The Future of the Russian Navy Part 1: Large Combat Ships

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to review the likely contours of the Russian Navy’s future force structure. It seems that the increase in financing for the new state armaments program from 13 to 20 trillion rubles will primarily benefit the navy. This will allow the military to carry out a fairly ambitious naval procurement program, beyond the strategic submarine force that has remained a priority for the military, and would have been funded no matter what.

In one of his recent articles, Ilya Kramnik pointed out that the small number of Russian combat ships belong to a relatively large number of classes. These include one type of aircraft carrier, two types of cruisers, four types of destroyers, three types of frigates and at least six types of corvette.  Not counting the corvettes, there are only 31 operational ships spread across the 10 classes. These ships are equipped with four types of anti-ship, two types of ASW and five types of AAW weapons systems. Each type has its own fire control system, as well. Needless to say, this diversity of platforms and equipment makes maintenance much more complicated than in other navies.

Given the expense of building large combat ships and their relative longevity, the Russian Navy will be stuck with many of these legacy platforms for at least the next decade. However, given recent announcements about future shipbuilding plans, we can begin to develop a picture of what the Russian Navy will look like ten years from now, when many of these older ships will begin to be retired as new ships are commissioned.

Aircraft Carriers

First of all, it appears that the Russian navy has, after many decades of hesitation and lack of funding, decided to build a true aircraft carrier. The Admiral Kuznetsov, the navy’s one existing aircraft carrier, is actually officially considered a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” Its aircraft are limited to air superiority, ASW and SAR operations. The ship was built in the late 1980s and, with an expected modernization, could last for another 20-30 years if properly maintained.

This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year.  While designs for the future carrier have not yet been made public, initial speculation centers on a model similar to the British Queen Elizabeth class carriers currently under construction. These ships would have a displacement of around 50-60,000 tons and would carry 50-60 aircraft, including both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Plans call for one CV to be built by 2020, with construction to start by 2015. It is unclear whether the financing for this construction will come from the State Armaments Program or from a separate state financing program outside the regular State Defense Order system. In reality, the likelihood that Russian shipbuilders could build an aircraft carrier in five years is virtually nil. It currently takes Russian factories that long to build a frigate, and the complications of building a type of ship never before built in Russia will likely lead to at least a doubling of the planned construction time. Furthermore, Russia currently does not have any dry docks large enough enough to build such a ship, as the Admiral Kuznetsov and its predecessors were all built in Ukraine. For these reasons, even if adequate financing is available, it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a new functioning aircraft carrier by 2020. A target date of 2025 or even 2030 is far more realistic.


At the moment, the Russian Navy operates five cruisers — the Peter the Great Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser, three Slava-class cruisers and the Kerch, the last remaining Kara-class cruiser, which is likely to be decommissioned sometime in the next year. The Peter the Great, commissioned in 1998, is the only nuclear-powered surface ship currently in active service in the Russian Navy. It serves as the flagship of the Northern Fleet and has recently engaged in several lengthy deployments. The three Slava-class cruisers, designed as surface strike ships with an anti-aircraft and ASW capability, are equipped with Bazalt cruise missiles. They were commissioned in the 1980s and are likely to remain in service for several more decades, especially with a likely modernization.

The Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov and Slava class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization, with the goal of returning it to the fleet in 2012. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) will also be modernized prior to 2020. The Kirov itself could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance.

The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov (or Ukraina) Slava-class cruiser. This ship was launched back in 1990, but has been in dock in Ukraine since then, lacking only some weapons systems and equipment. After the election of Viktor Yanukovich to the Ukrainian presidency last year, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to complete this ship together. Because of its long period of disuse, much of the ship’s equipment will have to be replaced with more modern variants. The modernization will likely include the installation of a modern C2 system, a multipurpose shipboard fire-control system and sonar equipment, as well as new missile systems. If this project succeeds, the three active Slava class cruisers in the Russian Navy are likely to undergo a similar modernization over the next 10 years.

If the planned cruiser modernization takes place as planned, by 2020 the Russian Navy will have 7-8 well-armed cruisers with relatively modern weapons and C2 systems. These ships could serve as the core of the fleet’s force capability for the following 20 years.


The Russian Navy currently operates three types of destroyers, the Kashin, Sovremennyi and Udaloy classes. The one remaining Kashin-class destroyer is based in the Black Sea Fleet. Though it has deployed relatively frequently in the post-Soviet period, it has been in service since 1969 and will almost certainly have to be retired in the near future.

The Sovremennyi-class destroyers, despite being much newer, must be considered a failure. Almost all of the ships of this class have had engine problems at one time or another and the five currently in active service in the fleet almost never deploy. It seems inevitable that these ships will be written off as soon as an adequate replacement can be built, if not before then.

The Udaloy-class ships have been much more successful and have over the last decade served as the mainstay of the Russian fleet for various missions ranging from recent anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to various exercises with other navies around the world. Eight of these ships are currently in service in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with one more in reserve. They were built primarily in the 1980s, though the Admiral Chabanenko is an improved version that was commissioned in 1999. These ships will remain in service well into the 2020s, if not beyond.

Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000 ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. According to Kramnik, it is likely to be armed with Club-U cruise missiles, 130-152mm artillery, an air defense weapon system (possibly the Kashtan), and 1-2 helicopters. Each of these ships would be as powerful as 2-3 Sovremennyis.  The hope is to build 10-12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than 2-3 could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.

I’ll continue this next week with smaller combat ships and amphibs…

7 thoughts on “The Future of the Russian Navy Part 1: Large Combat Ships

  1. The Admiralty Yard in St Petersburg built the MIKHAIL ULIANOV and the KIRILL LAVROV this year, icebreaking Arctic tankers at 70,000 DWT apiece.

    As recently as the early 80’s the Zhdanov yard, also in St Petersburg, was building the SOVREMENNY class at the rate of one a year. Both the tonnage and the completion date for a carrier are possible, although I agree unlikely (in the case of completion in 5 years).

    What slows down production now as much as any other factor is the construction of multipurpose surface combatants, principally frigates and destroyers. Units like SOVREMENNY and her ASW counterpart, UDALOY, were straightforward single-purpose ships. An aircraft carrier, although huge, is a fairly straightforward single-purpose ship – it’s just a matter of scale. However, if the deal goes through to buy the MISTRAL design from the French, all the heavy-capacity yards will probably be occupied with construction.

  2. Mark,

    I hadn’t been tracking the icebreakers. Is it possible that it’s not the tonnage but the length of a potential aircraft carrier that is at issue? I must admit I haven’t studied this in depth myself, but I’ve read a number of reports from fairly reliable people in both the US and Russia who all say that Russia doesn’t have a dry dock that would work for building a carrier.

    The delays haven’t been limited to just multi-purpose ships. The Ivan Gren is a very straightforward landing ship, and it’s been 6 years since they started working on it with no end in sight. They’ve also had problems with the corvettes and the new diesel subs. Basically, the first (and often the second) of any new ship class takes forever to get built. They just don’t have the equipment or know-how they used to.

    BTW, the Sovremennyi ships, as straightforward as they might have been, never worked right. They all had power plant problems, which is why most have been retired and the ones still in the fleet basically never deploy.

    My friend Hank Gaffney tells a story of talking to a Russian admiral at a Russian navy base as a Sovremennyi came into port belching black smoke. The admiral turned to Hank and said, “That’s why we’re not building any more of those.”

    Finally, the Mistral ships would only occupy one shipyard — most likely one of the two owned by Mezhprombank: Baltiiskii Zavad or Severnaia Verf. Even if they build two at the same time, that would still leave at least two other major shipyards just in Russia’s northwest free to build other ships.

  3. Hello, Dmitry! The KIROV class were built in the Ordzhonikidze yard in St Petersburg, and they topped out at just under 630 feet long. A true carrier might be considerably longer than that (The KIEV’s were not really a carrier in the western sense, and the Russian navy didn’t classify them as carriers so as to simplify their passage through restricted waterways where carriers by classification are not permitted), but at the tonnage they’re talking, probably not much. The KIROVs were built in drydocks and towed to Vladivostok for completion and final fitting out. There’s no reason a carrier could not be built in modules and assembled elsewhere. I’d think this would be an important national project for Russia, and that they’d want to do it all domestically.

    It’s funny how some ships seem cursed. KIROV herself had no end of problems, but the second unit (FRUNZE) sailed away from the jetty and never looked back. The SOVREMENNY’s did have serious engineering limitations, and I believe the building program was cut considerably shorter than intended. But by straightforward, I meant she was designed for a single role only (AAW), and was thus easier to build quickly than a multirole destroyer like the ARLEIGH BURKE.

  4. Pingback: The Future of the Russian Navy Part 4: Summary and Conclusions « Russian Military Reform

  5. russian carrier sitting in dockside north of murmansk , estimate 1000 ft lenght
    google maps.
    if no carrier in russian navy whats this relic

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