Russian shipbuilding still in trouble

A couple of recent announcements indicate that Russian shipbuilders are continuing to struggle with construction of new types of ships. First came the announcement, right at the end of 2015, that the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate was being delayed for another year, until the end of 2016. At the same time, the navy announced that the Admiral Grigorovich frigate will be commissioned in the first quarter of 2016. It had previously been expected to be commissioned in May 2015, before being repeatedly pushed back. In addition, commissioning of the lead ship of the Alexandrit class (Project 12700) of minewsweepers has been pushed back yet again, to May 2016. It was originally planned to be in the fleet back in 2013. And sea trials of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship were also delayed until the first quarter of 2016. As a result, in 2015 the Russian Navy received no new blue water surface ships.

On the other hand, it lost the services of several ships, including the Steregushchiy corvette that suffered a fire in April and both Neustrashimyi class frigates. The latter ships are waiting to be overhauled at Yantar shipyard, but the overhaul will take a long time since Ukraine will not supply replacement engines for the ships. The lack of engines will delay construction on most of the larger classes of surface ships, including Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 3-4), Project 11356 (Admiral Gorshkov class hulls 4-6), and Project 20385 (Stereguschiy class variant, replaced by Project 20380 with less reliable Russian-built engines).

Submarine construction may seem better on the surface, with the commissioning of two Improved Kilo class ((Project 636) diesel submarines and the return to active service in 2015 of the Akula class submarine Gepard and the Sierra class submarine Pskov after length overhauls. While there is no doubt that Russian submarine construction is in much better shape than the construction of ocean-going surface ships, there are problems here as well. First of all, despite being commissioned back in 2013, the Severodvinsk SSN remains in sea trials for the third year.

But more importantly, development of a new class of diesel-electric submarines appears to be in trouble. Problems with propulsion systems have long delayed commissioning of the lead vessel of the Lada class, resulting in the decision taken several years ago to build six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Black Sea Fleet. The Russian Navy appeared to be moving on in announcing the successor Kalina class, which was to have air-independent propulsion systems (AIP). Russian experts argued that AIP would be ready by 2017-18, and the new submarines could be built relatively quickly after that. However, the Russian Navy recently announced, with quite a bit of fanfare, that it had ordered another six Improved Kilo class submarines for the Pacific Fleet. These are very good submarines, which undoubtedly be equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles that will give them a potent anti-ship and land-attack capability. But the implication of this announcement is that the Russian Navy does not expect to receive any of the new Kalina class submarines any time soon, and is therefore ordering the tried and true submarines to fill the gap.

All in all, it seems that Russian shipbuilding is continuing to “tread water,” successfully building ships that it has already built in the past but having serious problems with delays in the new projects that were expected to form the core of the Russian Navy in the 2020s.


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


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.


An Enduring Partnership: Russian-Indian military cooperation (Part 1: naval cooperation)

Here is the second piece I wrote for DSI. This was written last summer, so I’m sure there have been some developments in the last 4-5 months that are not included here. I’ll try to write up an update at some point, but it may be a bit, as other projects keep getting in the way of writing new material for this blog. As with the previous DSI piece, this one will be split into 3 parts that will appear over the next two weeks.

Over the last decade, India has gradually emerged as the largest customer for Russian military exports. This trend is in part the result of the decline of Russian arms sales to China, as the latter country increasingly focuses on developing its domestic defense industry. But primarily it is the result of a significant expansion of Indian defense procurement over the last decade. Given the volume of contracts already signed, India is guaranteed to be the Russian defense industry’s biggest client for the next four years. Sales to India will account for 55 percent of all foreign defense orders from Russia. More significantly, many of these contracts are for joint ventures that will tie the two countries’ defense industries closer together.

Ships and submarines

Cooperation between the Indian and Russian Navies has a long history. India has operated Russian and Soviet built ships and submarines since the 1960s. About half of the Indian Navy’s major surface combatants, and about two-thirds of its submarines, were built in Russia or the Soviet Union.

In recent years, India has purchased six Russian-built improved Krivak-class frigates (designated Talwar class in India). This was the first instance of Russia exporting a ship that was superior to the domestic version of the same class. The first three of these, ordered in 1997 and delivered in 2003-04 at a total cost of one billion dollars, were armed with Shtil SAM systems and Club-N missiles. The second set of three was ordered in 2004 because of problems with domestic warship production in India. These are being delivered in the 2011-12 period at a cost of 1.56 billion dollars. These new frigates are each to be armed with eight jointly developed BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, a 100-mm gun, a Shtil SAM system, two Kashtan air-defense gun/missile systems, two twin 533-mm torpedo launchers, and an ASW helicopter. The Indian navy retains an option to buy another three Talwar-class frigates in the future.

India also operates ten Kilo class submarines, purchased from the Soviet Union and Russia between 1986 and 2000. Four of the older submarines have been modernized at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severdvinsk, which included a complete overhaul of its hull structures, improvements to control systems, sonar, electronic warfare systems, and an integrated weapon control system, as well as adding 3M-54 Klub (SS-N-27) anti-ship missiles to their armament.

Over the years, India has bought a number of major Russian weapons systems for domestically built Indian Navy ships. These purchases have included various types of anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, torpedoes, ASW rocket launchers, and naval guns. Most significantly, the Shivalik class frigates and Kolkata class destroyers are armed almost entirely with Russian weapons such as the RBU-6000 rocket launchers, SET-65E torpedoes, 3M-54 Klub anti-ship missiles, and 9M317 (SA-N-12) surface-to-air missiles. Russian design bureaus assisted Indian designers in developing both of these ships.

The Severodvinsk shipyard is nearing completion on a long-delayed project to refurbish the former Soviet aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which was sold to India in 2004 and will be renamed the INS Vikramaditya. It remains the largest single piece of military equipment ever exported in the world. Under the terms of the original deal, India was to receive the ship for free in 2008, but would have paid $970 million for necessary upgrades and refurbishment of the ship, as well as an additional $752 million for the accompanying aircraft and weapons systems, which included 12 single-seat MiG-29K and 4 dual-seat MiG-29KUB aircraft, 6 Ka-31 reconnaissance and Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters, as well as a Kashtan CIWS, 9M-311 SAMs, torpedo tubes, and artillery units for the ship.

Recurring delays and significant cost overruns brought the Indian side close to canceling the deal, though in March 2010 the two sides reached an agreement under which India agreed to pay an addition $1.5 billion for the retrofitting. According to the new contract, the carrier will be transferred to India in 2012. As of July 2010, all structural work has been completed and almost all large equipment has been installed, although cabling work is continuing. Since then, the Severdvinsk shipyard has stated that the project remains on schedule and the ship will be sent to India next year.

In August 2010, Russia officially transferred an Akula-II class SSN to India, which will lease it for a ten year period at a cost of $25 million per year. An Indian crew is currently in Russia being trained to operate the sub and it is expected to be commissioned into the Indian Navy in October 2011. The lease is the result of a 2004 deal through which India invested $650 million in completing construction on the submarine. As part of the deal, the submarine received new armaments, including the Club-S missile system. It was originally due to be transferred in 2008, but technical problems during the construction, followed by a deadly malfunction of the automatic fire extinguishing system during sea trials, delayed the transfer.

The Indian Navy has the option to lease a second partially built Akula-II class submarine. Hull 519 is currently located at the Amur shipyard at 60 percent completion. If India exercises the option to complete this ship, it will invest $1.15 billion in completing its construction.

Finally, Russian designers have been assisting the Indian Navy in designing its own domestically produced nuclear submarines, the Arihant class. It is likely that various components for these submarines were purchased from Russia, though open source information on details of such sales is not available.

Russia is competing to be a part of future Indian ship construction. It has offered a version of its Admiral Gorshkov class frigate as part of the Indian Navy’s tender for a follow-on to the Shivalik class frigates, labeled Project 17A. The plan is to build the first ship of this class at a foreign shipyard, followed by six more to be built in India under license. Russia is also planning to submit the Amur submarine to compete in a new tender for six diesel submarines, to be built under license in India.


Reviving the Black Sea Fleet

While I’ve been traveling over the last month, there has been a lot of news (mostly hopeful) about the Russian Navy. Today, I want to discuss the recently announced and long-awaited rebuilding of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The recent renewal of Russia’s naval basing agreement with Ukraine, much of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the fleet dissipated. Given the poor state of the fleet’s existing ships, some kind of modernization announcement was necessary lest the fleet disappear entirely over the next ten years because of a lack of sea-worthy ships. (I covered the decline of the fleet here.)

Last week, Vladimir Vysotsky, the Commander of the Russian Navy, announced that the Black Sea Fleet would receive 10 new surface ships and 5 new submarines in the next ten years. The ship types remain somewhat uncertain, probably because a final decision has not yet been made. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, two contradictory views about ship types appeared in the Russian press. The more widespread argument stated that most of the surface ships will be Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, while the submarines will be Lada-class (aka St. Petersburg) diesel subs. These are both relatively new projects that are still not ready for rapid serial construction. Construction of the St. Petersburg submarine, which began in 1997, was completed in 2005, but the ship was not accepted into the fleet until May 2010 because of various problems during sea trials. Even now, it is listed as available only for “limited use,” reportedly because of problems with the main power plant. Completion of the first of the Admiral Gorshkov frigates has been repeatedly postponed. It is now scheduled for 2011, but may have to be postponed again.

If these reports are correct, it will be difficult to procure all 15 new ships and submarines for the Black Sea Fleet by the 2020 deadline. Russian shipyards have been quite slow in building new ships and some will undoubtedly need to go to the other three fleets, which are also faced with aging fleets.

The alternative view, as spelled out in an article in Vedomosti, is quite intriguing. This article argues that the new surface ships will include 3-4 Talwar class frigates (improved Krivak IIIs), which until now have been built exclusively for export to India, and six smaller Buyan-class corvettes. Russian shipyards have shown that they can build these types of ships relatively quickly. While the first three Talwars were each built approximately one year behind schedule, the three being built currently are all on schedule to be delivered in 2011-12.

Similarly, instead of building the problematic St. Petersburg-class diesel submarines, the fleet would receive three modernized Kilo-class submarines, of the type that have been successfully exported to a number of countries in recent years.  Each of these ships could be built in about three years, and with serial construction, the whole modernization project could be completed easily in ten years. Furthermore, if production of the newer ship types goes better than expected, some Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines could be added to the fleet toward the tail end of the ten year window.

It will be interesting to watch further developments on this story. If the Navy announces that the new ships will consist of Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines, the Black Sea Fleet is likely to be in for more delays and disappointments. But if the modernization does end up consisting of Kilo submarines and Krivak III frigates, then it is much more likely to happen quickly and successfully.