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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead ship of the class Admiral Grigorovich below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yantar research ship below.

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

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

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

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Toward Smaller Ships and Professional Sailors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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