The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian naval strategy

The Russian military analyst Prokhor Tebin has put together a very useful article explaining Crimea’s military significance for Russia. He highlights the Black Sea’s economic significance for Russia: Russia’s Black Sea commercial ports carry 30 percent of its total maritime exports. The Black Sea also provides the closest access for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Tebin points out that the Black Sea Fleet is needed to ensure that access, as well as to deal with potential  instability in the Caucasus.  It will also serve as a logistics hub for the Mediterranean task force that the Russian navy has decided to form, though ships for the task force will come from other fleets as well. He ranks the fleet third in importance for the Russian Navy, behind the Northern and Pacific Fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.

The composition of the fleet is currently inadequate for its missions. It has only a few old Soviet-era ships: one missile cruiser, three frigates, seven large amphibious ships, and one diesel submarine. It has not received any new combat ships since 1990, while almost all of its existing ships will need to be decommissioned fairly soon. Tebin compares the strength of the BSF to the Turkish navy, which includes 16 frigates, 8 corvettes, and 14 diesel submarines, with more ships on the way. To change the situation, Russia is currently building six new Talwar-class frigates and six improved Kilo class diesel submarines for the BSF. The fleet may also get some small missile ships and gunboats, as well as new minesweepers. Tebin considers this an absolute minimum for the BSF and argues that it will still not be enough to fulfill all of the fleet’s missions or to restore the balance of power in the Black Sea. He also calls for the development of additional shore-based infrastructure, especially in Novorossiisk. However, the latter port is inferior in location and climate conditions to Sevastopol, being subject to the extremely strong wind known as Bora. This relatively unpredictable wind, with speeds registered at over 200km/hour, has in the past damaged ships at pier. The location of Novorossiisk is also far less central than Sevastopol and the harbor is inferior. For these reasons, Tebin argues that Novorossiisk can only serve a complementary role for the Black Sea Fleet, while Sevastopol must remain its main base for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Tebin also provides a very nice map of Russian military facilities in Crimea, which I reproduce below.

The legend reads as follows:

The 1997 agreement permits a maximum of 25,000 personnel, including no more than 1,987 naval infantry and naval aviation personnel. 14,000 are actually deployed.

1) Sevastopol: main Black Sea Fleet forces, up to 30 ships; 810 naval infantry brigade; 17th arms storage facility, Khersones and Yuzhnyi airfields

2) Kacha airfield: Be-12 and An-26 aircraft, Ka-27 and Mi-8 helicopters

3) Gvardeiskoe airfield: 20 Su-24 bombers

4) Feodosiia: 31st naval armaments testing center

5) Cape Opuk: naval firing range

6) Otradnoe: 219th radio-electronic warfare regiment

7) Yalta: 830th communications post

8) Priberezhnoe: 1001st high-frequency communications post

 

MVMS-2013 naval salon prompts more reflections on the future of the Russian navy

There have been a number of interesting articles written on the future of the Russian Navy in conjunction with the naval salon in St. Petersburg earlier this month. I’ll try to summarize the interesting points without repeating material found in my earlier articles on this topic.

The most recent bit of news is that the Russian navy is planning to order an additional three Talwar class (project 11356) frigates, on top of the six already in the works. The idea is that these are relatively capable ships that can be built and outfitted very quickly (at a rate of one per year for the construction). Three are currently under construction and according to the most recent reports, two more are to be laid down this year. These are well armed ships, comparable to the Sovremennyi class destroyers in armament, though more versatile. Whereas the original plan had been to deploy all six to the Black Sea Fleet, the current plan is to station the first three there while the next three would go to the Baltic Fleet. As Prokhor Tebin points out, this makes absolutely no sense. The Baltic Fleet should be the Russian Navy’s lowest priority, focused primarily on testing new ships and training. Both the BSF and the Pacific Fleet are in much greater need of new ships of this type. But that sort of thing can be changed once the ships are actually ready for commissioning. The truly significant news is that three more such ships will be built in the near future and, unlike the more complicated Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, are likely to be put to use quite quickly.

Ilya Kramnik had an interesting summary of plans for the future that adds some information and analysis to what I’ve already discussed.  He mentions plans for a new attack submarine that is expected to become the mainstay of the fleet for the next several decades. This will be a smaller and cheaper submarine than the Yasen class. It will combine the usual missions of protecting Russian and tracking foreign SSBNs. In other words, if we thinking of the Yasen as the Russian Seawolf, then this new class will be the Virginia. Plans call for 20 such submarines to be built by the end of the 2020s, with construction of the first sub to start in the next 5-7 years.

So if all the submarine plans are carried out, by 2030 the Russian Navy will get a total of 35-36 new nuclear submarines, including 8 Boreis, 7-8 Yasens, and up to 20 of the new class. The total cost would be 1.5 trillion rubles at current prices, not including expenses for modernizing existing submarines. Personally, I think this is overly ambitious. Even if we assume that the design process will proceed without delays and construction and construction does start in 2018 or thereabouts, I highly doubt that the Russian shipbuilding industry is capable of building 20 new submarines in 10-12 years. I realize that the submarine-building sector is the healthiest part of the industry, but there is just no record even in the industry’s Soviet history of building two nuclear submarines of the same type per year. Even one would be ambitious, given recent history.  I suppose it would be possible if the Amur shipyard was pressed into service, though my understanding is that it is not building submarines any more. Even if it were, it would take a lot to get that shipyard up to speed.

In addition to the new destroyer that we discussed last week, new plans for surface ships include a littoral combat ship. The design of the LCS has not been finalized and fairly non-traditional options such as a catamaran or trimaran are supposedly on the table.  Industry representatives want to build 1-2 ships of the two best designs to test their capabilities and then select one for serial production. 35-40 such ships could be built for all four fleets, at a total cost of 250-280 billion rubles. Such pace of construction would be made possible by using multiple shipyards, including those in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Zelenodolsk and possible Krasnoe Sormovo.

Discussions are still under way about the design of a potential new aircraft carrier.  Photos of a model that represents current thinking show a classical design, equipped with a ski jump and a catapult, and with an estimated length of 320 meters and 80,000 tons displacement. While discussions continue, the Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service. Its modernization, originally scheduled to begin in 2012 will be postponed until the second half of this decade.

The main problem with all these plans is the continued weakness of the shipbuilding sector. In a separate article, Kramnik mentions the complexity of new equipment, including radars, control systems, hydroacoustics, and weapons.  He notes that this has led to delays in construction of the Admiral Gorshkov class frigates and the Yasen class submarines, among others. (I would also add the Lada class diesel submarines to this list.) There are also complications resulting from the merger of many disparate plants, in varying condition and with different ways of doing business, into the United Shipbuilding Corporation. This has resulted in various problems with finances and personnel that presently can only be resolved through “manual control.”

Igor Zakharov, the vice president of United Shipbuilding Corporation, argues that the way to solve the sector’s problems is to give the chief designer of any major shipbuilding project both personal responsibility before the client and the right to ensure that sub-contractors fulfill their obligations on time. He doesn’t spell out what mechanisms would be used to ensure the latter, but he does call for the introduction of arbitration mechanisms to resolve conflicts between industry and the MOD over issues such as pricing.

He also notes that Russian shipbuilding needs to adapt to the modern world, where hulls can last 50 years or more while electronics and armaments become outdated much more quickly. This requires ships to be built in a way that allows for easy modernization and replacement of weapons and equipment. Soviet ships, by contrast, did not consider the possibility of such updates, making their modernization in the new environment very costly and time consuming. New capital ships will be built in small series. Furthermore, rapid advances in electronics will require that even these series be divided into sub-series that will maintain unity of ship design while updating electronics and weaponry. Some systems and weapons can be used across ship classes. We are already seeing elements of these ideas in systems such as the multipurpose shipboard firing system (УКСК) and in the modular construction of the latest classes of Russian corvettes and frigates.

These are good ideas. The problem is the extent to which they are stymied by the conglomerate nature of United Shipbuilding and by the difficulty its personnel and business structures face in adapting to the new way of doing business. Over time, I imagine the shipbuilding industry will improve. But time is needed, while the navy is providing the industry with somewhat unrealistic timetables for the construction of new ships. The result will be more delays, though probably not as bad as in the recent past.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 2)

(Based on a report in Moscow Defense Brief. For a discussion of submarines and surface combat ships, see part 1)

Auxiliary ships

The Russian Navy is getting a number of new support ships in the near future. These include three Project 23120 9000 ton ocean-going logistics ships, the first of which was laid down at Severnaya Verf in November 2012. The ships are similar to civilian offshore hydrocarbon exploration ships and are to be delivered at a rate of one a year in 2014-16. The navy is also expecting to receive six Project 20180 support and weapons transport ships. Two of the ships are currently under construction, with delivery expected in 2014 and 2016. The ships, being built at the Zvezdochka shipyard, are modified versions of the Zvezdochka salvage tug commissioned in 2010. The Igor Belousov (project 21300S) large submarine rescue ship, which was laid down in December 2005 in response to the Kursk disaster, was finally launched in October 2012 after a long delay caused by the failure of a Russian design bureau to provide a deepwater diving complex for the ship. In the end, the navy has settled on a British design that is being built in Russia. The ship is due to be commissioned in 2014, with another three ships of this type likely to be ordered in the near future. In addition, the navy has ordered a large number of harbor support ships and tugboats, with around 80 expected to enter service by 2016.

Exports

Russian shipyards continue to have a thriving export business. The biggest customers in 2012 were India, Vietnam and Algeria. Vietnam has ordered six Improved Kilo class (project 06361) submarines from the Admiralty Shipyards. The first two submarines of this order were launched in 2012, while subs three and four were laid down last year. The first sub is expected to be delivered this year. The Vietnamese navy took delivery of two Svetlyak class (project 10412) patrol boats in October 2012. It also ordered two modified Gepard class (project 11661E) frigates, to be delivered in 2016 and 2017. These are in addition to two similar frigates delivered in 2011. Both ships are to be built in Zelenodolsk. Vietnam is also building, under license, a series of ten Tarantul V class (project 12418) corvettes, with the first two ships expected to be commissioned this year.

Contracts with the Algerian navy are for modernization of existing ships, rather than the construction of new ones. These include the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine at the Admiralty Shipyards, which was completed in July 2012, and the ongoing modernization of a Koni class (project 1159TM) frigate and Nanuchka II class (project 1234EM) corvette at Severnaya Verf. Further surface ship modernization orders are expected once the current pair are finished.

India remains the most important foreign military customer for Russian shipyards. In 2012, the Indian navy inducted the INS Chakra, an improved Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine that was leased to India for a ten-year period. There is some speculation that a second submarine of the same type may be leased to India in the future. Yantar shipyard completed a second series of Talwar class (project 11356) frigates for the the Indian navy, with two ships delivered in 2012 and a third in June 2013. Negotiations are currently under way for another set of three frigates to be built. In January 2013, the Zvezdochka shipyard completed the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine for the Indian navy. This was the fifth Indian diesel submarine to be modernized at this plant. Finally, the long-term effort to modernize the former Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier for the Indian navy, which was due to be handed over in 2012, hit another snag because of problems with the main power plant, causing at least a one year delay in the project.

Analysis

Based on Boltenkov’s summary and my own past research, it seems to me that the Russian shipbuilding industry has improved in recent years but remains in relatively poor shape overall. Yantar Shipyard in particular has been reported to be in fairly poor shape due to a lack of investment. On the other hand, the Severnaya Verf, Sevmash, and Zvezdochka shipyards are in relatively good condition. Russian shipyards are good at building ships that they have been building for some time, such as the Talwar (modified Krivak) class frigates and improved Kilo class submarines. The implementation of new designs, on the other hand, has led to numerous problems and delays regardless of the type of ship and the shipyard building it. The construction of Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, Lada class submarines, and Admiral Gren amphibious ships have all been affected by construction delays and other problems. Construction of nuclear-powered submarines is proceeding, but at a much slower pace than hoped for by the Ministry of Defense. Frequent changes in requirements have resulted in a number of ship classes that have been cancelled after only one or two ships, which will have a negative impact on maintenance. Finally, the goal of renewing the Russian navy’s fleet of larger surface combat ships still seems a long way off, with a design for a new class of destroyers still several years away from completion.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 1)

The cover article of the brand new issue of Moscow Defense Brief (subscription required) from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, examines developments in Russian military shipbuilding in 2012, written by Dmitry Boltenkov. Since the article is not publicly available, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary. Part 1 covers submarines and surface ships. Part 2, coming soon, will cover auxiliary ships, export contracts, and provide some analysis.

Submarines

Construction of Borei-class (project 955) submarines progressed significantly in 2012. The navy took delivery of the Yury Dolgoruky, the first sub of this class, at the end of 2012. After some training exercises, the sub is expected to enter regular service by the end of 2013. The second sub, the Alexander Nevsky, is expected to be commissioned in the fall. The third sub, whose construction started in 2006, was launched in January 2013, while construction of the fourth started in July 2012. Two more subs are to be laid down this year. Given the 7-8 year construction times on these submarines, it seems unlikely that all eight will be completed by the 2020 target date.  2023 seems to be a more realistic goal. Furthermore, the lack of new tests on the Bulava missile in 2012 is concerning, though additional tests are expected this autumn — most likely using a new automated missile launch control system.

The Yasen-class (project 885) nuclear attack submarines are being built far more slowly, with the first submarine in the class (the Severodvinsk, which was laid down back in 1993) currently undergoing tests and expected to enter the fleet later this year. The Kazan (the second submarine of this class) will be commissioned in 2015 at the earliest, with the third to be laid down in July. Again, the chances of all 8 contracted subs being completed by 2020 is virtually nonexistent.

Diesel submarines are also being built, including the recently restarted, but still troubled, Lada class. The first sub in this class, the St. Petersburg, entered sea trials in 2004. Problems with its propulsion systems have prevented its commissioning and led the project to be suspended indefinitely several years ago. The project was restarted in 2012, but the St. Petersburg still has not been commissioned. Construction on the two other subs in this class that were laid down before the suspension has resumed and they are expected to be ready for sea trials in 2015 and 2016, respectively. MDB reports that  the second boat may be equipped with new lithium-ion batteries, while the third may have air-independent propulsion. It seems unlikely that any more subs of this class will be built, which means the navy will get three essentially different boats, each with its own maintenance needs. This is precisely the sort of the thing the Russian military has been trying to get away from. The hope is that a fifth-generation conventional sub currently being designed by Rubin Design Bureau will soon be ready for construction, obviating the need for the Lada class. In the meantime, the navy will have to depend on old and new Kilo-class submarines. The first of a set of six improved Kilos is expected to be launched later this year. Two more are under construction and another is to be laid down by the end of 2013. All six are expected to be in service by 2016.

Surface ships

The first of the two Mistral-class ships ordered from France is currently under construction, with the second to be laid down sometime in 2013. Both ships are to be completed and delivered to Russia by the end of 2015. Boltenkov reiterates that both will be assigned to the the Pacific Fleet. Furthermore, he notes that the Russian Navy has ordered four assault-landing boats from STX L’Orient in France. The fate of the third and fourth Mistral-class ships, which were to be built entirely in Russia starting in 2016, remains unresolved.

Two types of frigates are being built for the navy. The first of the Admiral Gorshkov class (project 22350) frigates is expected to enter sea trials in late 2013. Two others are under construction, with a fourth to be laid down later this year. Two more ships of this class have been ordered, with hopes of completion by 2020. MDB reports that the project is facing serious delays with its primary Poliment-Redut SAM weapon system, which is being developed by Almaz-Antey (a company that has had many problems successfully completing the development of new weapons systems in recent years). The second type of frigate (project 11356R) is essentially the Talwar class previously built for the Indian Navy. This is an updated version of the Soviet Krivak class. Russian defense industry is much better at building updated versions of tried and tested designs than at building something completely new. It’s therefore not surprising that construction on these ships is proceeding quite quickly, with three ships already under construction and another to be laid down this year. The first ship of this class, the Admiral Grigorovich is expected to be launched this summer and to enter service in 2014.

The navy is also receiving some smaller combat ships. Construction on various versions of the Steregushchiy class (projects 20380 and 20385) of corvettes continues, with two in service, one in sea trials, one expected to begin sea trials later this year, three under construction and another to be laid down in July. Severnaya Verf is building these ships in about three years, while Amur shipyard is taking much longer. Various sources indicate that contracts have been signed to build another 10 of these corvettes, which would bring the total number in service to 18 by the time the program is complete.

Several types of ships are being built expressly for the Caspian Flotilla. The Dagestan missile ship, equipped with Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles, was commissioned into the Caspian Flotilla in November 2012. No further ships of this type are planned, however. Two Buyan-class (project 21630) small artillery ships were commissioned into the flotilla in 2012. An updated version of this class (project 21631), to be armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, has been ordered. Five ships are now under construction with an estimated completion date of 2015. A contract for three more of these ships was signed in January 2013. The Caspian Flotilla is also expected to receive three Serna class (project 11770) high speed air-cavity landing craft this year, built according to an existing late Soviet design.

Finally, the navy is building a number of specialized surface ships, including the Admiral Gren (project 11711) large tank landing ship, which has been under construction since 2004 and was finally launched in May 2012. Completion will be no earlier than 2014 and initial plans to build another 4-5 of these ships have been shelved. Four Dyugon class (project 21820) high speed amphibious landing craft are also under construction, though Boltenkov reports that problems with the design mean that no more ships of this type will be built once these four are completed. The first ship of the Aleksandrit class of minesweepers (project 12700) is under construction as well, with three more expected to be built in the near future. Two Grachonok class (project 21980) anti-sabotage boats were commissioned in 2012, with two more expected to be completed by the end of 2013 and another four currently under construction. A total of about 20 are expected to built in the next few years.

 

The Russian Navy’s role in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the  Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.

The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these.  The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.

Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).

The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.

 

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.

Russian warships head off on exercise, not to prop up Assad

The Russian Navy recently announced that it is sending a number of warships to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these ships are expected to stop in Tartus, the Russian refueling facility in Syria, and several of the ships are carrying naval infantry. This deployment has obviously raised concern in the West, much as a previous (false) report of Russian marines being sent to Syria did. The New York Times and Forbes.com’s Mark Adomanis both provide a lot of useful information without excessive hype, but I’m not sure either has the whole context. So let me spell out exactly what the deployment involves and provide some of that context.

This is far from the first time in recent years that Russia has sent ships to the Med. What’s more, when Russian ships go to the Med, either for exercises or in transit, they virtually always stop at Tartus. So there’s no cause for alarm there. The Times is right in noting that this current deployment is much larger than previous ones, but (as Ilya Kramnik notes) the West is just going to have to get used to the return of Russian naval presence in the Med and elsewhere.

So what exactly is included in this deployment? From the Northern Fleet, we have the Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and three Ropucha class large amphibious ships (Kondopoga, Georgii Pobedonosets and Aleksandr Otrakovskii). From the Baltic Fleet, there is the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudry. Once they reach the Med, they will be joined by several ships from the Black Sea Fleet, including the ancient but eminently seaworthy Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi and two more LSTs: the Alligator-class Nikolai Filchenkov and the Ropucha-class Tsezar Kunikov. These ships are being supported by a total of three tugboats and two oilers. Furthermore, they may be joined for part of the journey by the Black Sea Fleet’s Neustrashimyy frigate, on its way to participate in the regular counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

(One note — Mark Adomanis argues that the ships will not arrive in Tartus for several months. This is clearly an error, as the Russian reporting on the deployment indicates that the ships will return to their home ports by early October. I would guess that it will take a couple of weeks for the ships from the Northern Fleet to get to the Med, with the exact timing depending on whether they do any exercises along the way or head directly for Tartus. Smetlivy is supposed to be in Tartus by early next week.)

So that’s a total of eight warships, which more or less matches some of the past big exercises Russia has done in the Med in recent years. The main difference is that this set of exercises seems to be aimed at amphibious landings, given the large number of LSTs and the lack of the really big combat ships such as the Moskva or Peter the Great cruisers that often go on these exercises. This is undoubtedly a signal to various parties that Russia continues to view the region as a strategic priority and will continue to seek to play a role in the Med regardless of its specific position on supporting Bashar al-Assad at any particular moment.

But at the same time, we should keep in mind that although there is a political aspect to this, it is primarily a regular large-scale naval exercise, of the type that Russia has conducted just about every year since 2007 or so. So there’s no reason to read more into this than there is there. These troops will not be used to prop up the Assad regime. They could be used to protect Tartus if necessary, but I think that is highly unlikely, in part because Tartus does not have the facilities to house them for any length of time. Furthermore, as Mark Katz recently pointed out, their presence at Tartus would make the base a more inviting target for anti-regime forces in Syria. They definitely could be used to help evacuate Russian citizens from Syria, should that become necessary. And having LSTs around may be helpful in an evacuation even beyond the troops, as the evacuees could be housed temporarily on the ships.

A New Push for Nuclear Submarine Development

The following is an Oxford Analytica brief from early December 2011. Some of the material has been overtaken by events, but I decided it was still worth posting. One of these days, I will write up an update on naval procurement plans, but it will take some time, so this will have to do in the interim.

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Russia’s fleet of nuclear submarines may be about to get an overhaul. Until recently, the State Armaments Programme’s plan for eight new Borey-class and six Yasen-class submarines by 2020 looked highly dubious. However, the Defence Ministry last month signed a series of contracts with design bureaus – in the presence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with full media coverage – suggesting that submarine modernization will proceed as quickly as possible.

What next

The conclusion of these contracts by no means guarantees that the plans will be fulfilled in the next eight years. While serial production is always faster than the building of the first ship in a class, given the state of Russian shipyards, it will probably still take a minimum of two to three years to construct each vessel. The makeover of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet is a strategic priority – but it may take significantly longer than a decade to realize.

Analysis

The deals were reportedly worth more than 280 billion rubles (9.2 billion dollars), including contracts for:

  • design of the modernized Yasen-class submarine by the Malakhit design bureau (13.4 billion rubles);
  • construction of the first modernized Yasen-class submarine, theKazan, by Sevmash (47 billion rubles);
  • construction of four additional Yasen-class submarines by United Shipbuilding Corporation’s (OSK)Severodvinskshipyard (164 billion rubles);
  • design of the modernized Borey-class submarine by the Rubin design bureau (39 billion rubles).

In addition, the Defense Ministry leaked information that a contract to build five more Borey-class submarines will be signed next year at a likely cost of 23 billion rubles per unit.

These deals represent the last unsigned contracts of the 2011 military procurement plan. They were held up for several months because of a row between the federal authorities and the defense industry – primarily OSK – over pricing. The Defence Ministry refused to accept price increases requested by OSK, because the requests did not spell out all aspects of the contract’s cost, as required by new regulations put in place this year. In the end, OSK agreed to lower prices in exchange for the right to choose its own subcontractors; in the past, the choice of subcontractors was dictated by the Defense Ministry.

Russia’s strategic submarines

The maritime ‘leg’ of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad currently consists of a combination of Delta III and Delta IV ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs):

  • Northern Fleet. The Navy operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four have already been upgraded to carry Sineva missiles. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2012 and 2013. The expectation is that these subs, built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve into 2020-25.
  • Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Fleet has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry SS-N-18 missiles. They will probably be withdrawn from service as the new Borey-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn by 2010, but persistent problems with the Bulava missile have pushed the timetable forward.

Borey class’s troubled history

The Borey class has a long and complicated history. Work on the first sub of this class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, began in 1996. Because of a series of redesigns involving both the submarine and its armament, it was not launched until 2008. Borey-class submarines have a displacement of 24,000 tons, a top speed of 29 knots, and can dive to a depth of 450 meters.

Construction of the second submarine (the Aleksandr Nevsky) began in 2004, and it was finally launched in 2010. The Pacific Fleet expects to deploy both Borey submarines next year, if all goes well in sea trials. A variety of problems with the Aleksandr Nevsky detected during initial testing have reportedly been fixed, though officers report continuing issues with the reliability of digital control systems. The Boreys are the first Russian submarines to be equipped with digital (rather than analog) control systems, and evidently not all the bugs have been worked out.

A third submarine is under construction and may be launched next year. The five vessels expected to be ordered next year will have a modified design that will likely include 20 launch tubes (up from 16). If they are completed on schedule, the Russian navy will have its eight new SSBNs in place well before 2020, allowing for the retirement of the Delta IIIs and most, if not all, of the Delta IVs.

Bulava delays

The main potential roadblock is the checkered history of the Bulava ballistic missile. Three consecutive failed test launches in 2008-09 led to the removal of the director of the missile’s lead design bureau. It appears that the problems were related to quality control in the production cycle, rather than any defects in the missile’s design. Since the production cycle was improved in 2009, the last five tests have been successful, including one that achieved the maximum range of 9,300 kilometers.

A test firing of two missiles simultaneously was planned for November or December, but this has just been postponed to May 2012. While the official reason had to do with poor weather in the Barents Sea, the real cause was probably the desire to avoid any chance of failure so close to the December 4 parliamentary elections. While success cannot be guaranteed, the missile’s recent track record means that commissioning by the end of 2012 is highly likely.

Why Yasen submarines

The Yasen class may be the world’s most sophisticated nuclear submarine, capable of 31 knots, equipped with eight torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 30 cruise missiles simultaneously. The Yasen is a multi-purpose attack submarine originally designed during the Cold War to hunt NATO aircraft carriers, protect strategic submarines, and fire cruise missiles at onshore targets. This class is expected eventually to replace all existing classes of Soviet-era attack submarines (Oscar, Akula, Victor, and Sierra). The Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen class, could be commissioned this winter.

The Yasens are highly capable but also extremely expensive, with a unit cost of over 40 billion rubles. With the end of the Cold War, their purpose is unclear – especially given the extremely low likelihood that Russia could commission enough to threaten the US Navy. At the same time, the submarine is more powerful than needed to fight against any other potential adversary, including China. The Pentagon canceled the comparable Sea Wolf because of similar cost-benefit calculations, replacing it with the much cheaper Virginia class.

Impact

  • Fear of a missile-test-launch failure so close to the elections will delay the Borey-class’s deployment until mid-2012.
  • Russia appears committed to developing the new Yasen-class despite dubious cost-benefit calculations.
  • Fiscal strains – notable, a sharp and sustained fall in oil prices – would cast doubt on the entire naval procurement plan.

 

 

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.

    Ten Years of BlackSeaFor: A Partial Assessment

    This spring marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of BlackSeaFor, which was set up back in 2001 in order to enhance peace and stability in the Black Sea region, improve relations among the Black Sea littoral states and increase regional cooperation. To further this mission, BlackSeaFor conducts biannual naval exercises that include ships from all six of the Black Sea littoral states (Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria). The tasks performed during these exercises have varied over the years, but usually include some combination of search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, mine counter measures, CBRN defense and peace support operations. The concrete goal of the exercises is to promote naval interoperability among the participating countries. Continue reading