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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 3: Impressive Beneath the Waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Severodvinsk, lead ship of Yasen-class

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

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

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

An Oscar-II class SSGN

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

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

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

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

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

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

podmoskovye

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

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

New Russian Divisions and other units shifting to Ukraine’s borders – second look with updates

Bill Gertz’s article alleging that there were “40,000” troops massing on Ukraine’s borders inspired me to take another look at where the three planned divisions, and other unit movements stand right now.  There is quite a bit of activity and leadership announcements as part of the Russian shift to what Shoigu calls the “southwestern strategic direction.”  Essentially, a containment ring is being built circumscribing Ukraine, including large unit formations in permanent garrisons to serve as a quick reaction force in the event of a conventional war.

Some plans dating back to 2014 have already been realized, most are in progress, and several announcements are only now getting under way with completion timelines set for late 2017.  I’m underlining dates because certain people misread the May post in this blog, and I suspect other blogs on this topic, and then said that all these announced units were already in position – they are not.

At the moment Russia does not have 40,000 troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, but principally Russia’s General Staff seems to have Ukraine in mind.  The changes in force posture are designed to deal with medium-long term scenarios rather than the current conflict.  This is a large force that can effect conventional deterrence by denial, and if need be compellence, in a future crisis with Ukraine.

The reason for moving the 20th Army HQ back, resurrecting the 1st Tank Army, and creating a host of new units on Ukraine’s borders is fairly straightforward.  During the chaotic reforms 2009-2011 numerous units were consolidated or cut from the Western MD.  Others were moved further south or east.  In 2014 Russia had to improvise a combined staff of 20th and 58th Armies to put together two task forces on Ukraine’s borders.  That may have worked in February-April 2014, but its far from optimal, and simply will not do in a contingency where Russian forces need to intervene again.  Ukraine’s military is far larger in size and more capable relative to the hollowed out paper force that existed in spring of 2014.

Russian staff likely fears a ‘Croatia scenario’ whereby  Ukraine cordons off the separatist republics and then builds up an army large enough to wipe them out in a few years.  With three divisions, plus several brigades, organized under two combined arms armies (CAA) headquartered nearby, they figure it will deter future Ukrainian leaders from such adventurism.  It also places Ukraine in a geographic vice, running from Yelnya to Crimea.  It is not feasible that Ukraine will build an army capable of attacking Donbass and holding Russian units on so many fronts.  The units required to attempt an ATO 2.0 (now with a real army) would leave no defenders for other vectors of Russian attack.  Each division will be a self-sustaining strike force, ensuring that Kiev does not feel confident in the ability to retake the separatist regions through force.

A breakdown of the plans:

1.)  10th Armored Division (presumed) in Bogychar (Voronezh oblast) – When 20th Combined Arms Army moved from Mulino in Nizhegorod Oblast to Voronezh, so did 9th Motor Rifle Brigade from Dzerzhinsk to Bogychar.  This began in February 2015.  I wrote in May of this year that 1st Independent Armored Brigade will likely assume the legacy of 10th Armored Division, a move announced in July 2015.

10th Armor served in Easter Germany during the Cold War and returned in 1991.  In 2009 this division was turned into the 262nd Military Storage and Repair Base during the Serduykov period of consolidation and knocking down units in Western MD.  That base has a large stockpile and it looks like the 1st Armored Brigade will be needing it to become the 10th Armored Division.  All the divisions are likely to have a classic Soviet six regiment structure.  This unit will take into 2017  to form. So, this is a case of there and back again for the Russian army. Between 2009-2016 the process flow has been: 10th Div -> 262nd Base -> 1st Bde -> 10th Div.

Here  is a nice photo of the 262nd base in Bogychar.  It’s going to get busy with 9th Bde and a new division there.

262nd base bogychar

2.) 144th Motor Rifle Division in Yelnya (Smolensk oblast) – The plans for this unit were essentially announced back in 23 November 2014, and in September 2015 it was confirmed that a newly formed independent motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya.  The 144th motor rifle division was once based here after being withdrawn from Estonia, disbanded in 1998, and converted into a military warehouse base.  A new unit will assume the legacy of the 144th and become the core of the announced division.

Early July of 2015 the MoD announced that this motor rifle division will be formed by second half of 2017 and be assigned to the 1st Tank Guards Army.  Second half of 2017 is optimistic since according to one paper the total military personnel expected by summer of 2017 is 6,000, of which 3,600 will be contract and officers.  It goes without saying that 6,000 is less than the 10,000 promised.  Not quite enough to fill six regiments of 3 motor rifle , 1 armor, 1 artillery, 1 air defense and the rest support units.  The expectation for 2016  is two battalions will arrive, and become two regiments in 2017, with plans to have an active tank field range by then.

The photo below is just north of Yelnya. It is a snapshot from Yandex.ru, which I checked, but the actual image I borrowed from an Infonapalm post.

Yelnya new base forming

3.) 28th Motor Rifle Brigade in Klintsy (Bryansk Oblast), this unit is in the process of moving from Ekateriburg (Central MD) to the town of Klintsy, with lead elements arriving May 30, 2016.  A widely shared government tender, issued June 28th of this year, has shown the planned structure of the base, for what looks like a newly formed unit designated to be the 488th Motor Rifle Regiment.  This may well be the base of the division since typical Russian units are organized as brigade/battalion.  Perhaps the division itself will be headquartered further north in Yelnya, but with regiments as far south as Klintsy.  The work is slated for completion in Summer of 2017, so more than likely this unit will be stood up piecemeal over the coming year.

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Which army gets what division? TASS news agency claimed that the Yelnya division will be assigned to the 1st Tank Army, but other sources suggested the unit in Klintsy, which forms the first regiment of this division,  will belong to 20th CAA.  This makes more sense, and it would be logical for the 10th Armored Division to go to 1st Tank Army, except for the fact that in the 1990s it was part  of the 20th CAA.  Back then the 20th was based in Voronezh and if Shoigu decides to ‘set right what Serduykov once set wrong’ then all must be put back in its place.

4.) 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade in Valuyki (Belgorod oblast) – This unit is moving from Samara in the Central MD as well, to a base planned to be completed by November 2016.  A government tender issued indicates that the construction is slated for 3,500 soldiers (size fits).  The brigade is composed of the following battalions: one armored, three motor rifle, two self-propelled artillery, one rocket artillery, two air defense and a host of supporting units.

This is the Valuyki base under construction.

Valuyki

Below is a satellite shot of the facility being built.

Vakuyki google earth image

5.) 150th Division near Novocherkassk (Rostov Oblast) –  This division was rumored to be based on the 33rd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, but it is also said it will be formed anew without building off of an existing brigade.  This particular division will be named after the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division, famous for raising the flag over the Reichstag in 1945.  The 33rd Bde belongs to the 49th Army in Southern MD, however the contract servicemen were moved from Maikop to Novocherkassk, so it resides in two locations at the same time.  According to the timetable, the housing for this division is being thrown up quickly using modular construction, but it too is not planned to be finished until sometime in 2017.  Whether or not the 33rd will be subsumed into this division is an outstanding question, my view is that inevitably Russia will have to consume that brigade if they are to come up with 10,000 soldiers to staff a six regiment division.

The thing is some news reports also suggested Millerovo as one of the locations for a part of this division, Novocherkassk and Millerovo are not that close to each other.  It is still unknown how spread out this division will be in Rostov oblast. This photo was widely circulated in April 2016 of a deputy minister inspecting housing construction for the division.  No timeline for when it will be ready, but given the photo’s date its safe to assume they’ve not materialized the division out of thin air between April and August.

Novocherkassk house inspection generals

This could be another shot of a base being built for the division, complete with soccer fields.

One of the bases in Rostov region.jpg

6.) Millerovo Airbase (Rostov Oblast) – The airbase has been around for years. Close to the Ukrainian border, and well positioned to provide air support to the ground units in the region. In December 2014 Millerovo saw the restoration of the 31st Fighter Regiment with Mig-29 variants.  Following October 2015 the unit is being upgraded to much more capable Su-30SM, a heavy multirole fighter.  The 31st has received 20 new Su-30SMs, which is no small feat given they’re in high demand across the air force and aerospace forces.  Today the base likely houses ~60 fighters, including 20 Su-30Sm, 32 Mig-29, and a mix of Su-27 variants.

During various times the base has hosted a fair bit of ground equipment.  There is a motorized battalion assigned to it but at times satellite footage shows it hosting a decent ground contingent.  I’ve also noticed what looks like a 3D low bandwidth surveillance radar planted there on google earth, a Nebo 55G6 (Tall Rack).  No doubt has a good look over Ukrainian skies, and decent visibility on ‘low visibility’ aircraft.

Millerovo March 2014 – fairly clear.

Millerovo wide shot March 2014

Millerovo August 2015 with a larger footprint being taken up by ground units.

Millerovo wide shot August 2015

Millerovo runway shot from March 2016 (Janes paid for AirBus sat footage)

Millerovo march 9 2016.jpg

7.) Rostov region bases – The region is packed with military bases, but a few in particular are quite vast, including staging bases for units arriving to the region and going on rotation.  Some call this Rostov One.  I’m unsure of where the title came from.

Large base/staging area between Golovinka and Vodino – this is about one third of it in the shot from google on October 2014.  The base is so large that it would take three images to do it justice.  This area was setup promptly during the start of conflict with Ukraine for self explainable reasons.  Nothing was here in late 2013 except green fields according to google earth.

staging base 3.jpg

Up close you will find a variety of units camped out there.  In this shot we have towed artillery, but there’s plenty of MLRS, and various armored vehicle types as well.

Up close of Rostov one

Persianovsky, northeast of Novocherkassk is one of many bases in the Rostov region, which hosts training fields, and numerous military equipment storage areas.  This facility has been mentioned in recent articles, erroneously, because a look on google earth shows its been here for years and has not substantially expanded.  I don’t quite understand why it is making headlines.

Persianovsky, Rostov.jpg

Conclusion: There has been a large force shift in the southwestern direction for Russia, and incidentally, nothing comparable to speak of in the Baltic region or Kaliningrad. Today most of these plans are progressing, although some announcements are only now being realized with construction tenders.  Most of the units are at least a year out from being stood up or completing their transfer to the region.  By the second half of 2017 many of the units should be in place, though likely not at full strength.  Russian leaders speak of these divisions frequently in the press, framing them as a  response to “NATO’s build up”, but its quite clear these plans long in motion before any of NATO’s recent initiatives and their purpose has little to nothing to do with the Alliance.

This is a network of garrisons designed to deter Ukraine from believing it could win a limited conventional war some years down the line.  The concept is centered around creating strike groups under the organizational framework of divisions.  Each formation is designed to handle an assault in their sector, taking in other units as necessary and supporting them in the fight.  With two CAAs, Russia intends to ring Ukraine sufficiently so as not to be concerned with the question of what a mid-long term high end fight might look like should a different leader arrive in Kiev and choose to retake the separatist regions by force.  The revival of these forces in Western and Southern MD is a permanent insurance policy for Moscow.

Special thanks to the other blogs that compile news and information, in particular for this blog: BMPD and Russian Defense Policy.  Some Ukrainian sources were helpful as well.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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(Taken off wikipedia and also used by FAS)

 

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

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

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

mtcbr03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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