An update on naval construction, part 1: large combat ships

It’s been awhile since I wrote about developments in Russian naval shipbuilding. Spurred on by a recent article in NVO, the following is the first installment of an update on recent developments and future plans in this area.

Return of the Nuclear Cruisers?

In recent weeks, the Project 1144 (Kiev Kirov class) nuclear cruisers have once again been in the news because of reports that all three ships of this class currently in reserve will be refurbished and restored to the active fleet by 2020. Modernization of the Admiral Nakhimov is slated to begin this year and it is scheduled to return to active service in 2015. As part of the modernization, these ships are to be equipped with “modern radio electronics, radar, control and communication systems, and means of electronic warfare. In addition, the body frames and nuclear power units will be repaired.” The ships’ armaments will also be modernized — the older Granit missiles will be replaced with universal ship-based firing systems that could be loaded with a variety of different armaments depending on the ship’s specific mission. The ships would also be armed with S-400 long-range and unspecified short-range air defense systems.

While it seems that the Admiral Nakhimov actually will be modernized and returned to the fleet in the next five years or so, to be followed by a refit for the currently active Peter the Great, I have grave doubts that modernization of the Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Ushakov will ever move beyond mere talk. The Ushakov in particular suffered a reactor accident back in 1990, which was never repaired. It may also have been cannibalized for spare parts to some extent. The Lazarev had its nuclear fuel unloaded back in 2005. Both would thus need essentially new reactors, as well as significant hull repairs.

While this type of modernization is certainly possible, it doesn’t seem to be cost-effective, especially given the uncertainty surrounding these ships potential missions. As noted by Konstantin Makienko of CAST, these ships do not fit into any existing scenarios for using battleships: “This type of ship cannot be involved in the possible conflicts that we may have in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the case of a hypothetical war with NATO or Japan, it will still be destroyed as the enemy has a much greater numerical superiority at sea.” While I can see the desire to have at least some large ships for showing the flag around the world, I can’t imagine that it would be worth the expense to rehabilitate a rusty, radioactive old hulk such as the Ushakov (former Kirov), just to get 10-15 years of life out of it. In the end, I imagine the Russian Navy will be satisfied with having the Nakhimov and the Peter the Great for showing the flag.

No new aircraft carriers, but a much improved old one

Back in June, the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation stated that Russia will begin to design new aircraft carriers in 2016, with construction on the first ship to start in 2018, followed by commissioning in 2023. This statement was quickly rejected by the defense minister, who noted that while research on a future aircraft carrier is continuing, no decisions about design and construction have been made. Nor will they be made until the research is complete. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

At the same time, the Navy’s one existing aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will be undergoing a complete modernization over the next several years. When it is relaunched (sometime between 2017 and 2020, depending on which report you believe), it will in many ways be a new ship. The following description of planned changes comes from Ilya Kramnik:

First of all, the defective propulsion unit comprising steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers will be replaced either with a gas-turbine or nuclear propulsion unit. The ship’s 3M45 P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship cruise-missile launchers will be dismantled, and her internal layout changed. Consequently, the hangar area will be expanded to 4,500-5,000 sq. m. for storing additional fixed-wing aircraft. The Admiral Kuznetsov’s air defenses will be strengthened by replacing 3K95 Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) missiles with a multi-role naval system featuring 80-120 new-generation and medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Moreover, 4-6 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) combined short to medium-range SAM and anti-aircraft artillery weapons systems will be installed.

The new weapons systems will feature state-of-the-art radio-electronic equipment, probably including the standard Sigma combat information and control system, due to be installed on all new generation Russian warships. The system facilitates unprecedentedly effective cooperation between task force elements. The carrier will also receive aircraft catapults, a logical option. Considering the fact that her ski-jump will remain intact, one or two catapults can be located on the angled flight deck.

The carrier’s air wing is to comprise 26 new Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29K Fulcrum-D multi-role fighter aircraft, helicopters and navalized Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA (Future Frontline Aircraft System) fifth-generation fighters, currently under development. It appears that 15-20 of these aircraft will be built pending the ship’s re-launching, which is likely to take place in 2020 rather than 2017.

In other words, when the Kuznetsov returns to active status, it will be a substantially different ship, with a new propulsion system, new aircraft, new armaments, and new electronics.

Moving towards a new destroyer

Finally, plans for building a new destroyer seem to be progressing, though for the moment it is still in the design stage. What is known so far is that design plans call for a 9000 ton ship with a nuclear power plant that would make extensive use of stealth technology. It would be armed with the usual assorted Klub missiles and would have space for two helicopters.

If all goes according to plan, construction on the first ship will start in 2016. There have not been any reports so far about how many ships would be ordered or how long they would take to build, though my guess is that it will take at least six years to build the first ship and that the total order may reach 8-10 ships.

I’ll cover frigates and corvettes in the next installment.

15 thoughts on “An update on naval construction, part 1: large combat ships

  1. Interesting post, looking forward to the next part.


    “In recent weeks, the Project 1144 (Kiev class) nuclear cruisers…”

    Not Kiev Class, it is known in the west as the Kirov class, or more accurately the Orlan class.

  2. Could I add that there were 5 vessels in the Orlan class, but not all five were completed as armed vessels.
    There were the four vessels known in the west as the Kirov class, but there was also another hull that was completed as a spy vessel… if two of the ex Kirov class ships are beyond repair then the hull of the spy ship could be used to create a third vessel.

  3. I would also add that the upgrade of the Kirov class vessels will include the replacement of 20 Granit launch tubes with the UKSK launch tubes which are compatible with a wide range of surface launched missiles including the Klub series of land attack, anti ship and anti sub missiles, the Yakhont/Brahmos/Oniks family of supersonic anti ship and land attack missiles, and also capable of carrying the Kh-101/102 long range cruise missiles.
    It will also have vertical launch SAMs that include the naval equivalent of the 40km and 120km range small missiles of the SA-20 system up to an including the 400km range S-400 missiles and everything in between.
    The flexibility of armament means that these ships will become very capable multipurpose vessels that can be used in a wide range of situations against a wide range of threats and would serve as very capable command vessels for a wide range of purposes.
    They would be able to do many things for much longer than any smaller ship.

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  5. A single carrier is able to provide power projection at great distances and is a force multiplier well beyond its tonnage. More would be better, but it’s good to see Russia is not going out of the carrier business altogether. Modernization of and a return of state attention to the navy is long overdue.

    Nine thousand tons is large for a destroyer; the SPRUANCE hull – shared by the TICONDEROGAs – was designed for a ship 8000 – 10,000 tons, and the TICONDEROGAs are cruisers. I’m guessing that would result in a vessel not much less than 600 ft long. Once the design and any follow-on modifications that would not affect hull construction were finalized, the Soviets were very good at series production, generally churning out new ships at a much faster rate than western yards.

    Restoration and refurbishment of the KIROV hulls would be expensive, but Russia has shown willing before this to spend lavishly when national pride is an issue, and it would likely be faster than design and construction of new ships of a similar size. And they’ve certainly got the money.

  6. I disagree, the Soviets rarely produced more than a few dozen modern large vessels as they tended to specialise a design.
    An example would be the Sovremmeny class destroyers and the Udaloy class ASW vessels. Similar size, totally different propulsion and electronics, with the Sunburns on the Sovs optimised for anti ship use, and the SS-N-14s on the Udaloy optimised for anti sub work.
    Their new destroyers will have UKSK launchers that can carry the Sunburn replacement (Oniks) or the SS-N-14 replacement (Klub) as well as the other missiles of the two families (Yakhont and Brahmos, and the subsonic land attack and anti ship and supersonic anti ship models of Klub).
    It is also believed that the new cruise missiles Kh-101/102 are compatible with the UKSK vertical launch system.

    This means instead of making 16 Sovs and 16 Udaloys they can make 20-30 new destroyers that can do both jobs.

    I also think it is interesting you suggest the restoration of the Kirovs is about pride. Was the US restoration into service multiple time of the Iowa class battleships also pride? How about the retention of the SR-71 in service a matter of pride? I would have said it was a specific need that brought those two dinosaurs back into service, and I would suggest that the Russians realise it will be a while before they can afford to build ships of this size and capability again so they have decided to retain them in service and fit them with their new standardised sensor/propulsion/weapon/electronic package that they have standardised down to corvette and up to carrier.

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  8. If the Russians and the Americans thought exactly alike, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because we’d all be pals together. The return of the IOWA battlewagons – I loved those ships, and I got to see all of them in the flesh except WISCONSIN – was indeed because there was nothing like them on the gunline, and the need for that justified the expense of refurbishing them (it once was the work of 72 men per turret to lay and fire those monsters, and bringing the ships back into service necessitated recalling to service a bunch of retired weapons ratings, because there was nobody left who knew how to work the ammunition hoists). As to the SR-71, I couldn’t say; I don’t really know what kept it in service and I would have said sufficient capability existed without it, although it also was an inconic piece of hardware.

    A nationalist group in Russia wanted the KIROV turned into a naval museum when it was first taken out of service, and a significant demographic (at least in naval centres like Vladivostok) sees those ships as an echo of the time Russia was at rough military parity with the USA.

    I should have been clearer about Soviet ship production – I meant the transition from concept to design to production was faster than the west. It’s true they never built extended series like the KNOX class or the OLIVER HAZARD PERRY. The SOVREMENNY is a bad example; there were a lot of problems with it and it was never really a success. The UDALOY was a much better design (although their Operations Room was a death trap with all those little cubicles, if there was a fire and they lost their lighting, not many would be getting out).

  9. Russians and Americans do think basically alike.

    The reason the Americans don’t like the Russians is because Americans think what is best for America is best for the world, and the Russians don’t think that.

    The Iowa class ships were returned to service because there was a need for serious naval gun support, which they provided.
    The SR-71 was repeatedly returned to active service several times after retiring because satellite paths are predictable and often can’t be shifted quickly enough to cover new areas fast enough.

    The Russian shipyards are capable of upgrading carriers, but they have little experience in building anything bigger than a Frigate.
    They are gradually getting experience and they will be making destroyer sized vessels soon, but a ship the size and capability of a Kirov or Slava class ship is just not going to happen in the next decade or so simply because of the number of smaller ship they need to get into service to replace obsolete vessels that need to be struck from service.
    A large vessel is a capable vessel, and large vessels compliment carriers… if you can have one without the other it would be large vessels… they couldn’t build carriers and large ships to operate with them too… there simply isn’t the production capacity or the budget to do both.

    BTW The Sovremmeny was a fine vessel that was greatly admired in the west for its weapon load.
    The Udaloy was also well respected… I guess you have never heard of fire drills, emergency lighting, and perhaps ignore the fact that to start a fire in the control room would require a direct hit.

  10. Garry and Mark, I’m afraid I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to get involved in your very interesting debate. So just one brief comment on the Sovremenny — they may have been fine for armaments, but their propulsion systems were defective from the start. If you compare the record of the Udaloys and the Sovremennyis in the last 20 years, you will see that the majority of the former are still active and are the workhorses of the Russian fleet, while only a couple Sovremennyis remain in active service and even these hardly ever sail more than a couple hundred km away from base. Even the Russian admirals recognize that they are a failed ship.

  11. After twenty years with almost no funding at all it is hardly a surprise few Sovremenny class vessels leave port very often, and I agree a couple were retired early with problems with their propulsion… don’t maintain a car for 20 years and you might find you have problems with that as well.

    If it is such a failure however why did the Chinese buy them?

    When they paid for the EM upgraded version they didn’t bother to improve propulsion… I wonder why.

  12. Perhaps other navies were fans of the Sovremmeny class, but the Russian navy was somewhat disappointed in them and they were said to suffer from a structural design flaw of the high-pressure steam system. Fewer remain operational than should reasonably be expected of a class that size, and a normal lifetime compared with their peers would have them in service until 2020. That seems unlikely to me. The PLAN also reported difficulties operating them. Although they appeared almost coincident with the Udaloys, the latter were a new design while the Sovremenny borrowed the hull of the earlier Kresta class, and the Udaloys were both more reliable and a better seakeeping platform. The Russian navy accepted some performance deficiencies in exchange for keeping the Sovremennys at sea because of their antiship weapons capability – the SS-N-22 employs a terminal weave that generated reams of tactics in the way of countermeasures, and it was greatly respected in large-ship circles.

    It is true, though, that they suffered from indifferent maintenance – perhaps that’s a consequence of a conscript military, but that’s just my opinion.

    Indeed, I have heard of fire drills. I also noted during a tour of the Marshall Shaposhnikov in Vladivostok that her damage-control fittings throughout the passageways were both fewer in number and inadequate in design (hoses, for example, would not reach distant compartments or engineering spaces below, and if the latter’s fire-suppression systems failed or were inoperable, they’d be in serious trouble. You can build in all the emergency lighting you like, but even a small fire elsewhere in the ship will quickly fill the ship with thick smoke owing to the closed-loop recirculatory ventilation system; the fires does not even need to be on the same deck as the operations room. Admiral Tributs had a machinery space fire during post-refit sea trials in 1991 which burned for more than 48 hours and killed 2 seamen. I imagine they had done plenty of fire drills and the ship was likely fitted with emergency lighting. She was nonetheless towed in, almost a total loss.

  13. High pressure boiler propulsion was chosen as it matched the role of the vessel better than other options… just as the gas turbine propulsion of the Udaloys was chosen for chasing submarines.
    WWII Iowa class battleships were also a problem to operate and they had to bring a lot of sailors out of retirement to operate them because no one in active duty knew how to operate some aspects of their functions.
    The main guns had to have specially made rounds and propellent charges because every time the guns were fired the guns changed calibre.
    There was a famous instance where there was a turret explosion because the shells were not loaded in the proper order… turned out it was actually sabotage by a jilted gay lover getting revenge on a guy that worked as turret crew.
    Fewer remain operational because the Russian Navy dropped the requirement to hunt US carrier groups.
    The Udaloy remains in use because enemy subs are still a problem.
    For most of the 1980s the Sunburn was likely the only missile that the Soviets could rely on to sink AEGIS cruisers because its speed and flight altitude took it below the minimum engagement height of the Standard SAM, so all AEGIS cruisers could defend themselves with were Phalanx CIWS which were useless against very low flying supersonic targets.
    The fact that you think the Sovremennys were poorly maintained was because the Russians continue to use conscription reveals your agenda.
    Conscripts have been successfully maintaining the Soviet fleets during the entire cold war, so what you are really suggesting is that until Russian forces are all volunteer forces there is no point spending money on them because they will still only be dumb useless conscripts.
    Fire at sea is the greatest threat to life and property… look at the British losses in the Falklands war… most of the losses were attributed to fire, including several hits by Exocet missiles that didn’t even explode.
    I would suggest most navies have such problems.
    Reading your account of the situation a fire that burned for 48 hours… deathtrap cubicals and fire hoses that don’t reach, not to mention an environment control system that spreads smoke and presumably delivers fresh air to fan the flames… yeah their fire control measures must be crap with all hands lost… oops, no… two sailors lost.
    Obviously not something to laugh about, but also not something to rage about either.
    A fat frier explosion in a MacDonalds restaurant would probably kill more people and you are condemning it as a death trap?

  14. I didn’t bother mentioning everyone in the machinery space was killed, presumably instantly, by the explosion, as it seemed unnecessary to point out. So the death toll was considerably higher than two – those were firefighters who perished in the firefighting effort. I don’t have an “agenda” and am fairly pro-Russian, and am likewise not “raging”, but you seem determined to have an argument. I would, in fact, like to see Russia transition to an all-volunteer military, but I see nothing wrong with being asked to serve your country and many countries remain that use a conscript military – Israel, for one.

    I was attempting to point out that you would not need to have a “direct hit” on the operations room to cause chaos and panic there; the fire need not be even on the same deck or caused by any kind of hit at all. Fire as well as smoke can travel through the ventilation system, and sea training staffs often stage mock fires in remote spaces based on this reality, to test sailors’ knowledge of their ship and how different spaces are connected.

    The ships on which I have served all my adult life use a closed-loop recirculation system, because warships must have the capability of being pressurized from within, to create a “citadel” against gas. The ventilation must be shut down immediately in the event of a fire, and even a few seconds delay results in smoke throughout the interior; that’s just a fact, and it persists on the most modern ships. Russian construction has made great strides since Brezhnev pronounced the Kynda class cruisers “a death trap” (since they6 had almost no interior watertight bulkheads), but emphasis is still on weapon load and power rather than survivability.

  15. Internal explosions are incredibly dangerous in any situation, whether it is the machinery room of a destroyer of fast food outlet.
    I would think mentioning the death toll was more than two would be critical to supporting an opinion that these vessels were fire traps.
    Having said that I would need rather more evidence than one incident to declare the whole class as dangerous.
    I am interested in a discussion, and have no interest in arguments, but if you are going to make blanket statements, call me a thinking person rather than a drone if I ask you to back up you assertions.
    If you have nothing against Conscripts why do you suggest problems with the operations of vessels might stem from an inability of conscripts to do their job rather than the more obvious lack of funding for maintainence and repairs and a change in doctrine that have left the class without a clear role?
    What you say about Fire on ships applies to all ships does it not?
    A ship that cannot perform its role is a liability if it survives.
    A fighting ship that doesn’t fight particularly well is worthless.
    Safety is of course a consideration, but its purpose is to perform its role even if it is destroyed performing that role.

    If you want to play chess then your tactics should be to win, not to retain as many pieces as possible.

    The real problem is that the West goes to war for fun, or to satisfy its interests.

    The change from Ministry of War and Department of War to Ministry of Defence and Department of Defence occured just after WWII and were purely cosmetic.

    These days for the West, war is a way of getting your way without the long slow process of negotiation and talks. Might is right.

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