The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian naval strategy

The Russian military analyst Prokhor Tebin has put together a very useful article explaining Crimea’s military significance for Russia. He highlights the Black Sea’s economic significance for Russia: Russia’s Black Sea commercial ports carry 30 percent of its total maritime exports. The Black Sea also provides the closest access for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Tebin points out that the Black Sea Fleet is needed to ensure that access, as well as to deal with potential  instability in the Caucasus.  It will also serve as a logistics hub for the Mediterranean task force that the Russian navy has decided to form, though ships for the task force will come from other fleets as well. He ranks the fleet third in importance for the Russian Navy, behind the Northern and Pacific Fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.

The composition of the fleet is currently inadequate for its missions. It has only a few old Soviet-era ships: one missile cruiser, three frigates, seven large amphibious ships, and one diesel submarine. It has not received any new combat ships since 1990, while almost all of its existing ships will need to be decommissioned fairly soon. Tebin compares the strength of the BSF to the Turkish navy, which includes 16 frigates, 8 corvettes, and 14 diesel submarines, with more ships on the way. To change the situation, Russia is currently building six new Talwar-class frigates and six improved Kilo class diesel submarines for the BSF. The fleet may also get some small missile ships and gunboats, as well as new minesweepers. Tebin considers this an absolute minimum for the BSF and argues that it will still not be enough to fulfill all of the fleet’s missions or to restore the balance of power in the Black Sea. He also calls for the development of additional shore-based infrastructure, especially in Novorossiisk. However, the latter port is inferior in location and climate conditions to Sevastopol, being subject to the extremely strong wind known as Bora. This relatively unpredictable wind, with speeds registered at over 200km/hour, has in the past damaged ships at pier. The location of Novorossiisk is also far less central than Sevastopol and the harbor is inferior. For these reasons, Tebin argues that Novorossiisk can only serve a complementary role for the Black Sea Fleet, while Sevastopol must remain its main base for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Tebin also provides a very nice map of Russian military facilities in Crimea, which I reproduce below.

The legend reads as follows:

The 1997 agreement permits a maximum of 25,000 personnel, including no more than 1,987 naval infantry and naval aviation personnel. 14,000 are actually deployed.

1) Sevastopol: main Black Sea Fleet forces, up to 30 ships; 810 naval infantry brigade; 17th arms storage facility, Khersones and Yuzhnyi airfields

2) Kacha airfield: Be-12 and An-26 aircraft, Ka-27 and Mi-8 helicopters

3) Gvardeiskoe airfield: 20 Su-24 bombers

4) Feodosiia: 31st naval armaments testing center

5) Cape Opuk: naval firing range

6) Otradnoe: 219th radio-electronic warfare regiment

7) Yalta: 830th communications post

8) Priberezhnoe: 1001st high-frequency communications post

 

MVMS-2013 naval salon prompts more reflections on the future of the Russian navy

There have been a number of interesting articles written on the future of the Russian Navy in conjunction with the naval salon in St. Petersburg earlier this month. I’ll try to summarize the interesting points without repeating material found in my earlier articles on this topic.

The most recent bit of news is that the Russian navy is planning to order an additional three Talwar class (project 11356) frigates, on top of the six already in the works. The idea is that these are relatively capable ships that can be built and outfitted very quickly (at a rate of one per year for the construction). Three are currently under construction and according to the most recent reports, two more are to be laid down this year. These are well armed ships, comparable to the Sovremennyi class destroyers in armament, though more versatile. Whereas the original plan had been to deploy all six to the Black Sea Fleet, the current plan is to station the first three there while the next three would go to the Baltic Fleet. As Prokhor Tebin points out, this makes absolutely no sense. The Baltic Fleet should be the Russian Navy’s lowest priority, focused primarily on testing new ships and training. Both the BSF and the Pacific Fleet are in much greater need of new ships of this type. But that sort of thing can be changed once the ships are actually ready for commissioning. The truly significant news is that three more such ships will be built in the near future and, unlike the more complicated Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, are likely to be put to use quite quickly.

Ilya Kramnik had an interesting summary of plans for the future that adds some information and analysis to what I’ve already discussed.  He mentions plans for a new attack submarine that is expected to become the mainstay of the fleet for the next several decades. This will be a smaller and cheaper submarine than the Yasen class. It will combine the usual missions of protecting Russian and tracking foreign SSBNs. In other words, if we thinking of the Yasen as the Russian Seawolf, then this new class will be the Virginia. Plans call for 20 such submarines to be built by the end of the 2020s, with construction of the first sub to start in the next 5-7 years.

So if all the submarine plans are carried out, by 2030 the Russian Navy will get a total of 35-36 new nuclear submarines, including 8 Boreis, 7-8 Yasens, and up to 20 of the new class. The total cost would be 1.5 trillion rubles at current prices, not including expenses for modernizing existing submarines. Personally, I think this is overly ambitious. Even if we assume that the design process will proceed without delays and construction and construction does start in 2018 or thereabouts, I highly doubt that the Russian shipbuilding industry is capable of building 20 new submarines in 10-12 years. I realize that the submarine-building sector is the healthiest part of the industry, but there is just no record even in the industry’s Soviet history of building two nuclear submarines of the same type per year. Even one would be ambitious, given recent history.  I suppose it would be possible if the Amur shipyard was pressed into service, though my understanding is that it is not building submarines any more. Even if it were, it would take a lot to get that shipyard up to speed.

In addition to the new destroyer that we discussed last week, new plans for surface ships include a littoral combat ship. The design of the LCS has not been finalized and fairly non-traditional options such as a catamaran or trimaran are supposedly on the table.  Industry representatives want to build 1-2 ships of the two best designs to test their capabilities and then select one for serial production. 35-40 such ships could be built for all four fleets, at a total cost of 250-280 billion rubles. Such pace of construction would be made possible by using multiple shipyards, including those in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Zelenodolsk and possible Krasnoe Sormovo.

Discussions are still under way about the design of a potential new aircraft carrier.  Photos of a model that represents current thinking show a classical design, equipped with a ski jump and a catapult, and with an estimated length of 320 meters and 80,000 tons displacement. While discussions continue, the Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service. Its modernization, originally scheduled to begin in 2012 will be postponed until the second half of this decade.

The main problem with all these plans is the continued weakness of the shipbuilding sector. In a separate article, Kramnik mentions the complexity of new equipment, including radars, control systems, hydroacoustics, and weapons.  He notes that this has led to delays in construction of the Admiral Gorshkov class frigates and the Yasen class submarines, among others. (I would also add the Lada class diesel submarines to this list.) There are also complications resulting from the merger of many disparate plants, in varying condition and with different ways of doing business, into the United Shipbuilding Corporation. This has resulted in various problems with finances and personnel that presently can only be resolved through “manual control.”

Igor Zakharov, the vice president of United Shipbuilding Corporation, argues that the way to solve the sector’s problems is to give the chief designer of any major shipbuilding project both personal responsibility before the client and the right to ensure that sub-contractors fulfill their obligations on time. He doesn’t spell out what mechanisms would be used to ensure the latter, but he does call for the introduction of arbitration mechanisms to resolve conflicts between industry and the MOD over issues such as pricing.

He also notes that Russian shipbuilding needs to adapt to the modern world, where hulls can last 50 years or more while electronics and armaments become outdated much more quickly. This requires ships to be built in a way that allows for easy modernization and replacement of weapons and equipment. Soviet ships, by contrast, did not consider the possibility of such updates, making their modernization in the new environment very costly and time consuming. New capital ships will be built in small series. Furthermore, rapid advances in electronics will require that even these series be divided into sub-series that will maintain unity of ship design while updating electronics and weaponry. Some systems and weapons can be used across ship classes. We are already seeing elements of these ideas in systems such as the multipurpose shipboard firing system (УКСК) and in the modular construction of the latest classes of Russian corvettes and frigates.

These are good ideas. The problem is the extent to which they are stymied by the conglomerate nature of United Shipbuilding and by the difficulty its personnel and business structures face in adapting to the new way of doing business. Over time, I imagine the shipbuilding industry will improve. But time is needed, while the navy is providing the industry with somewhat unrealistic timetables for the construction of new ships. The result will be more delays, though probably not as bad as in the recent past.