Russian Maritime ‘A2/AD’: Strengths and weaknesses

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.

a2ad rings
map of very scary a2/ad things

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+.

Podsolnykh-E
Podsolnykh-E OTH-SW

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.

Monolit-B2
Depiction of Monolit-B and Ka-31 used for targeting

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.

P-800 Oniks

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.

Su-34 with Kh-35
Su-34 with Kh-35 in Syria

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.

Lotos-S1 model
Lotos-S1 model (from Russianspaceweb.com)

Wrapping up

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.

Feedback and comments welcome –

 

Fire aboard AS-31 Losharik: Brief Overview

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.

HI Sutton cutaway

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)
  • crew 20-25
  • diving depth 3000m + (perhaps up to 6000m)
  • speed 6 knots submerged
Losharik 2
I like this profile diagram – taken from globalsecurity.org

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.

BS-64 unloading something

BS-64 in Severomorsk

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.

Olenya Guba modded

project 1910 2
Depiction of project 1910 Kashalot (UNIFORM)

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.

GUGI dock
project 1910 Kashalot in front of GUGI’s floating dock

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

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

Comments or suggested edits are welcome

Admiral Kuznetsov’s bad luck strikes again – or how Russia may have lost its largest dry dock in the north

On the night of October 29th, Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier nearly sank together with the dry dock it was inhabiting while undergoing overhaul and modernization in Roslyakovo (Murmansk region). Although Kuznetsov survived, with some degree of damage (extent unclear), Russia’s largest floating dry dock PD-50 is now completely submerged and likely to result in a total loss. The story is likely to become infamous in the annals of Russia’s notorious shipbuilding and ship repair industry, piling on to a spate of bad news regarding engine production for project 22800 missile corvettes, and delays in modernization timelines.

Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s most unlucky ship. The vessel has a reputation for killing carrier aviation, breaking down, lethal accidents on board, and major spills. There is something uncanny about this particular ship’s ability to wreak disaster. In this brief blog entry I will discuss what happened last night in Murmansk, and how Russia lost its largest dry dock in the north, which will undoubtedly result in delays for the overhaul and modernization of the Northern Fleet’s principal surface and submarine combatants.

PD-50 sinking rapidly next to the smaller dry dock PD-82

PD-50 sinking.jpg

Kuznetsov was undergoing overhaul and modernization inside dry dock PD-50 at shipyard #82, owned by Rosneft. This is Russia’s largest dry dock, able to lift 80,000 tons, at 330 x 88 meters (working space 300m x 79m). It is one of the largest if not the largest dry dock in the world, and the only one of its kind in the Russian north, supporting the Northern Fleet. PD-50 was originally built by Sweden for the USSR (transferred in 1980), and often serves as the overhaul or repair shipyard for the Russian Northern Fleet – the dry dock regularly hosts several surface combatants and nuclear powered submarines at the same time.

PD-50 on a good day

PD-50 dry dock

According to the prevailing media narrative, Kuznetsov was being readied for launch when the dry dock lost power from shore, causing it to lose stability, list, and eventually sink. Supposedly wet snow and sleet led to a buildup of ice on the transmission power lines which created problems across Murmansk. There may have been a large power surge, resulting in the emergency shutoff of the pumps maintaining ballast on board PD-50. A different story holds that the power lines were severed resulting in an outage. Either way, the dry dock lost electricity and began to sink while holding the Kuznetsov.

Ilya Kramnik, a long time reporter on the Russian navy at Izvestiya wrote that according to his sources there was no plan to bring the Kuznetsov out of dock that night, and in fact it was a struggle to keep the ship from going down with PD-50. Of course the dry dock should have had its own independent electricity supply via four on board diesel power generators (the sort of thing that would have prevented it from sinking), but in the interest of cost savings and ‘efficiency’ the shipyard saw fit to reduce the crew responsible for power generation and not buy fuel for the generators. The rest of this sordid tale almost writes itself. PD-50 was entirely dependent on Murmansk’s power grid that night and when the power went out it began sinking.

Kuznetsov’s crew was busily trying to save the ship from flooding – the ship was not fully sealed and ready to leave to the dock at the time of the incident. As PD-50 listed heavily, one of the dock’s 50 ton cranes fell onto Kuznetsov’s deck, leaving a hole several meters wide. The carrier was ultimately saved and towed away to shipyard #35, while the dock sank entirely, with perhaps one crewman lost and three injured (as of this morning).

That looks like it may be the crane

Crane.jpg

A more recent photo shows the 50 ton crane now comfortably resting on the flight deck

Carrier now with 50T crane for air wing

Kuznetsov’s modernization will invariably be delayed. The only other option in Russia’s north is Sevmash shipyard, which is currently occupied by the modernization of Admiral Nakhimov (Kirov-class cruiser), and supposedly not wide enough at the entrance for Kuznetsov. There is an alternative large dry dock in Russia’s far east, PD-41, which services the Pacific Fleet and was originally built by Japan. PD-41 has similar characteristics to PD-50 and may prove Kuznetsov’s only possible alternative once the ship is ready to make the journey.

As of now, the Northern Fleet only has smaller dry docks available which can lift 30,000 tons. That’s still big enough for Kirov-class and Slava-class cruisers, or Oscar II submarines, but PD-50 could potentially hold two large vessels at a time. Russia’s Northern Fleet lost an important asset, which could have knock on effects on ship modernization and overhaul.

This is PD-50 now

PD-50 gone

The Kuznetsov survives, though the carrier is largely a white elephant with no real mission besides sustaining Russia’s fledgling carrier aviation, and projecting status, i.e. it’s primary mission is to exist. Meanwhile, the ship’s track record of bringing bad luck continues unbroken.

Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 2 – 9M730?, Status-6, Klavesin-2R)

Putin’s March 1st speech unveiled a host of new weapons currently under development. Some were previously known, or had been rumored to exist, but with sparse information about progress, while others were being tracked by those who follow military developments in Russia. Unfortunately, much of the media dismissed these announcements as a bluff intended for the consumption of domestic audiences ahead of the Presidential election, or selection, depending on how you view it. While Vladimir Putin may have exaggerated how far along these ‘fantastical’ weapons are, claiming successful tests, these are not figments of his imagination.

He wasn’t bluffing – these weapons may all arrive sometime in the 2020s. Some we will meet in the early 2020s, others perhaps later that decade, as William Gibson liked to say “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” In Part 1 I covered Kinzhal, R-28 Sarmat, and 4202, while in this section I plan to look at some of the even more interesting systems, including third strike weapons like Status-6, Klavesin-2R deep diving vehicle, and the nuclear powered cruise missile that raised so many eyebrows.

The Nuclear Posture Review confirms many of these projects, stating, “Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.” That references 4202, R-28 Sarmat, and of course the now famous Status-6. What about the nuclear powered cruise missile? Former SecDef Ash Carter had a rather cryptic line in an article back in 2017, that perhaps we should look back upon and reflect, “Russia is investing in new ballistic missile submarines, heavy bombers, and the development of a new ICBM. These investments by themselves would not be novel, even if they necessitate continued, strong American deterrence. But they are also paired with novel concepts for how nuclear weapons could be used and some entirely new and even bizarre types of nuclear weapons systems…” Now let’s fast forward to March 1, 2018, and Putin’s presentation begins to make a bit more sense.

As I will discuss in some detail below, most of these weapons are the stuff of science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s, back when science fiction writing was quite brilliant, and the Atomic age was in full swing. The U.S. and USSR considered, designed, and tested, all sorts of nuclear weapon concepts during the early 1950s and 1960s. Some ideas were ahead of the technology of their time, others were feasible but considered too crazy, provocative, or unnecessary. Part of what drove the resurrection of these concepts is Moscow’s desire to hedge against an uncertain future, and technology has changed. The feeling is not uncommon, since I took that notion literally from the language of our 2018 NPR, which also justifies its proposals in the need to ‘hedge against an uncertain future.’

Image result for 1950s asimov

Of course with such broad language once can advocate for all sorts of nuclear weapon programs, and sure enough, various industries in Russia seem to have sold the government on boutique weapons that will plus up Russia’s current deterrent. Moscow has thought to capitalize on some its comparative strengths, including nuclear energy technology, missile technology, and submarine designs, to develop what they believe will prove hedging weapons. These are in part in response to U.S. technological superiority in long range conventional fires, aerospace power, sustained U.S. investment in missile defense, and the desire to develop prompt global strike.

Rumors about the coming missile defense review also suggest that it will be quite provocative, validating Russian concerns that missile defense is no longer just about North Korea and Iran, but instead aimed at Russian and Chinese capabilities as a matter of policy. Thus we embark on mutually assured spending.

I don’t believe that Russia either needs these weapons to ensure the viability of its deterrent, or that their acquisition fundamentally changes anything in the military balance with the U.S. I’m equally skeptical that they offer any particular coercive effect, though I’m traditionally skeptical of the proposition that there is any efficacy to be found in nuclear powers using nuclear weapons for coercion. The history and theory just isn’t there to support that very much. What it does tell me is that Russia won’t be confident in its conventional capabilities for years to come, or ever, and continues to spend heavily on a nuclear offset, making the conventional and nuclear approaches to deterrence complementary – as in my mind they should be. That said, let’s get to the weapons.

Novator’s newest creation – 9M730 (designation is a working theory until a better name comes)

9m730 v2.JPG

The nuclear powered missile with no name is probably designated 9M730, following after 9M728 (R-500) and 9M729 (SSC-8 INF violator). This is Ramm’s hypothesis based on the fact there is a 9M730 project out there and we know what the other cruise missiles in this series are. Given there is no name, for now 9M730 will do, and I suspect it will ultimately turn out that this is the project’s designation. Since Raduga makes air launched cruise missiles (Kh) it makes sense that this project would be one of Novator’s children, and Novator is quite good at what they do when it comes to cruise missiles. The idea behind the missile is to have special compartments where air is heated by a nuclear reactor to several thousand degrees, then thrust is created by ejecting the superheated air. Judging from the video shown there are four rear vents creating thrust for the missile.

9m730.JPG

Putin’s statement that it already passed a successful flight test in December 2017 doesn’t scan, but this empty bragging aside it seems the missile project is quite real and much further along than one would like. Additional reporting from A. Ramm’s article indicates the tests are being done in Nenoksa, Arkhangelsk firing it into the White Sea, although after talking to colleagues the images shown are from Novaya Zemlya. Testing it in the high north makes sense since it’s not the sort of thing anyone would want to test over mainland Russia, and it will likely end up being based there. Due to size and weight considerations a missile such as this would have an unshielded reactor, making it impossible for the weapon to fly without spreading radioactive particles. Furthermore, there were comments from sources familiar with the project that the missile is not being tested with a reactor, but rather an electrical power source to imitate the reactor they have constructed. A. Ramm, who has some good writing on this subject, missile testing is being supported by special Il-976 laboratory planes.

Readers will undoubtedly recognize this concept as following in the footsteps of U.S. efforts to build a nuclear powered supersonic low altitude missile (SLAM), named project Pluto. From 1957-1964 the U.S. worked on a nuclear powered cruise missile, which would carry 16 nuclear munitions to targets in the USSR. The colossal amount of radiation it generated in flight was considered a feature at the time. However, even though a full scale reactor and engine were built, the project was canceled because the system was considered both highly problematic from an engineering standpoint and also provocative. The SLAM was nixed in 1964. Some believed it would motivate the Soviet Union to build a similar device, and all in all ballistic missiles were far less problematic. Well, it’s 2018, and while technology has clearly advanced substantially from 1964, humanity is an entirely different story.

A nuclear powered cruise missile? Silly Russians, we would never have spent 8 years on such a reckless project.

Project Pluto

pluto engine

I was skeptical as to whether this was far along, but here Pentagon came to the rescue. Pentagon officials, afraid that anyone finds out we might have some kind of ‘doomsday gap,’ let it be known that the missile in question has already gone through several flight tests in the Arctic and crashed in all of them. So we’re fine, because its not working yet… Also I think missiles typically crash and do not land, whether in testing or not, this is not a bug but a feature of missile technology. Crashing in testing is typical when working on a new missile design, particularly with a unique form of propulsion, but it was surprising to find out that Russia had already conducted several tests with a prototype.

Image result for dr.strangelove doomsday gap

Since the weapon has no name, I think we should consider calling it ‘prompt drunken strike,’ if anything based on the flight route shown in the video.

Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System

Image result for статус-6

Much of what is known about Status-6 appeared on 9 November 2015 during a meeting chaired by Putin on problems in the defense industry. Just as last week, the media was skeptical that this weapon was a bluff, together with the arms control community which is often doubtful when revelations are made about new nuclear weapons. Those are unhelpful confirmation biases, since both Status-6 and the 9M729 missile are turning out to be quite real. The system is now officially referenced in the NPR as a Russian strategic nuclear weapon program.

status-6 slide.png

The weapon as conceived will be a multipurpose nuclear powered torpedo, but the initial design is intended to destroy critical economic infrastructure along coastline. By all indications this project is well ahead of the nuclear powered cruise missile, and given the physical size of this weapon, nuclear power poses a much less daunting challenge to integrate. As conceived this will be a third strike countervalue weapon. This nuclear torpedo is meant for taking out U.S. coastal cities, and irradiating an entire area. The reason it comes 3rd is both mechanical, and in terms of function. It would take 35 minutes for ICBMs on a transpolar trajectory whereas this weapon might take days to reach the U.S. once fired, and it is not meant for counterforce targets, but instead to inflict unacceptable damage which historically was calculated as affecting the target’s GDP (people + infrastructure).

city.JPG

This is an innovative vengeance weapon, though I don’t believe it will have 100 mt as the warhead. Something much smaller will undoubtedly suffice to wipe out LA or San Francisco if need be and irradiate parts of the coast. The reason I mention Pacific cities is that a deep diving weapon doesn’t make as much sense coming from Russia via GIUK gap into the Atlantic, simply because of the depths and geographical choke points involved. Something to consider before people get started writing articles about the 6th Battle of the Atlantic. The Pacific on the other hand lends itself handily to deep diving autonomous weapons if they’re ‘fire and forget.’

Does Russia truly needs this weapon to handle U.S. missile defenses? No, and it would be infinitely cheaper to just improve current strategic systems, which they’re also doing. However, need is often only loosely connected to what defense establishments procure. As I mentioned in Part 1, defense spending is at best ‘semi-rational’, representing numerous bureaucratic and domestic equities as much as actual threats and missions.

It is also difficult to discuss Status-6 without mentioning the legacy of Andrei Sakharov’s famous T-15 torpedo, a Soviet project in 1951-1955. The design concept behind that 40 ton, 1500 mm torpedo, was as a first strike weapon, intended to deliver a large nuclear warhead to U.S. naval bases like Pearl Harbor, generating a destructive tsunami. The specialized submarine was called project 627, but back then Soviet General Staff decided that they had no need for such a system, and would be satisfied with a regular nuclear powered submarine. The technology to realize a mega nuclear torpedo was there, but T-15 was the wrong kind of crazy for its time. You can read more on the history of the T-15 from Norman Polmar’s timely piece.

Maybe nuclear weapons are like fashion trends, they come back. Here is the old 627 with T-15 tube down the middle.

t-15-image2.jpg

According to the MoD slide, Status-6 can reach a depth of 1000 meters, speed up to 185 km per hour (100 knots), range up to 10,000 km, and is 1.6m in diameter. According to Putin’s statements it is excessively fast, deep diving, but also very quiet. This is nonsense, since underwater things can be fast, or they can be quiet, but they typically can’t be both. By all considerations this weapon is exceedingly loud if traveling at such speeds, and 100 knots seems somewhat an exaggeration. The video demonstrating its deployment showed project 09852 Belgorod, Russia’s most interesting submarine currently under construction, a heavily modified Oscar-II that will be the longest submarine in the world when it is completed. Belgorod should be able to carry these torpedoes internally, together with other undersea drones. The MoD slide from 2015 indicates that together with Belgorod, project 09851 Khabarovsk (another GUGI submarine laid down in 2014), will also deploy this torpedo.

I got this from HI Sutton – don’t sue me HI.

Pr_08952_pptSTRETCH.jpg

Status-6, and similarly intriguing undersea weapon projects belong to Russia’s ‘other navy’ known as GUGI, or Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research. GUGI is responsible for fielding specialized submarines, oceanographic research ships, undersea drones, autonomous vehicles, sensor systems, and the like. Around mid-2000s there were some tidbits of information about an undersea drone program being tested. Then it became clear that the project involved a specialized barge, the supporting ship 20180 Zvezdochka, and GUGI’s specialized diesel submarine B-90 Sarov. For more reading on the various GUGI subs and covert underwater projects HI Sutton runs a good blog with various renderings.

Here is what appears to be Status-6 container being loaded.

Status-6 tube.jpg

Based on the 2015 MoD slide, Status-6 is proceeding as a project in several phases, with the pilot system being completed by 2019, and testing 2019-2025. Although the nuclear drone probably doesn’t need much guidance, since cities don’t move around, there will need to be a command and control system built if this weapon is to have a conventional variant for wiping out carriers. I’m skeptical of the ‘carrier strike’ option shown in video during Putin’s speech, just because queuing is a perpetual problem for Russian forces, and it’s hard to see how a deep sea traveling weapon could get course correction from something above water. Hitting moving targets at sea is not so simple, especially over great distances, and with a weapon that is loudly steaming ahead in deep waters. More than likely Russia may try to deploy nuclear powered sensor or communications stations under the sea, as some of Rubin’s design projects suggest, to create the infrastructure for such a weapon. Besides the C2 infrastructure, Status-6 will still have to await the two GUGI submarines designed to carry it.

Klavesin-2R-PM Unmanned Undersea Vehicle

Klavesin-2M.jpg

Klavesin is a creation of Rubin design bureau and ИПМТ ДВО РАН, Владивосток. The parameters of this underwater drone include: 6.5m length, 1m in diameter, 3700 kg weight, 50km range with a 2000 meter diving depth. This drone was also shown in the video being launched by Belgorod. The drone program is so super secret that some of the details regarding the vehicle could be found from Rubin’s public tender seeking a company to insure two of these drones for 48 million rubles. Seems they already have two of them, for Belgorod and another GUGI submarine that is already operational, BS-64 Podmoskovye.

28379177_10159930236540462_5146440591197111008_n.jpg

The 2R is, as one might suspect, a further evolution of the 1R variant, designed for oceanographic mapping, research, undersea photography, and probably some covert missions. Not much to add to this project except to say that it undoubtedly helps conduct undersea intelligence and reconnaissance missions for GUGI.

fun times at GUGI

Regarding the laser shown at the end of Putin’s talk, I’m not sure what it is yet, but looks like some kind of air/missile defense system by the module and platform. I’ve honestly not seen that weapon before and do not focus on lasers. They should show it more often.

Laser.JPG

Not keen on the controller. This feels like 1990s gaming.

xbox controller.JPG

 

Russia’s Fifth-Generation Sub Looms

Looking over the horizon, the Russian Ministry of Defense already has commissioned a program to develop the fifth-generation submarine that will replace most of its old Soviet platforms. With the Yasen, this fifth-generation submarine will be one of the principal adversaries faced by the U.S. Navy, perhaps as soon as the late 2020s. The broad outlines of this program, called “Husky,” already are known. The concept had been discussed as far back as 2013-2014, although the requirements and design contract were not issued until August 2016, with a conceptual design expected by late summer 2018.

Russia’s famous Malakhit design bureau—author of the Victor, Alfa, Akula, and Yasen classes—has been given the lead for this project. The fifth-generation submarine is a unified design: the fore and aft sections will be common, along with key systems inside the pressurized hull. Modules introduced into the hull will split the program into three variants: a cheap-to-produce SSN, a more capable SSGN, and possibly an SSBN. This “joint strike submarine” is intended to take advantage of technologies that spent years in development and testing during the tumultuous design (and redesign) history of the Yasen class.

Russia seeks to leverage the pain and experience in realizing the Yasen class to design a more cost-effective platform. The vision is a cheap and modular Yasen derivative, with a few technological enhancements. Building a common platform is not easy, but it is hardly a stretch for Russia’s shipbuilding industry. Keep in mind the first SSBNs in the Borei class and the first Yasen class have much more in common than it might seem. These boats incorporated hulls and systems originally intended for Akula III-class SSNs that the Soviet Union planned to complete in the 1990s before halting production; they were adapted to create these fourth-generation submarines.

The Husky program’s first mission is to produce a design that is a de facto smaller and cheaper Yasen, weighing in at 4,000-6,000 tons compared to the Severodvinsk’s current 9,000. Improved composites and new polymers are supposed to be used throughout, further reducing the ship’s acoustic signature. Power, propulsion, control, and sonar are supposed to be shared across the three variants. The Russian Navy’s priority is a cost-effective SSN, with a construction time of four to four and a half years, so that it can produce 15-20 submarines. SSGN variants will incorporate a vertical launch system (VLS) payload module. SSBN variants could be built in the latter years of the program, contingent on what happens with the New START arms control treaty.

While Malakhit is working on the design, Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation is investing in modernizing the equipment necessary to build the fifth-generation submarine. Other companies and state-owned enterprises, such as the Krylov State Research Center, are improving composites with the hope of integrating them into the submarine’s construction when it is laid down sometime in the mid-2020s.

The design contract for this next-generation submarine is driven by the practical need to replace the aging mix of Oscar IIs, Akulas, Sierras, and Victor IIIs. The Soviet-era boats currently in the fleet include Delta III SSBNs, soon due for retirement, and Delta IVs that have another 10–12 years of life. Some of these submarines will be well past their useful service lives by the end of 2020s, and the cost of modernizing them would be exorbitantly high because Soviet submarines were not meant to be upgraded so much as discarded every 30 years. Although they have not been used much during recent years, these simply are not the ships the Russian Navy wants to be sailing in the 2030s.

The Russian Navy’s other ambition is to consolidate the disparate SSN and SSGN classes into a few multipurpose designs. That is where the Husky program comes in, though its real name should be “cheaper Yasen.” For now, Russia is likely to substantially upgrade four of eight Oscar II SSGNs and at most four to six of the ten Akulas currently in service. This will extend their service lives, replace some key systems, and dramatically improve their strike package with SS-N-26 and SS-N-27 missiles. Victor IIIs probably will be scrapped. Modernization of the Sierra class has been suspended, and there is no urgency in upgrading it because the submarine’s titanium hull can last a long time.

As a consequence, by 2030 Russia will need to retire 11-13 SSNs and SSGNs. These will be made up for by six or seven new Yasen-class SSGNs, but the Yasen is expensive, slow to build, and not meant for production in large quantities. This submarine is the single most costly item in the current modernization program, estimated at somewhere between $1.5 billion and $3 billion a piece. This may seem a bargain compared to the cost of U.S. submarines, but it is taxing the Russian procurement budget. The Russian Navy hopes the Husky program will erase the remaining deficit in ship numbers at a much lower operating cost relative to the price of maintaining a diverse and aging fleet.

How realistic are Russia’s ambitions for a fifth-generation submarine? Typical of ship requirements, the Russian Navy wants the fifth-generation submarine to do it all, do it better and cheaper, and be faster and easier to build. Taking into account the technological sophistication of the Yasen class and the production capacity at Russia’s principal nuclear submarine shipyard, Sevmash, it is fair to say that the knowhow and production capacity exist. In fact, Russian submarine construction has been on a positive trend line for several years now.

Russia currently has 12 nuclear-powered submarines laid down or in various phases of construction. Even if there are further delays in the Borei and Yasen programs, there is no reason a fifth-generation submarine cannot be laid down by the mid-2020s. Indeed, if there are delays, the Russian Ministry of Defense likely will abridge the Yasen program in favor of this new cheaper variant with similar performance. An SSBN derivative is less realistic. The Borei class is capable of replacing the Delta IIIs and Delta IVs. Also, the Rubin design bureau—not Malakhit—historically has been responsible for SSBN development, and Russia’s defense industry might not be so keen on a common SSN/SSGN/SSBN platform. When all is said and done, the Malakhit design bureau probably will produce a versatile SSN/SSGN design for the Russian Navy.

Time will reveal what Russia’s fifth-generation submarine design will look like, but early contours of the future already are visible. The brainchild of the Husky program will become one of the U.S. Navy’s principal adversaries in the undersea domain in the 2030s, and the Russian Ministry of Defense has begun working on making that future a reality.

Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute.  Copyright Proceedings Magazine, U.S. Naval Institute

Why the Russian Navy Is a More Capable Adversary Than It Appears

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.

Shipbuilding updates from Russia’s naval salon (МВМС-2017)

Last week Russia concluded its annual international naval salon in St. Petersburg. Below I offer some quick takes on the likely implications for Russian shipbuilding, new classes, modifications to current ship classes, etc.

First the shipbuilding illness that Russia’s Navy inherited from the USSR, which I call ‘distributed classality,’ looks set to continue. This is a procurement disease whose symptoms include building numerous ship classes, in small batches, with similar missions and displacement. Project numbers are produced in series of 2-4 ships prior to radically changing the ship design, or launching a new ship class of similar type. The Russian Navy’s frigate and especially corvette construction program has honorably continued this tradition.

Russia’s corvettes and frigates are set to get bigger in order to accommodate larger magazines and more weapon systems. The general direction is heavier corvettes and frigates, with modifications in existing designs and some new ‘heavy’ variants afoot.

Corvettes:

There is a new ‘heavy corvette’ design in the works (project 23800) displacing well over 2000 tons, probably more towards 3500-4000. This is probably the consequence of a general dissatisfaction with the performance and characteristics of the Steregushchiy-class corvette (project 20380) which began at 2200 tons. We should recall the current trajectory of this corvette design. The first ship of the modified project 20385 Gremyashchiy, originally meant to use German MTU engines, was just recently launched at around 2500 tons. Meanwhile project 20386 Derzky which includes substantial redesign and a ‘stealthy’ look was laid down for an estimated 3400 tons displacement.

Derzky render:

The debate on whether Russia needs any more ships in the 2000 ton displacement range continues, and while the experience of ship designs from early and mid-2000 may indicate that it clearly does not, Russian shipyards need to build something. Keep in mind current smaller corvette/missile boat classes in the 800-1500 ton range include Buyan-M, Bykov large patrol ships, and the more promising Karakurt (project 22800).

Karakurt looks like a better and more compact design of what Buyan-M was supposed to be, with two currently under construction, and yet Zelenodolsk is still building 4 more Buyan-Ms.

Apparently Krilovsky design bureau presented a fantastical design for yet another 2000 ton corvette called Briz. This ship would make 30 knots, pack a 100mm gun, 32 short + 16 long air defense missiles, and 24 Kalibr/Oniks land attack missiles in VLS tubes, along with Paket anti-submarine torpedoes. There’s nothing to dislike except that its somewhat impossible to have all these features, and a helicopter to boot, in a 2000 ton displacement corvette. The ship design is no doubt based on new physical principles to have so many capabilities and a displacement smaller than the base Steregushchiy-class.

‘Briz’ corvette infographic (because Russia needs another corvette)

Frigates:

Just as the current corvette classes are too small, and are getting bigger, the same goes for frigates. The absence of gas turbines from Ukraine stalled out Gorshkov-class frigate production at two, and created an opportunity for further expansion of the design to the ‘Super-Gorshkov.’ That suggests there will be 2-4 Gorshkov-class frigates in this series, and then something new that’s at least 1000 tons larger. The Gorshkov redesign is a problem turned into a feature in Russian naval procurement. Super-Gorshkov is moving forward as a reality, perhaps going up as high as 7000-8000 tons in displacement.

This would substantially expand the current Gorshkov design and raise questions as to whether or not Russia really needs a new destroyer. In truth, the upcoming state armament program GPV 2018-2025 is probably not going to fund a single Leader-class, but it may pay for several ‘super-Gorshkovs’ which could be considered a cheaper, more practical, and less exuberant platform that will still have potent capabilities (once they get air defenses to work).

Gorshkov Frigate (Poliment-Redut air defense doesn’t work yet)

Amphibious model ships:

It seems the Navy is narrowing its prospective fleet of amphibious ships, all of which currently exist in plastic model form, down to two amphibious variants: a 15,000 ton LPD that will be able to operate in the Arctic, and a larger up to 35,000 ton universal amphibious assault ship. Several variants have been disclosed, including ‘Priboi’ and ‘Lavina’ as a sample of the potential projects proposed. Priboi is expected to cost 40 billion RUB, displace 14,000 tons, and have a deck capable of carrying 8 helicopters. Meanwhile Lavina is larger in the 23,000-24,000 ton range, carrying 16 helicopters. However it’s unclear whether either of these designs are in the final two being examined by the Russian Navy.

Lavina LHD model

[Warship] Russia's own 'Mistral' Amphibious Assault Ship, complete with Blackjack and Hookers: Introducing the "Lavina"-class LPD Concept. - [1417 x 812]

Officials continue to announce that something will be laid down and built towards the end of GPV 2018-2025. My suspicion is that work on these ships is backloaded towards the mid-2020s and at best something would be laid down five years from now.

Info above gathered from several blogs and accounts of what was presented at the salon, including from Constantin Bogdanov’s at Lenta.ru

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.

654005490

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.

kilo-class_subs

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

3620644_original

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

tu-22-backfire-c

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.

Back to top