Why was the S-300 canceled?

The recent decree signed by President Medvedev canceling the sale of the S-300 surface to air missiles has raised some questions about decision-making in the Russian government about arms exports. Analysts who spend their time looking for tensions in the Russian “tandemocracy” have suggested that this decision is a sign that President Medvedev was able to get his way on this issue against the wishes of Prime Minister Putin. Other interpretations indicated that Iranian behavior in recent years or months led Putin to change his mind on the sale, which he supported since the initial decision was made several years ago. In this interpretation, in signing the decree Medvedev was simply doing what he was told by his “superior.”

I don’t think these are the only two options. I have always been skeptical of interpretations that depend on finding disagreements between Medvedev and Putin. At the same time, I don’t think Medvedev is Putin’s puppet. My interpretation of the Russian top leadership is that decisions are made largely by consensus among the 4-5 top people, with Putin acting as first among equals and in some ways the arbitrator/final decision-maker. This was true when he was president and hasn’t changed much in the current environment. In this light, Putin doesn’t have to have completely changed his mind, nor did he get rolled by Medvedev. Perhaps his view became less strong and the views of enough other players changed that the consensus moved in a different direction. Obviously I don’t have evidence that this is how decisions are made in the Kremlin right now, but there is some reasonable evidence that this is how it was done back in 2007. I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that much has changed.

As far as the specifics of the S-300 decision, I don’t think the Russian leaders were ever all that strongly committed to selling the S-300 to Iran. I think that to some extent, it was always partially a bargaining chip that was used against the U.S. in moments when relations were problematic. So from that point of view, it’s possible that Putin didn’t change his mind at all, but the circumstances changed sufficiently that the balance between Russia’s bilateral relationships with the U.S. and Iran changed sufficiently that it became worthwhile to publicly shift positions on this sale. This would mean that U.S. policies toward Russia were bearing fruit.

This interpretation is supported by the breadth of the presidential decree, which prohibits the sale of virtually all military technology to Iran. Russian analysts estimate the total cost to Russian arms exporters of leaving the Iranian market to be around 11-13 billion dollars, of which the S-300 sale was just 800 million. If Russia just wanted to make a gesture toward the U.S., it would have been sufficient to ban the sale of the missiles while leaving other military cooperation intact. The fact that all military sales were banned implies that this is more than a gesture — it implies that Russian leaders have decided that they need to have much better relations with the United States and also with Israel. One possibility is that they hope that this change in policy will remove any remaining roadblocks to the Russian purchase of sensitive military technologies from the West. The Mistral deal is undoubtedly part of this calculus, but so is the purchase of more advanced UAVs from Israel.

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The Future of the Russian Navy Part 4: Summary and Conclusions

Over the last few weeks, I’ve reviewed the Russian Navy’s plans for building new ships and submarines over the next decade. Based on these plans, together with an assessment of how realistic they are, we can develop a picture of what the Russian Navy is likely to look like in 2020.

Ten years from now, Russia is likely to have a Navy that is focused primarily on coastal missions, though with some out of area capability and maintaining the submarine component of its strategic deterrent. The core of the surface fleet will consist of frigates and corvettes, including a significant number of new ships of the Admiral Gorshkov, Krivak IV and Steregushchii classes. More distant deployments will be carried out by the aging Udaloy destroyers and a few modernized Kirov and Slava class cruisers, though the Navy will be desperately working to replace these larger ships as they reach the end of their lives. They will be joined by foreign-designed Mistral (or similar) class amphibious assault ships, which will be used as command and control platforms for out of area operations. The navy will also be working on building a new aircraft carrier, but the project is unlikely to be anywhere near completion by 2020. Its existing Admiral Kuznetsov carrier will still be in the fleet, but will be spending more time getting repaired than actually sailing.

The submarine fleet will be centered on the Borei and Delta IV SSBNs, which will retain the fleet’s strategic deterrence mission. This mission will be considered even more critical by the navy’s leadership, as these submarines will be the only ships still controlled directly by Navy HQ, rather than one of the four operational commands. There will also be a renewed fleet of diesel submarines, consisting of a mix of improved Kilos and Ladas. The navy will still face significant problems with its SSN fleet, as the remaining Akulas and Oscars begin to approach retirement age without a sufficient number of Severodvinsk-class submarines built to replace them. A new small and cheap SSN, along the lines of the US Virginia class, will be in production, but not yet in the fleet (at best, one or two might be completed by 2020, but I don’t think it’s very likely given there isn’t even a design in place as of now).

The Northern and Pacific Fleets will continue to be the most important fleets of the navy. They will have the largest ships, including most likely the Mistrals and most of the modernized cruisers. At the same time, the Black Sea Fleet will be in some ways the most important fleet for operations, as it is the closest to the unstable Caucasus region. It will be re-equipped with new frigates and diesel submarines, as well as new amphibious ships (though most likely Ivan Gren class, rather than Mistral). The Caspian Flotilla may become more important over time as well, playing a potentially significant role as a counter to potential Iranian moves to control the southern part of the sea. To this end, it will likely receive at least a couple more corvettes.

Overall, the Russian Navy will be in somewhat better shape ten years from now than it is now. It will have fewer ship types, allowing for easier maintenance, and a number of new ships of classes that are now nearing completion will be in the fleet. At the same time, it will be more focused on coastal defense missions, with a high proportion of smaller ships and submarines not designed for distant cruises. Any potential return of a powerful blue water capability will take an additional 10-20 years to achieve.

The Future of the Russian Navy Part 3: Submarines

Strategic Submarines

The future of Russia’s sea-based strategic deterrent force revolves around the Borei-class submarines, eight of which are planned to be built by 2017. The first was completed in 2008 and is currently undergoing sea trials. Another three are already under construction. While the submarines themselves seem to be in good shape, the project is currently mired in uncertainty because of continuing failures in testing of the Bulava SLBM with which they are to be equipped. The Bulava is the first solid-fuel SLBM to be used in Russian/Soviet submarines. The Bulava is the first SLBM used in Russian/Soviet submarines that was designed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology (MITT), rather than the Makeyev Design Bureau.

The Bulava test missiles are being launched from the Dmitry Donskoy, the last of the Typhoon SSBNs, built in the late 1970s and modified a few years ago to launch the Bulava. Two other Typhoons are currently listed as inactive and may be modified in the future to carry conventional cruise missiles instead of SLBMs.

The Russian Navy currently operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four of the subs have already been upgraded to carry Sineva SLBMs. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The expectation is that these subs, which were all built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve through 2020-25.

The Pacific Fleet currently has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry the SS-N-18 SLBM. They are expected to be withdrawn from service in the near future, as the new Borei-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn already by 2010, but problems with the Bulava have so far prevented the Borei submarines from replacing the Delta IIIs.

Assuming that the Bulava’s problems are resolved, 10-15 years from now, we are likely to see Russia maintaining a fleet of 12 SSBNs, most likely including 6-8 Boreis  and 4-6 Delta IVs.

Multi-purpose Nuclear Submarines

The Russian Navy currently operates several kinds of multi-purpose submarines. The largest are the Oscar II class cruise missile submarines, built mostly in the 1980s and armed with P-700 Granit cruise missiles. Eight of these submarines are available to the navy, though at least three are currently in reserve or being repaired. As currently configured, their sole real purpose is to hunt down US carrier groups, though this is made difficult in practice by their large size and noisiness, characteristics that make them relatively easy to spot. In the future, they could be equipped with newer cruise missiles to expand their range of missions. Two more Oscar IIs were never completed but could be finished in the future, though it seems to me that this would not be a wise expenditure of limited procurement resources.

The Akula is the main type of attack submarine currently in the Russian Navy. There are eight in active service, mostly in the Northern Fleet, though several more are being held in reserve. The older boats in this class are likely to be retired over the next decade. In addition, the Navy still operates four Victor III attack submarines and three Sierra I and II attack submarines. All of these are likely to be retired in the near future as well.

The only replacement for these submarines, at the moment, is the Severdvinsk class, a modification of the Akula class that is considered by some experts to be the most sophisticated nuclear submarine in the world, able to travel at 33 knots, armed with 8 torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 24 cruise missiles simultaneously. They are similar in some ways to the American Sea Wolf submarine. At the same time, these submarines are very expensive and some analysts doubt the need for building too many of them given that the Sea Wolf program was canceled after only three were built. For the moment, one submarine of this class has been launched and another is under construction. Navy officials have stated that they hope to start building one of these a year starting in 2011, but this seems highly unlikely given the financial constraints and technological limitations of Russian submarine building.

It seems that this is the most problematic category for the Russian Navy’s submarine fleet. Ten years from now, the navy is likely to have at its disposal around 4 Oscar IIs, 4-5 Akulas, and no more than 3 Severdvinsk submarines. And the remaining Oscars and Akulas will have to be retired by 2025-2030. Given these numbers, what the navy desperately needs is a relatively basic, cheap, and easy to build attack submarine along the lines of the American Virginia class. While there are rumors that various bureaus are working on designs for such a submarine, there has been no official word on this process.

Diesel Submarines

The Russian Navy currently operates 12-15 Kilo class diesel-electric submarines, most of which were built in the 1980s. Several additional submarines are in reserve and a couple are under repair and will likely return to operational status. These are extremely quiet submarines, intended for anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations in shallow waters. They are armed with torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles.

The successor to the Kilo is the Lada, the first of which (the St. Petersburg) was launched in 2005 but not commissioned until May 2010. Despite being listed in active service,  the St. Petersburg continues to experience problems with its propulsion systems, which had been the cause of the delays in completing the sub’s sea trials. In the meantime, two other submarines of this class are under construction, though their completion is likely to be delayed until the problems with the St. Petersburg are resolved. The Russian navy hopes to build a total of eight Ladas by 2020, and more thereafter.

Because of the urgent need for new diesel submarines in the Black Sea Fleet and the continuing problems with the Lada, in August 2010 the navy announced that it will build three improved Kilos (of a type previously built only for export) for the Black Sea Fleet. Construction of the first submarine has already begun and all three are expected to be completed by 2014. These are realistic timelines, given the speed with which these submarines have been built for the Chinese and Algerian navies.

Later this week, I’ll have a summary and analysis of what I think the RFN will look like in 10 years based on all the available information.

Will the Navy HQ move to St. Petersburg?

In the last few days, a number of reports in the Russian press stated that the Navy HQ’s move to St. Petersburg was off. The reports were based on an official statement by Vice-Admiral Burtsev, the First Deputy Chief of the Navy Main Staff, that the HQ would stay in Moscow. He further said that the decision to stay in Moscow was made a year ago.

The last part of the statement makes no sense — last February, General Makarov said that the move would take place and preparations for it were continuing as late as this spring. But now, sources were saying that the Main Staff would move, but somewhere else in Moscow rather than to St. Petersburg. The two most likely locations mentioned were either the General Staff building on Znamenka or the Frunze Military academy. The Admiralty in St. Petersburg would just house a representative office of the navy.

But just a couple of days later, the Ministry of Defense stated that the move would still occur. Kommersant, in fact, quoted the same Vice-Admiral Burtsev as saying that the decision to move the naval headquarters had never been rescinded, though it would not be possible to complete the process by the end of 2010, as originally envisioned.

It seems to me, that these dueling statements and press reports are a sign that the battle over the move is still continuing. It is common knowledge that top naval officials are strongly opposed to the move and have been fighting it since it was first proposed several years ago. Clearly, they have not given up and are continuing to create delays while feeding information to the press designed to discredit the move. Since the move would greatly damage the navy’s position in the corridors of power (it’s much harder to influence decision-making when top officials have to travel hundreds of kilometers for meetings), I imagine this process will continue until the last minute (or until the move is actually called off, which is certainly still a possibility).

A comment on Russian regime stability

The excellent Power Vertical blog has an entry today about parallels between current protests in Russia and the early perestroika period. Brian Whitmore implies that given these parallels, there is likely to be a significant increase in popular protest in Russia in the near future.

I am sympathetic to Brian’s analysis, but we should remember one crucial factor that allowed the early perestroika activism to turn into something more — the willingness of the authorities to allow it to develop and to grow. I’m pessimistic about the current authorities’ willingness to do the same. More likely, any efforts to expand protests will be met with force by the government.

Perestroika was only in part a popular protest movement. Popular protest developed and grew because Gorbachev wanted to use it to break the back of the conservative CPSU bureaucracy. I see no parallels in the current environment to this aspect of perestroika, and therefore it seems to me that protest will remain relatively small scale for the foreseeable future and will not threaten the Putin/Medvedev regime.