Russian naval shipbuilding plans: Rebuilding a blue water navy

Since I wrote my previous post for Oxford Analytica several months ago, additional information has come out about what is contained in Russia’s shipbuilding program — which reportedly includes a naval development plan going out to 2050. Today, Konstantin Bogdanov at Lenta.ru has published a major update on these plans. The following is based on his article and on conversations with other Russian naval experts.

Submarines

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy. As the three remaining Delta IIIs will be retired in the next five years and the six Delta IVs in the 2020s, Russia expects to replace them with a total of 12 Borei SSBNs. Eight are already contracted to be built in the next few years, with another four expected to be ordered in the next decade. The new subs are likely to be an updated version of the current Borei II subclass, with improved electronics and other updated components. The navy plans to locate six in the Northern Fleet and six in the Pacific Fleet.

There has been a great deal of controversy over the Yasen SSGN class, which was initially expected to replace both Oscar class SSGNs and various classes of smaller multi-purpose SSNs. Eight have been ordered so far and there is some debate on whether an additional four Yasen subs will be ordered for construction after 2020. This will depend on whether the cost of serial production can be brought down and on the success of the just started modernization of Oscar class SSGNs (which is expected to extend these subs’ lifespan by 15-20 years). The goal is to have a total of 12 SSGNs, again with six each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

However, there is now a plan to develop a new multi-purpose nuclear submarine class, with the goal of building something cheaper and smaller than the Yasen class. This would be an attack submarine with decreased missile armament, comparable to the American Virginia class. The navy hopes to begin construction of these subs as early as 2016, with the goal of building a total of 16-18 of them, with at least 15 completed by 2035. These submarines would be armed with 16 (4×4) VLS, 4-6 torpedo tubes, updated Kalibr missiles and Tsirkon missiles (which will replace Oniks).

As far as diesel submarines, no more Improved Kilo class submarines will be built after the current contract of six for the Black Sea Fleet is completed. Instead the navy is planning to order a new class of diesel-electric submarines that will in essence be a modernized version of the Lada class, with air-independent propulsion. The goal is to build 14-18 of these subs over a 15 year period, though mainly in the 2020s. These subs will have armaments analogous to the Lada class, though some may be optimized for special operations, with airlocks for swimmers. They will be build primarily at Admiralty Shipyards, though Krasnoe Sormovo may also be involved in the project. The second and third Lada hulls will also be completed, most likely in 2017.

Surface ships

The community of Russian naval experts has in recent months yet again been consumed by the question of whether the navy should build aircraft carriers and, if so, what kind? Bogdanov writes that construction of a carrier could begin no earlier than 2020 and would carry substantial financial and technical risks. The prospective carrier would be a descendant of the never finished Ulianovsk class aircraft carrier, with a deadweight of 65,000-80,000 tons and could carry 55-60 aircraft. The planes would probably be a naval version of the T-50 fifth generation fighter plane, as well as some long-range AWACS aircraft that would be more effective than existing Ka-31 helicopters. The prospective carrier would have air defense and ASW capabilities, but no strike armaments of its own.

Russian experts have noted that Russian shipyards could build a 60,000-70,000 ton carrier in 4-5 years, but could have difficulties if the military decides to build a larger supercarrier. One problem is the lack of a suitably large drydock, as Soviet carriers were built at Nikolayev, Ukraine. A small carrier (less than 60,000 tons) could be built at Baltiiskii Zavod, but the military does not want such a design. If the navy wants to avoid the delays that would come from having to build new construction facilities,  one option that has been floated for building a large carrier is to build two halves at Baltiiskii Zavod and the Vyborg shipyard, and then connect them afloat at Sevmash.

The navy is likely to build eight more Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, in addition to the eight already under contract, as well as a total of 20 corvettes of various versions. Three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates may also be built, in addition to the six currently under construction for the Black Sea Fleet. All of these ships are being armed with Oniks anti-ship missiles and Kalibr multi-purpose missiles, which can both be fired through universal vertical launch systems. The main question here is the extent to which the program for construction of these ships will be delayed due to the shift in turbine production that has resulted from the end of military industrial cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. Most Russian experts believe that two years will be sufficient to set up production of turbines in Russia, though the actual extent of the delay is likely to be clear by the middle of this year. In any case, Russia is believed to have already received turbines for the first four ships of each of these classes.

The navy is planning to begin production of large destroyers (15,000 tons) that some consider to be essentially missile cruisers in all but name. It has not been decided whether these ships will have nuclear or gas turbine propulsion systems. They will have a wide range of both offensive and defense armaments, including Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missiles and a naval version of the S-500 long-range air defense system, both of which are expected to be ready by the mid-2020s. The hope is to have the first ship of this class ready by 2023-25 and to eventually build a total of at least 12 (though other analysts believe that construction of these destroyers won’t begin before 2023).

A number of modernization projects are also in the works. Cruiser modernization is now under way, with the Admiral Nakhimov Kirov class cruiser scheduled to be ready for active duty in 2018 after the replacement of all of its armaments and electronic components. The Peter the Great cruiser may be modernized in a similar fashion once the Nakhimov’s refit is complete. Two or three Slava class cruisers will also be modernized in the next few years. Five to seven Udaloy class destroyers may also be modernized, with new armaments and universal vertical launch systems, while the largely useless Sovremennyi class destroyers will finally be retired as replacing their defective propulsion systems is considered unrealistic.

Regardless of the final resolution of the saga with the procurement of Mistral class amphibious ships from France, the navy is also planning to replace all existing amphibious ships with new classes. Specifically, it plans to build a new LPD type amphibious ship, similar to the Dutch Rotterdam class with a displacement of 14-16,000 tons and able to carry 500-600 naval infantry, six helicopters, and various amphibious vehicles. The goal is to have 2-3 such ships each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with construction to start late in this decade. In addition, progress is being made in the long-running construction saga of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship, with the lead ship expected to be commissioned in 2015 after more than ten years of construction. Previous delays were caused by irregular financing and frequent changes in design specifications. With the latter now pretty much set, subsequent ships can be expected to be built much faster as long as the financing is available. The goal is to have eight such ships, four each in the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

A brief assessment

As always with Russian military construction plans, this program sounds quite grandiose. And if it is fully implemented, the Russian navy will be back as a full-fledged oceangoing force by the end of the next decade. However, it seems to me that given their current capacities Russian shipyards will not be able to carry out the entire plan in the expected timelines. Furthermore, there is a big question over the ability of the Russian state to finance such a program given the economic difficulties that it is likely to face in the next several years. Over the last several years, we have seen repeated delays with the construction of new ship types even when the economic situation was much more positive and the ships being built much smaller and simpler than destroyers and aircraft carriers. The recently-completed long-running saga with the modernization of the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy shows the problems that Russia may face as it starts to build larger and more complex ships.

Nevertheless, it is clear that while the Russian Navy has resigned itself to focus on strategic deterrence and coastal defense missions in the short and medium terms, it still has ambitions of restoring its blue water navy in the long term.

 

21 thoughts on “Russian naval shipbuilding plans: Rebuilding a blue water navy

  1. First time I hear anything about 4 more SSBNs. Something tells me you source, Mr. Bogdanov, is full of it, to put it mildly.

    • What do you think they’re going to do once the Delta IVs are retired 10 or so years from now, cut back to just 8 SSBNs? He’s not talking about contracts, but about long-range plans. The only question to me is the extent to which the additional 4 SSBNs will differ from the ones currently being built.

      • Yes, there will be just 8 SSBNs…

        Has your colleague done any math recently? Because he should have before making “long-range plans”. Let me demonstrate:

        Putting aside Borei and the fiction that is Typhoon, Russia currently deploys 9 ballistic missile submarines, with 2 of them being in overhaul (so, 7 operational). Those 9 submarines carry a potential total of 528 warheads. Operationally speaking, that is about 30% of Russian arsenal.

        With 8 Boreis deployed (and all other ballistic missile submarines retired), Russia would have 768 deployable warheads, with 576 of them operationally deployed, if we assume that 1 submarine per fleet will always be in overhaul. Again, about 30% of the total arsenal allowed under New START treaty (1550 warheads).

        12 Borei submarines that your colleague proposes would carry 1152 warheads with 960 of them operationally deployed. That’s 62% of the allowed ceiling of 1550.

        How can anyone who knows anything about Russian strategic forces justify that kind of number? While knowing that Russia is in the process of getting a new strategic bomber and several new ICBM types, all of which are going to be MIRVed. How can the proportion of the strategic fleet conceivably increase satisfying the requirements of international arms control agreements?

        Bogdanov is making a silly claim with no basis.

      • I think the idea is that if relations continue Russia may reconsider the current limits on nuclear warheads (http://m.lenta.ru/news/2015/01/13/dogovor/). Remember that New START will expire in 2021, before any of these additional submarines would be completed. So we shouldn’t assume that the ceiling in, let’s say, 2025 will still be 1550 warheads. Russia is also developing the new Sarmat ICBM (http://militaryrussia.ru/blog/topic-435.html), which may also lead it to exceed current limits.

        If bilateral relations improve and Russia decides to continue the current warhead limits, they could always put fewer warheads on each submarine (or change their minds and not build them). What is being described here is a long-range plan. And as we all know, those plans can be changed right up until they start signing contracts (and sometimes even after). All we’re describing is the intentions of the Russian military at the current point in time.

        Bogdanov has been accurate in the past and there is corroboration from other sources for most of the plans described here, so I don’t see any reason to doubt that there is such a plan in place at the moment. Whether the subs are actually built 10 years from now, we shall have to see.

  2. Good Analysis but I do agree with Artjom. The ships are prohibitively expensive.
    Could you please write an article about the state of the shipbuilding yards and the planned ones? There were large shipbuilding docks under construction and others planned in both St. Petersburg and the Far East (With South Korea).

  3. >I think the idea is that if relations continue Russia may reconsider the current limits on nuclear warheads

    Oh, great. An unsupported assumption based on yet another unsopported assumption.

    >(or change their minds and not build them)

    There is no “changing of the mind” going on, since that’s not the plan, they are not going to build 12. You cannot change your mind about something you weren’t planning to do anyway.

    >What is being described here is a long-range plan

    What is being described here is a figment of Konstantin’s imagination. It is not supported by a single statement from any officiant decision maker.

    Please, let’s stick to the facts.

    • Please refer to the link I already provided for evidence that a Russian government official is talking about discussion in government about modifying its New START commitments. Here it is again: http://m.lenta.ru/news/2015/01/13/dogovor/.

      For the rest, the whole point of being a reporter is to get information that goes beyond official government statements. If all you do is parrot government press releases and statements, you’re not doing your job.

      • I cannot believe what I am hearing, Dmitry. I have always held you in high regard as a person who was careful and meticulous in his analysis, but this is simply beyond the pale.

        Instead of saying “yes, this is an assumption”, you persist in defending something that is simply not true. Who is this Konstantin Bogdanov? Does he work for the General Staff? The Navy? Rubin Design Bureau? What is his analysis based on? And why 12 submarines? Why not 9, or 10, or 15, or a 100? Where did the number 12 come from?

        Really, Dmitry, you should know better than this. This is disappointing. I don’t think I have anything else to add here, this has already gotten out of hand.

      • Artjom, I think you’re right that we’re not going to get anywhere in this debate. But I’ll try one more time and then I’ll be done.

        I don’t think I said anywhere that I know for sure what will happen. When you work with open source material from another country, you are never certain that the reporting you see is true. The only way to know for sure is to be in the meetings at the MOD or at Navy HQ, and obviously not even the reporters are doing that.

        My point in the discussion was not that I know for sure that this is what will happen, just that I can’t rule it out based on the arguments about New START and the fact that it hasn’t been stated by official spokespeople. I give Bogdanov the benefit of the doubt because he has been a trustworthy source in the past. (As for who he is, he’s a military reporter for Lenta.ru. I’ve found the Lenta.ru team quite trustworthy on military issues over the last 8 months.)

        The flip side, of course, is that it’s similarly questionable to say for sure “there will be just 8 SSBNs.” Unless you’ve been to the meetings, that is also an assumption. It may turn out to be correct, or not. It may be that all the arms control treaties are torn up and there is a second nuclear arms race. Not likely, in my judgement, but certainly possible. Or it may be that Russia suffers a serious economic collapse and they can’t even afford to finish the eight SSBNs they have under contract. This already happened once in the early 90s, right? All sorts of naval development plans were scrapped then. My only point is that we have to accept that all forecasts of the future, especially 10 years out, have to accept that there is a fair bit of uncertainty.

  4. I went back and checked with Bogdanov, and as I expected, he is basing his assessment on unofficial sources, as well as statements by officials that there have been discussions about reducing the number of warheads per missile in order to stay within treaty limits. He also reminded me that initially there were plans to order 10 Borei SSBNs as part of SAP-2020, but Sevmash determined that they couldn’t build that many in that time frame, so the order was reduced to eight.

  5. Kindly note I was referred to ssgn in my previous comment.
    Borei number was originally scheduled to be 10 later reduced to 8 by 2020 however with half having an increased payload (recent sources indicate no change in payload)

  6. Any thing known about Tsirkon missiles what speed and range are they aiming for ?

    They can ofcourse have more SSBN if they reduce the number of warhead that each Bulava would carry like from 6 to 4 and replace with decoys if they want to meet START obligations

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