The Kerch Strait naval battle — Here’s what you need to know

Michael Kofman and I published a short analysis of the naval battle in the Kerch Strait on the Monkey Cage. Here’s a sampler.


The Nov. 25 skirmish between Russian Border Guard and Ukrainian navy ships in the Kerch Strait has escalated tensions not just between the two countries, but also between Russia and NATO.

Two Ukrainian navy small-armored boats and a tugboat attempted to cross into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. A Russian Border Guard ship rammed the tug. Russian forces eventually captured all three boats, holding them in the Crimean port of Kerch. 

This crisis kicked off months ago 

In March 2018 Ukraine seized a Russian-flagged fishing vessel, claiming that it had violated exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine.” Although the Russian crew was released, the boat remains detained in a Ukrainian port. Subsequently, Russia began to seize Ukrainian vessels for inspection, starting in May when a fishing vessel was detained for illegally fishing in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

A new Russian-built bridge linking Crimea to southern Russia is at the center of Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Kerch Strait. The bridge opened in May, and its low clearance height cut off many commercial ships and reduced revenue at the Mariupol port by 30 percent. Russia has imposed an informal blockade on the remaining maritime traffic, with ships often waiting more than 50 hours to cross, and Russian authorities insisting upon inspecting the cargo. This has substantially raised transit costs — and has been slowly strangling the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.


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Is a new Russian Black Sea Fleet coming? Or is it here?

New short article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview….


Last summer, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia will continue to strengthen its forces around the Black Sea in order to “neutralize the security threat in the Black Sea region from NATO.” This rhetoric highlights the change in threat perceptions that has taken place on both sides in the region in recent years. Just 10 years ago, the Black Sea was touted as a model of naval cooperation among former adversaries. Collaborative naval activities such as BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, as well as regular Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor, promised a future where all Black Sea littoral states worked together to ensure regional security and mitigate security threats such as smuggling. This cooperation started to falter after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war but was maintained through the combined efforts of Russia and NATO members – especially Turkey.

The situation changed radically after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with NATO leaders expressing concern that Russia could turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake by devoting significant resources to the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and strengthening Russian military forces in Crimea more generally. Russian political leaders, naval commanders, and policy experts have been open in explaining why they have prioritized the Black Sea Fleet in their naval modernization efforts. Part of that has to do with the parlous state of the fleet prior to 2014. Due to tensions with Ukraine and a general lack of investment in military procurement, Russia had sent only one new combat ship to the fleet between 1991 and 2014. As a result, by 2014 the fleet was barely functional and ships from other fleets had to be used to carry out Russian naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden.


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Russia’s New and Unrealistic Naval Doctrine

I have a new article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview.

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The Russian Navy is keen on showy demonstrations of strength. Just in the last week, it has begun an exercise with the Chinese navy in the Baltic Sea and sent its largest warship, the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser, and the world’s largest submarine, the Dmitry Donskoi, from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic to participate in the Navy Day parade on July 30. In another act primarily significant for its symbolism, Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian naval doctrine last week. Taken at face value, the doctrine appears to promote a vision of a revived Russian Navy that can maintain its superiority over up and comers like China’s navy, and even pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy in certain environments. The reality is, as with most such documents, the gap between aspiration and feasible plans remains quite large. Since no English translation of the document is currently available, it may be useful to briefly summarize some key portions of the 22-page text, put the doctrine’s aims into context, and show where the gaps between dream and reality can be found.

What Does It Say?
The doctrine highlights many of the usual threats and dangers to Russia. First on the list of dangers is the “ambition of a range of states, and foremost the United States of America and its allies, to dominate the high seas, including in the Arctic, and to press for overwhelming superiority of their naval forces.” Other threats include territorial claims on maritime and coastal zones, efforts to limit Russian access to maritime resources, and attempts to weaken Russian control over the Northern Sea Route. Only three potential specific threats to Russia are listed in the document. The first is a sudden decline in the political-military situation leading to the use of military force in maritime areas holding strategic interest for Russia. The second is the deployment of strategic non-nuclear precision weapons and ballistic missile defenses in territories and maritime zones adjacent to Russia. And the third is the use of military force by other states in ways that threaten Russian national interests. In addition to the Arctic, the doctrine highlights the importance of protecting access to energy resources in the Middle East and Caspian Sea, and expresses concern about the negative impact of regional conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa on international security. It also notes the danger posed by the growth of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet and Russian forces in Crimea, as well as the maintenance of a constant naval presence in the Mediterranean, are singled out as the most critical geographic priorities for the Russian Navy’s future development.

<The rest of the article may be found here>

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.

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.

 

Black Sea Fleet projects power westwards

In April 2016, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the role of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet post-Crimea annexation. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT: The growing power of the Russian navy in the Black Sea region.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russia’s annexation of Crimea has reshaped the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea and its neighbourhood. New frigates and submarines are being acquired, and cruise missiles will provide a much extended range. With its strategic options no longer constrained by Ukrainian sovereignty over the Sevastopol base, Moscow can use naval and air forces to dominate the sea and create a forbidding environment for potential adversaries, including NATO.

Impacts

  • The deterioration in relations with Turkey could manifest itself in maritime tensions between the two states.
  • Access to the Bosphorus may restrain both Russia and Turkey from encroaching on one another’s maritime rights despite hostile rhetoric.
  • US and European militaries will review naval capacity and may reinforce Mediterranean patrols to counter the increased Russian presence.

ANALYSIS:

The Black Sea Fleet ranks third in importance for the Russian navy, behind the Northern and Pacific fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet has had four main missions:

  • protecting shipping in the Black Sea;
  • controlling maritime access to the sea in general and to the Caucasus in particular;
  • supporting the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean; and
  • maintaining links with the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria.

The bulk of the fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea, as is its land-based air arm.

The Black Sea is of great economic significance to Russia, whose commercial ports — mainly Novorossiysk — carry 30% of its total maritime exports.

For Russia, the sea is an access route to the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and hence important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. The Black Sea Fleet is needed to underpin that access, as well as to deal with potential instability in the Caucasus. It provides logistical support to the Mediterranean squadron which was reconstituted in 2013.

Reviving the fleet

During its post-Soviet history, successive lease agreements of the Sevastopol naval base from the Ukrainian government stipulated that Russia could not base new ships in Crimea.  This clause was intentional, designed for the fleet to rust away.  By 2014, the Moskva cruiser was the only Black Sea Fleet surface ship able to operate out of area for extended periods of time. Even its basing arrangements in Ukraine were such that it had little need to defend the peninsula, since this was Ukrainian territory.

After annexing Crimea, Russia moved quickly to rebuild its forces on the peninsula. The fleet is undergoing a dramatic transformation and is rapidly rebuilding its forces. The Sevastopol base is central to Russian anti-access/area denial efforts in the Black Sea and its airspace. There are several components to the ongoing build-up:

  • up to six new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates;
  • two Buyan-M-class missile corvettes;
  • six improved Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines;
  • Su-30SM interceptors and Su-34 tactical bombers; and
  • nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.

Three of the frigates will be commissioned in 2016, while the others will take some years to complete because Ukrainian-made gas turbines are unavailable. Both the corvettes and two of the six submarines have been commissioned, with the remaining submarines to enter service within two years.

Cruise missiles extend fleet’s reach

The corvettes and submarines will carry the 3M-54 Klub anti-ship system, a supersonic cruise missile allowing the navy to deny access to much of the Black Sea. They will also be armed with the 3M-14 cruise missile designed to attack targets on land at ranges of up to 2,500 kilometres.

The combination of coastal and air defences, maritime aviation and corvette-based groups will free the submarine and frigate force to operate in the Mediterranean.

Amphibious capacity

The Black Sea had been likely to receive one of the two French Mistral helicopter carrier/amphibious assault vessels that Russia ordered in 2010. Since France cancelled the sale in August 2015, there has been no announcement from Moscow about acquiring amphibious ships from elsewhere. Nor is it clear what will happen to the old Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships which were instrumental to the occupation of Crimea.

Naval support for Syria campaign

The Russian military intervention in Syria, begun in September 2015, has redefined the mission of the Black Sea Fleet:

Transport

Before Russia aircraft were deployed in Syria to bomb rebel forces, vessels from the fleet were playing a key role in the military supply operation known as the ‘Syrian express’. Initially, older landing ships were used to supply arms and equipment to the Syrian military. Once Russia decided to launch air attacks, the Black Sea Fleet provided the maritime transport.

The conventional wisdom that Russia was incapable of conducting military operations beyond its immediate vicinity was confounded by the successful use of large transport aircraft, naval freighters and even Turkish commercial cargo ships reflagged as Black Sea Fleet vessels.

Missile strikes

The Russian navy provided long-range air defence with the S-300 missile system carried on the flagship Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defence system allowed Russia to protect Syrian airspace while avoiding tensions with Israel, which had made it clear it would be unhappy if such weapons went to the Syrian army.

In October 2015, the Russian navy launched 3M-14 cruise missiles against targets in Syria from relatively small vessels in the Caspian Sea. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated its strike capacity from well inside its air defence perimeter. The cruise missiles were also meant to show NATO military planners and neighbouring states the successful development of a missile capability that would be difficult to neutralise.

Once the Black Sea Fleet acquires vessels armed with 3M-14 cruise missiles, its range will extend to most of Southern and Central Europe and the Middle East.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015, when Kalibr cruise missiles were launched against targets from a new diesel-powered submarine which was transiting the Mediterranean en route to its permanent base at Sevastopol. This use of hard-to-track platforms further highlighted the threat to Russia’s potential opponents.

New missions for the post-Crimea context

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has remade the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea. Crimea’s geographic position allows the country that controls it to dominate the maritime environment. Sevastopol is by far the best harbor on the sea. By taking Crimea, Russia has ensured that its military will not be constrained by Ukraine. This will allow its navy and air force to dominate the Black Sea, creating a forbidding A2/AD environment that will be difficult for any potential adversary, including NATO, to penetrate.

Given the adversarial nature of Russia’s relationship with the West, the Black Sea Fleet will take on additional missions beyond the Black Sea in the coming years. In addition to continuing to provide sealift for Russian operations in Syria, the BSF’s cruise-missile equipped ships and submarines will have a power projection role in the Mediterranean. Even with a fairly small number of frigates and diesel submarines, the fleet will present a potential threat to other naval forces in the region, even U.S. carrier strike groups.

This does not mean that the Russian Navy should be expected to undertake aggressive actions in the Med. Rather, its objective will be to create conventional deterrence against a Western attack by threatening to use its air and sea capabilities to inflict unacceptably high casualties on enemy naval forces attempting to engage Russian forces in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean.

CONCLUSION: In the context of Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West, the fleet is likely to be assigned tasks outside the Black Sea such as sustaining a capable naval force in the eastern Mediterranean and continuing to support the Russian military presence in Syria. The fleet will also deliver conventional deterrence through its implicit capacity to inflict unacceptably high casualties on potential adversaries in the Black Sea or the eastern Mediterranean.

More details on Baltic Fleet shakeup

In the last 24 hours, more information has come out on yesterday’s purge of the Baltic Fleet command structure. First of all, the size of the purge is unprecedented, with around 50 high ranking officers being removed, including squadron and brigade commanders. Second, it is highly unusual for removals of top military officials (or of any senior officials in present-day Russia) to be public and openly for cause, rather than officially being described as being for health reasons or because the individual(s) were ready to retire.

Clearly, for the purge to be so large and so open, the misconduct in the Baltic Fleet had to be very serious and very widespread. Yulia Nikitina and Irina Tumakova from Fontanka.ru have published a long article documenting the faults attributed to the fleet’s now-former leadership. The condition of the fleet under Viktor Kravchuk had supposedly declined when compared to how it was under his predecessors, who received much less financing than he did in the last four years.

Nikitina and Tumakova discuss unconfirmed rumors about a collision between the recently completed Krasnodar diesel submarine and a Polish vessel (variously described as either an intelligence collection ship or Poland’s single remaining Kilo submarine). They also mention the poor state of housing for Baltic Fleet officers and obvious failures during recent exercises, such as when a submarine that was towed out to sea started to emit smoke rather than submerging and had to be returned to pier for repairs.

But if that was the extent of the problems, the leadership change is unlikely to have been so broad or so public. The most likely cause for the way this purge has been carried out is corruption. As Nikitina and Tumakova note, back in 2012 Kravchuk was tasked with creating the Kaliningrad defense region, a large  joint military grouping that is to combine naval, aviation, and ground forces units under the command of the Baltic Fleet commander. At that time, Kravchuk was given command of strike aviation, air defense units, Iskander units (when located in Kaliningrad) and four infantry brigades that make up the 11th army corps.

The establishment of the 11th Army Corps required the construction of barracks, housing, and other facilities. The money that was allocated to these tasks was spent elsewhere or embezzled and the command proved to be unprepared to take in the additional troops. Furthermore, Kravchuk was known to have close ties with criminal “authorities” in Kaliningrad, including the “Amber baron” Viktor Bogdan, who, in addition to cornering the amber trade in the region seems to have also been involved in stealing diesel fuel from Baltic Fleet ships.

In other words, the Baltic Fleet purge appears to be a signal to other Russian military commanders (including mid-level ones) that corruption that has a negative effect on combat readiness will not be tolerated and will result in punishment far more severe than the usual honorable retirement given to senior officials who misbehave.