An update on naval construction, part 1: large combat ships

It’s been awhile since I wrote about developments in Russian naval shipbuilding. Spurred on by a recent article in NVO, the following is the first installment of an update on recent developments and future plans in this area.

Return of the Nuclear Cruisers?

In recent weeks, the Project 1144 (Kiev Kirov class) nuclear cruisers have once again been in the news because of reports that all three ships of this class currently in reserve will be refurbished and restored to the active fleet by 2020. Modernization of the Admiral Nakhimov is slated to begin this year and it is scheduled to return to active service in 2015. As part of the modernization, these ships are to be equipped with “modern radio electronics, radar, control and communication systems, and means of electronic warfare. In addition, the body frames and nuclear power units will be repaired.” The ships’ armaments will also be modernized — the older Granit missiles will be replaced with universal ship-based firing systems that could be loaded with a variety of different armaments depending on the ship’s specific mission. The ships would also be armed with S-400 long-range and unspecified short-range air defense systems.

While it seems that the Admiral Nakhimov actually will be modernized and returned to the fleet in the next five years or so, to be followed by a refit for the currently active Peter the Great, I have grave doubts that modernization of the Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Ushakov will ever move beyond mere talk. The Ushakov in particular suffered a reactor accident back in 1990, which was never repaired. It may also have been cannibalized for spare parts to some extent. The Lazarev had its nuclear fuel unloaded back in 2005. Both would thus need essentially new reactors, as well as significant hull repairs.

While this type of modernization is certainly possible, it doesn’t seem to be cost-effective, especially given the uncertainty surrounding these ships potential missions. As noted by Konstantin Makienko of CAST, these ships do not fit into any existing scenarios for using battleships: “This type of ship cannot be involved in the possible conflicts that we may have in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and in the case of a hypothetical war with NATO or Japan, it will still be destroyed as the enemy has a much greater numerical superiority at sea.” While I can see the desire to have at least some large ships for showing the flag around the world, I can’t imagine that it would be worth the expense to rehabilitate a rusty, radioactive old hulk such as the Ushakov (former Kirov), just to get 10-15 years of life out of it. In the end, I imagine the Russian Navy will be satisfied with having the Nakhimov and the Peter the Great for showing the flag.

No new aircraft carriers, but a much improved old one

Back in June, the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation stated that Russia will begin to design new aircraft carriers in 2016, with construction on the first ship to start in 2018, followed by commissioning in 2023. This statement was quickly rejected by the defense minister, who noted that while research on a future aircraft carrier is continuing, no decisions about design and construction have been made. Nor will they be made until the research is complete. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

At the same time, the Navy’s one existing aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will be undergoing a complete modernization over the next several years. When it is relaunched (sometime between 2017 and 2020, depending on which report you believe), it will in many ways be a new ship. The following description of planned changes comes from Ilya Kramnik:

First of all, the defective propulsion unit comprising steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers will be replaced either with a gas-turbine or nuclear propulsion unit. The ship’s 3M45 P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship cruise-missile launchers will be dismantled, and her internal layout changed. Consequently, the hangar area will be expanded to 4,500-5,000 sq. m. for storing additional fixed-wing aircraft. The Admiral Kuznetsov’s air defenses will be strengthened by replacing 3K95 Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) missiles with a multi-role naval system featuring 80-120 new-generation and medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Moreover, 4-6 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) combined short to medium-range SAM and anti-aircraft artillery weapons systems will be installed.

The new weapons systems will feature state-of-the-art radio-electronic equipment, probably including the standard Sigma combat information and control system, due to be installed on all new generation Russian warships. The system facilitates unprecedentedly effective cooperation between task force elements. The carrier will also receive aircraft catapults, a logical option. Considering the fact that her ski-jump will remain intact, one or two catapults can be located on the angled flight deck.

The carrier’s air wing is to comprise 26 new Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29K Fulcrum-D multi-role fighter aircraft, helicopters and navalized Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA (Future Frontline Aircraft System) fifth-generation fighters, currently under development. It appears that 15-20 of these aircraft will be built pending the ship’s re-launching, which is likely to take place in 2020 rather than 2017.

In other words, when the Kuznetsov returns to active status, it will be a substantially different ship, with a new propulsion system, new aircraft, new armaments, and new electronics.

Moving towards a new destroyer

Finally, plans for building a new destroyer seem to be progressing, though for the moment it is still in the design stage. What is known so far is that design plans call for a 9000 ton ship with a nuclear power plant that would make extensive use of stealth technology. It would be armed with the usual assorted Klub missiles and would have space for two helicopters.

If all goes according to plan, construction on the first ship will start in 2016. There have not been any reports so far about how many ships would be ordered or how long they would take to build, though my guess is that it will take at least six years to build the first ship and that the total order may reach 8-10 ships.

I’ll cover frigates and corvettes in the next installment.

The Future of the Russian Navy Part 1: Large Combat Ships

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to review the likely contours of the Russian Navy’s future force structure. It seems that the increase in financing for the new state armaments program from 13 to 20 trillion rubles will primarily benefit the navy. This will allow the military to carry out a fairly ambitious naval procurement program, beyond the strategic submarine force that has remained a priority for the military, and would have been funded no matter what.

In one of his recent articles, Ilya Kramnik pointed out that the small number of Russian combat ships belong to a relatively large number of classes. These include one type of aircraft carrier, two types of cruisers, four types of destroyers, three types of frigates and at least six types of corvette.  Not counting the corvettes, there are only 31 operational ships spread across the 10 classes. These ships are equipped with four types of anti-ship, two types of ASW and five types of AAW weapons systems. Each type has its own fire control system, as well. Needless to say, this diversity of platforms and equipment makes maintenance much more complicated than in other navies.

Given the expense of building large combat ships and their relative longevity, the Russian Navy will be stuck with many of these legacy platforms for at least the next decade. However, given recent announcements about future shipbuilding plans, we can begin to develop a picture of what the Russian Navy will look like ten years from now, when many of these older ships will begin to be retired as new ships are commissioned.

Aircraft Carriers

First of all, it appears that the Russian navy has, after many decades of hesitation and lack of funding, decided to build a true aircraft carrier. The Admiral Kuznetsov, the navy’s one existing aircraft carrier, is actually officially considered a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” Its aircraft are limited to air superiority, ASW and SAR operations. The ship was built in the late 1980s and, with an expected modernization, could last for another 20-30 years if properly maintained.

This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year.  While designs for the future carrier have not yet been made public, initial speculation centers on a model similar to the British Queen Elizabeth class carriers currently under construction. These ships would have a displacement of around 50-60,000 tons and would carry 50-60 aircraft, including both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Plans call for one CV to be built by 2020, with construction to start by 2015. It is unclear whether the financing for this construction will come from the State Armaments Program or from a separate state financing program outside the regular State Defense Order system. In reality, the likelihood that Russian shipbuilders could build an aircraft carrier in five years is virtually nil. It currently takes Russian factories that long to build a frigate, and the complications of building a type of ship never before built in Russia will likely lead to at least a doubling of the planned construction time. Furthermore, Russia currently does not have any dry docks large enough enough to build such a ship, as the Admiral Kuznetsov and its predecessors were all built in Ukraine. For these reasons, even if adequate financing is available, it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a new functioning aircraft carrier by 2020. A target date of 2025 or even 2030 is far more realistic.


At the moment, the Russian Navy operates five cruisers — the Peter the Great Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser, three Slava-class cruisers and the Kerch, the last remaining Kara-class cruiser, which is likely to be decommissioned sometime in the next year. The Peter the Great, commissioned in 1998, is the only nuclear-powered surface ship currently in active service in the Russian Navy. It serves as the flagship of the Northern Fleet and has recently engaged in several lengthy deployments. The three Slava-class cruisers, designed as surface strike ships with an anti-aircraft and ASW capability, are equipped with Bazalt cruise missiles. They were commissioned in the 1980s and are likely to remain in service for several more decades, especially with a likely modernization.

The Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov and Slava class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization, with the goal of returning it to the fleet in 2012. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) will also be modernized prior to 2020. The Kirov itself could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance.

The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov (or Ukraina) Slava-class cruiser. This ship was launched back in 1990, but has been in dock in Ukraine since then, lacking only some weapons systems and equipment. After the election of Viktor Yanukovich to the Ukrainian presidency last year, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to complete this ship together. Because of its long period of disuse, much of the ship’s equipment will have to be replaced with more modern variants. The modernization will likely include the installation of a modern C2 system, a multipurpose shipboard fire-control system and sonar equipment, as well as new missile systems. If this project succeeds, the three active Slava class cruisers in the Russian Navy are likely to undergo a similar modernization over the next 10 years.

If the planned cruiser modernization takes place as planned, by 2020 the Russian Navy will have 7-8 well-armed cruisers with relatively modern weapons and C2 systems. These ships could serve as the core of the fleet’s force capability for the following 20 years.


The Russian Navy currently operates three types of destroyers, the Kashin, Sovremennyi and Udaloy classes. The one remaining Kashin-class destroyer is based in the Black Sea Fleet. Though it has deployed relatively frequently in the post-Soviet period, it has been in service since 1969 and will almost certainly have to be retired in the near future.

The Sovremennyi-class destroyers, despite being much newer, must be considered a failure. Almost all of the ships of this class have had engine problems at one time or another and the five currently in active service in the fleet almost never deploy. It seems inevitable that these ships will be written off as soon as an adequate replacement can be built, if not before then.

The Udaloy-class ships have been much more successful and have over the last decade served as the mainstay of the Russian fleet for various missions ranging from recent anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to various exercises with other navies around the world. Eight of these ships are currently in service in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with one more in reserve. They were built primarily in the 1980s, though the Admiral Chabanenko is an improved version that was commissioned in 1999. These ships will remain in service well into the 2020s, if not beyond.

Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000 ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. According to Kramnik, it is likely to be armed with Club-U cruise missiles, 130-152mm artillery, an air defense weapon system (possibly the Kashtan), and 1-2 helicopters. Each of these ships would be as powerful as 2-3 Sovremennyis.  The hope is to build 10-12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than 2-3 could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.

I’ll continue this next week with smaller combat ships and amphibs…