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.

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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.

Implications

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.

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.

 

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 1)

The cover article of the brand new issue of Moscow Defense Brief (subscription required) from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, examines developments in Russian military shipbuilding in 2012, written by Dmitry Boltenkov. Since the article is not publicly available, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary. Part 1 covers submarines and surface ships. Part 2, coming soon, will cover auxiliary ships, export contracts, and provide some analysis.

Submarines

Construction of Borei-class (project 955) submarines progressed significantly in 2012. The navy took delivery of the Yury Dolgoruky, the first sub of this class, at the end of 2012. After some training exercises, the sub is expected to enter regular service by the end of 2013. The second sub, the Alexander Nevsky, is expected to be commissioned in the fall. The third sub, whose construction started in 2006, was launched in January 2013, while construction of the fourth started in July 2012. Two more subs are to be laid down this year. Given the 7-8 year construction times on these submarines, it seems unlikely that all eight will be completed by the 2020 target date.  2023 seems to be a more realistic goal. Furthermore, the lack of new tests on the Bulava missile in 2012 is concerning, though additional tests are expected this autumn — most likely using a new automated missile launch control system.

The Yasen-class (project 885) nuclear attack submarines are being built far more slowly, with the first submarine in the class (the Severodvinsk, which was laid down back in 1993) currently undergoing tests and expected to enter the fleet later this year. The Kazan (the second submarine of this class) will be commissioned in 2015 at the earliest, with the third to be laid down in July. Again, the chances of all 8 contracted subs being completed by 2020 is virtually nonexistent.

Diesel submarines are also being built, including the recently restarted, but still troubled, Lada class. The first sub in this class, the St. Petersburg, entered sea trials in 2004. Problems with its propulsion systems have prevented its commissioning and led the project to be suspended indefinitely several years ago. The project was restarted in 2012, but the St. Petersburg still has not been commissioned. Construction on the two other subs in this class that were laid down before the suspension has resumed and they are expected to be ready for sea trials in 2015 and 2016, respectively. MDB reports that  the second boat may be equipped with new lithium-ion batteries, while the third may have air-independent propulsion. It seems unlikely that any more subs of this class will be built, which means the navy will get three essentially different boats, each with its own maintenance needs. This is precisely the sort of the thing the Russian military has been trying to get away from. The hope is that a fifth-generation conventional sub currently being designed by Rubin Design Bureau will soon be ready for construction, obviating the need for the Lada class. In the meantime, the navy will have to depend on old and new Kilo-class submarines. The first of a set of six improved Kilos is expected to be launched later this year. Two more are under construction and another is to be laid down by the end of 2013. All six are expected to be in service by 2016.

Surface ships

The first of the two Mistral-class ships ordered from France is currently under construction, with the second to be laid down sometime in 2013. Both ships are to be completed and delivered to Russia by the end of 2015. Boltenkov reiterates that both will be assigned to the the Pacific Fleet. Furthermore, he notes that the Russian Navy has ordered four assault-landing boats from STX L’Orient in France. The fate of the third and fourth Mistral-class ships, which were to be built entirely in Russia starting in 2016, remains unresolved.

Two types of frigates are being built for the navy. The first of the Admiral Gorshkov class (project 22350) frigates is expected to enter sea trials in late 2013. Two others are under construction, with a fourth to be laid down later this year. Two more ships of this class have been ordered, with hopes of completion by 2020. MDB reports that the project is facing serious delays with its primary Poliment-Redut SAM weapon system, which is being developed by Almaz-Antey (a company that has had many problems successfully completing the development of new weapons systems in recent years). The second type of frigate (project 11356R) is essentially the Talwar class previously built for the Indian Navy. This is an updated version of the Soviet Krivak class. Russian defense industry is much better at building updated versions of tried and tested designs than at building something completely new. It’s therefore not surprising that construction on these ships is proceeding quite quickly, with three ships already under construction and another to be laid down this year. The first ship of this class, the Admiral Grigorovich is expected to be launched this summer and to enter service in 2014.

The navy is also receiving some smaller combat ships. Construction on various versions of the Steregushchiy class (projects 20380 and 20385) of corvettes continues, with two in service, one in sea trials, one expected to begin sea trials later this year, three under construction and another to be laid down in July. Severnaya Verf is building these ships in about three years, while Amur shipyard is taking much longer. Various sources indicate that contracts have been signed to build another 10 of these corvettes, which would bring the total number in service to 18 by the time the program is complete.

Several types of ships are being built expressly for the Caspian Flotilla. The Dagestan missile ship, equipped with Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles, was commissioned into the Caspian Flotilla in November 2012. No further ships of this type are planned, however. Two Buyan-class (project 21630) small artillery ships were commissioned into the flotilla in 2012. An updated version of this class (project 21631), to be armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, has been ordered. Five ships are now under construction with an estimated completion date of 2015. A contract for three more of these ships was signed in January 2013. The Caspian Flotilla is also expected to receive three Serna class (project 11770) high speed air-cavity landing craft this year, built according to an existing late Soviet design.

Finally, the navy is building a number of specialized surface ships, including the Admiral Gren (project 11711) large tank landing ship, which has been under construction since 2004 and was finally launched in May 2012. Completion will be no earlier than 2014 and initial plans to build another 4-5 of these ships have been shelved. Four Dyugon class (project 21820) high speed amphibious landing craft are also under construction, though Boltenkov reports that problems with the design mean that no more ships of this type will be built once these four are completed. The first ship of the Aleksandrit class of minesweepers (project 12700) is under construction as well, with three more expected to be built in the near future. Two Grachonok class (project 21980) anti-sabotage boats were commissioned in 2012, with two more expected to be completed by the end of 2013 and another four currently under construction. A total of about 20 are expected to built in the next few years.

 

The modernization of Russia’s nuclear submarine forces

Yet another Oxford Analytica brief. This one from January. Planning to resume new posts in June, though there will be a couple more OA briefs posted in May.

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The nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) Yury Dolgoruky officially became part of the Russian navy on January 10, more than a decade after it was initially contracted. It is the lead vessel of the Borey class, equipped with the new marine-launched ballistic missile system (SLBM) Bulava, which has a maximum range of over 8,000 kilometres. The Yury Dolgoruky was commissioned soon after the launch of SSBN Vladimir Monomakh, the third submarine in the series, in late December. These developments have led to conjectures that Russia may again pose a serious security threat to the United States and its NATO allies.

Impacts

  • Work on the Borey and Bulava projects will help Russia assess quality control issues and improve production in other areas.
  • The Russian defence budget will continue to prioritise nuclear weapons, limiting Moscow’s ability to modernise its conventional military.
  • Moscow’s defence upgrades will not have a major impact on US-Russian relations, which are increasingly focused on other issues.

ANALYSIS: In February 2011, Russia’s former deputy minister of defence announced the launch of the State Armament Programme 2020, stressing that the modernisation of Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons would be a top priority.

Motivating factors

Moscow’s decision to focus on nuclear modernisation is motivated by several practical and strategic considerations:

  • Outdated nuclear arsenal: The bulk of the arsenal is approaching the end of its service life.
  • Insufficient conventional forces: Russia’s non-nuclear forces cannot, on their own, deter potential conflicts with major powers.
  • Protection: A solid nuclear arsenal would help protect Russia’s interests, including its economic stakes in the Arctic.
  • ‘Superpower’ status: Nuclear forces are one of Russia’s few remaining claims to a prominent position in the international system.

Critically, modernisation efforts should not be misinterpreted as a serious new threat to NATO.

Strategic naval forces

The Russian navy currently operates a fleet of six Delta IV and three Delta III SSBNs.

Outdated fleet

The older Delta IIIs, based in the Pacific Fleet, are armed with 16 SS-N-18 missiles per boat, carrying three warheads each. These submarines first entered service in the late 1970s and are now approaching the end of their lifespan. The Delta IV SSBNs, which are based in the Northern Fleet, are each armed with 16 SS-N-23 Sineva missiles carrying four warheads per missile. They entered service in the mid-1980s and are gradually being overhauled in order to extend their lifespan by an additional ten years. The oldest submarines will be decommissioned in 2019 and the last of the class is expected to be retired by 2025. Because of the overhaul schedule, in recent years, between six and seven strategic submarines were on active duty at any one time.

Modernisation

The Delta IIIs are slated to be replaced by three Borey-class submarines, which are expected to be commissioned over the next two years. Following the commissioning of Yury Dolgoruky, the first of these SSBNs, earlier this month, the navy will be commissioning the Aleksandr Nevsky later in 2013 and the Vladimir Monomakh in 2014. Each of the nuclear-powered submarines will contain 16 launch tubes for the Bulava missile. Subsequent hulls — known as Project 955A — will be modified to carry 20 Bulava missiles.

According to the State Armament Programme, another five modified Borey submarines will be commissioned by 2020, bringing the total number of next generation SSBNs to eight. Since the six Delta IV submarines are slated to retire between 2019 and 2025, the construction schedule for the new submarines can be extended by up to five years without forcing the Russian military to reduce its current active fleet of eight SSBNs, which it perceives as the necessary minimum for maintaining Russia’s strategic deterrent capability.

Expansion

In the longer term, there is a chance that Russia will increase its SSBN fleet from eight to ten units either through the procurement of two additional modified Borey submarines or the construction of a new class of SSBNs. The ultimate decision to expand will depend on the availability of funding as well as the successful completion of the Bulava missile tests.

Missile problems

The Bulava is the sea-based version of the SS-27 and RS-24 missiles. In contrast to its land-based prototypes, its development ran into serious obstacles during the initial testing phases. In eight of the first twelve flight tests, the Bulava suffered critical failures.

Bulava problems rectified?

According to the weapon’s lead designer, the problems were due to lack of necessary equipment and insufficient oversight. Moreover, the Russian industry was unable to provide Bulava manufacturers with the necessary components in a timely manner. The production team has recently increased control over the production process, which appears to have paid off: since October 2010, there have been seven consecutive launches of the Bulava, all of them successful.

Further production issues

In July 2011, the Ministry of Defence announced its plans for the serial production of the Bulava. The next launch was expected to take place in October 2012. However, it was postponed until July 2013 because of unresolved problems with automated control systems for the launch mechanism. As a result, the Yury Dolgoruky submarine was commissioned with 16 empty missile containers. Without the missiles, the submarine has little practical value, which places a great deal of pressure on the defence industry to solve the outstanding problems as quickly as possible.

Implications

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear arms have become largely peripheral to US-Russian relations. Instead, issues such as energy security, international terrorism and the future of newly independent states on Russia’s periphery have taken centre stage. The ongoing dispute with NATO concerning plans to erect a missile defence shield over the alliance’s territory appears to be primarily due to Russia’s perception of having been excluded from the European security infrastructure, rather than to fears of a nuclear attack by the United States or its allies.

CONCLUSION: The defence industry will endeavour to resolve the remaining technical problems with the Bulava, indispensable to the new generation of strategic submarines, which were designed simultaneously with the missile system. The missile will likely be fully operational by the end of 2013. Given that the new submarines are primarily intended to replace existing SSBNs that are nearing the end of their lifespan and that the role of nuclear arms has become less prominent in the US-Russian security relationship over the past decades, SSBN modernisation should not be misinterpreted as a new threat to NATO.

 

A New Push for Nuclear Submarine Development

The following is an Oxford Analytica brief from early December 2011. Some of the material has been overtaken by events, but I decided it was still worth posting. One of these days, I will write up an update on naval procurement plans, but it will take some time, so this will have to do in the interim.

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Russia’s fleet of nuclear submarines may be about to get an overhaul. Until recently, the State Armaments Programme’s plan for eight new Borey-class and six Yasen-class submarines by 2020 looked highly dubious. However, the Defence Ministry last month signed a series of contracts with design bureaus – in the presence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and with full media coverage – suggesting that submarine modernization will proceed as quickly as possible.

What next

The conclusion of these contracts by no means guarantees that the plans will be fulfilled in the next eight years. While serial production is always faster than the building of the first ship in a class, given the state of Russian shipyards, it will probably still take a minimum of two to three years to construct each vessel. The makeover of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet is a strategic priority – but it may take significantly longer than a decade to realize.

Analysis

The deals were reportedly worth more than 280 billion rubles (9.2 billion dollars), including contracts for:

  • design of the modernized Yasen-class submarine by the Malakhit design bureau (13.4 billion rubles);
  • construction of the first modernized Yasen-class submarine, theKazan, by Sevmash (47 billion rubles);
  • construction of four additional Yasen-class submarines by United Shipbuilding Corporation’s (OSK)Severodvinskshipyard (164 billion rubles);
  • design of the modernized Borey-class submarine by the Rubin design bureau (39 billion rubles).

In addition, the Defense Ministry leaked information that a contract to build five more Borey-class submarines will be signed next year at a likely cost of 23 billion rubles per unit.

These deals represent the last unsigned contracts of the 2011 military procurement plan. They were held up for several months because of a row between the federal authorities and the defense industry – primarily OSK – over pricing. The Defence Ministry refused to accept price increases requested by OSK, because the requests did not spell out all aspects of the contract’s cost, as required by new regulations put in place this year. In the end, OSK agreed to lower prices in exchange for the right to choose its own subcontractors; in the past, the choice of subcontractors was dictated by the Defense Ministry.

Russia’s strategic submarines

The maritime ‘leg’ of Russia’s strategic nuclear triad currently consists of a combination of Delta III and Delta IV ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs):

  • Northern Fleet. The Navy operates six Delta IV SSBNs, all based in the Northern Fleet. Four have already been upgraded to carry Sineva missiles. Two others are currently being overhauled, with expected relaunch dates in 2012 and 2013. The expectation is that these subs, built in the late 1980s, will continue to serve into 2020-25.
  • Pacific Fleet. The Pacific Fleet has four active Delta III SSBNs, all built between 1979 and 1982. These subs carry SS-N-18 missiles. They will probably be withdrawn from service as the new Borey-class SSBNs enter the fleet. Original plans called for them to have been withdrawn by 2010, but persistent problems with the Bulava missile have pushed the timetable forward.

Borey class’s troubled history

The Borey class has a long and complicated history. Work on the first sub of this class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, began in 1996. Because of a series of redesigns involving both the submarine and its armament, it was not launched until 2008. Borey-class submarines have a displacement of 24,000 tons, a top speed of 29 knots, and can dive to a depth of 450 meters.

Construction of the second submarine (the Aleksandr Nevsky) began in 2004, and it was finally launched in 2010. The Pacific Fleet expects to deploy both Borey submarines next year, if all goes well in sea trials. A variety of problems with the Aleksandr Nevsky detected during initial testing have reportedly been fixed, though officers report continuing issues with the reliability of digital control systems. The Boreys are the first Russian submarines to be equipped with digital (rather than analog) control systems, and evidently not all the bugs have been worked out.

A third submarine is under construction and may be launched next year. The five vessels expected to be ordered next year will have a modified design that will likely include 20 launch tubes (up from 16). If they are completed on schedule, the Russian navy will have its eight new SSBNs in place well before 2020, allowing for the retirement of the Delta IIIs and most, if not all, of the Delta IVs.

Bulava delays

The main potential roadblock is the checkered history of the Bulava ballistic missile. Three consecutive failed test launches in 2008-09 led to the removal of the director of the missile’s lead design bureau. It appears that the problems were related to quality control in the production cycle, rather than any defects in the missile’s design. Since the production cycle was improved in 2009, the last five tests have been successful, including one that achieved the maximum range of 9,300 kilometers.

A test firing of two missiles simultaneously was planned for November or December, but this has just been postponed to May 2012. While the official reason had to do with poor weather in the Barents Sea, the real cause was probably the desire to avoid any chance of failure so close to the December 4 parliamentary elections. While success cannot be guaranteed, the missile’s recent track record means that commissioning by the end of 2012 is highly likely.

Why Yasen submarines

The Yasen class may be the world’s most sophisticated nuclear submarine, capable of 31 knots, equipped with eight torpedo tubes and able to launch up to 30 cruise missiles simultaneously. The Yasen is a multi-purpose attack submarine originally designed during the Cold War to hunt NATO aircraft carriers, protect strategic submarines, and fire cruise missiles at onshore targets. This class is expected eventually to replace all existing classes of Soviet-era attack submarines (Oscar, Akula, Victor, and Sierra). The Severodvinsk, the first of the Yasen class, could be commissioned this winter.

The Yasens are highly capable but also extremely expensive, with a unit cost of over 40 billion rubles. With the end of the Cold War, their purpose is unclear – especially given the extremely low likelihood that Russia could commission enough to threaten the US Navy. At the same time, the submarine is more powerful than needed to fight against any other potential adversary, including China. The Pentagon canceled the comparable Sea Wolf because of similar cost-benefit calculations, replacing it with the much cheaper Virginia class.

Impact

  • Fear of a missile-test-launch failure so close to the elections will delay the Borey-class’s deployment until mid-2012.
  • Russia appears committed to developing the new Yasen-class despite dubious cost-benefit calculations.
  • Fiscal strains – notable, a sharp and sustained fall in oil prices – would cast doubt on the entire naval procurement plan.

 

 

How many nuclear weapons does Russia need?

This is the question posed by Ilya Kramnik in a recent article on the Voice of Russia radio website. Kramnik argues that Russia’s nuclear posture has been based on the notion of matching the United States, something that is patently impossible given that Russia’s GDP and yearly government budget are tens of times smaller than those of the US.

To this end, Russia has announced a plan for the rapid construction of a total of eight Borei class SSBNs by 2018, with one new submarine to be commissioned every year starting in 2013. While Kramnik argues (correctly, IMO) that this plan is somewhat overoptimistic, he believes that all eight will be completed by 2020 or 2021. But the fact that these submarines can be built (while new ICBMs are being built concurrently) does not negate the question of what is the opportunity cost of spending a huge percentage of this decade’s military procurement budget on new nuclear weapons that are unlikely to ever need to be used.

He argues instead that Russia’s posture should be based on having enough nuclear weapons to deliver a counterstrike that would inflict unacceptable damage on the enemy. This would allow for the Russian nuclear stockpile to drop from the current goal of 1550 warheads on 700 delivery platforms  (i.e. the limits set by the New START treaty) to 900-1200 warheads on 300-400 delivery platforms.

Kramnik notes that Russia’s defense industry is perfectly capable of maintaining the current posture. But limitations on the overall size of the defense procurement budget mean that this level of procurement of strategic nuclear forces can only be accomplished by neglecting the modernization of Russia’s conventional armed forces. And these are the forces that are desperately in need of new equipment in order to be able to successfully carry out missions in the regional and local conflicts that pose a much more likely short-term threat to Russia than the possibility of nuclear war with the United States.

This includes major platforms and systems such as multipurpose nuclear and diesel submarines, fighter aircraft, surface ships, air defense systems, tanks, and artillery. But it also includes more basic needs, such as modern precision-guided munitions, personal combat and communications equipment, etc. Kramnik points out that until such weapons are equipment can be procured in needed quantities, Russia’s position in the world will continue to weaken while its soldiers sustain a higher rate of casualties. And, he argues, this will all be done in the name of maintaining nuclear parity with the United States.

Needless to say, I find this to be a very prudent and realistic assessment of misplaced Russian military procurement priorities. I’m encouraged that Russian commentators are increasingly focusing on this imbalance, rather than supporting the MOD’s drive to maintain nuclear parity out of some sort of continuing sense of desire to maintain great power status. I wonder how Russian planners will change their force posture once the potentially quite significant cuts in US defense spending come into effect over the next couple of years.

 

Repairing the Ekaterinburg

There have been some announcements on the repair schedule for the Ekaterinburg Delta IV submarine, which was seriously damaged by fire a couple of weeks ago. These reports confirm expectations that because of the fire, the submarine will be sent for its second major overhaul now, rather than in 2013 as scheduled. In addition to the regular overhaul, the outer hull will have to be repaired and the sonar apparatus replaced. The main disagreement is whether the repair will be completed in 3-4 years (i.e. by 2015 or 2016) or (if we follow Dmitry Rogozin’s tweets) by the summer of 2014. Winter ice means that the submarine will be sent to Severdvinsk in the spring and repairs will actually begin in May or June.

Two years to both repair the fire damage and complete the regular overhaul seems excessively ambitious. The Verkhoturie, the first Delta IV submarine to go for its second overhaul, is scheduled to be returned to the fleet in December 2012, 2.5 years after the overhaul began. Fixing the fire damage will take extra time, so I would imagine the 3-4 year time estimate is more likely than Rogozin’s 2 year claim.

In the meantime, the accident will likely delay the decommissioning of one or more of the three remaining Delta III submarines that are to be replaced by the soon to be commissioned Borei submarines.