Should we panic about Russian naval modernization?

The commissioning of the Yuri Dolgoruky Borei-class SSBN this week, which follows closely on the heels of the launching of the Vladimir Monomakh SSBN at the end of December, has made a number of commentators focus on prospects for Russian naval modernization. I’d like to introduce a note of caution about these prospects into the debate.

The first of these articles, by Brian Slattery of the Heritage Foundation, is just the usual panic-mongering about how the US Navy is not what it used to be in the good old Reagan days. The information about a coming 14-year period during which the US Navy will fall below the 12 sub legal requirement for SSBN numbers doesn’t make sense to me. We currently have 14 Ohio-class SSBNs, which is the limit under existing arms control treaties. The first of the Ohio-class subs is expected to retire by 2029. Construction of the replacement submarine was scheduled to begin in 2019 for commissioning in 2029, but  is reportedly two years behind schedule has been pushed back by two years. But the US Navy can retire two SSBNs without replacement and still meet the 12 sub requirement. Even if there are further delays in construction, there could be a 2-3 year period in the 2030s where we are down to 10 or 11 SSBNs, rather than 12. Given that Russia plans to have 8 SSBNs going forward, this does not seem like a grave threat to US national security.

Slattery also does not make clear why the United States needs a 600-ship navy given that the Russian navy has no more than 25 major surface combat ships and less than 50 submarines of all types. We can add the 15-20 landing ships and throw in a few tugboats and oilers and come up with a rough estimate of no more than 100 ocean-going ships and submarines in the Russian navy, of which 10-20 are either still on the books but not actually seaworthy or are in the midst of being overhauled at any given time. Of course, if we wanted to sow panic among the uninformed, we could include the 70+ corvettes, 30+ minesweepers, and assorted other ships to come up with 200+ combat ships of all kinds. We could even add the various auxiliary ships. That would get us to almost 500 ships currently listed as serving in the Russian navy. Clearly a formidable force, especially the 30-odd degaussing vessels and 50 or so hydrographic ships. But if we want to be serious, we have to recognize that the Russian navy as currently constituted has a very small number of ships that are actually able to deploy out of area for any length of time.

And this is not likely to change substantially in the short term. The shipbuilding program currently in place is significant. Galrahn is right to note that the Russian government has allocated $132 billion for shipbuilding through 2020. This is not quite the $16.5 billion per year that he mentions, simply because the total amount is for the naval component of the full 10-year State Armament Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020). So we should divide by 10 rather than 8, getting $13.2 billion. That’s still a lot of money. But the vast bulk of that funding will be going to build new SSBNs and attack submarines, with not that much left over for surface combatants. Other than the two Mistrals being purchased from France, ocean-going surface ships will be limited to 8 Admiral Gorshkov class and 6 Krivak class frigates. These are nice ships, but not the kind of ship that would indicate a massive Russian naval revival is underway. Plus, the first Admiral Gorshkov-class ship has been repeatedly delayed. This is quite common in the construction of a new ship class in any country, but it does lead to some serious questions about whether the navy will get all eight by the 2020 target date.  Plans for new destroyers are still on the drawing board and discussion of building an aircraft carrier is likely to remain purely theoretical for at least the rest of this decade.

Furthermore, much of the funding is very much uncertain. There have been various reports about reductions in military procurement spending and even potentially a three-year delay in fulfilling the armaments program. The most recent information I have is that $22.5 billion has been cut from total military procurement for the 2013-15 period, though it’s not clear how much of that affects naval procurement. Funding for the SAP is very much backloaded, with 69 percent of the funding allocated for the 2016-2020 period. By that point, of course, there will be a new State Armaments Program and, if necessary, the inflated figures from the current one can be quietly forgotten.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is all smoke and mirrors. The Russian military is clearly focused on modernization and the navy in particular will be getting new ships and submarines over the next few years. Its ability to protect its shores will be greatly enhanced by the new ships coming online during this period. However, it will be at least another decade (i.e. 2030 or later) before it will get the kinds of large combat ships that it will need to have any kind of global presence or significant expeditionary capability.