Update on the Navy

Before I started writing on Russian military reform, I used to cover the Russian Navy. There have been a few new developments in the last couple of weeks, so I thought I’d briefly mention them here, just for the record.

1) The on-again, off-again move of the navy’s headquarters to the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg has been suspended. For the moment, the Admiralty will house a backup control center (in case Moscow is conquered???).

2) China is copying the design of the Varyag aircraft carrier (similar to the Admiral Kuznetsov) as it begins a program to build its own carriers. The 75 percent completed Varyag was sold several years ago, ostensibly for the purpose of serving as a casino in Macao.  Instead, it is been used to reverse engineer a Chinese aircraft carrier. If China succeeds in develop such a craft (something that is still highly doubtful), it will certainly carry copies of Su-33 naval aircraft, since China has procured a prototype plane of this type from Ukraine.

3) The purchase of a French helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship seems to be moving forward. The Mistral itself will visit St. Petersburg in the near future. The goal continues to be to buy one actual ship and then to license the production of four more in St. Petersburg or Severodvinsk.

According to Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the first deputy chief of staff of the navy, the ships would be based in the Northern or Pacific Fleets (not the Black Sea Fleet, as recently claimed by Jacob Kipp). They would be used for amphibious landing operations, for peacekeeping and rescue operations, and to fight pirates (where their helicopters would come in handy).

There is some skepticism in the media about whether the Russian-built ships will be completed in a reasonable period of time (i.e. less than 10 years per ship), how they will be supported in terms of ASW and AAW, and whether the promised modernization of the potential forward base in Tartus will materialize. Russian analysts are also questioning whether the navy will be able to afford the ship’s cost, estimated at 400-500 million euros per ship.

4) Alexander Khramchikhin, for one, blames the Bulava for the inevitably coming demise of the Russian Navy. The article is worth quoting at length:

[The Bulava’s] effectiveness has turned out to be simply amazing. The missile has not entered serial production, and never will, but it has already destroyed the Russian Navy. Almost all the money allocated to the Navy’s development have been spent on this mindless dead-end program.

Any person who can see the real situation well understands that in a few years the Russian Navy as a whole, as well as all four of its component fleets, will cease to exist. This is already absolutely inevitable — the situation will not be changed even by mass purchases of ships from abroad.

In light of this, it is especially amusing to observe the fierce “battle for Sevastopol.” Why do we need it after 2017? To pay Kiev enormous sums to rent empty piers? By that time, at best the Novorossiisk naval brigade will be all that’s left of the Black Sea Fleet. And the discussion of whether we need a blue-water navy or a coastal one is a complete farce. We won’t even have a coastal force — the maximum that our “navy” will be able to accomplish in ten years is the immediate defense of a few main naval bases. Because we built the Bulava.

While I wouldn’t blame all of the navy’s problems on the Bulava, Khramchikhin is exactly right in his analysis of the future trajectory of the Russian Navy. Despite relatively generous financing over the last few years, its shipbuilders have shown time and again that they are incapable of producing ships in a timely manner. All of the navy’s shipbuilding projects have been repeatedly delayed. As the existing ships approach (and in many cases pass) the end of their expected lifespan, there are few replacements in the works.

In any case, there is little if any cause to fear that the Russian Navy is making progress in its oceanic ambitions, whether or not it still has any. Instead, we should be thinking of it as living out the last years of the leftover glory of its Soviet years. In another 10 years, its major ocean-going ships will be gone, with nothing but a few corvettes and a couple of French LSTs to replace them.