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

Submarines

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.

 

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Rogozin takes on Navy shipbuilding (and gives us all a good chuckle)

Dmitry Rogozin, the newly minted Deputy Prime Minister in charge of military procurement, has made a statement on naval shipbuilding, in the context of the current discussion of a 30 year naval vessel development program. According to Rogozin, by 2013 Russian shipyards will be able to build 6 submarines and an aircraft carrier per year. Given that Russian shipyards currently have no docks large enough to build a carrier, there is zero chance that they could start construction of a carrier by 2013 even if the Navy had a design ready, which they don’t. If they started building a dock now, I imagine construction on the first carrier could start by 2020. Furthermore, the United States, the country with the most experience in building aircraft carriers, has never built one in less than 2.5 years. Three to four years from keel-laying to launch has been the norm for most of the Nimitz-class carriers.  So if Russia wanted to build one every year, they would have to build 3-4 docks. All very unrealistic, to be sure.

Rogozin appears to have realized that he made a fool of himself, so he subsequently walked back his statement on aircraft carriers, indicating that he was just talking about the refurbishment of the Vikramaditya. But he stuck to his guns on the submarines. And this claim makes equally little sense. According to Ilya Kramnik, at best Russia will be able to commission 2 new submarines (one diesel and one Borei class SSBN) and refurbish one Delta IV in 2013. He believes that the level of six submarines a year will be reached no earlier than 2018.

Furthermore, Rogozin’s talk about restoring the Typhoons is likely to remain just talk. There’s no reason to spend the money on modernizing these submarines (including refurbishing 2 of the 3 to launch Bulava missiles) when the Borei subs are better and more likely to provide value for the money in terms of longevity.

So we can put this latest statement by Rogozin down as yet another effort at attention-seeking. While Russian ship-building is undoubtedly experiencing a revival of sorts, there’s no point in exaggerating their capabilities. That will only lead to subsequent articles decrying the failure of “officially announced” plans.

 

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.