More on Mistral missions

There’s more evidence today that Russia’s primary purpose in acquiring the Mistral ships is to use them as command and control vessels, rather than for amphibious assault. The following is from an ITAR-TASS report:

“After joining Russian Navy, basic task for Mistrals will be control over various naval assets in different operational zones worldwide, including Pacific Ocean, of course. That is going to be a sort of command centers developed at sea and controlling surface ships, submarines, and naval aviation”, said the source.

“The second high-end task for Mistrals will be delivery of Russian attack and antisubmarine helicopters (Ka-52 Alligator and Ka-27 respectively) to assigned sea- or coastal area. And only the third-priority task will be projection of marine units for landing operations”, added the source.

He also said that Mistral class helicopter carriers are supposed to be stationed at Pacific and Northern fleets. “These two fleets have the largest responsibility areas and biggest number of assets available. So far, it is planned that Northern Fleet would have one Mistral class ship, and Pacific Fleet – one or two of them. If needed, interfleet reassignments of Mistrals are possible as well”, said the source.

He confirmed that Mistral class helicopter carriers which are to join Pacific Fleet would particularly maintain security of Kuril Islands. “This is one of the high-priority tasks forMistrals to be completed along with other branches of Russian Armed Forces”, emphasized the source.

The Mistral’s C2 systems

Last week’s discussion of the Mistral basing question raised the question of what kind of technology is going to be passed along to Russia by France as part of the deal. Although there has been no official word on this question as of yet, and probably won’t be until the contract is actually signed, there have been some French reports that address this question.

According to Intelligence Online (gated), the deal will include the SENIT-9 combat information system, but without license rights and without the Link 11 and Link 16 NATO communications systems. The transfer of NATO communications systems would require the unanimous consent of all NATO members. Therefore, even though the request is currently under consideration at NATO HQ, it will be rejected. It is certain to be opposed by the Baltic states, and likely to be opposed by a number of other NATO countries including the United States. It is interesting to note that Russia’s request to receive these systems was justified by its desire to participate in joint missions with NATO navies. The lack of license rights means that Russia will not be able to use the SENIT-9  technology on other ships, nor will it be able to use the knowledge acquired by building such systems to improve its own ability to manufacture advanced combat information systems.

The SENIT-9 systems used on the French Mistral-class ships are derived from the US Navy’s Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) and are based on the tri-dimensional MRR3D-NG multi-role radar, built by Thales, which operates on the C Band and incorporates IFF capabilities. The French version can be connected to Link 11, Link 16, and Link 22 NATO communications systems. The purpose of the system is to centralize all data from the ship’s sensors in the ship’s command center.

Reports in French newspapers indicate that the Thales MRR-3D-NG radar, as well as a Racal-Decca helicopter control radar, will also be included as part of the deal. It seems very unlikely that the Russian Mistrals will be equipped to use French communications systems, based on French satellites SYRACUSE 3-A and SYRACUSE 3-B. These satellites provide 45% of the Super High Frequency secured communications of NATO. For Russia, it would make much more sense to equip the ships with communications systems that connect with their own satellites. Otherwise, the ships would not be able to communicate with other Russian ships.

What does this all mean? It seems to me that purchasing the SENIT-9 systems will allow the Russian Mistrals to function more effectively as command and control ships, though it is unlikely that these systems will be integrated with indigenous Russian communications systems. In other words, sensor data will have to be manually transfered to the communications systems and then transmitted to other ships or to headquarters. This will reduce, though not eliminate, the ships’ effectiveness as C2 ships.

As I have argued previously, the Mistrals have three main purposes for the Russian navy: 1) as helo platforms, 2) as C2 ships, and 3) as a path to rebuilding the Russian shipbuilding industry. That post from almost exactly a year ago still stands up very well. And the focus on acquiring the SENIT-9 system reinforces the likelihood that command and control will be one of the main uses of the Mistral ships once they are in the Russian fleet.

One additional side note from these reports: The Russian Mistrals will be modified slightly to reinforce the bow of the BPC with metal ice-breakers and adapt the decks for Ka-29 helicopters, which take up more space than the French NH-90s because of their double rotors.

Is the Mistral deployment to the Pacific a dagger aimed at the heart of the US Pacific Fleet?

I suppose I should not be surprised that the professional fearmongers would not be fazed by the announcement that the Russian navy will deploy the first two Mistrals to the Pacific Fleet. Since a good chunk of the commentariat had spent well over a year arguing that placing these ships in Russian hands would destabilize Russia’s entire western periphery and present a grave threat to Georgia and the Baltic states, I thought that this announcement would trim their sails a bit.

Instead, we have the following two quotes from an otherwise informative piece by Pavel Felgenhauer in today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor on changes in Russian force structure in the Far East:

It seems the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk.

and

Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US – Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.

It turns out that placing the Mistrals in the Pacific may perhaps be an even greater threat to US security than having them in Russia’s western fleets. After all, the US remains Russia’s top strategic concern, so all of its military planning must clearly be aimed at stopping the inevitable US invasion.

There are so many things wrong with this analysis, I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, if the US for some reason wanted to invade the Sea of Okhotsk, presumably in order to take out Russia’s nuclear submarines based there, I can’t imagine that the Mistrals would pose any kind of impediment. These ships are essentially troop and helicopter transports with some nice C2 capabilities. The main criticism of the French version of these ships is that they cannot enter hostile waters without an escort, because they are under-equipped for self-defense. They would be no match for even a single US destroyer, much less a carrier strike group. In other words, they add little or nothing to Russia’s ability to protect the Kuriles from a potential US invasion.

Next, let’s address the question of whether the US is Russia’s number one strategic concern. While one can’t read the minds of President Medvedev and his advisors, this statement seems to go against the entire thrust of the recent military reform. The reform was designed to increase the Russian military’s ability to deal with small local conflicts, while reducing its classic Cold War anti-US posture. This would not have been done if military planners still believed that they would be likely to fight a war against the United States. There’s just no evidence out there to support this statement.

This is not to say that Russia can ignore the possibility of conflict with the US completely. It has to be prepared for such a conflict given the sheer power of the US military and its positioning near Russian borders. It would be foolish of Russian military planners to ignore the possibility of such as conflict. What I challenge is the statement that “The US is Russia’s number one strategic concern.” It’s more like Russia’s #4 or #5 strategic concern. And I very much doubt that the unlikely possibility of facing the US at some point is the reason for the decision to place the Mistrals in the Pacific. Especially given my argument above that they would be useless in that fight.

Finally, there’s the question of whether Russia is truly concerned about the possibility of a Japanese threat to the Kuriles. Felgenhauer argues that “Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning.” While I doubt that Russian planners believe that Japan is going to invade Russia any time soon, the reality is that strategic planners are paid to prepare for unlikely but possible contingencies, and Japan and Russia do have an unresolved border dispute. It would be irresponsible for them to not prepare for the remote possibility of a military conflict over the southern Kuriles at some point down the road, perhaps in the unlikely event of a turn toward militant nationalism in Japan. The chances of such a turn are remote at best, and if I were a planner, I’d spend my money on something else, but it’s certainly more likely than a US naval invasion of the Sea of Okhotsk.

And the potential for a conflict with China is somewhat more likely than that (though again not very likely at all). Though the Mistrals aren’t particularly well equipped for a fight with China. Which brings us back to the question of why put the Mistrals in the Pacific. It seems to me, and I’ve made this argument before, that the Russian navy bought these ships primarily in order to rebuild its domestic shipbuilding capability. But having bought them, it needs to put them somewhere — and the Pacific is a more logical place than any of the other fleets given the local political and strategic environment. So having made that decision, they needed to be given a mission — and protecting the Kuriles made more sense, given the ships’ actual capabilities, than anything else.

UPDATE: Added a paragraph above to address a commenter’s point that Russia has to be prepared to fight the US.

Future prospects of the United Aircraft Corporation

In today’s VPK, Ilya Kramnik discusses the prospects of the UAC. Here are some highlights. This is in the context of the removal of Aleksei Fedorov as the company’s director and his replacement by Mikhail Pogosian, the general director of the company’s Sukhoi and MiG divisions.

Military Aircraft

Kramnik notes that the prospects of the Sukhoi division are much better than those of MiG. Sukhoi’s strength is based on the success of its Su-27 fighter plane, which has not only become the mainstay of the Russian air force, but has been exported to 17 countries. These planes are used by countries as diverse as Angola, Eritrea, China, and Indonesia, as well as several former Soviet states. Kramnik argues that delays in the production of NATO’s F-35 will ensure continued exports for the Su-27 in the coming decade.

Sukhoi’s future success in the domestic market lies in the 4++ generation Su-35 fighters and Su-34 bombers, as well as orders of Su-30MKI fighters, which were previously manufactured exclusively for export. Down the road, Sukhoi will be building the fifth generation fighter aircraft (known variously as the PAK FA or T-50), both for the domestic market and for export to India. In addition to the construction of new aircraft, Sukhoi will be busy modernizing existing Russian air force planes, including the Su-25 close air support planes, Su-24 bombers, and the older Su-27 fighters. After modernization, these planes may be expected to serve another 15-20 years.

Compared to Sukhoi, MiG is in fairly poor shape. Few of its MiG-29 fighters have been sold abroad in the post-Soviet period, while the Russian air force has focused on modernizing Su-27s rather than its MiG-29s. The crashes of two MiG-29s in 2008, which led to an investigation that revealed serious corrosion in the tail sections of 80 percent of existing MiG-29s, was a further blow to the aircraft’s reputation.

MiG is now betting on two projects. The MiG-29K is the naval version of the MiG-29, and will be used on the Indian Vikramaditya carrier and most likely on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. The MiG-35 is a 4++ generation fighter aircraft that is in the running in the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. Prospects for victory in the tender seem somewhat poor, given rumors that MiG-35 was not on a list of finalists. Without a victory in this tender, its prospects are unclear, given that the Russian air force is focused primarily on procuring Su-35 and PAK FA fighters. Unless the MiG-35 wins the MMRCA tender, UAC may well fold the Mikoyan division into Sukhoi.

Passenger Aircraft

Kramnik argues that UAC’s prospects in building commercial aircraft are relatively poor. UAC no longer builds long range commercial aircraft, while the construction of the Tu-204 mid-range aircraft was recently in crisis with the possibility of a construction freeze under discussion until recently because of production problems and a lack of orders. A recent order by a Russian airline for 44 Tu-204SM aircraft has revived this plane’s prospects. Its production is scheduled to end in 2014 in favor of the MS-21 aircraft currently in design, though there is little confidence that the new plane will be ready by then.

The joint Russian-Ukrainian An-148 regional jet has achieved significant popularity, with 237 planes ordered by companies and governments in nine countries. However, only eight planes have been delivered since the An-148 first went on the market in 2009 and slow production continues to be a problem.

The An-148 may be displaced by the SSJ regional jet, which is being built by a joint venture between Sukhoi and an Italian company. This plane is currently undergoing certification but may be ready for operations sometime in the next year. Over 180 planes of this type have been ordered by airlines from seven countries.

Despite the relatively high number of orders for UAC’s regional jets, production delays and the lack of a viable long range commercial airliner products has clouded the prospects for UAC’s commercial aviation division.

Cargo Aircraft

Existing Russian cargo aircraft are getting old. Most of the fleet are Antonov planes, built in Ukraine. The largest and most modern of these are the An-124, which have been in the fleet since the 1980s. An-12, An-22, and An-26 aircraft are much older, with many dating from the 1960s.

UAC’s Ilyushin division will fill the bulk of the Russian air force’s cargo plane needs in the coming decade. The Il-76, built by UAC, is the mainstay of the Russian air force and common in civilian use as well. The average age of these planes, however, is 30 years, so they are rapidly approaching the end of their useful lives. The air force is planning to modernize about 100 of its Il-76s, including the installation of new engines, which would allow them to last another 20-30 years. Kramnik believes that it’s possible that some could be used for as long as a total of 80-100 years, with suitable maintenance and occasional engine replacements.

In addition, UAC is planning to build a modernized version of the Il-76, labeled the Il-476, with digital flight controls, new avionics and new engines. 30-40 of these will be purchased by the Russian air force beginning in 2014.

UAC will also build smaller cargo planes, including the light Il-112 and medium Il-214, though neither is expected to enter serial production before 2015.  Some experts believe that neither of these planes will be built because of excessive cost increases. If these planes are canceled, the air force will have to order planes from abroad. Kramnik suggests that the Ukrainian An-178 could be a substitute for the Il-112, while the Italian C-27J Spartan might be bought instead of the Il-214.

Seaplanes

UAC’s Beriev division builds Be-200 special purpose amphibious aircraft designed for search and rescue operations, maritime patrol, and fire fighting. Several Be-200 planes are operated by the Russian and Azerbaijani Ministries for Emergency Situations, with another 10 on the way for the Russian MES.

Assessment

Though the situation in the Russian aircraft industry is better now than it was a few years ago, many problems remain. Most importantly, the average pay of workers and engineers at Russia’s main aircraft plants is lower than of sales people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while the technical education system is much worse at preparing new workers for this field than in the Soviet period. Furthermore, most of the main plants have not been substantially modernized. As a result of these problems, we are likely to see continued production delays for most of the aircraft described above.

Upcoming Midrats appearance

Just a bit of shameless self-promotion: This Sunday, I will be appearing on the Midrats talk radio blog to talk about Russian politics and security issues.

We will discuss some of the following topics: Where Russia stands in the 21st Century and how its domestic politics, demographics, the rise of China, and the evolution of its relationships in its near abroad will challenge this important nation.

I gather that you can listen live here at 5pm on Sunday, February 13 or listen to the archived show later on.

Update: The archived show is now available.

Mistrals to the Pacific

Russian news services reported yesterday that both of the first two Mistral ships to be built for Russia in France will be stationed in the Pacific fleet. Previous reports had suggested that just one would go to the Pacific. This announcement was made in the context of rising tensions with Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. President Medvedev also announced that Russia will invest heavily in the modernization of the defense infrastructure on the four disputed islands and will upgrade the weaponry used by units deployed on these islands.

This announcement reinforces my previous point that Russian leaders have decided to make the Pacific Fleet the most important fleet in the Russian Navy. But rather than focusing primarily on the potential Chinese threat, they also want to counter any efforts by Japan to reclaim the Kurils.

Hopefully this announcement will calm the panicked claims about how the sale of these ships to Russia will destabilize NATO and threaten former Soviet states such as Georgia and the Baltic republics. I still think that Russia will eventually place a Mistral in the Black Sea Fleet, but if it is the third or fourth ship of the class, rather than the second, this will not happen until close to the end of the decade in the best case. And if the inevitable delays in assimilating new shipbuilding technology strike, it may take as long as 15 years for the fourth Mistral to enter the Russian Navy.

Russia’s Black Sea Threat?

That is the title (without the question mark) of a piece by LTC Mowchan in the current issue of the USNI Proceedings. The article is only available to subscribers, unfortunately. The article articulates a vision of Russia that is in many ways at odds with reality. For this reason, it deserves a commentary that will also act as a rebuttal.

Early on, the author refers to the Black Sea Fleet as Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over southeast Europe and the Caucasus. If so, it’s a rusty sword indeed. Mowchan himself notes in the conclusion of that section of the article that:

Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava-class guided-missile cruiser Moskva…. If current modernization and manning trends persist, the BSF will be unable to effectively accomplish any of its assigned missions in the next five years.

So how can a fleet comprised of ancient, barely seaworthy ships serve as an existential threat to the entire region? According to Mowchan, the threat lies in the fleet’s coming resurrection. As readers of this blog well know, the Russian government has announced grand plans to modernize the fleet by sending up to 15 new combatants to the fleet by 2020. However, readers also know that in the current Russian military, such plans are rarely accomplished. Nevertheless, I am sure that the fleet will be substantially more capable in 2020 than it is now. It will at a minimum have the two Neustrashimyi-class frigates (transfered from the Baltic Fleet), three new updated Krivak-class frigates, and perhaps 1-2 new Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. A Mistral and 1-2 new Ivan Gren amphibs are also likely. Add in a couple of new diesel submarines and a minimum of 10 new combatants seems highly likely. So in 2020 the BSF will undoubtedly be much more powerful than it is now, though it will probably still be outclassed by the Turkish Navy.

But what will Russia do with these forces? LTC Mowchan believes that the fleet “will become a tool by which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations.” Well, of course, one of the main reasons countries build military forces is to increase their political power, so that statement seems fine on its face. The problem comes with the author’s assumption that security in the region (and perhaps in the world as a whole) is a zero-sum game where any gain for Russia is automatically a loss for the United States. He sees the BSF’s modernization as leading to “an increase in the possibility of conflict between Russia and those Black Sea states seeking greater integration with the West” and positioning Russia “to threaten U.S. vital interests in the region.”

This is perhaps the core of my disagreement with this article, as I see the potential for regional security to be a positive-sum game (or, if things go badly, a negative-sum game) where improvements in regional security can help secure the interests of both sides. In my view, improvements in Russian naval capabilities will lead, inter alia, to greater and more effective cooperation with NATO and other states’ warships in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. LTC Mowchan explicitly rejects this view and that’s fine.

But I wonder, does he really think that Russia might go to war with NATO in the foreseeable future? He argues that France’s decision to sell the Mistral to Russia “sets a dangerous precedent that could result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other U.S. allies.” He believes that Russia bought the Mistral ships in order to “create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and decision-making in a crisis–especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.” Actually, I think Russia bought the ships because its leaders realized that a joint construction program was the best possible way for them to modernize their shipbuilding capacity. And besides, quoting one French source, “the Mistral is just a ferry painted grey.”  It is not some Dreadnought.

Again, I question the possibility of Russia and any NATO state going to war any time in the foreseeable future. But perhaps I am naive in this. If so, I would welcome those who disagree to comment with plausible scenarios that lead to military conflict between Russia and NATO–especially given the deplorable weakness of Russia’s conventional forces and the sad state of their conscripts.

Finally, there is the question of whether Russian activity in the Black Sea can “threaten U.S. vital interests in the region.” According to the author, these include democratization, regional stability, and access to energy supplies. I would argue that the Black Sea is a fairly marginal territory for the U.S. Europe may care about access to energy supplies (i.e. natural gas) from this region, but the U.S. does not get any of its natural gas and very little of its oil supplies from this area. (In fact, the U.S. gets twice as much oil from Russia as it does from all the other post-Soviet states combined.) So energy is a U.S. interest only indirectly, via its effect on Europe. And Europe has recently focused on developing alternatives such as LNG and shale gas to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies. Most new Caspian and Central Asian energy resources developed in the coming decade will be going to China, not Europe. Turkey gets gas from Russia through the Blue Stream pipeline that traverses the Black Sea, and may participate in the coming South Stream project across the Black Sea, neither of which the Russians are likely to cut off—they need the money.

Regional stability is important, but as I already argued, this is something that can best be achieved by working with Russia, not against it. Because of simple geographic proximity, the Black Sea will always be more important for Russia than for the U.S., much as the Caribbean is more important for the U.S. Russia will have more interest in regional politics and greater staying power in the event of political conflicts, so the only way to truly achieve regional stability is to engage in a partnership with Russia that integrates it into regional political institutions, including those in Europe, for which the Black Sea is quite peripheral.

Finally, there is democratization. As recent events in the Middle East have shown only too clearly, this is an interest for the U.S. primarily when nothing else gets in the way. Stability, alliances, access to resources all trump democratization. Furthermore, the governments brought in by “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) have all (in different ways) failed at building democracies in their countries. Ukraine’s leaders failed by engaging in internecine squabbling that prevented them from institutionalizing their gains and led to the return of Yanukovich. Saakashvili in Georgia made some early moves against corruption but has since been gradually building a populist demagogic regime that has shut down opposition media outlets and used violence against protesters. Both states are more democratic than they were prior to their revolutions, but they have certainly failed to meet the expectations with which the new regimes came to power.

This is not to say that the U.S. does not have one vital interest in the Black Sea. It plays an important role in transporting goods and people to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and overflights of former Soviet states. This is a network in which Russia plays a critical role and has proven quite helpful in reducing U.S. dependence on supplying its troops through Pakistan. In other words, the most important reason for maintaining U.S. access to the Black Sea is an area in which Russia and the U.S. act as partners.

Given this reality, I would recommend that the U.S. work to improve relations with Russia in the region by engaging it in bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities, including greater mil-to-mil contacts. Military cooperation can, over time, build trust (consider the role of military contacts with the U.S. in the Egyptian army’s response to the recent protests in that country). Working with the Russian navy will gradually reduce suspicions of the other’s intent on both sides. And (again gradually) this will in turn lead to greater security in the Black Sea region.

UPDATE: USNI has ungated LTC Mowchan’s original article, so I now link to it above.