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.


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 Russian Navy’s shipbuilding constraints

Last week, the press in the U.S. briefly got excited about the Russian state armaments program. Fred Weir’s article in particular talked about the bear sharpening its claws, etc. There was no mention of the failure of all previous such programs, and no discussion of the overall likelihood that the program would actually be carried out in its entirety. I have for awhile been arguing that there’s no way that these grand pronouncements can be met given the current capacities of Russia’s defense industry. I’m currently in the middle of putting together a fairly lengthy analysis of the Russian air force’s acquisitions in light of these limitations, which will hopefully see the light of day within the next week or so.

While that’s in progress, I thought I’d share a note that I received recently from Dave Baker regarding the extent to which Russia’s shipbuilding industry is likely to meet its GPV targets, written in response to an AP article about Russia’s plans to acquire 600 planes and 100 ships in the next 10 years.

Despite this being an official announcement, I’d not put too much credence into it, and I seriously doubt that the stated goals can be met or even distantly approached. Within the last couple of weeks there was another official statement that, instead of five Graney-class SSNs being completed by 2015, there will now be only one more past the prototype laid down 15 years ago. Another Russian yard official stated that no work would be begun on the pair of Mistrals to be built in Russian until 2020 (when the new yard at Kotlin Island would be completed; prior announcements, not that long ago, have said the yard would be finished in 2017).

At the same time, the new corvette program has already been cancelled after only two launchings, due to stability and weapons system integration problems. Just read that the new submarine rescue ship laid down in 2007 at Admiralty has had very little done on it since due to funding shortages, and, of course, the Lada program seems very likely to have been halted at the one in the water, since by switching to building Kilos for domestic use at Admiralty, there’s no longer any yard space to build Ladas (not sure what’s happening to units two and three, which are on order — unit two may be the one laid down as an export demonstrator back in 1996, but the fourth was never ordered).

Etc., etc.   On the other hand, there’s a yard near St. Petersburg cranking out a slew of new yard tugs to replace the ancient and decrepit fleet now in use. Perhaps the 100 ships will mostly be yardcraft. Oh, and Putin is getting a very large and expensive yacht out of the Russian Navy budget.

I am very much in agreement with this line of thinking. While my understanding is that at least two more of the new corvettes will be completed (and possibly as many as four for a total of six altogether), it is clear that the project has been declared a failure and will eventually be replaced by a new corvette design that is light (1500 tons or less), inexpensive, and can accommodate a wide range of armaments — including missiles that can hit both land and sea targets (perhaps the Klub?), anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defenses, and mine-laying capabilities. However, the timeline on this project is quite long, as design has only just begun.

Similarly, the Lada submarines are a failure because of largely unsolved propulsion problems. A return to the Kilo, at least for the near to medium term, seems to be the only solution. I’m also not at all surprised that there will only be one more Graney (aka Severodvinsk)-class attack submarine. Back in September, I noted that plans for building one of these a year starting in 2011 were completely unrealistic and that the submarine type in and of itself was too expensive and unnecessary given the cancellation of the similar Sea Wolf program by the United States after only three subs.

In other words, don’t expect 100 new Russian navy ships by 2020. Unless you count the yard tugs…

UPDATE: In fairness, I should note that Fred Weir’s article does talk about problems related to the armaments program, particularly about whether the weapons being procured will be useful for Russia’s defensive needs, the lack of fresh designs, and the deteriorating capabilities of the military industrial complex. As I note in the comments below, it’s more the headline that’s the problem, rather than the piece itself.

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.