thirty-two nuclear-tipped Kalibr missiles to the east coast. This is not a submarine one needs to have in large numbers.
Russia also has another navy, the one less heard from, called the General Directorate of Undersea Research (GUGI). This fleet has special purpose submarines based on modified Soviet designs, like the Podmoskovye Delta-stretch SSBN. Some are meant as motherships for smaller submarines, others perhaps to deploy drones, new weapon systems, or engage in innovative forms of undersea interdiction. Belgorod, a modified Oscar II, is currently under construction for this fleet as well. You may not spend much time thinking about GUGI, but GUGI is probably thinking about you.
Looking over the Horizon
The Russia’s defense industry still has plenty of problems to work through, from dysfunctional air-defense systems that struggle with integration, to air-independent propulsion that refuses to work. Nevertheless, there are interesting trends afoot based on the past several years of shipbuilding. Russian ship classes are staying the same in name, but the ships themselves are getting bigger. Note the Stereguichy corvette started at 2,200 tons when it was Project 20380, then it became 2,500 tons as Project 20385 (Gremyashchiy), and then it was laid down for 3,400 tons when modified to Project 20386 (Derzky). Similarly, rather than build some obscene nuclear-powered seventeen-thousand-ton destroyer, the Russian Navy seems set to expand the Gorshkov frigate class into a “super” Gorshkov. This might become a pocket destroyer, with one thousand to two thousand additional tons of displacement and more firepower. Corvette designs are also shifting towards “heavy” corvettes in the 3,500–4,000 ton range.
At first glance the Russian Navy appears to be the loser in the upcoming state armament program, soon to be announced in September. In reality, it will lose fairly little. The inane super projects like nuclear-powered destroyers and LHDs were unfunded, saving the Russian Navy from its occasional indulgence of maritime power megalomania, and instead focusing it on more pragmatic spending. Russia’s frigate program will continue once the gas-turbine problem is solved, but likely with a substantial redesign. The countless new systems introduced with the Gorshkov class all need to be worked out anyway.
In the interim the Russian Navy will remain a mess, but one that is slowly being cleaned up. The “kalibrzation” of the Russian Navy will continue, more Kalibr missile shooters, larger magazines and higher missile counts in storage. Russia will continue pumping out diesel and nuclear-powered submarines and refitting some of the existing Soviet platforms with current generation offensive systems as a cost-saving measure.
While the coming years will be spent on system integration and working out the problems in shipbuilding, new generation weapon systems—like hypersonic missiles—are already in development. For all its woes, the Russian Navy is actually in better shape than it ever has been in the post–Cold War period. Today ships and submarines are staffed entirely by contract servicemen, with conscripts used for shore duties. On the whole this is a service trying to recover from some of the worst decades in its history, but the Russian admiralty has room for cautious optimism.
There are still plenty of deficits to point to, but the Russian Navy isn’t going anywhere; when you look at the trend lines over the near to midterm, they are actually positive. Russia is building a navy that makes sense for its strategy. It is transitioning to a green-water force by design, while retaining and investing in capabilities that will allow it to deter or threaten stronger maritime powers for decades to come. So the next time you hear that the Russian Navy is disappearing, Russia is running out of people, out of money, or out of business, and want to test this theory, just remember to pack a life raft.