Will the Kirov cruisers be restored?

I owe readers a final report on Center-2011, and also the rest of the update on Navy procurement, but I can’t pass up the argument that seems to now be brewing between the military correspondents of NVO and Izvestiia. In today’s NVO, Viktor Litovkin launches a broadside against what he terms the “sensationalist” coverage in Izvestiia (though he doesn’t refer to that paper by name, it’s clear enough from the description), arguing that its recent articles on the upcoming removal of Aleksandr Shliakhturov, the head of the GRU, the scrapping of Russia’s remaining Typhoon submarines, and some other topics were all denied by defense officials.

I take no particular stand on this argument. We all know that defense officials are paid to deny certain news right up until the minute that they are officially announced. We will see soon enough whether Shliakhturov retires, whether the Typhoons are scrapped, and whether Russian soldiers continue to wear berets. What made this particular article by Litovkin interesting and relevant is that most of it is devoted to arguing about whether the Kirov cruisers that I discussed in my last post will actually be modernized and returned to the fleet.

Litovkin is skeptical, because 1) he could not get confirmation from the Ministry of Defense and 2) there is no money for this task in the current state armaments program. These don’t seem to be definitive reasons, after all 1) the ministry spokespeople may not be authorized to make an official statement and 2) if a political decision is made to go ahead, money will be found quickly enough. The SAP-2020 is not a bible and changes along the way should be expected.

But Litovkin adds some interesting commentary on why this project is not very feasible and would be a bad idea even if it were. He notes (and here I think Kramnik would agree with him) that these cruisers would not have an obvious mission for the Russian navy. They were originally designed to fight American aircraft carriers, a task that is not very relevant to the 21st century Russian navy.

He then points out that Russian shipyards do not currently have the capacity to carry out this modernization. There are only a few shipyards that have sufficiently large drydocks, and most of these are already being used for other tasks. Sevmash in Severodvinsk is fully occupied building nuclear submarines (both Borei and Yasen class). Zvezdochka in Severdvinsk has the capacity, but doesn’t have a license to work on nuclear reactors, which would be one of the main tasks of the repair. Severnaia Verf in St. Petersburg is fully booked building smaller ships. The Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, which originally built the ships in the 1970s and 80s, could do it but is near bankruptcy because of various political conflicts. It may well be closed and taken over by interests seeking to develop its territory for commercial ends.

Given this list of shipyards, I wonder whether the push for restoring the Kirov cruisers is, in fact, an effort by the Baltic Shipyard to counter the efforts to close it. If it is the only possible candidate to modernize the ships, and a decision is made to go ahead, then the shipyard will gain a new lease on life and powerful political protectors who could ensure its survival for at least the next decade.

Of course, it could be longer than a decade. Litovkin points out the danger of corruption through dolgostroi, as a number of Russian shipyards have used long-term construction and renovation projects such as the Vikramaditya project (10 years) and various nuclear and diesel submarines to get continuing financing from the Russian budget and from foreign governments. Specific instances of theft of state funds in connection to the overhaul of the Peter the Great and Admiral Kuznetsov in recent years do not inspire confidence either.

Litovkin concludes that the only benefit to overhauling the Kirov cruisers would accrue to specific individuals, while the Russian navy would derive little use from the ships. By and large, I would have to agree with this assessment.

By the way, here are some pictures of the three ships under discussion which give a sense of their current condition… (from worst to best). Pictures originally found here.

1. Admiral Lazarev

2. Admiral Ushakov

3. Admiral Nakhimov