Russia’s Military Modernization Plans: 2018-2027

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russian military modernization plans from our September policy conference in Washington. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.


By the end of 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin will approve Russia’s State Armament Program for 2018-2027. This memo summarizes publicly available information regarding the types of armaments that will be procured for the Russian military in the next eight years and assesses the likelihood that the Russian government will be able to meet these commitments. Based on these plans, Russia seems primed to stay ahead of its competitors in some capabilities (anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare, air defenses), narrow the gap in areas such as drones and precision-guided munitions, and continue to lag well behind in a few areas such as surface ships and automated control systems.

The Scope of the Program

The Russian State Armament Program (SAP) for 2018-2027, which is set to be approved toward the end of this year, will set out Russia’s rearmament priorities for the next ten years. The previous program, which runs through 2020, was the blueprint according to which the Russian military has been modernizing its equipment since 2011. That program had a total budget of 19.3 trillion rubles. SAP-2027 was initially regarded as a kind of lifeline for SAP-2020, whose expensive, long-term programs were to be transferred to the next ten-year plan. The cost of the successor program is expected to total 19 trillion. This suggests that military procurement spending is actually being kept fairly constant because the ruble amount remains about the same and almost all of the purchases are from domestic suppliers, meaning the sales are not impacted by changes in the ruble’s exchange rate.

The size of the program was the subject of an extended tug-of-war between the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry. As early as 2014, the military asked for funding in the range of 30-55 trillion rubles over a ten-year period, while the finance ministry set a target of 14 trillion. As the country’s financial situation began to deteriorate in 2015 and the adoption of the SAP was postponed until 2017, both sides lowered their targets. In 2016, the Defense Ministry asked for 22-24 trillion rubles for eight years, while the finance ministry suggested no more than 12 trillion. After an extended and sometimes tense negotiation, a figure of 17 trillion rubles was agreed last winter. This has now been increased to 19 trillion rubles, with the duration extending to the normal ten years. As a result, a number of the most ambitious and expensive projects, including new designs for aircraft carriers, destroyers, strategic bombers, and fighter-interceptor combat aircraft will all be postponed.

This was not the end of tensions over defense financing, however. Although the total amount has been decided, there is now an internal conflict within the defense ministry over how much procurement financing will go to each branch of the military. The various branches have produced documents defending the importance of what they do. As highlighted by the recently approved naval doctrine, such documents often have little connection to any real assessment of either Russian military needs or the capabilities of the defense industry for producing the requested weapons and platforms. Although the final version of the program will not be adopted until the end of the year, it has become increasingly clear that the Russian Navy is in the process of losing the battle for financing. The highest priority for procurement funding will go to the ground forces and to the modernization of nuclear weapons, while the navy, which had the highest level of funding in SAP-2020, will fall to the bottom of the pecking order.

Nuclear Forces

The development priorities of Russian nuclear forces through 2027 are largely clear. After 2021, the naval component of the nuclear triad will consist of six Delta IV-class and eight Borei-class strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), evenly divided between the Northern and Pacific Fleets. This will allow for 12 submarines to be in service at all times, while two undergo overhauls and modernization. The air component is being upgraded, with modernized versions of both Tupolev Tu-95MS (Bear H) bombers and 11 Tu-160 (Blackjack) bombers receiving new engines and avionics, as well as weapons upgrades. The new long-range cruise missile, labeled Kh-101, is replacing the Kh-55, with a range of up to 4,500 km in the nuclear variant. In addition, the Russian military has announced that it will resume building new Tu-160s, with serial production expected to resume no earlier than 2021. This is a more cost-effective and technologically feasible alternative to bringing a completely new design (known as PAK DA) to the point of serial production in a reasonable time frame.

The future development of the land component of the Russian triad presents the least certainty. There are three projects under way, the Rubezh road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Barguzin rail-mobile ICBM, and the Sarmat heavy silo-based ICBM. The Rubezh project is closest to fruition, with testing completed in 2015 and deployment expected later in 2017. The RS-26 Rubezh is a further development of the RS-24 Yars, with independently guided warheads designed to break through missile defense shields. The Barguzin is expected to be ready for flight testing in 2019, even though there was a period of several months in 2016 when it appeared that the program was going to be suspended due to budget cuts. The Barguzin is expected to be superior in range and accuracy as compared to the Soviet rail-based system that was decommissioned in 2005. The RS-28 Sarmat is the next-generation silo-based ICBM. It was originally expected to be ready for deployment in 2018, but unspecified snags in its development have pushed ejection testing from the original target date of 2015 to no earlier than June 2017. As a result, the Sarmat is unlikely to be deployed any earlier than 2020, assuming the difficulties have been overcome and the tests proceed as scheduled.

Ground Forces

After being largely starved of funding in SAP-2020, the ground forces are expected to get the largest share of funding in SAP-2027. Some sources indicate that over a quarter of the total program budget will go to equipping the Ground Forces and Airborne Forces. This is in part due to Russia’s experience in Ukraine leading to an increased perception that ground forces may be needed in future conflicts, but mostly the result of new armored vehicle and tank designs being ready for serial production. T-90 and T-14 Armata tanks, Kurganets-25infantry fighting vehicles and Boomerang armored personnel carriers are all expected to enter the force over the next eight years, though numbers of some items such as Armatatanks may be limited due to their high cost of production.

The production of artillery and ground based missiles has been a bright spot for the ground forces. Deployment of medium-range Iskander missiles is proceeding on schedule, with all units set to be in place by 2019. New Uragan and Tornado-S multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) are also being deployed beginning in 2017, with purchases expected to continue throughout the duration of SAP-2027. Procurement of the Koalitsiya self-propelled gun started in 2016. It is eventually expected to fully replace the Soviet-era Msta system. New short range air defense systems will also be procured.

There are more problems with tactical automated control systems for the ground forces. Originally expected to be deployed to 40 brigades by 2020, these remain in field testing in a single division. Reports indicate that the military has mixed feelings about the system and may decide that it needs improvement before it can be widely adopted. In that case, the development of network-centric warfare capabilities may be delayed beyond 2027. In the meantime, the ground forces will continue to receive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare systems that have been used to good effect in Syria.

Naval Forces

The Russian Navy stands to be the big loser in SAP-2027. After being allocated 4.7 trillion rubles in SAP-2020 and finding itself unable to spend all of that money due to a combination of problems with Russia’s shipbuilding industry and the impact of Western and Ukrainian sanctions, the Russian Navy’s allocation is expected to be cut to 2.6 trillion rubles in SAP-2027. Despite grandiose plans being mooted in documents such as the recently approved naval doctrine, Russia is planning to focus its naval construction on submarines and small ships. In surface ships, the focus will be on new corvettes of several different types that will have greater displacement and better armament than existing classes, as well as the start of serial production of the long-delayed Admiral Gorshkov-class of frigates. Until the problems with the Admiral Gorshkov are resolved, the Navy will continue to build the less advanced Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates.

The only new class of surface ships expected to be built in the next eight years are the so-called Super Gorshkov-class, an 8,000-ton frigate that is increasingly seen as a cheaper and more practical alternative to the 14,000-ton Lider-class destroyers. The key takeaway is that the Russian Navy is looking to increase the size of its smaller ships in order to increase their armament and endurance, while reducing costs by indefinitely postponing the procurement of larger ships such as destroyers, amphibious assault ships, and aircraft carriers.

As for submarines, SAP-2027 will undoubtedly include financing for the completion of six Yasen-M nuclear attack submarines and possibly for a seventh, as well as for the modernization of four to six each of the Soviet-era Oscar– and Akula-class nuclear attack submarines. Construction of fifth-generation nuclear attack submarines (tentatively named the Husky-class) will begin in the mid-2020s. In diesel submarines, the focus will be on developing air independent propulsion systems for the forthcoming Kalina-class, while Lada– and improved Kilo-class boats are built in the meantime.

More important than new ships and submarines, the coming eight years will see the Russian Navy concentrate on developing new weapons systems and improving existing ones. The introduction of Kalibr missiles has provided the Russian Navy with a standoff anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile capability that can be used to make even small ships that have to stay near home ports a potential threat to adversaries, included NATO member states. The Russian military recognizes the advantages that these missiles provide and has put them on a wide range of ship and submarine classes. Over the next eight years, Russia will continue to deploy these missiles on most new surface ships and submarines, retrofit some existing vessels to carry the missiles, and work to improve the accuracy and reliability of the missiles themselves. It is also working to develop a new hypersonic missile that could pose an even greater threat to Russia’s adversaries in the medium to long term.

Air Forces

In the last seven years, the Russian Air Force has begun to receive modern aircraft in significant numbers and has continued to pay for the development of new designs such as the recently christened Sukhoi Su-57 fifth generation fighter jet (formerly known as the T-50or PAK FA). The Su-57 is not expected to enter into serial production until upgraded engines are ready, which is unlikely to happen until 2027. Over the next eight years, Russia will continue to purchase small numbers of these planes for testing. It will also continue to purchase Su-35S fighter jets, with a new contract for 50 additional aircraft signed in late 2016. Purchases of Su-30SM fighter jets and Su-34 strike aircraft will also continue, most likely at rates of 12-18 aircraft per year of each type. Mikoyan MiG-35 fighter aircraft may also be procured, but probably not in large numbers. Overall, with many modern fighter aircraft now in place, rates of procurement will slow in order to allow for the purchase of other types of aircraft. The same goes for military helicopters, since the Russian military has received what it needs in new helicopters during the last seven years. Development of a new high-speed helicopter will not start until after 2027.

Transport and refueling aircraft, long an area of weakness for the Russian Air Force, will be one area of focus. Serial production of the long-troubled Ilyushin Il-76-MD90A is expected to start in 2019, and the Russian military is expecting to receive 10-12 such aircraft per year thereafter. A light transport aircraft is under development, with prototypes expected to be completed in 2024. The A-100 airborne warning system (AWACS) aircraft, based on the Il-76MD90A, was expected to be delivered starting in 2016 but has been repeatedly delayed. Nevertheless, procurement of this aircraft will be included in SAP-2027. Finally, Russia is experiencing a boom in domestic production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). By 2020, it will have a strike UAV in production, as well as a new generation of reconnaissance UAVs.

For air defense, Russia will continue to deploy S-400 long-range missiles and Pantsir-Sshort-range missiles. However, it seems increasingly unlikely that the next generation S-500air defense system will be ready for serial production any time soon, though official plans still indicate that a prototype will be built by 2020. Original plans called for serial production of the S-500 to start in 2015. The new standard short-range air defense system has just started development and is not expected to be ready for production until 2030.

Impact on Capabilities and Regional Security

SAP-2020 has been widely described as the first successful armament program of Russia’s post-Soviet history. It was designed to help the Russian military catch up from the extended procurement holiday caused by Russia’s economic collapse in the 1990s. During the last seven years, the Russian military has made great strides in modernizing its weapons and equipment. By and large, these new armaments have been based on updated versions of late Soviet designs. The Russian defense industry now faces the far more formidable challenge of bringing new designs into serial production. It has been successful in this regard in some areas, such as nuclear submarines, missile systems, and UAVs. It has been less successful with combat ships and air defense systems. The verdict is still out on combat aircraft and tanks and armored vehicles.

With the most significant gaps largely filled, SAP-2027 is designed to transition the Russian military to a more regular procurement schedule. Funding will remain relatively constant, though it may be adjusted depending on the economic situation. The previous program has shown that this level of funding is more or less achievable for the government budget and for the Russian defense industry to sustain. The biggest challenge will be in bringing new designs successfully to serial production.

In terms of impact on military capabilities, Russia is already strong enough to defend itself in a conventional war against any adversary and to defeat any neighboring state other than China. It also has a more than sufficient nuclear deterrent capability. New procurement will thus be targeted at keeping pace with technological improvements made by its peer competitors (NATO member states and China). In some areas, such as air defenses, anti-ship missiles, and electronic warfare, Russia will continue to maintain capabilities superior to those of its peers. In other areas, such as UAVs, precision-guided munitions, and tanks and armored vehicles, it appears poised to narrow the gap. Finally, in a few areas, such as surface ships, transport aircraft, and automated control systems, it will remain well behind the United States and may start to lag behind China as well.

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What we learned from the Russian naval salon (МВМС-2017)

Every two years, St. Petersburg hosts a major naval salon, where Russian and foreign shipbuilders come to show off their latest products. Representatives of the Russian Navy also attend, and often take the opportunity to discuss their procurement plans (and dreams). The 2017 salon was held from June 28 to July 2. Mike Kofman has laid out the outline of the surface ship construction plans, highlighting the sheer number of different classes of corvettes being planned. The key takeaway is that the Russian Navy is looking to increase the size of its smaller ships in order to increase their armament and endurance. This is the main reason for the development of the 3,400 ton Project 20386 corvette, which is significantly larger than the 2,500 ton Project 20385 variant and is considered by the Russian Navy to be a blue water ship. Larger ship projects are being scaled down, with the 8000 ton Super Gorshkov likely to be the largest ship built for the Russian Navy in the next 10 years, despite regular claims by various design bureaus that their giant projects are ready for construction.

In fact, these types of salons are usually a prime opportunity for design bureaus to promote various completely unrealistic projects that they hope to have funded by the Ministry of Defense. At the 2017 salon, the Krylov design bureau cemented its position as the leader in such self-promotion. In announcing the Briz corvette class, it has completed a full set of unlikely to be built surface ship projects. Here’s the complete list, from smallest to largest. First, there’s the Briz, a 2000 ton corvette that has enough armaments to fill a 3000 or even 4000 ton vessel. Next, the Lider destroyer, a 14,000 ton nuclear powered monstrosity that was once supposed to be under construction beginning in 2019. I have grave doubts that we will see construction start this decade, and there’s a decent chance that these ships won’t be built at all, given their high cost and the reduced priority the Navy will receive in the new State Armament Program that is expected to be approved later this year. Then there’s the Priboi, a 23,000 ton amphibious assault ship that is meant to be Russia’s answer to the French Mistral. Again, cost makes construction of these ships unlikely. And finally, and least likely of all, is the Shtorm aircraft carrier design. While Russian shipbuilding companies and navy admirals make regular statements about plans to build an aircraft carrier in the next decade, the reality is that Russia has neither the need nor the resources to devote to such a project.

What we will see in the near future, other than the various corvettes and missile ships, is an extension of the Project 11356 (Admiral Grigorovich class) frigates, with three new ones expected to be built for the Russian Navy with Russian-made propulsion systems while the two hulls whose construction was frozen in 2015 will be sold to India and equipped with Ukrainian turbines. The Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov) line of frigates is also expected to be completed, with significant progress being made in the development of Russian turbines. However, the first ship of the class is still in sea trials, pending the completion of the long-delayed Poliment Redut naval air defense system.

Though Redut is still not ready, another prominent defensive weapons system did have its debut at the salon. The Pantsir-M integrated CIWS has a range of 20km, compared to its predecessor’s 8-10km, and can simultaneously target 4 objects. It will be placed on most new Russian ships, including the Project 22800 Karakurt patrol ships, two of which are being built in Zelenodolsk. There is also talk that Pantsir-M systems will replace existing Kortik systems on existing Russian combat ships, though no specifics have been announced in that regard.

The Navy also announced a full-scale renewal of its minesweeper fleet, with Admiral Bursuk stating that 40 Project 12700 (Alexandrit class) fiberglass minesweepers will be procured, with two a year being build in St. Petersburg starting in 2018 and additional ships at plants in the Far East. One ship of the class is already active in the Baltic Fleet and three others currently under construction. According to Admiral Bursuk, the Ivan Khurs, the second of the Project 18280 (Yuri Ivanov class) intelligence ships, is expected to be commissioned by the end of the current year, as is the long-delayed Project 11711 Ivan Gren amphibious ship. The second ship of that class is officially still on track to be commissioned next year, though given the track record of delays on this class, dates for both ships could certainly slip again.

There was relatively little news regarding submarines at the salon. Admiral Bursuk did announce that two more Project 677 (Lada class) diesel submarines would be built after the current series of three is completed, though there was no information on progress on air-independent propulsion systems and nothing on the status of the Kalina submarine project that is supposed to be equipped with AIP. Bursuk also announced that construction of the first two of the six Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo class) diesel submarines for the Pacific Fleet would start in July, with all six scheduled to be completed by 2021. Finally, the sixth Yasen-M nuclear submarine is to be laid down in July, with construction expected to take at least six years. Five Yasen-M class submarines are already in various stages of construction, with the Severdvinsk Yasen class in active service.

To conclude, there was another sign of the gradual reactivation of Russian shipbuilding in the Far East, with the announcement that starting next year, Russia will hold a Far East version of its naval salon, to be held biannually in even numbered years.

Russia’s armaments on parade

I was in Moscow last week for the Moscow Conference on International Security. Look for my usual writeup on the event later in the week. In the meantime, some photos and videos.

In a case of being in the right place at the right time, the rehearsal for the May 9 military parade was held last week, and I happened to be at a restaurant that was on the route they were using to get to Red Square. So while the rehearsal itself was after dark, I got a lot of daylight video and images.

Videos first (I can’t embed videos here, so please click on the links)

Logistics vehicles: https://goo.gl/photos/PuWWrNvRB3PqZeUg6

Armata tanks and various artillery: https://goo.gl/photos/FVJWE2fwXiXrTbt89

Kornet and BTRs: https://goo.gl/photos/wBnvwBDcRmx5APEi8

Arctic brigade and S-400: https://goo.gl/photos/WCaJxnDCir6Hak789

A little of everything here (Iskander, S-400, tanks, Kornet, etc): https://goo.gl/photos/HHWi3CFdc9FTQX1S7

SA-17: https://goo.gl/photos/ovXKRka7zoqcrhER6

Yars ICBMs: https://goo.gl/photos/bPUpy3FUF8uNyaSU9

And a few photos

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Russian naval air defense in trouble

There have long been reports that the ongoing delays with the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate have to do with defects in its air defense systems. These were thought to be primarily related to problems with integration of the Poliment Redut air defense missile system. The Poliment system was designed to be Russia’s answer to AEGIS, with four phased array antennas that are able to track 16 targets at the same time. The Redut system consists of four or eight vertical launch systems that launch three types of missiles. The 9M100 is the short-range missile, with a range of up to 15km. The 9M96M is the medium-range missile, with a range of 40-50km. Finally, the 9M96 long-range missile is supposed to have a range of up to 150km.

It now appears that the Redut’s problems are much more serious than just integration. A recent report notes that the Ministry of Defense has stopped trials of the system because of continuing problems with the 9M96 long-range missile. Specifically, the missiles appear to fail after three seconds of flight. Some reports indicate that the Redut system works well hitting targets up to 40km away, but fails in the long range. The implication is that the short and medium range missiles work well, but the long range missile does not. Nevertheless, this may be an improvement over previous results, as trials of the Redut system on the Steregushchiy class corvettes in 2014 showed that they were only able to hit targets at distances of up to 15km because the medium-range Furke-2 radar system was not functioning properly.

Instead of further trials, the problems will now be sorted out by an inter-agency commission, a sure sign that the problems are serious and are not expected to be fixed any time soon. The problems stem from issues at the design bureau, which is reportedly not up to the task of designing a missile with the requirements provided by the Defense Ministry. The Fakel machine design bureau, which is developing the missiles is supposedly in relatively poor condition, using technologies and equipment left over from the Soviet period.

Redut systems are supposed to be installed on both the Admiral Gorshkov frigates and the Steregushchiy class corvettes. The corvettes that have been commissioned so far with partial Redut systems that are not able to strike long-distance targets. It looks like the Russian military is now facing a choice regarding how long it is willing to wait to commission the already long-delayed first ship of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate class. So far, the Defense Ministry has not been willing to commission the frigate without a fully functional air defense system, though this may change as the delays grow longer.

 

What Russia’s military operation in Syria can tell us about advances in its capabilities

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russia’s military  operation in Syria from our February policy conference in Istanbul. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.

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As Russia begins to wind down its military operation in Syria, it is time to assess what it has taught us about how the Russian military operates. Although relatively small in scale, the operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities. Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in operational tempo and inter-service integration. The operation has also showcased Russia’s recently developed standoff strike capability and demonstrated significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations.

Russia’s initial air campaign in Syria successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces. After eliminating these targets, Russian air forces began coordinating with Syrian and Iranian ground forces against opposition fighters in the northwestern part of the country, though this part of the operation took time to have an appreciable impact.

High Operational Intensity and Improved Inter-Service Coordination

The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria was quite high from the start. In October, an average of 45 sorties per day were carried out by a total of 34 airplanes and 16 helicopters. The pace of the operation also increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its initial peak on October 8-9. It then declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets had all been hit and opposition forces adapted to Russian air attacks by ceasing to operate out in the open.

The Russian operation further expanded in November 2015, in the aftermath of the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner in the Sinai and again after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that infringed on Turkish airspace. In mid-November, the Russian government announced the addition of 37 Su-34 and Su-27 aircraft, which allowed it to increase the number of daily sorties to 127.

The overall average between the start of the operation on September 30 and the end of December was 60 sorties per day, with a maximum of 189 strikes on December 24. This high operational tempo is especially surprising considering the rash of crashes that Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015. Experts blamed the crashes on Russia’s over-used and aging aircraft fleet. While unconfirmed rumors circulated that the operational tempo and harsh desert conditions resulted in maintenance problems for many Russian aircraft, the Russian Air Force’s ability to maintain the high frequency of sorties for over three months speaks to a more resilient force than expected.

The operation in Syria has also highlighted advances in integration among the branches of Russia’s military. This was one of the goals of military reform undertaken after notable failures were revealed during the war in Georgia. In order to improve inter-service coordination, the Russian military reorganized its regional command structure so that all non-strategic military units in each military district were placed under the direct authority of that district’s military commander. In the past, cooperation across services in a particular region had to be coordinated through the service headquarters in Moscow; the new structure allowed this coordination to take place at the regional level. This innovation has had the effect of greatly improving the speed of decisionmaking in regional conflicts.

In November 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense also established the National Defense Control Center (NDCC), which acts as a major communications hub and advanced data analysis center for the military. The activation of the NDCC has led to more rapid information transfer between the theater of operations and military leaders in Moscow. Information from all types of military assets around the world is collected and analyzed in one location. As a result, the NDCC has reduced the number of steps in military decisionmaking, resulting in increased speed and higher reliability in adjusting military actions to changes in the operating environment.

In addition, Russia’s air force has demonstrated an ability to work with both other services and foreign forces. The Russian Navy, for example, provided sealift for the Syria campaign, as well as long-range air defense with the S-300 system, which was situated on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defense system allowed Russia to provide defense against potential attacks while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.[1] Although Russian ground forces played a relatively limited role in the conflict, they were important for providing area defense for the Russian air base at Hmeymim.

More significantly, the Russian air force showed an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces, which conducted offensives against Syrian opposition positions under Russian air cover. While these offensives were not as effective at regaining territory as Russian leaders might have hoped at the start of the operation, they did eventually succeed in driving anti-government forces out of several key areas and placed the Assad government in a stronger position for potential peace negotiations.

Advances in Weaponry

Russia’s operation in Syria tested and highlighted advances in Russian weaponry while revealing the limitations of its new capabilities. For the first time, Russian aircraft used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat. Only about 20 percent of strikes used such modern weaponry, however, while the rest were carried out with older, unguided gravity bombs. According to Russian analysts, the air force achieved better accuracy with its unguided munitions by using modern onboard targeting equipment and by more intensive training of its pilots. As a result, Russian aircraft were able to hit multiple targets in a single sortie for the first time. The vulnerability of Russian aircraft to enemy attack was reduced by decreasing the amount of time spent in areas vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and by the widespread incorporation of technology that allows Russian strike aircraft to fly at night. Finally, the Russian Air Force also used for the first time unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to provide targeting information to strike aircraft and to collect data on the effectiveness of bombing sorties in hitting targets.

At the same time, the Russian military sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended. These munitions are relatively expensive when compared to unguided bombs. Moreover, the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and did not wish to expend them on targets when the use of such weapons is unnecessary.

The land-attack cruise missile (LACM) strikes against Syrian targets, launched in October 2015 from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, were primarily intended to serve as a demonstration of Russia’s capabilities. The attacks were launched from three Buyan M-class corvettes and a Gepard-class frigate and flew over Iranian and Iraqi territory on their way to their targets. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already in Syria. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated that it could launch strikes from ships well inside Russia’s air defense perimeter. The real goal was to show NATO military planners (and neighboring states) that Russia has a new standoff land-attack missile capability that can be difficult to neutralize.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015 when Kalibr LACMs were launched against targets from a recently constructed diesel submarine operating in the Mediterranean Sea. This launch of LACMs from hard-to-track submarines further highlighted the potential threat posed by Russian naval vessels against Russia’s potential opponents. These strikes were closely coordinated with the air force, which sent out a sizeable percentage of its long-range aviation to conduct strikes against the Islamic State. This force included five Tu-160, six Tu-95MS, and 14 Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, which launched Kh-555 and Kh-101 cruise missiles and also dropped gravity bombs on targets in Raqqa. These cruise missiles, with a range of approximately 2000 kilometers, had never been used in combat. While a number of analysts dismissed the tactics used by the long-range aviation as outdated, the goal of the operation was to highlight the combat readiness of the aircraft rather than the kinds of tactics the service would actually use in combat against an adversary that can defend against strikes by strategic aviation.

Unexpected Ability to Deploy and Sustain Operations out of Area

Until last September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood, as its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theaters of operations. However, the Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all naval transport ships located in the European theater. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment to Syria. While Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sea- and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways.

Russia’s initial planning for its Syrian operation assumed that it would continue for three to six months. The slow initial progress by Syrian government forces in retaking territory combined with the perception of an increased threat to Russian interests from both ISIS and Turkey, resulted in an expansion of operations. Russia began to use at least two additional Syrian airbases more conveniently located for providing air support for Syrian government offensives in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Each base used by Russian aircraft requires protection, which led to the deployment of additional artillery batteries. Despite an increase in forces, the Russian military has not had problems resupplying its troops and was ready to continue operations in Syria for the indefinite future.

The recent announcement that Russia would begin to withdraw its forces from Syria does not necessarily mean that the operation is ending. In the same announcement, President Vladimir Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to keep all existing bases in Syria open and operating at present levels. Russian air defense systems and some aircraft are likely to remain in Syria. This will allow for a quick return of Russian forces to Syria if the political and military situation warrants it.

Conclusion

Russia’s operation in Syria sought to accomplish multiple goals. Apart from its geopolitical objectives, it was designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities resulting from military reforms carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. Although the Russian operation was initially slow in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its opponents—and the impact of recent offensives and the subsequent ceasefire remains to be seen—it is clear that these reforms have resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

Russian stealth fighter will enhance air force capabilities

In June 2015, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the capabilities of new Russian aircraft. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT:The Russian T-50 fighter and PAK DA bomber.

SIGNIFICANCE:In early June, a series of high profile crashes involving Russian military planes led to Moscow grounding the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber fleet. Additionally, on June 4, a Su-34 strike fighter crashed near Voronezh and a MiG-29 crashed near the Caspian. Military leadership is hoping that the air force’s reliance on old systems will be solved by two new programmes: the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA and the PAKDA bomber.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russia will continue high frequency of air activity over Baltic and North Sea regions.
  • Increasing numbers of European air forces will look to procure fifth-generation fighters to maintain approximate parity with Russia.
  • Shortage of refueling planes will be a concern for the Russian air force and may prove to be an Achilles’ heal.
  • One of the primary targets of the air force is a stealth fighter, in order to to maintain parity with the United States, a role which is sought for the T-50.

PAK FA T-50

The Russian Air Force has been developing a fifth-generation fighter aircraft since the late 1980s. The PAK FA T-50, has been under development at Sukhoi for about 15 years. The first flight of a prototype aircraft took place in January 2010. A total of five prototype aircraft have been delivered over the last five years. It is expected that the jet will enter service in 2016.

Stealth abilities

This aircraft will be the first operational stealth aircraft operated by Russia. It is expected to be built at least in part out of composite materials, highly manoeuvrable, with supercruise capability and advanced avionics. It will initially use a variant of the Saturn 117 engine currently installed on the Su-35S. A new engine, Product 30, is to be ready for production no earlier than 2017 and will become the standard engine in the 2020s. This engine is supposed to provide 17-18% more thrust, improved fuel efficiency, and higher reliability than the existing engine.

While recently constructed prototypes have been equipped with advanced avionics, reports indicate that the T-50’s electronic components are likely to be upgraded further before serial production begins. The need for continued work on avionic equipment and engines means that the initial production run of the aircraft will retain fourth-generation characteristics and will be comparable to earlier US F-16/18s. The Russian air force will therefore not have a complete fifth-generation fighter until 2020 at the earliest.

F-22 and F-35 comparison

Russia generally compares the T-50 to the F-22, rather than to the F-35. The T-50 has cruising (Mach 1.7) and top (Mach 2.5) speeds that are comparable to the F-22, though it is designed to be significantly faster than the F-35, which has been tested to a top speed of Mach 1.6. The maximum range without refueling is also comparable to the F-22, at 2,000 kilometres, and slightly inferior to the F-35’s 2,200 kilometres. Service ceiling is also relatively comparable, at 20,000 metres for the F-22 and T-50 and over 18,000 metres for the F-35.

There are extensive debates among aviation specialists regarding the relative merits of the three aircraft. These debates are complicated by the lack of reliable information on the characteristics of final versions of various T-50 components, including in such key areas as engines and avionics. At the same time, there is some consensus that the T-50 is more manoeuvrable but less ‘stealthy’ than the F-35 and F-22. Because of this characteristic, the T-50 is expected to be slightly superior to US aircraft in air battles but less successful in attacking ground targets. However, these comparisons are being made based on real data about Western aircraft but only statements regarding the T-50. Given Russian officials’ track record of hiding problems and exaggerating the capabilities of new technology, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the T-50’s performance may not match expectations.

Cooperation with India has stalled

Since 2007, the T-50 project has included a two-seater version designed for the Indian Air Force and commonly known as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). Original plans called for the production of 500 aircraft, with serial production to begin in 2015. Disagreements between the two sides have resulted in serious delays. The Indian side has complained that the aircraft’s engine is underpowered and unreliable, that problems with the airframe reduce the aircraft’s stealth features, that radar and other electronic systems are inadequate, that construction quality is poor, and that as a result of these defects the per unit cost is too high. As a result of these delays, India is expected to receive only three prototypes by 2017.

Procurement plans

Original plans called for the air force to receive 52 T-50 aircraft by 2020 and a total of 250 by 2030. However, officials have announced that due to the deteriorating economy, only twelve of these aircraft will be procured during the next five years. Four planes are expected to be produced during 2015, though these will still be considered prototypes. Therefore, the T-50 will not become a mainstay of the Russian air force in the foreseeable future.

Overall, it is unclear whether the Russian defence industry will be able to produce some of the advanced features on this aircraft, particularly in the areas of stealth technology, avionics and fifth-generation engines. Furthermore, the cost of the aircraft, estimated to be at least 50 million dollars per unit, may make large-scale procurement unaffordable given Russia’s current economic problems.

PAK DA bomber

Development of what is known as the PAKDA bomber began in 2007. Tupolev won the initial tender to design the new long-range bomber. By 2009, company officials were anticipating that the research and development phase would be complete in 2012, the engineering phase would be finished in 2017 and the Russian air force would have 100 PAK DA aircraft by 2027. Subsequently, there have been debates regarding the need for such a plane and its capabilities. In August 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that any new strategic bomber will need to possess hypersonic technology to avoid falling behind the United States. This idea was later rejected in favor of a subsonic flying wing design with a long range and the ability to carry a heavy payload of weapons.

Long range

Given the lack of a prototype, there is little certainty about the plane’s design features. Experts believe that it is likely to have an initial weight of around 120-130 tons and a range of approximately 12,000 kilometres. Early indications that the two aircraft (T-50 and PAK DA) may also share engines appear to have been rejected in favour of an updated version of the engines found on the Tu-160. Last year, Russian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the miltiary would start receiving the PAK DA in 2023. However, there have been indications that the timeline for developing a new bomber could possibly be pushed back, with some air force officials stating a potential in-service date range for the new plane of 2025 to 2030. The project is currently at the prototype design and construction stage.

CONCLUSION: The requirements of the air force will provide further stimulus to Russia’s defence industry import substitution scheme. As a result of Western sanctions and broken defence cooperation with Ukraine, Russia is embarking on an ambitious programme to make its defence industry self-sufficient within three years. However, increasingly the defence industry may be forced to retrench, returning to old designs and recycling components as it is unable to meet this ambitious target. The high cost of the T-50 fighter will eat into the overall budget, sapping chances for full-spectrum reforms.

Russian Naval Shipbuilding: Is It Possible to Fulfill the Kremlin’s Grand Expectations?

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russian naval shipbuilding from our September policy conference. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.

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Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent reinforcement of the region’s military forces have been combined with a general increase in naval activity—including aggressive activity vis-à-vis NATO countries’ maritime interests beyond the Black Sea. All this has led to increased international interest in Russian naval modernization plans. Although this modernization effort is going slowly, the Russian Navy’s ability to place effective long-range cruise missiles on relatively small ships means that Russia remains a serious regional maritime power with the capability to threaten not only its neighbors but much of Europe in the event of a conflict.

Russian Naval Construction Plans

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy in the coming decades. For this reason, the construction of Russian nuclear submarines has received priority financing and has been largely insulated from budget cuts.

The main new submarine projects include the following:

  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which will replace the remaining Delta III and Delta IV submarines over the next 15 years. Three are commissioned, 3 are under construction, and 2 more are contracted.
  • Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which are large and expensive. One is currently commissioned and a total of 8 are planned. Only 2 are likely to be completed by 2020 due to financial constraints on construction.
  • New, smaller, and cheaper nuclear submarines. Two versions:  one designed for protecting naval strike groups against attack submarines and the other to be armed with cruise missiles. Construction on these submarines will start in 1-2 years, with a production goal of 16-18 of them in service by 2040.
  • Kalina-class diesel submarine with air independent propulsion (AIP). This will serve as the successor to the Lada-class submarine. Although the head of the Navy has said that an AIP design will be complete by the end of 2016, it is unclear how much progress has actually been made.

As for surface ships, the Navy is primarily building small ones at present, while finalizing designs for larger ships for the future. The main projects include:

  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates (FFG). Construction of these ships has been unusually slow even by the glacial pace of recent Russian shipbuilding. Eight are currently under construction, with the first scheduled to be commissioned this year. At the current rate of construction, the Navy can expect to have 5 ships of this class by 2025, and 9 by 2030.
  • Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates (FFG) (updated Soviet design). Six have been ordered to fill the gap left by the slow construction of the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Construction of the last three ships has been suspended due to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine, which produced the gas turbines for these ships.
  • Steregushchiy-class corvette (FFC). Four ships are in active service, 7 are under construction, and 9 more are under contract. Eighteen were originally planned to be built by 2020, although delays associated with Western sanctions are likely to reduce this number to 12-14.
  • Admiral Bykov-class corvette (FFC). Two are under construction, with 4 more under contract and a total of 12 expected to be built over the next 10-15 years. These ships are expected to have greater range and more self-sufficiency than their predecessors.
  • Buyan-M-class missile ships (PFG). These small ships are designed to be used primarily in the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet. Three are in service, 2 are in sea trials, and 4 are under construction.
  • Lider-class 15,000-ton nuclear destroyers (DDG). Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018-2019, with a goal of 12 in the fleet by 2035. Some analysts argue that financial limitations mean only 3-4 of these ships will be built.
  • New large amphibious ships (LHD). These would have at least 14,000-ton displacement and be capable of conducting expeditionary missions. Construction of these ships is likely to start before 2020.

The Feasibility of Russian Shipbuilding Plans

Official statements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance that the Russian Navy is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many of these projects have faced lengthy delays and cost overruns. As a result, some of the most prominent naval procurement projects have been scaled back while others have been postponed for years at a time.

The main reasons for these delays and cost overruns involve a) long-term decline in naval research and development; b) an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry, which is considered to be particularly outdated and poorly structured as compared to other sectors of the Russian defense industry (and has suffered more than other sectors due to Western sanctions); and c) pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn.

Russia’s current shipbuilding industry was primarily formed in the 1960-70s, and its ship design capabilities have changed little since the early 1980s. As a result, Russian naval research and development (R&D) has fallen several decades behind Western and Asian capabilities. Russian leaders recognized this problem in the late 2000s and sought to absorb Western knowledge through joint projects, such as the Russian version of the French Mistral amphibious assault ship. In addition, they organized joint projects with foreign designers such as Saipem, Wartsila, and STX in civilian shipbuilding. However, the freezing of military cooperation with NATO states in 2014 as a result of the Ukraine conflict has largely foreclosed the possibility of catching up by borrowing Western know-how. Russian naval R&D is therefore likely to remain significantly behind when compared to the Western state-of-the-art.

Western sanctions have also resulted in major problems with the production of ship components, particularly in navigation and communication equipment. Most of these components are not produced domestically in Russia, and the industry has long been dependent on imports from Europe for high quality components. Efforts to start domestic production are underway, but prices for domestic variants are relatively high while quality is relatively low.

Although it has improved somewhat in recent years, shipbuilding is one of the more poorly performing sectors of Russia’s defense industry. Russian analysts argue that Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation is the least effective of all state corporations in Russia’s defense sector. This results from its excessive size, bloated management structures, and misguided efforts to combine military and civilian shipbuilding under a single corporate roof.

Financial Constraints

The State Armament Program (SAP) for 2011-2020 assigned five trillion rubles—a quarter of its total expenditures—to military shipbuilding. This amount was almost double the amount allocated to the ground forces and airborne forces combined. According to Russian analysts, currently announced naval procurement plans would require the amount of spending on military shipbuilding to increase to six to seven trillion rubles for the next SAP.

That said, funding the existing SAP through 2020 was beyond the means of the Russian government even prior to the budget crisis that began in 2014. While the percentage of Russian GDP devoted to military spending increased from 1.5 percent in 2010 to 3.4 percent in 2014, this higher level of spending was sustainable for the Russian economy at the time. However, 70 percent of the program’s expenditures were scheduled for the second half of the ten-year program. Since Russia’s economic growth was already slowing, fulfilling these plans would have required Russian military spending to increase to unsustainable levels of 6-8 percent of GDP even without the cuts in Russia’s government budget required by the collapse of world oil prices.

Potential Russian Navy Order of Battle, 2020-2030

The following tables are based on the Russian Navy’s announced construction plans, modified by an analysis of the financial and industrial constraints the Navy faces. These show that the Navy will substantially renew its submarines and small ships over the next fifteen years while it will just be starting on construction of a new generation of large surface combat ships.

Table 1. Submarines in the Russian Navy

Class 2020 2025 2030
Delta III 0 0 0
Delta IV 6 5-6 0-2
Borei 6 8-10 10-12
Sierra I & II, Victor III 0 0 0
Oscar 6 6 4-6
Akula 6 6 4-6
Yasen 2-3 6-8 6-8
New class SSGN 0 4-6 6-10
Kilo (project 877) 10-15 5-10 0
Improved Kilo (project 636.3) 6 6 6
Lada (project 677) 3 3 3
Kalina 0 4-6 6-10

The Russian Navy plans to have 12 SSBNs in active service by 2020. The three remaining Delta III SSBNs will be retired by this point, with six Borei-class SSBNs taking their place in the fleet. All six Delta IV SSBNs will most likely be retired in 2025-30. The Navy is planning to overhaul six Oscar-class guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) and six Akula-class SSNs, which will extend their lifespan by 12-15 years. Older classes, such as the Sierra and Victor III, will be retired before 2020. Yasen-class construction will proceed slowly, with no new orders expected after the current set of 6-8 are completed. Instead, the Navy will focus on the new class of nuclear submarines currently being designed. Older Kilo-class diesel submarines will be gradually retired as the Kalina-class begins to enter service in the early 2020s. The recently built improved Kilo-class and Lada-class submarines will serve as a bridge until a sufficient number of the Kalina-class are constructed.

Table 2. Large Combat Ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Kuznetsov CV 1 1 1
Kirov CGN 1 2-3 2-3
Slava CG 2 3 3
Sovremennyi DDG 0 0 0
Udaloy DDG 8 7 4-5
Lider DDG 0 0-1 4-6
Krivak I & II FFG 0-2 0 0
Neustrashimyi FFG 2 2 1-2
Admiral Grigorovich FFG 3-5 3-6 3-6
Admiral Gorshkov FFG 2-4 4-6 8-10

The Navy is currently refurbishing its cruisers. The program should be complete by 2025, although it is not yet clear whether the Admiral Lazarev Kirov-class cruiser will be modernized or decommissioned. All Sovremennyi-class destroyers will be decommissioned before 2020, while six Udaloy-class destroyers will be modernized to extend their lifespan through the early 2030s. The total number of Admiral Grigorovich frigates to be constructed will depend on the state of defense cooperation with Ukraine. If no agreement can be reached on purchasing gas turbines for these ships, only three will be commissioned.

Table 3. Small combat ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Grisha  FFC 18-20 8-10 0
Parchim FFC 7 5-7 0-3
Steregushchii FFC 12-14 20-24 20-24
Admiral Bykov FFC 4-6 6-12 12-15
Gepard FFL 2 2 2
Tarantul PFG 13-15 8-10 0-3
Nanuchka PFG 8-10 0-4 0
Bora PFG 2 2 2
Buyan PG 3 3 3
Buyan-M/Sarsar PFG 12-14 20-24 30-32

The overall number of small combat ships is expected to remain fairly steady over the next fifteen years. The older classes of corvettes and missile ships will be gradually retired as new corvettes and missile ships are commissioned. The new Sarsar-class of missile ships that has been announced recently will be a further modification of the Buyan-M-class and will be built in the 2020s.

Table 4. Amphibious ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Ropucha LST 12-15 8-10 0
Alligator LST 2-4 0 0
Ivan Gren LST 2 2 2
New class LST 0-1 2-3 6-8
New class LHD 0 0 2-3

The overall number of amphibious ships is likely to decrease over the next fifteen years due to the retirement of Ropucha-class tank landing ships (LST). The overall amphibious capability of the Navy will nonetheless increase as the replacement LSTs will be larger and more capable than the ships they are replacing, while the helicopter landing ships (LHD) will add a capability that the Navy has not previously possessed.

Implications

Regardless of what long-term development path the  Russian Navy chooses to pursue, in the near to medium term it will remain almost exclusively a coastal defense and deterrence force. For the foreseeable future, the strength of the Navy will be in its submarines. Under any development scenario, Russian SSBNs will retain an adequate strategic deterrence capability. Meanwhile, Russian SSGNs will be sufficient to protect the SSBNs and deter enemy naval forces from attacks on Russian territory. These forces will be supported by a new generation of small- and medium-sized combat ships, most of which will be equipped with anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. These naval forces will be fully sufficient to ensure Russian dominance in neighboring waters.

They will not, however, provide Russia with the forces to make it even a near-peer competitor to the U.S. Navy. Even under the most optimistic projections, the  Russian Navy will not have a serious expeditionary capability for at least 15 years. Planning for large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers is still very much in the early stages.  Whether the Navy should build either type of ship is still highly disputed among both the expert community and military planners. If they are built in the numbers currently being discussed and in the most likely timelines, then the United States may have to be prepared to deal with expeditionary Russian forces in the mid-to-late 2030s. It is far more likely, however, that financial and industrial limitations will lead to the cancellation or significant reduction of plans to develop a naval expeditionary capability.

Furthermore, out-of-area deployment capability is likely to deteriorate in the medium term as legacy Soviet-era large combat ships age and become less reliable. This trajectory will depend to some extent on the ability of the Russian Navy to successfully modernize its existing cruisers and Udaloy-class destroyers. If these programs are all carried out as currently planned, then the Navy will be able to continue to deploy large combat ships in numbers and frequency comparable to present-day rates until the next generation of destroyers are ready in the late 2020s. If these programs are fulfilled only partially or not at all, however, by 2025 the Navy will have few if any large combat ships capable of deploying regularly outside the immediate vicinity of their bases.

Overall, in the next 10-15 years the Russian Navy will most likely be good enough to defend the Russian coastline and ports. It will also be capable of posing a threat to its smaller neighbors and potentially to European NATO member states. The main source of the threat will be Russian ships’ ability to launch land attack cruise missiles from a distance of up to 2500 kilometers away from the target. The launch of cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria from small ships in the Caspian Sea in October 2015 was a demonstration of this capability that was not lost on NATO planners or neighboring states. Ships capable of carrying out similar strikes could be based in the Black or Baltic Sea, where they would be well protected by ship-based and coastal air defenses. The construction of a fairly sizeable fleet of small missile ships and corvettes equipped with land attack cruise missiles, combined with a strong layered coastal air defense capability, obviates to a large extent the need to build a sizeable fleet of large combat ships. Russian missile ships will be able to target most of its smaller neighbors and a large part of Europe without leaving the relative safety of enclosed seas where Russian forces are dominant.

In summary, although the Russian Navy will continue to have problems with its platforms, its offensive capabilities will increasingly not be dependent on the size and range of its ships. The new generation of ships will allow the Navy to mount new generations of long-range cruise missiles in a modular fashion on a variety of platforms. While the Navy will not be able to project power globally or reach the levels of the U.S. Navy, it will be able to target U.S. allies in Europe and states it wants to influence on its borders. Since these countries are likely to be its primary targets in any case, Russia’s naval capabilities will be good enough to achieve Russia’s main maritime military goals in the short to medium term.