Reviving the Black Sea Fleet

While I’ve been traveling over the last month, there has been a lot of news (mostly hopeful) about the Russian Navy. Today, I want to discuss the recently announced and long-awaited rebuilding of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The recent renewal of Russia’s naval basing agreement with Ukraine, much of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the fleet dissipated. Given the poor state of the fleet’s existing ships, some kind of modernization announcement was necessary lest the fleet disappear entirely over the next ten years because of a lack of sea-worthy ships. (I covered the decline of the fleet here.)

Last week, Vladimir Vysotsky, the Commander of the Russian Navy, announced that the Black Sea Fleet would receive 10 new surface ships and 5 new submarines in the next ten years. The ship types remain somewhat uncertain, probably because a final decision has not yet been made. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, two contradictory views about ship types appeared in the Russian press. The more widespread argument stated that most of the surface ships will be Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, while the submarines will be Lada-class (aka St. Petersburg) diesel subs. These are both relatively new projects that are still not ready for rapid serial construction. Construction of the St. Petersburg submarine, which began in 1997, was completed in 2005, but the ship was not accepted into the fleet until May 2010 because of various problems during sea trials. Even now, it is listed as available only for “limited use,” reportedly because of problems with the main power plant. Completion of the first of the Admiral Gorshkov frigates has been repeatedly postponed. It is now scheduled for 2011, but may have to be postponed again.

If these reports are correct, it will be difficult to procure all 15 new ships and submarines for the Black Sea Fleet by the 2020 deadline. Russian shipyards have been quite slow in building new ships and some will undoubtedly need to go to the other three fleets, which are also faced with aging fleets.

The alternative view, as spelled out in an article in Vedomosti, is quite intriguing. This article argues that the new surface ships will include 3-4 Talwar class frigates (improved Krivak IIIs), which until now have been built exclusively for export to India, and six smaller Buyan-class corvettes. Russian shipyards have shown that they can build these types of ships relatively quickly. While the first three Talwars were each built approximately one year behind schedule, the three being built currently are all on schedule to be delivered in 2011-12.

Similarly, instead of building the problematic St. Petersburg-class diesel submarines, the fleet would receive three modernized Kilo-class submarines, of the type that have been successfully exported to a number of countries in recent years.  Each of these ships could be built in about three years, and with serial construction, the whole modernization project could be completed easily in ten years. Furthermore, if production of the newer ship types goes better than expected, some Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines could be added to the fleet toward the tail end of the ten year window.

It will be interesting to watch further developments on this story. If the Navy announces that the new ships will consist of Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines, the Black Sea Fleet is likely to be in for more delays and disappointments. But if the modernization does end up consisting of Kilo submarines and Krivak III frigates, then it is much more likely to happen quickly and successfully.