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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuznetsov on its Syrian deployment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tu-22 with Kh-22 missiles

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Navy Part 3: Impressive Beneath the Waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Severodvinsk, lead ship of Yasen-class

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

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

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

An Oscar-II class SSGN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead ship of the class Admiral Grigorovich below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yantar research ship below.

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

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

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

Toward Smaller Ships and Professional Sailors

This article appeared in the December 2016 edition of the Proceedings magazine which I co-authored with Norman Polmar.  Norman is a long time writer and analyst for the U.S. Navy, in particular on the subject of Russian submarines.  This is part 1 of a series on the Russian Navy.

A quarter century after the end of the Cold War the old Soviet Navy is steadily disappearing from view and a very different Russian fleet is starting to take its place. Once a challenge on the high seas to the U.S. Navy, today Russia’s surface combatant force is becoming a “green water” force. As Russia steadily retires old Soviet ships, its young replacements are smaller, multipurpose, and with new capabilities. Yet Russia’s vision for a new fleet also is in trouble, beset by construction problems, delays, corruption, and lost years caused by a dependency on gas turbines from Ukraine. Only in submarine construction is there a bright picture, but here, too, there are important questions.

In terms of capital ships, today the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) has one aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetsov— currently at sea off the coast of Syria), the sole survivor of an ambitious carrier program initiated in the 1960s. Similarly, only one of the four nuclear-propelled battle cruisers of the Kirov class currently is in service (the Petr Velikiy), although a second (the Admiral Nakhimov) is undergoing major modernization costing more than $2 billion. These ships are legacies, now intended for showing the flag and status projection, demonstrating Russia still is a great power on blue waters.

The Kuznetsov continues to suffer engineering problems, evidenced by plumes of black smoke recently seen coming from her stacks. After her current deployment to the Mediterranean, she will begin a multi-year overhaul and modernization that leaves Russia without an aircraft carrier ready for sea. Of the three Slava-class missile cruisers, typically two are available at any time while one is in long-term overhaul. Hence the Moskva and Varyag of that class have taken shifts commanding Russia’s naval squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean, leaving the Pacific Fleet without a proper cruiser-type flagship. The third ship of the class under Russian colors, the Marshal Ustinov, is scheduled to leave the Zvyozdochka Shipyard in Severodvinsk in early 2017 and may go to the Pacific Fleet.

Admiral Kuznetsov strike group near Norway on its way down to the Eastern Med, November 2016

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Beyond these “capital ships,” the Russian surface fleet has a small assortment of destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, and auxiliary ships. This situation persists despite the Russian leadership’s disproportionate attention and affection for the navy, especially given that the country is a major—and historically dominant—Eurasian land power. This belief in the importance of naval power dates to the time of Peter the Great (tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725). Today President Vladimir Putin sees his navy as a means of projecting great power status and garnering attention of world leaders.

Meanwhile the Russian General Staff believes the RFN has an important role in securing maritime approaches and the vulnerable littorals on the country’s periphery, and in providing new strike options with land-attack cruise missiles. Even Russia’s dated fleet of amphibious ships and landing craft trains to shift troops around the nation’s vast borders and practices landings, as recently as during exercises in Crimea in September 2016. The Alligator and Ropucha classes of landing ships have been integral to the “Syrian Express,” Russia’s supply line from the Black Sea to support the Assad regime and to provide the logistics train for the Russian ground and air intervention in Syria.

During the campaign in Syria, a new generation of Russian Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, launched from small corvettes, frigates, and diesel-electric submarines, have made their “combat” debut. These ships and submarines are multipurpose platforms, tied more to specific families of weapon systems such as Kalibr and P-800 Oniks (NATO designation SSN-26 Strobile) strike missiles, along with the Poliment-Redut air defense system, which is still in development.

Buyan-M class corvette firing Kalibr-nk land attack cruise missiles in 2016

Following the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Russian government proceeded with plans to resurrect the largely moribund Black Sea Fleet. Thus this dying naval command has been revived with an influx of new corvettes, submarines, naval infantry, aviation, and coastal defense forces. Together with the Caspian Sea Flotilla, the Black Sea Fleet has had a discernible impact on the Syrian campaign, providing missile attacks as well as local air defense off the port of Tartus.

The recent announcement that Russian troops and aviation units will be “permanently” based in Syria further enhances the significance of Tartus and the navy’s logistic support. Meanwhile, from his Crimea headquarters, the Black Sea Fleet commander can confidently project control over most of the Black Sea. With the arrival of a new series of diesel-electric submarines this fleet will increasingly make its presence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The men and (a few) women who sail on board Russian navy ships and submarines are increasingly professionals. Gone are the three-year conscripts who formed the enlisted force on board Russian ships. Today the “Red Fleet” is manned primarily by career officers and warrants (the equivalent of senior petty officers in Western navies), and “contract” enlisted men. The few women who serve on board ships are assigned to civilian-manned auxiliary ships (akin to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command); other women serve in billets of the shore establishment and headquarters staffs.

The pay, service conditions, and benefits for naval personnel exponentially have improved since the launch of military reforms in late 2008. Indeed, the most important qualitative improvement across the fleet is the new generation of better trained and better-paid naval personnel. A regular regimen of exercises, drills, and snap checks keep this smaller force at a much higher state of operational readiness than its predecessors.

Where is the Russian navy heading? Russia’s shipyards are building submarines, corvettes, and frigates because those are the ships they can produce. These new surface ships—and submarines—are sufficient for controlling the waters of Russia’s periphery. Construction of cruisers, destroyers, and large frigates is at a standstill at this time, primarily because in the past the Russian navy’s gas turbine engines were supplied by Ukraine. While Russian factories are now developing naval gas turbine engines, existing ship designs will require major modifications for their installation.

Launch of Admiral Essen, a project 11356 frigate, in Kaliningrad.  This ship is now on active service with the Black Sea Fleet.

Significant electronic and navigation gear provided by Western firms is no longer available because of sanctions imposed by Western governments after the Russian takeover of Crimea. The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left several key shipyards in newly independent Ukraine and other countries. Of particular importance was the carrier-building facility at Nikolayev in the Ukraine. Significantly, all four submarine construction yards and their suppliers remained within Russian territory.

The current Russian navy, a mix of legacy Soviet vessels and new smaller ship classes, is ill suited for long-range operations, and there appears to be no planning for them—at this time. Most of the new surface ships have short endurance and are not designed for long-range operations. Large Soviet platforms, like the nuclear cruiser Petr Velikiy, can still undertake impressive voyages, such as the deployment to South Africa and the Caribbean in 2008. The principal missions of Russia’s surface forces, however, are to prevent the U.S. Navy from approaching Russia’s borders, defend strategic missile submarine bastions, provide alternative land-attack options for the increasingly joint military force, and support Russian “overseas interests” in adjacent areas, at this time in the Middle East.

The Russian navy faces limitations in the short term, and it is difficult to foresee what the distant future will hold. The Russian economy shrank in 2015 and will likely stagnate in the near future under continued low oil prices and its long running structural inadequacies. Russia does, on the other hand, retain key shipyards and highly competent surface ship and submarine design bureaus. Given time and funding, the ingredients exist to grow the fleet into a more capable force. Russia’s naval traditions, and the historic interest of its leaders in the maritime domain suggest the St. Andrew’s flag will continue to fly over Russia’s regional seas, and, possibly in the future, the distant seas.

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

 

 

The Russian Navy’s Great Mediterranean Show of Force

My latest on the Russian flotilla sailing to the Eastern Med in The National Interest.  A more technical brief to follow in next post.

News has been rippling across Western media of a Russian naval squadron headed by the country’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, slowly making its way towards Syria.  Originally announced on July 11th, the combat tour to Syria has been long in the works, together with a host of other Russian naval activities unfolding simultaneously this month.  The Russian squadron has been lurching along at a steady pace as part of a tour de force around NATO countries and towards the Eastern Mediterranean.  At the time of this writing, the ships were passing through the English Channel. While the military objectives of this mission are not entirely insignificant, Russia’s chief purpose is status projection, leveraging its navy to demonstrate that it is a great power.

The squadron will first irk Russia’s already apprehensive Western neighbors and then make its presence felt in the Middle East.  Yet this latest bit of political theater and military showmanship is not without risk.  Kuznetsov’s fortunes will determine whether this becomes a demonstration of Russia’s power projection, or an unintended embarrassment, leaving the impression that Moscow is only imitating great power status.  The carrier is notoriously unreliable, while many of its fellow ships are also Soviet inheritances—capable but aging.

Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States.  Both images will play well with a domestic audience.  Behind the scenes, a two year battle over the future of the State Armament Program is also unfolding in Moscow, with military services fighting over a defense procurement budget on the ebb.  Despite being a vast Eurasian land power, Russian leaders going back to Peter the Great have a history of lavishing disproportionate attention to the navy, believing that in the international system one must be able to show prowess on the high seas to be recognized as one of the great players in the system.

Vladimir Putin has not deviated from this traditional mindset, only exemplified it.  He has at times quoted Alexander III’s famous line that Russia has only two dependable allies: “its army and its navy.”  A commentary on geopolitics more so than military matters, but it still holds true to this day.  Russia’s navy has taken on considerable risk in a bid to convey to national leadership that it is an invaluable instrument for global status ambitions and national inspiration.

Though often a point of fixation, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov—or perhaps more accurately the originally Soviet-built ‘heavy aviation cruiser’—is also accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great. This flagship of the Russian Navy packs an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, air defenses and combat capabilities worthy of its prominent name.  Kuznetsov’s mission is in part to make a combat debut in Syria, having sailed several times to the region, but never having fought.  This is a public relations mission at heart, but also an important training event for Russia’s tiny naval aviation component.

The military aspects of the operation should not be overlooked.  Russia’s carrier is often disparaged as a floating lemon, and such criticisms are fair, but the West has an unhealthy track record of underestimating Russian military capabilities for the sake of disparaging them.  Unlike previous tours, which were largely for show, this time the ship will likely conduct combat operations, and it’s not traveling alone either.

The Kuznetsov set sail on October 15th from Severomorsk for the Syrian coast together with Peter the Great, two Udaloy-class destroyers, a tanker ship and a large tugboat.  Little noticed is that on the same day a squadron from Russia’s Pacific Fleet departed Vladivostok on the other side of the world.  The second grouping consists of two destroyers (Udaloy and Sovremenny class), together with a large tanker and tug, headed for the Indian Ocean.  It’s possible that this task force may choose to rally with the Kuznetsov in the Eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps standby on call in nearby waters.

A host of other naval movements are playing out simultaneously.  One of Russia’s newly completed Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates is transferring from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet, and may join the group off Syria to fire land attack cruise missiles.  It’s possible one of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarines has joined this tour as well.  The Russian Navy’s comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair.

Two large corvettes from the Baltic Fleet have ventured out of port, either to escort the carrier or join it for exercises on its voyage south.  Already on October 18th, the carrier began flight-training operations in the Norwegian Sea, shadowed by the British and Norwegian militaries.  Traveling slowly, the Russian Navy will probably make several exercise stops as a pointed show of force to NATO along the way.  Although planned well in advance, the first part of this tour will undoubtedly answer some of the ‘deterrence messaging’ by the United States 6th Fleet and NATO ships routinely visiting the Baltic and Black Sea.

More at TNI.

THE CRIMEAN CRISIS AND RUSSIA’S MILITARY POSTURE IN THE BLACK SEA

My article for War on the Rocks covering the Crimean incident and Russian exercises.  The full piece can be found here.

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There’s something afoot in the Black Sea basin. Last week Moscow accused Ukraine of attempting a terrorist attack in Crimea, alleging that a firefight took place on August 7 and 8 between a supposed team of infiltrators and border guards of the FSB, Russia’s internal security service. The details of the incident remain murky. It was clear that something had happened when Russia closed a key crossing point on the peninsula early last week, internet providersblocked web access in northern Crimea, and rumors swirled of military movements as a state of emergency was imposed by security services.

Some have rushed to judgment, claiming this is an elaborate pretext for a renewed invasion of Ukraine, but so far these fears seem out of step with the evidence we have. If Russia is preparing to escalate its involvement anywhere, it is likely in Syria – not Ukraine. The Kremlin does have something in mind though. This mini-crisis in Crimea appears to be part of a larger political game with the West over Ukraine set to unfold in the coming months.

The Yasen-class submarine (year four of sea trials)

Yasen-class submarine, named Severodvinsk, firing land attack cruise missiles and analysis below:

 

The Yasen-class submarine is Russia’s next generation multipurpose SSN, which also packs an anti-ship or land attack missile package. Supposedly this new generation submarine is a much quieter design than the improved Akula or Victor classes.  Some allege that it may be as quiet as Western analogues, but I see that as the lesser of two issues.  The more important question is about the submarine’s acoustic properties relative to the ambient noise of the ocean, since submarines are not detected in relation to another submarine, but based on how loud they are compared to the water they’re in.  If the Yasen is truly much quieter, it could pose a cost imposition curve problem, making it overly expensive to detect in large bodies of water.

The Yasen-class is typically considered analogous to the U.S. Seawolf-class, a sophisticated and expensive multipurpose submarine that was built in the latter years of the Cold War, capable of conducting missile strikes, sub hunts, and defending the SSBN fleet.  Only three Seawolf class submarines were built, with the collapse of the USSR that submarine proved overly expensive for a mission that was increasingly a lower priority.

Below is a chart made by one individual (a Polish blogger), that purports to show the different levels of noise output among the subs.  However, I make no claims to its veracity.  In fact I promise you it is not correct.  Frankly, it is difficult to imagine anyone having access to information on how quiet this submarine is.

2000px-sub_noise_comparison_eng-svg

(Taken off wikipedia and also used by FAS)

 

Arms Control Wonk made this one, which gives the Yasen-class less credit.

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The first ship of this class is the Severodvinsk, laid down in 1993, and left moribund for years due to lack of funding.  Eventually she was launched in the Fall of 2011 and ran into a range of difficulties with the propulsion system and acoustic characteristics.  Supposedly the system could not produce enough power and according to one fellow expert it had an absurdly loud depth measuring system.  This submarine is also quite expensive, perhaps at $1.5 billion, it comes in at almost double the cost of the new SSBNs and potentially unaffordable across the proposed line of eight vessels in the class.

This initial submarine was designated Project 885 and has spent an amazing 4 years in sea trials, going on 5 this year.  It is an artisan design.  Given the complexity, every ship of this class is liable to be somewhat different and have its own properties.  This month the Severodvinsk has finally begun weapons testing – shown above firing a Kalibr land attack cruise missile.  This indicates it is close to getting operational status, assuming everything checks out, and the myriad of propulsion, reactor and acoustic problems have likely been resolved.  However, it can also mean that no matter what this first ship in the class will be declared operational, defects and all.  Supposedly she will carry either the larger Oniks or Kalibr multi-purpose missiles in 8 vertical launch tubes and pack 10 torpedo tubes (8×650 and 2×533).

mtcbr03

Based on the modernized design of the first ship, four more have been laid down designated Project 885M, and two more ordered (7 so far), with the hope of producing a total of eight.  Unfortunately the timeline for completing them has been pushed to the right this year, to 2023, due to production capacity and budget issues.  The new eight ballistic missile submarines SSBNs, Borei-class, have also been delayed until 2021, and I suspect both ship types will slide further to the right of expected delivery dates.  Three of the eight Borei’s have been completed so far.  There are doubts in analytical circles that either production line will be fully completed, though the SSBN’s have natural priority over the SSNs.  When it comes to Russian ship production always bet on delays.

Below is a readout of their current state and expected completion dates, translated from colleagues at BMPD:

– order. 161 (lead ship of the class 885M) “Кazan”, completed 67,5%
expected date – December 2017

– order. 162 (1st serial production ship) “Novosibirsk”, completed 35,5%, launch date – December 2018, expected date – December 2019

– order. 163 “Krasnoyarsk”, completed 19,3% launch date – December 2018.
Expected date – December 2020.

– order. 164 “Аchangelsk”, completed 4,7%, launch date – December 2019.
Expected date – December 2021.

– order. 165, (no name) completed 0,6%
To be laid down – July 2016., launch date – December 2020.
Expected date – December 2022.

– order. 166, (no name) completed 0,3%
To be laid down – July 2017., launch date – December 2021.
Expected date – December 2023.

I have doubts that more than six Yasen-class submarines will be built due to the economic crisis impact on the state armament program.  Officially it will cost nothing to lay down #165 and #166 while it is unlikely funds will be invested in their construction until the financial situation becomes more stable.

Despite this submarine’s high cost, and the production output limitations of Russia’s shipbuilding industry, the Yasen still represents the most sophisticated submarine fielded by a non-Western power.  How sophisticated remains the subject of extensive speculation. Soviet submarines could dive deeper and run faster, with more innovative hull designs, but they were incredibly loud and easy to track.  With the move towards a quieter design, Russia’s submarine force may at best be one fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor (perhaps operationally one tenth), but it could end up closing the technological gap in silence, which is key to dominance in the underwater domain.