Shipbuilding constraints drive downsized but potent Russian navy

Official announcements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance of a Russian Navy that is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many 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 delays and cost overruns are the result of a long-term decline in naval research and development, an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry made worse by Western sanctions, and pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn. However, the Russian Navy has developed a strategy that compensates for these gaps by utilizing its strength in submarines and cruise missile technology to fulfill key maritime missions such as homeland defense and power projection in the face of a failure to build an adequate number of large combat ships.

Originally published by CIMSEC. Click here to read the rest of the article.

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.


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.


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.

Russia’s Naval Power in the 21st Century

A week or so ago, I gave a presentation at the Wilson Center on the current state and future development of the Russian Navy. Michael Kofman of the Kennan Institute was the moderator and Olga Oliker of RAND provided commentary. The audience was very well-informed and asked excellent questions. The Wilson Center has made a video recording of the event available on YouTube. For those interested in what the Russian Navy is up to, it’s worth watching.

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 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 has published a major update on these plans. The following is based on his article and on conversations with other Russian naval experts.


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.


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.


  • 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.

The impact of the Crimea annexation on Russian naval interests

As part of a broader modernization program for its Navy, Russia seeks to  develop a naval force that can dominate the Black Sea and  expand Russian presence in the Mediterranean. While not all the ramifications of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea are yet fully apparent, one consequence is that the Russian Navy will now be able to modernize and expand the Black Sea Fleet with fewer constraints. Previously, any Russian aspirations for expanding its naval presence in the Black Sea were limited by the need to get agreement from Ukraine for any new ships stationed in Sevastopol.  Given Ukrainian resistance to the expansion of the Russian fleet at Sevastopol, Russia had long faced a situation where only one of the fleet’s combat ships could deploy outside the Black Sea on a regular basis. With the annexation of Crimea, this circumstance is rapidly changing.  After taking over Crimea, Russia quickly upgraded the region’s air defense and coastal defense systems and announced plans to station long-range bombers, fighter planes, and ASW aircraft at air bases in the region. The Russian Navy has plans to replace the Black Sea Fleet’s Soviet-era ships with modern frigates and diesel submarines. If these plans are carried out, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will be on a path to once again become the dominant naval force in the region.

It is likely that this enhanced Russian Black Sea  fleet will be used to expand Russian influence in the Black Sea and also to reinforce Russia’s naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. In March 2013, Vladimir Putin announced plans to establish a Mediterranean naval task force, with up to 10 combat ships permanently operating in the region. The core of this force, including the command element, is expected to come from the Black Sea Fleet once that fleet has been modernized.

Because of Crimea’s geographic position, full control of the port of Sevastopol will give the Russian Navy the opportunity to enhance its posture and presence in the Black Sea. Over the longer term, Moscow is likely to use its expanding presence in the Black Sea to project power and influence toward the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the broader Mediterranean littoral. The ensuing expansion of Moscow’s perception of its strength and influence may encourage Russia to pursue unilateral policies in the region, reducing incentives for cooperation through existing mechanisms such as BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony.

An expanding Russian Black Sea is of direct concern to Turkey. As the Russian Black Sea Fleet capabilities and readiness declined over the last two decades, Turkey effectively became the dominant naval power in the Black Sea region. Turkish leaders have not reacted publicly to Russia’s naval ambitions in the region; however, according to one close observer of the Turkish Navy, if the Russian Navy does once again seek to become the most powerful naval force in the Black Sea, Turkey is likely to react.  According to that observer, Ankara may be prepared to “dust off and update” Cold War-era plans designed to prevent the Russian Navy from gaining control of the Turkish Straits during a conflict.

Russia’s plans to expand its Mediterranean squadron derive from its aspiration to restore its role as an important naval power in the region. Russia takes pride in the fact that it currently maintains more ships in the Mediterranean than the United States does. In recent years Russia’s naval forces have consciously and deliberately been used to complicate and/or challenge U.S. and NATO actions (such as in Syria), and they may seek to do so again in the future.

To operate more than a few ships forward on a permanent basis in the Mediterranean, Russia needs to have access to local ports for replenishment and repairs. With access to its only base at Tartus complicated by the civil war in Syria, Russia is looking to develop alternative relationships that could lead to port access and eventual basing rights. Egypt, Cyprus, Montenegro, and even Greece may be potential targets for closer naval ties.

While the Ukraine crisis does not yet make it clear whether Russia intends to take a more assertive role in countering U.S. and NATO interests in the Black Sea region, the U.S. should probably not expect a return to the period when NATO and Russian naval forces engaged in partnership activities in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, such as Active Endeavor and Black Sea Harmony. Future cooperation is likely to be limited and to occur only in narrow areas where U.S. and Russian interests happen to coincide.