Defense industry news

Every Wednesday, Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier publishes a new issue that includes short news items about the Russian military. I’m going to experiment with providing occasional translations of these news stories, without commentary. Not sure if  it’ll become a permanent feature or not. It will depend on how much time it takes and whether I feel it takes away from my time to write longer analytical pieces here. But I’ll try it for at least the next few weeks.

–Severnaia Verf is planning to build three support vessels for the Russian Navy, capable of being used in northern environments. The first of the ships will be built by 2014, with the last to be handed over in 2016. They will go to the Northern, Pacific, and Black Sea Fleets.

–Admiralteiskie Verfi is building a rescue ship, to be called Igor Belousov, that will be used primarily for rescue operations involving submarines. It is expected to be commissioned in 2014.

–President Putin noted that four trillion rubles, i.e. almost a quarter of all GPV-2020 funding, has been allocated to rebuilding the air force and army aviation.

–The first new Il-476 transport plane will be rolled out on July 5 in Ulyanovsk. Russian military transport aviation hopes to acquire up to 100 of these planes.  There are discussions of selling 36 more, plus four Il-478 tanker planes based on the same fuselage, to China. These would replace the Il-76 and Il-78 planes that were not sent to China because of problems at the previous assembly plant in Tashkent.

–Dmitry Rogozin stated that Russia and Israel are discussing developing a joint venture to build UAVs that could be used by both countries, with construction to take place in Russia. In the meantime, Russia may sign new contracts to purchase 48-72 UAVs from Israel, in addition to the ones already purchased in the past.

— Vladimir Putin, in the meantime, noted that Russia is planning to spend 400 billion rubles through 2020 to develop a fully indigenous UAV capability.

–Sevmash is on track to transfer the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier to India on December 5.  The ship has been undergoing sea trials in the Barents Sea since June 8.

More details on the Ekaterinburg fire

In the last week, there have been two very interesting reports with additional information on the fire that seriously damaged the Ekaterinburg strategic nuclear submarine back in December. All the reports seem to agree that the submarine’s nuclear missiles and torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the start of the repair, which meant that there had been a serious risk of a torpedo explosion while the fire burned.

But let’s start at the beginning. The reports indicate that the submarine came to Rosliakovo for a routine inspection, during which it was decided that damage to a cowling that covers the submarine’s sonar. This covering had been damaged either when the submarine was docking, or earlier in the summer or fall, depending on the report. In order to fix the cowling, an opening was made in the outer hull. The fire began during the repair (at 3:45pm Moscow time on December 29) as the result of sparks igniting wooden scaffolding. From the scaffolding, the fire spread to the rubber soundproofing covering that is located between the outer and inner hull. This covering supposedly becomes flammable only at very high temperatures, but once on fire it is very difficult to extinguish. The fire spread in the space between the two hulls, a location that is narrow and filled with various equipment, factors that increased the difficulty of fighting the fire. Three hours after the fire began, flames continued to shoot up to a height of 15-20 meters.

Those in charge at the site early on had the idea to submerge the floating dock in which the submarine was located, but the process was complicated by the presence of the Admiral Kulakov destroyer in the same dock. If the dock was submerged too far, the interior of the ship would be flooded. The Kommersant article that discusses this issue does not really address the question of how this was resolved, though it implies that the dock was partially submerged so that seawater could reach the submarine and extinguish the fire without rising so high as to flood the Kulakov. Afterwards, the fire was mostly brought under control, though it was not fully extinguished until 6:20pm on December 30, almost 27 hours after it began.

Numerous sources agree that both the submarine’s nuclear missiles and its torpedoes had not been offloaded prior to the inspection. The reports indicate that regulations do not require that the missiles be offloaded in this circumstance, but that the torpedoes should be. According to Novaia Gazeta, the base commander allowed the Ekaterinburg to enter the dock without offloading the torpedoes. Kommersant notes that this happens fairly frequently in order to avoid delays.

The torpedoes were located in the first compartment, only 40 meters from the fire. Here’s a picture of the front of the submarine:

The crew quickly realized the danger that extreme heat just on the other side of the inner hull might cause the torpedoes to explode. Since the hydraulic systems for torpedo removal were not functioning, they risked their lives to manually remove the torpedoes from the first compartment. According to Novaia Gazeta, three torpedoes were removed in this way. Had the torpedoes exploded, dozens of crew and firefighters would have been killed. Depending on the number of torpedoes affected, the authors of the Kommersant article raise the possibility that the explosion could have destroyed the floating dock and the Admiral Kulakov and might have led to radioactive contamination from the nuclear missiles or the two nuclear reactors onboard. I have no way of judging how serious that threat was, but whether or not it was real, a torpedo explosion would have certainly led to panic not just in Roslyakovo but also in the nearby cities of Severomorsk and Murmansk, which have a total population of almost 400,000 people. You can see the locations on the map below, from the Kommersant article.

Finally, let me turn to the consequences for the future of the submarine. This topic is addressed extensively in the Novaia Gazeta article. The good news is that according to Dmitry Rogozin the repairs will cost only 500 million rubles — half of the initially announced estimate. The article goes on to argue, however, that it is unlikely that the submarine will be able to submerge to significant depths in the future because the high temperatures sustained by the inner hull in the front section of the submarine may have compromised its strength. The author says that unless the entire front compartment is replaced, the submarine will only be able to submerge to limited depths without risking the lives of its crew.

I am sure that the Ekaterinburg’s first cruise after the repairs are completed will receive a great deal of attention. Given the potential consequences of a problem, hopefully no one will be cutting any corners.

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.


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.

A bad day for the Russian military

The Russian military suffered two major accidents today — a fire on the Ekaterinburg SSBN and the crash of a Su-24 on landing in Volgograd.

The submarine fire was quite serious and burned for seven hours.  The Ekaterinburg was in dry dock at the time undergoing scheduled repairs. Its nuclear reactor had been shut down and its weapons offloaded for the repair. The sub eventually had to be submerged in order to completely put out the fire, though it appears from initial news reports that the damage was limited to the outer hull as the fire didn’t penetrate to the interior.

There’s conflicting information on injuries — most news outlets are reporting that there were no injuries, but one report indicated that nine people had been taken to the hospital with injuries caused by the fire. The fire appears to have been caused by sparks emitted during a welding operation, which spread to nearby construction debris and then to scaffolding being used in the submarine’s repair. From there, the fire spread to the submarine’s outer hull, damaging the special noise-reducing rubber coating located on the submarine’s exterior between the outer and inner hull. While it seems to be too early to know for sure, early reports indicate that repair of the submarine will take at least six months.

Meanwhile, in Volgograd, a landing Su-24 on a routine training flight crashed and exploded. Both members of the crew were able to eject from the plane and survived the incident. This is the second crash of a Su-24 in the last few months. In October, a Su-24 on its way to be repaired crashed on landing in Amur oblast after overshooting the runway. In that case, the crew members were killed. It was later determined that that crash was caused by a broken chassis that caused the plane to flip over and also ruptured the plane’s fuel tank, causing a fire. According to RIA-Novosti, at least fifteen Su-24 aircraft have crashed in Russia since 2000.

These two accidents may serve as an early test for Dmitry Rogozin, the newly appointed Deputy Premier in charge of the defense industry. If he wants to show from the start that he is serious about shaking things up, he may use them as an excuse to push through a major house-cleaning of the industry, parts of which are known to have lax quality control and safety standards. Or he may continue to make strong statements that receive a great deal of media attention with little to no follow through, as he did in his previous position as Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

UPDATE: Ilya Kramnik emailed me with a correction — the rubber covering on the Ekaterinburg is not between the outer and inner hulls, but on the outside of the outer hull. There is some minor damage to communications between the two hulls.

Also, there’s been official confirmation that seven crew members and two emergency ministry personnel (i.e. firefighters, most likely) had suffered from smoke inhalation.

Medvedev’s year-end assessment and Rogozin’s arrival

Yesterday, President Medvedev gave his annual state of the country address to the Federation Council. He spoke for a fair bit about the military, although there was little new information in what he said. Mostly, he just talked about how everything was getting better all the time and according to the government’s plan. But along the way, little facts crept in that paint a somewhat different picture.

First of all, Medvedev mentions that next year, there will be 220,000 officers and 180,000 contract soldiers (including professional sergeants) serving in the military. That’s the same number of contract soldiers as were mentioned as serving at the beginning of this year. What happened to the plan to recruit 50,000 new contract soldiers every year? Furthermore, a bit of simple arithmetic will show that the supposed 1 million man Russian army is a fiction. The total number of conscripts serving right now is approximately 350,000. That means the total strength of the military is 750,000, not 1 million. Or am I missing something? And given that the fall call-up was only 136,000 (compared to 218,000 last spring), if the spring call-up is about the same, by next summer we’ll be looking at a military where over 30 percent of all posts are actually vacant. Unless an extra 100,000 contract soldiers materialize between now and then because of the coming salary increase. Somehow I don’t see this as very likely.

Medvedev’s second point had to do with progress in the modernization of military equipment and weapons. I covered this in my last post, so I don’t think there any more to say on the problems facing that direction of reform.

Next came two areas where some progress has actually been made — making the military more mobile and compact and increasing salaries and social protection for people serving in the military. While there is still much left to be desired in both areas, at least there is movement in the right direction on both counts. The military’s reorganization over the last couple of years has increased mobility and (at least theoretically) improved combat readiness. Changes in training and exercises are also positive, especially in terms of the scenarios being exercised, though more can be done on that score. Salaries and pensions are increasing substantially, starting in January.

Medvedev concluded his discussion of the military by addressing problems with housing. He mentioned progress in building apartments for those on waiting lists, though not the problems that have surrounded the actual construction of the apartments. Furthermore, and not at all surprisingly, the deadlines have continued to slip, this time to 2014. The complete resolution of the housing problems always seems to be about 3-4 years in the future, ever since Sergei Ivanov’s claim in 2006 that everyone on the waiting list will have an apartment by 2010. Of course the mass forced retirements significantly added to the queue, but nevertheless, and especially given the problems with some of the construction, I would wager that 2016 is a more realistic estimate.

Finally, in addition to Medvedev’s statement, there were also some important personnel changes announced today. In conjunction with the game of musical chairs being carried out in the aftermath of the post-election protests that began earlier this month, Sergei Ivanov was appointed to be Chief of Staff in the Presidential Administration. This freed up his previous position — deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry and military procurement, a position that has now been given to Dmitry Rogozin, who was previously Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

This appointment serves two purposes. First of all, it will (if only temporarily) quell the rumors that Rogozin was about to replace Defense Minister Serdiukov. Second, it will give Rogozin an opportunity to show his managerial qualities (if he has any). Ivanov was about as bad at the military procurement position as he was at being defense minister, so it may be that Rogozin’s penchant for strong language comes in useful in pushing for defense industrial reform. Though it’s far more likely that Rogozin will continue his tendency to make big controversial statements that generate a lot of publicity, without actually doing much of anything.