Russian navy shifts strategic focus with China in mind

I’m off to Russia again this week, for a conference on the Russian military. I’ll blog about the conference next week, but in the meantime, here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote on Russian naval missions. This is from February 2011.

SUBJECT: Navy rearmament and the implications for its missions and strategy.

SIGNIFICANCE: Recent announcements about shipbuilding plans strongly suggest that the navy no longer views the United States and NATO as its primary potential opponents. Over the coming decade, a revised strategy is likely to focus on attempting to counter China’s military rise, while also combating piracy and instability along Russia’s southern flank.

ANALYSIS: The shipbuilding plans outlined in the State Armaments Program (SAP) for 2011-20 show the likely direction of Russian naval strategy for the next decade. The key development is a shift in focus from countering US and NATO naval forces and towards the protection of Russian economic activity, accompanied by a shift in geographic balance towards the south and east.

Maritime Threats. According to official policy, the main maritime threats to Russia include:

  • the rise of naval activity by foreign powers, both near Russian borders and in the open seas;
  • the development by foreign states of naval forces more powerful than its own;
  • illegal economic activity (e.g. poaching) in territorial waters; and
  • the unclear legal status of the Caspian and Azov Seas and the Arctic Ocean – especially the existence of territorial claims in the Arctic.

Based on these threats, maritime policymakers have formulated three general goals for naval activity. They are:

  • defending national interests and security in the open seas;
  • maintaining Russia’s status as a ‘global naval power’; and
  • developing and effectively using naval potential.

These stated threats and goals are nebulous at best, and say little about how the navy will actually evolve over the coming decade.

Shipbuilding plans. However, shipbuilding plans provide useful signposts for determining the missions the navy will undertake. The main focus of Russian shipbuilding over the next decade, according to the SAP, will be on relatively small multi-purpose frigates and corvettes, as well as submarines and amphibious ships.

  • Frigates. The primary surface ships will include Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, twelve of which are to be built by 2020. These ships will be capable of long distance voyages, with an expected range of 5,000-10,000 kilometers (km).
  • Corvettes. Coastal defense will be provided by up to 20 Steregushchii-class corvettes, with a range of 2,000-5,000 km. Russia will also build ten amphibious-assault ships, including four Mistral-class ships to be built jointly with France and six Ivan Gren-class ships of domestic design.
  • Submarines. Submarine construction will consist of up to eleven Lada and Kilo diesel submarines, as well as up to three Severodvinsk-class nuclear attack submarines. Despite serious design challenges, strategic submarine construction will continue, with six to eight Borei-class submarines expected in the fleet by 2020.

Strategic Intentions. Notably, there are no plans to develop large surface combatants – though until quite recently, planners were talking about building aircraft carriers and destroyers, and renovating three old Kirov-class cruisers. All of these plans have been scaled back. Design work on new aircraft carriers and destroyers is proceeding, but none will be built in the next ten years. Only one cruiser is likely to be renovated, as the other two are not in good enough condition to make refurbishment worthwhile.

The shift in focus away from large surface combatants and nuclear attack submarines towards frigates, corvettes, and diesel submarines shows that Russia no longer sees NATO and the United States as realistic potential maritime opponents. Whereas the Soviet navy was focused on building ships designed to take on aircraft carrier groups, the ‘new’ Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home.

Naval missions. The navy is likely to carry out several missions:

  • Coastal Defense. The coastal protection mission will focus on offshore energy platforms and undersea pipelines, as well as the protection of Russian fishing fleets in areas where maritime borders are still disputed. This mission will be carried out primarily by the new corvettes and by older ships such as the Udaloy-class destroyers.
  • Multinational operations. While the navy’s global missions have been and will be sharply reduced compared to the Soviet period, it will continue to pursue some objectives around the globe. Most significantly, this will include participation in multinational counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Russian ships have maintained an almost constant presence off the coast of Somalia for several years; these deployments are likely to continue.
  • ‘Showing the flag’. In addition, the navy will send ships to visit states that are existing or potential arms industry customers. This was done two years ago in Venezuela and India, and is seen as having helped Russia secure several new contracts. Future trips may include states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Syria. These visits do not reflect a desire to build up a truly global naval presence, but rather represent the defense industry’s commercial priorities.

South and eastern shift. Going forward, the Baltic Fleet and Caspian Flotilla will both focus on coastal defense missions, including protecting offshore energy infrastructure; the Caspian Flotilla will also be used against poachers and smugglers. It is likely that the Baltic Fleet’s large ships, which are unnecessary for these missions, will be transferred to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The BSF, along with the Pacific Fleet, is also expected to receive most new vessels. These trends reflect an ongoing shift away from the Northern Fleet, which was traditionally the mainstay of the navy. The emerging consensus that NATO is no longer Russia’s primary potential adversary will result in a drawdown of Northern Fleet capabilities, and a shift towards eastern and southern threats:

Northern Fleet decline. The Northern Fleet is now largely unnecessary as a major war-fighting force. However, it will remain the primary home of Russia’s strategic submarines, including all the Delta IVs. Conventional forces will focus on:

    • protecting Arctic fisheries;
    • maintaining the security of facilities built to extract Arctic undersea hydrocarbon deposits;
    • ensuring control of northern sea lanes, which will eventually see a significant increase in merchant traffic as a result of global warming; and
    • sending larger ships on long cruises to promote political and military partnerships abroad, including trips to Latin America and the Mediterranean.

    Pacific Fleet power. Over time, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important in Russia. It will receive most (if not all) of the newest Borei-class strategic submarines, to replace its aging Delta III fleet. It will also receive the first of the Mistrals. The fleet’s missions will include:

    • countering the rapidly modernizing Chinese navy;
    • ensuring Russian sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands;
    • protecting offshore energy infrastructure off the Sakhalin coast; and
    • showing the flag in South and South-east Asia.

    Black Sea rearmament. Because of its poor condition, the BSF will receive the largest number of new ships, including six frigates, six diesel submarines, and at least two amphibious ships. It will have three primary missions:

    • controlling maritime access to Georgia in the event of a new conflict there or elsewhere in the Caucasus;
    • protecting shipping in the Black Sea; and
    • deploying for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

    CONCLUSION: Despite occasional hostile rhetoric, Russian leaders recognize that a conflict with NATO is extremely unlikely. Military planners clearly regard China as the most important potential threat to national security – even though great efforts are under way to enhance diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing.

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    3 thoughts on “Russian navy shifts strategic focus with China in mind

    1. The diagnostic seemed legitimate and accurate with comparison to current global happenings. The Russian Navy like the U.S.N have been posturing themselves for a greater pacific presence to put the growing Chinese potential in check. I feel that Russia’s plans are being implemented late and with haste and have underrated the threat that is and will be China.
      Also I’d like to add that if Russia intends to counter another major Chinese military threat it should also concentrate on modernization of it’s land forces. Also Russia’s information would have to be secured against the chinese army of skilled computer hackers.

    2. This new focus of Russia on China is so surprising. Have not China and Russia been military allies almost throughout the first decade of 2000, along with the rest of the SCO members? Have not China and Russia run many miitary exercises together in the past 10 years? Aren’t China and Russia at this moment planning more naval exercises together in the future? I hope you will devote more attention to the strange and complex relationship between China and Russia.

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