Interview on last month’s Russian military exercises

A couple of weeks ago, I gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on the significance of the Russian military exercises that were conducting in conjunction with the first anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. The newspaper has kindly granted permission to publish an English-language version of the interview.

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Author: Ingrid Burke
Publication: L’Indro
Date: March 25, 2015

On 18 March, one year after Russian and Crimean leaders gathered in the Kremlin to formalize Moscow’s absorption of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, festivities erupted across Russia.

Tens of thousands of enthusiastic Muscovites mobbed Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the annexation. Some of Russia’s most iconic pop and rock stars took the stage that day to entertain the patriotic revelers. But it was a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin that stole the show.

“What was at stake here were the millions of Russian people, millions of compatriots who needed our help and support,” he told the cheering crowd, addressing Moscow’s rationale for taking Crimea into its federal fold. “We understood how important this is to us and that this was not simply about land, of which we have no shortage as it is.”

Festivities aside, the week of celebrations saw its fair share of brash statements and actions flaunting Russia’s military might.

On Sunday 15 March, state-run TV channel Rossiya-1 aired “Crimea: the Path to the Motherland,” a documentary on the annexation that featured a never-before-seen interview with Putin. The documentary elucidated a great deal about the annexation.

But one revelation in particular generated a wealth of nervous media buzz. When asked if the Kremlin was ready amid the Crimea crisis to place Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, Putin answered: “We were ready to do that.”

A day after the interview aired, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Putin had ordered large-scale military drills across the nation. A Defense Ministry statement cited Shoigu as saying 38,000 servicemen, 3,360 vehicles, 41 combat ships, 15 submarines, and 110 aircraft and helicopters would be involved in the drills.

Reporting on the development at the time, Reuters touted the drills as the Kremlin’s biggest show of military force since Russia’s ties with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows in the aftermath of the Crimea crisis.

The following Thursday, 19 March, the Defense Ministry announced that the military drill numbers had doubled. An official statement said the number of servicemen involved had surged to 80,000, and the number of aircraft to 220.

Agence France-Presse described the amped up drills as some of Russia’s largest since the fall of the Soviet Union, noting that the maneuvers had caused jitters across Eastern Europe.

Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a Senior Research Scientist specializing in Russian military reform at U.S.-based think tank CNA Corporation, spoke with L’Indro on Friday about the drills, their significance, and whether leaders in Eastern Europe and beyond have reason to fear a sinister motive.

“They [the drills] are clearly intended to be sending a message, so in that sense they are significant,” Gorenburg said, adding that the intended message is not unique. “It’s not any different from the messages that Russia’s been sending for the last year really, which is that they’re back, their military is serious, it’s powerful, it’s prepared, it’s ready to counter any NATO aggression as they see it.”

The annexation of Crimea came against the backdrop of the ouster of the Kremlin-loyal administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. With Yanukovych out, and a new Western leaning regime beginning to take form, fears ran rife in Moscow that Kiev might soon be joining NATO.

The signal Moscow was aiming to send with the drills was one of defense capability, rather than the threat of an offensive, Gorenburg said. “From the Russian point of view — or at least the point of view that Russia is trying to convey — this is all defensive, including Ukraine,” he said. “So they see — and they’ve said this repeatedly — that they are countering an effort to encircle Russia by NATO and the US and hostile forces, and that they have no intention of aggression beyond what they consider their sphere of influence.”

Gorenburg noted, however, that one man’s defense can to another man have all the bearings of an offensive maneuver. “This is the tricky thing. From the point of view [of the West], this [Russia’s actions in Ukraine, such as the Crimea annexation] is seen as aggressive because it’s outside of [Russia’s] borders. But as far as Russia’s concerned, a lot of the military types never fully reconciled to Ukraine being independent… A lot of the people [in Russia] honestly believe that the country is threatened by Ukraine potentially joining NATO. And they have to stop that from happening.”

Putin gave voice to the sentiment of Russia and Ukraine being inextricably bound during his speech at the Crimea jubilee on Red Square on Wednesday. “The issue at stake [with the Crimea annexation] was the sources of our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people and single united nation,” he said, the domes and spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral gleaming overhead. “Friends, we in Russia always saw the Russians and Ukrainians as a single people. I still think this way now. Radical nationalism is always harmful and dangerous of course. I am sure that the Ukrainian people will yet come to an objective and worthy appraisal of those who brought their country to the state in which it is in today.”

When asked whether he thought the timing of the drills was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the annexation, Gorenburg responded, “I very much doubt it’s a coincidence. It was a symbolic act, I think.”

But he was less sure about the timing of the release of Putin’s comments about nuclear preparedness in the Crimea context. “I’m not sure why it was said now, because the overall message that I think Russia’s trying to send is to try to deter,” he said. Relevant to this point is that the Rossiya-1 interview was pre-recorded. It is unclear when the interview itself took place.

And in fact, deterrence seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. “[The West is] trying to deter [Russia] from expanding the conflict in Ukraine. [Russia’s] trying to deter [the West] from interfering. And I think that every time Russia mentions nuclear weapons… that’s sort of the final trump card in preventing any serious attack on Russian forces,” Gorenburg said. “And they want to highlight that in order to make Western publics and therefore decision makers more reluctant to take on Russian forces.”

As Gorenburg saw it, signaling a willingness to ready Russia’s nuclear arsenal could serve to rally members of the Western public against action that could be interpreted by Moscow as threatening.

For months now, leaders in the Baltic states have expressed unease with the implications of the Crimea annexation, concerned about the prospect of a Russian military threat to their own post-Soviet territories.

On this point, Gorenburg felt confident that these countries face no immediate threat. “As far as what happens in the Baltics, I really think the chance of any kind of military offensive in the Baltics is very, very low.”

But he also emphasized the imperative of thinking in both the short and long term with respect to Russian strategy in the region. “That doesn’t mean that the Baltics are safe, because I think there is a possibility in the future — not in the short term, but say five years down the line, or at some point when the situation warrants — of some sort of internal destabilization, not using military forces, but either training some local Russians, or using political means. There are certainly parties in each of the countries, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, that are more sympathetic to Russian positions. And you get those politicians that have more influence, more power, to change the foreign policy of those countries.”

In his view, a scenario such as this — involving long-term strategy and covert actions as opposed to overt military force — would be far more likely than a flagrant offensive due largely to Russia’s interest in not triggering Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Article 5 is the provision dictating that an armed attack against one or more NATO parties in Europe or North America shall be viewed as an attack against all of NATO’s members. Such an event would compel the member nations to assist in “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” according to the treaty’s text.

“[Russia’s] conventional forces are no match for NATO,” Gorenburg said.

But in the end, Gorenburg asserted that while both sides are concerned about the aims and strategies of the other, neither wants the situation to escalate. “Both sides think that the other side is more aggressive than that side thinks of itself. So the US thinks — we just want peace, and the Russians are being aggressive. The Russians think — the US is trying to surround us, and overthrow our government, and we just want to defend ourselves. So in that kind of environment, you can see both sides being fairly cautious, hopefully, because neither side actually wants to fight a big war.”

Russian arms sales

Another Oxford Analytica piece, this one from mid-December.

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Russia is the second-largest arms exporter in the world, behind only the United States. In the period 2009-13, Russia accounted for 27% of total world arms sales.

However, Russian arms sales have been highly dependent on a few major customers, with India, China and Algeria accounting for over 60% of Russian purchases in the last five years. Another 15% of Russian exports went to other Asian countries, primarily Vietnam, Indonesia and former Soviet Union states.

Russia is particularly hopeful of expanding its sales to Indonesia and Vietnam — which are both looking towards naval expansion, which have to date included systems ranging from aircraft to combat ships to infantry fighting vehicles.

The main targets of Russian weapon sales are gradually shifting. Sales to China, have been in decline for years as Beijing has pursued a programme of shifting to domestic manufacturing of advanced weaponry.

India

India has replaced China as Moscow’s main foreign customer. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that between 2009 and 2013 Russia supplied 75% of weapons imported by India. However, serious delays such as the transfer of the modernised aircraft carrier — the Vikramaditya — have dented Russia’s reputation as a reliable partner.

Therefore, Delhi seeks a diversity of supply from sources including the United States and several European countries. This is evidenced in India’s preference for French Rafale fighters in the multi-billion dollar Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) fighter tender.

India’s MMRCA tender is for procuring 126 fighters to replace squadrons of MiG-21s. The deal will see France supply a number of aircraft fully built and ready to fly — while the remainder will be built under a technology transfer agreement by Hindustan Aeronautics.

Moreover, India is looking to be 75% self-reliant in defence production by 2020-25. It will also seek to become a weapons exporter and probably promote partnerships with Russia. The BrahMos Aerospace programme has been a particular noteworthy area of close cooperation between Russia and India with the creation of the BrahMos Supersonic Cruise Missile.

Pakistan

Pakistan may also provide a new opening for Russia. On November 20, Russia and Pakistan signed a military cooperation agreement, reportedly involving a deal for Moscow to supply 20 Mi-35 transport helicopters to Islamabad.

Middle East

Besides Asia, Russia has been actively looking for new customers for its arms in the Middle East. Russia has recently concluded significant contracts with Iraq for helicopters and air defence systems worth 4 billion dollars and Egypt for air defence systems worth 2 billion dollars.

Latin America

In Latin America, Russia remains hopeful of selling fighter aircraft to Brazil and Argentina. Russia has sold air defence systems to Brazil and hopes to develop a defence industrial partnership that might parallel its military cooperation with India.

Competitive sectors

The sectors in which Russian weapons systems are considered equal or superior to Western equivalents include air defence, fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines and cruise missiles. These are the sectors in which Russia’s defence industry can compete with the most advanced Western suppliers, with weapons such as the S-300 air defence system, the Su-35 fighter jets and the Kilo class submarine being noteworthy. Russia can also be competitive in sectors such as tanks, armored vehicles, small arms, artillery, and small combat ships. These are sectors where Russian weapons are not as good as Western equivalents, but are generally significantly cheaper. This price difference has allowed them to be competitive in many countries despite lower quality and/or inferior characteristics.

Ukraine delays

However, Russian arms sales have largely depended on selling late Soviet designs, with new designs proving more difficult to manufacture. The freeze on military cooperation with Ukraine may lead to further delays as many Russian weapon systems depend on Ukrainian components and the transition to Russian domestic substitutes is expected to take two to three years.

Half-hearted military assistance to Ukraine will only make things worse

recent report by the Atlantic Council think tank advocating the provision of lethal military assistance to Ukraine highlights the threat posed by Russia to neighboring states.

But the key question missing from the Atlantic Council report is what the West’s overall goal in the conflict should be. The possible goals could range from helping Ukraine restore control over the Donbass, to implementing a cease-fire along the current line of control, to simply deterring Russia from similar adventures elsewhere.

The Atlantic Council report assumes but does not prove that Russian efforts to dominate its neighbors pose a grave threat to international security in general because success in Ukraine will embolden President Vladimir Putin to take similar actions elsewhere.

Click here to read the rest of the op-ed.

No, the Russian Navy isn’t going to collapse

Is the Russian Navy about to collapse? In a recent article on War is Boring, David Axe made this argument largely based on data from my recent articles on the Russian shipbuilding program and the Russian Navy’s priorities. While the information I provided is sound, Axe’s overall interpretation is not.

The Russian Navy is investing in a time-phased recapitalization of its navy over the next 20 years. Submarines are the first phase, already well under way, followed by smaller surface combatants, then increased amphibious capabilities. The navy is letting recapitalization of cruisers and destroyers slip into the next decade. As such, the availability of large combat ships will decrease in the near term but begin to increase in the medium to long term.

The Russian Navy has historically had four main missions: 1) strategic deterrence, 2) coastal defense, 3) protection of sea lanes of communication, and 4) out-of-area deployment.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russian Air Force capabilities and procurement plans

And here is the last installment of my three Oxford Analytica briefs on Russian military procurement plans. This one was originally published on October 20, 2014. As with the others (on the Navy and Ground Forces), I have not updated the content, though I have restored some material that was cut from the published version due to space constraints.

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As part of the State Armament Programme (SAP-2020), the Russian Air Force is set to receive a large number of new aircraft and to modernise at least half of those aircraft that are not being replaced. The service is strongest in combat aircraft, while transport and refuelling aircraft remain a weak point. Russia was relatively late in starting to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), though some progress is now being made in this area. Increases in transport capabilities will increase the mobility of the Russian military, though they will continue to lag well behind those of NATO competitors and will only be sufficient to make part of the Russian military a mobile force capable of rapid response.

Impacts

  • The next generation of Russian combat aircraft will be broadly comparable to fifth-generation US fighter planes
  • Russian long-range bombers will continue their recently increased deployment patterns, patrolling near the borders of NATO states
  • Greater in-air refuelling capabilities will extend bomber ranges but will be insufficient fully to meet all Russian tactical aviation needs
  • Violations of NATO and other Western airspaces to test response times and radar/intelligence capabilities of host countries will increase

ANALYSIS: Despite the decay of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Russian Air Force remains the second largest in the world. It has approximately 2,500 aircraft in service, 75-80% of which are operational. Since the 2009 reform, the Air Force has been divided among over 60 bases, each of which reports to one of four operational strategic commands. The Russian Army and Navy are undergoing similar rearmament/reform programmes.

Fighters

Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia’s air combat forces have consisted primarily of six types of aircraft:

  • The venerable Su-24 strike aircraft was introduced into the Soviet Air Force in 1974. It is gradually being replaced by the Su-34, though approximately 100 remain in service.
  • The Su-25 close air support aircraft was introduced in 1981; about 150 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation Su-27 fighter was introduced in 1984; about 350 are in service.
  • A modernised version of the Su-27, the Su-30 was introduced in 1992; about 45 are in service.
  • The fourth-generation MiG-29 fighter was introduced in 1983; about 250 are in service.
  • The MiG-31 interceptor was introduced in 1982; about 130 are in service and operational.

New aircraft have been received as well, primarily 35 Su-35 ‘fourth-plus-plus-generation’ fighters and 46 Su-34 strike aircraft. These planes will remain the primary combat aircraft in the Russian Air Force for the next decade.

Bombers

The current inventory of long-range bombers consists of three types:

  • The 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers are supersonic long-range bombers designed in the 1980s that have been in limited service since the 1990s. They have a maximum speed of Mach 2 and a range of over 12,000 kilometres (km). They can be armed with either conventional cruise missiles or nuclear missiles.
  • The 32 operational Tu-95MS strategic bombers are turboprop planes that have been in service since the 1950s, though the version currently in service was built in the 1980s. These have a maximum speed of 920 km/hour and a range of 15,000 km. They are armed with conventional cruise missiles.
  • The 41 operational Tu-22M3 long-range supersonic bombers, built in 1970s and 1980s, have a maximum speed of 2,000 km/hour and a range of 6,800 km.

Bombers’ resurrection 

Russia’s bombers were virtually inactive until 2007, when continuous patrols resumed. Since then, they have averaged 80-100 hours’ flying time per year. Overall, Russia’s existing long-range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least the next two decades.

Currently, 4-6 Tu-95s and 2-3 Tu-160s are being modernized each year, primarily including improvements in targeting and navigational systems. Overall, Russia’s existing long range bombers can be expected to continue to operate for at least next two decades, so the air force certainly has time on its side in developing a new design for a next generation long range bomber.

Military transports

The transport aviation branch has been expanded in recent years. In addition to its traditional transport function, it now operates airborne warning and control system (AWACS) planes and is responsible for transporting airborne troops. The mainstay of the existing transport fleet is the Il-76, with approximately 100 operational. These still have 2-3 decades of life, so there is no need for wholesale replacement, especially with a planned modernization that will include new engines and improved electronics. Thirty-nine modernized Il76-MD aircraft are on order. Transport aviation also operates a variety of Ukrainian-built Antonov planes, largely left over from the Soviet days. Plans to replace them with more modern variants have been in flux over recent years and are likely to be canceled given the suspension of military cooperation between Russia and Ukraine.

Transport aviation now operates 18 A-50 AWACS aircraft, including three that have been modernized. In the medium term, the military plans to produce a new generation A-100 AWACS plane based on the Il-76MD body.

Refuelling shortage

The big problem is a severe shortage of refuelling planes, with only 20-25 Il-78 tankers available. Most of these planes are committed to serving long-range aviation, which limits their ability to train with combat and transport aircraft. An additional 40 planes are on order, which will help somewhat to reduce this limitation.

Procurement plans

SAP-2020 contains an ambitious agenda for modernising Russia’s military aircraft, allocating over 4 trillion rubles (130 billion dollars) to re-outfitting the Air Force. The investment would result in the acquisition of more than 600 modern aircraft, including fifth-generation fighters, as well as more than 1,000 helicopters and a range of air defence systems.

Over the last four years, Russia’s aircraft industry has been relatively successful in meeting the targets set by SAP-2020 for combat aircraft. In just the last two years, it has built 28 Su-35S and 34 Su-30 fighters, as well as 20 Su-34 strike aircraft. Future plans call for the production of an additional 13 Su-35S and 83 Su-34 aircraft over the next six years, as well as the start of serial production of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter.

If all plans are carried out, by 2020 Russia will have 50 T-50, 90 Su-35 and over 60 Su-30 fighters, as well as 120 Su-34 strike aircraft. This will allow the Russian Air Force to retire all of its old Su-27 and Su-24 aircraft. Russian analysts believe that 50-55 MiG-35 fighter jets may also be ordered, starting the replacement of aging MiG-29s.

Sukhoi’s T-50 fifth-generation fighter

Russian strike aircraft are of fairly high quality, with the main problems revolving around the age of the air frames rather than their capabilities. Although it is a formidable aircraft, some questions have been raised about the feasibility of the development time-lines for the T-50 and how genuine are the capabilities of its fifth-generation technology. Nevertheless, the Russian military will have a fifth-generation strike fighter in serial production sometime in the next decade.

Ending cooperation with Ukraine

More significant is the revitalisation of less glamorous parts of the aviation industry, especially transport and refuelling aircraft. The construction of new production lines for these types of aircraft will go a long way towards the government’s stated goals of making the Russian military more mobile and extending the range of its attack aircraft through aerial refuelling.

However, gaps in both transport and refuelling capacity will remain a problem well into the next decade, due in part to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine.

UAV development

The military is also likely to benefit from relatively rapid growth in UAV capabilities as new designs reach the production stage. However, Russia’s UAV capabilities are likely to remain well behind those of its Western competitors for the rest of the decade.

CONCLUSION: Future development will focus on a new long-range bomber, which may be capable of hypersonic speeds, with production expected to start around 2020. Serial production of the T-50 fighter jet will continue to expand, with expectations that a total of 250 aircraft of this type will be produced over the next 15 years. Finally, Russian aircraft designers are currently developing a strike UAV that they hope will be ready to enter production by 2020.

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.

 

Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans

Another Oxford Analytica brief. This one originally published on October 3, 2014. There have been some changes since this was written, but I’ve largely left it as is, except for restoring some material cut by the editors due to space constraints.

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The Russian navy’s missions and procurement plans indicate that it is going to focus primarily on strategic deterrence and coastal defence, while allowing ‘blue-water’ capabilities — its ability to operate in areas far away from home territory and coastal support bases — to deteriorate in the short term. For many years the Russian navy has been in serious decline — the Kursk disaster in 2000 being the most significant manifestation of this — with underfunding that has led to the decay of many older platforms. While Russia still has the strongest navy in the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s out-of-area naval capability is in overall decline.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russia will procure a new generation of vessels that will position the navy as a formidable coastal defence force.
  • A new generation of large combat ships is more than a decade away, leading to the erosion of the navy’s blue-water capabilities.
  • Submarine-based strategic deterrence will remain a primary mission.

The Russian navy is still primarily a Soviet legacy force. There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small. In terms of large surface units, the navy only operates what it was able to save during the years when it received virtually no funding.

Naval capabilities

The Northern Fleet has historically been the most important, but the emphasis is now more on the Pacific Fleet.

Changes in Northern Fleet

In the past this has had the most large ships and now consists of ten large surface units, no more than seven of which are operational. The fleet operates a relatively small number of smaller ships, although this may change as the fleet begins to focus on Arctic coastal defence and offshore energy platform protection missions.

It expects to get more frigates and corvettes for these missions in coming years. Of the current ships, only the Peter the Great cruiser, the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, two Udaloy-class destroyers, five corvettes, two landing ships and five smaller ships are considered deployable.

The Northern Fleet has historically been the main base for Russia’s submarines. The active ship submersible ballistic nuclear (SSBN) contingent includes six Delta IVs, one Borei-class which is just out of sea trials, and one Typhoon-class SSBN used as a testing platform.

Non-strategic submarines include one new Yasen-class currently undergoing sea trials, three Oscar II-class submarines with cruise missiles, 14 multi-purpose nuclear submarines of various classes and seven Kilo-class diesel submarines. About half of the non-strategic submarines are on active duty, while the rest are in various stages of modernisation or repair.

Overall, somewhere between 40-70% of the Northern Fleet’s ships and submarines are not fully operational.

Pacific Fleet rising

The Pacific Fleet is likely to become Russia’s largest fleet over the next decade in recognition of the region’s increasing geopolitical importance and the concentration of naval powers in the region. The fleet consists of ten large surface units (of which six are operational), four amphibious landing ships and approximately 34 operational small ships, missile ships and minesweepers.

The fleet’s Udaloy destroyers and Varyag cruiser are very active, frequently deploying to the Indian Ocean. The fleet’s submarines include four SSBNs and ten other nuclear submarines (three operational), as well as eight Kilo-class diesel submarines (five operational).

Black Sea Fleet 

The Black Sea Fleet has some of the oldest ships in the navy. It is considered critically important to future Russian naval strategy, as it is best positioned to provide ships for Russia’s Mediterranean squadron. However, the cruiser Moskva is the only large ship capable of regular out-of-area deployments.

In the new geopolitical environment in the Black Sea, coastal defence is becoming a priority. An extensive rebuilding programme is under way and the uncertainty over the status of the main base in Sevastopol clearly played a role in Russia’s decision to annex Crimea. The fleet is expecting to receive new frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines.

Baltic Fleet

The main role of the Baltic Fleet is coastal defence plus testing new ships, as it is near all the major shipyards. It has been the first fleet to get new ships — a frigate and four coastal defence corvettes.

Caspian Flotilla

The Caspian Flotilla is seen as important in securing the volatile southern region. The fleet’s primary tasks include efforts to eliminate poaching, protecting trade and petroleum exploration, and counter-terrorist activities. The flotilla has received a number of new ships, including two Gepard missile frigates and five Buyan corvettes.

Procurement plans

Russia’s shipbuilding industry is not in good shape, as the delays in refitting the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier as the Indian Vikramaditya showed. The United Shipbuilding Corporation has had integration problems and some shipyards have not been modernised since the Soviet period. Additionally, certain elements of the rearmament programme could be delayed as a result of the ending of defence cooperation with Ukraine.

While the industry is not likely to meet the targets set by the current armament programme, it will probably be able to produce 50-70% of the weapons and equipment required by 2020.

Russia intends to restore its navy’s global reach, but given the time needed to renovate shipyards, develop new designs, and build large ships, the effort will not be fully launched until the 2020s. The earliest that Russia could built a new aircraft carrier is 2027, while new destroyers are still on drawing board, with the first unlikely to be commissioned for ten years.

Shipbuilding plans address the most immediate priorities, but will result in further decline of blue-water capabilities, as Soviet-era cruisers and destroyers are retired. One stopgap measure is to modernise existing Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers and Sovremennyi-class destroyers. However, the feasibility of this is questionable because of reactor problems on two of the three Kirovs and unreliable propulsion systems on the Sovremennyi ships.

The current shipbuilding focus is on several types of small surface warships designed primarily for coastal defence and sea lane protection, rather than expeditionary operations:

  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates: 1 in sea trials, 3 under construction, 5-6 likely to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Krivak IV-class frigates: Given slow pace of Gorshkov construction, building 5-6 for the Black Sea Fleet, and possibly 3 additional ships for other fleets.
  • Steregushchii-class corvettes: 4 already in active service, 4 under construction; total of 18 planned by 2020. The initial project was considered relatively unsuccessful. Modernized versions are now being built with better armaments. Construction is moving quickly, but the total number built may be limited as the class is superseded by project 22160.
  • Project 22160 corvettes: 6 contracted, including 2 under construction. Plans now calling for 6 more to be built. Will have greater range and be more self-sufficient than their predecessors. They can travel 6000 miles and 60 days without refueling, versus 3,500 miles and 15 days for the Steregushchii.
  • Buyan and Buyan-M class corvettes for Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet: 5 in service, 1 in sea trials, 5 under construction, 1 more contracted.
  • 6 Ivan Gren amphibious ships: construction started in 2004, little progress to date, first ship due in 2015, will be difficult to get more than 2-3 built by 2020.
  • Mistrals: one in sea trials, one under construction in France, option for two more. Transfer may be held up due to EU sanctions. Could be used as either command ships or for amphibious attack.

Russia plans to build a total of ten Borei-class strategic submarines, with five already built or currently under construction. These will be armed with the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile system. While eight Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarines are planned — with one already in service — only 3-4 are likely to be completed by 2020.

Diesel submarine plans include six improved Kilos and as many as 14 Ladas. The Kilos should not present much of a problem, while construction of Ladas was suspended in 2011 because of problems with propulsion systems and hydroacoustic sensors. Construction was recently resumed with a completely new engine. Though 14 is not a realistic target, 5-6 could be built by 2020 if the problems have actually been solved.

CONCLUSION: The Russian navy will see modest improvements in capabilities by the end of the decade, with a shift in focus away from large surface units and nuclear attack submarines, and towards frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines. This emphasis shows that Russia does not see NATO as a realistic potential maritime opponent. Whereas the Soviet navy focused on building ships designed to take on carrier groups, the new Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home, at least in the short term.