A threat-based vision for developing the Russian navy

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Mikhail Barabanov has an article entitled “A New Fleet for Russia — An Independent Vision” (gated). Barabanov is the editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, a very useful and highly respected publication in English on the Russian military. The article spells out a vision of a future Russian navy based on a set of three principal military threats facing Russia in the foreseeable future. These threats are:

  • Conflicts with neighboring post-Soviet republics, “the majority of which perceive the Russian Federation as the main threat to their sovereignty and are interested in weakening in any possible way both Russian influence on their territory and the Russian Federation as a state in general.”
  • Conflict with the United States and the Western Bloc that it heads. “Inasmuch as the goal of the United States is unconditional world dominance, the United States inevitably automatically views Russia as the only (together with the People’s Republic of China) potential competition to its domination and as a hostile force; the weakening and possibly complete liquidation of Russia is a natural mission of American policy.” Conflict with the US is most likely to emerge as the result of US interference in a conflict on Russia’s borders.
  • Conflicts with non-Western states, especially China. Barabanov argues that this threat is presently of minimal importance because of overlapping interests between Russia and these states.

Based on this set of threats and his assessment of their relative likelihood, Barabanov argues that the Western theater of military operations will be the most critical for Russia and the Baltic and Black Sea fleets the most important fleets because of their role on the flanks of this theater.

On the other hand, the significance of the Northern and especially the Pacific fleet for Russian security will be much reduced. The northern theater of operations is important only because it is the main base of Russia’s naval strategic forces and because it provides for open access to the Atlantic. The Far East is sparsely populated and therefore strategically unimportant in the event of a US-Russia conflict. Given limited resources, Barabanov argues that Russia should give up on maintaining an ocean fleet there, limiting itself to a minimal force designed for coastal defense and ‘show the flag’ operations. He further argues that the Caspian Flotilla is useless because of the weakness of the other littoral states’ naval forces and the absence of any real combat missions for this force.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I find this analysis completely off the mark. By all accounts (including those of the majority of Russian analysts) Russian leaders now firmly believe that they do not face any threat from NATO or the United States. As I have written before, the likeliest source of threats to Russia in the near term is from the south. In the longer term, Russian military planners would do well to be prepared to face China, even though the likelihood of military conflict is actually quite small. Given this set of threats, the most important fleets for Russia are the Pacific and Black Sea Fleets, as well as the Caspian Flotilla, while the Baltic Fleet is largely irrelevant and the Northern Fleet is good for exactly the purposes mentioned by Barabanov (our one area of agreement here). While we both agree that the Black Sea Fleet is important, we disagree on its likely role, with Barabanov discussing its potential supporting role in a Cold War style NATO-Russia conflict while I believe that it could play a role in dealing with potential future conflicts in the Caucasus.

Given our disagreement on threat assessment, I found myself surprised to be more or less in agreement with the second half of the article, which derived force structure from the threat assessment.

Barabanov argues that each fleet other than the Northern should have six diesel submarines, which would allow for a rotation of two subs staying out at sea to control the straits that provide access to these theaters. While I see no point in having so many submarines in the Baltic Fleet, that’s a number that probably makes sense for the Black Sea and the Pacific. Each fleet should also have 3 Gorshkov-class frigates and 8-10 multi-purpose corvettes. The corvettes should be of a new type, that is high-speed, equipped with a helicopter, and able to employ a wide range of armaments. The Steregushchiy class does not satisfy any of these requirements and will have to be replaced. In addition, each fleet should have 6-8 modern minesweepers, and significant amphibious assault forces (6 large ships and 30-40 small fast assault launches).

This set of requirements produces a total coastal force of 18 diesel subs, 12 frigates, 36 corvettes, around 30 minesweepers, 24 large assault ships, and 160 small assault launches. I would reduce the forces in the Baltic fleet somewhat, perhaps in favor of boosting the Pacific fleet, and I would add a couple of small corvettes, missile boats, and amphibs  for the Caspian flotilla, but overall this seems like a reasonable set of forces.

Barabanov calls for a single Open Sea Fleet, to be based in the Northern fleet area. The missions of this fleet would include nuclear deterrence, presence, and possible intervention abroad. The nuclear deterrent component of the fleet would include 4 Borei SSBNs and 6 Delta IV SSBNs, with the latter being replaced after 2020 by an additional 4 Borei SSBNs. The strategic forces would be supported by six frigates and six minesweepers. The fleet would also operate 24 multi-purpose nuclear submarines, with 16 based in the North and 8 in Kamchatka.

The main surface combatant force would be based on two aircraft carrier strike groups, allowing one to be operational at any given time while the other is engaged in training and maintenance. Two carriers in the style of the planned British CVF could be built by 2025-30. Each carrier would be supported by 6 10,000 ton destroyers of a new type and 2 composite supply ships. The four Mistral ships would provide a blue water amphibious assault capability.

This is an interesting and realistic long-range naval development plan. I would probably either split the carriers (one North, one Pacific) or base them both in the Pacific, but that’s a marginal adjustment that goes back to the disagreement over threat perceptions I discussed earlier. It will also take awhile to build the new destroyers, but having 12 in place by 2030 (when the carriers might be ready) is not unrealistic.

While I disagree with some of the article, it presents the kind of threat-based vision for the future development of the Russian navy that is usually absent from the discussion — which too often focuses on numbers of ships without putting much thought into why the navy might need those ships.