Will the Kirov cruisers be restored?

I owe readers a final report on Center-2011, and also the rest of the update on Navy procurement, but I can’t pass up the argument that seems to now be brewing between the military correspondents of NVO and Izvestiia. In today’s NVO, Viktor Litovkin launches a broadside against what he terms the “sensationalist” coverage in Izvestiia (though he doesn’t refer to that paper by name, it’s clear enough from the description), arguing that its recent articles on the upcoming removal of Aleksandr Shliakhturov, the head of the GRU, the scrapping of Russia’s remaining Typhoon submarines, and some other topics were all denied by defense officials.

I take no particular stand on this argument. We all know that defense officials are paid to deny certain news right up until the minute that they are officially announced. We will see soon enough whether Shliakhturov retires, whether the Typhoons are scrapped, and whether Russian soldiers continue to wear berets. What made this particular article by Litovkin interesting and relevant is that most of it is devoted to arguing about whether the Kirov cruisers that I discussed in my last post will actually be modernized and returned to the fleet.

Litovkin is skeptical, because 1) he could not get confirmation from the Ministry of Defense and 2) there is no money for this task in the current state armaments program. These don’t seem to be definitive reasons, after all 1) the ministry spokespeople may not be authorized to make an official statement and 2) if a political decision is made to go ahead, money will be found quickly enough. The SAP-2020 is not a bible and changes along the way should be expected.

But Litovkin adds some interesting commentary on why this project is not very feasible and would be a bad idea even if it were. He notes (and here I think Kramnik would agree with him) that these cruisers would not have an obvious mission for the Russian navy. They were originally designed to fight American aircraft carriers, a task that is not very relevant to the 21st century Russian navy.

He then points out that Russian shipyards do not currently have the capacity to carry out this modernization. There are only a few shipyards that have sufficiently large drydocks, and most of these are already being used for other tasks. Sevmash in Severodvinsk is fully occupied building nuclear submarines (both Borei and Yasen class). Zvezdochka in Severdvinsk has the capacity, but doesn’t have a license to work on nuclear reactors, which would be one of the main tasks of the repair. Severnaia Verf in St. Petersburg is fully booked building smaller ships. The Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg, which originally built the ships in the 1970s and 80s, could do it but is near bankruptcy because of various political conflicts. It may well be closed and taken over by interests seeking to develop its territory for commercial ends.

Given this list of shipyards, I wonder whether the push for restoring the Kirov cruisers is, in fact, an effort by the Baltic Shipyard to counter the efforts to close it. If it is the only possible candidate to modernize the ships, and a decision is made to go ahead, then the shipyard will gain a new lease on life and powerful political protectors who could ensure its survival for at least the next decade.

Of course, it could be longer than a decade. Litovkin points out the danger of corruption through dolgostroi, as a number of Russian shipyards have used long-term construction and renovation projects such as the Vikramaditya project (10 years) and various nuclear and diesel submarines to get continuing financing from the Russian budget and from foreign governments. Specific instances of theft of state funds in connection to the overhaul of the Peter the Great and Admiral Kuznetsov in recent years do not inspire confidence either.

Litovkin concludes that the only benefit to overhauling the Kirov cruisers would accrue to specific individuals, while the Russian navy would derive little use from the ships. By and large, I would have to agree with this assessment.

By the way, here are some pictures of the three ships under discussion which give a sense of their current condition… (from worst to best). Pictures originally found here.

1. Admiral Lazarev

2. Admiral Ushakov

3. Admiral Nakhimov


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.