RUSI Global Security Briefing on Black Sea

I recently participated in the RUSI Global Security Briefing podcast hosted by Neil Melvin, Director of RUSI International Security Studies. Together with Neil and Maryna Vorotnyuk, we discussed how security relations have shifted around the Black Sea following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent build-up of regional military forces, including the significance of the recent confrontation between the UK warship HMS Defender and Russia’s armed forces in waters off Crimea.

Here’s the full show description:

Episode 7: Regional Security in the Black Sea

In this episode, the panel discuss the fast-evolving security environment in the Black Sea region, including the significance of the recent confrontation between the UK warship HMS Defender and Russia’s armed forces in waters off Crimea.

Dr Dmitry Gorenburg, Senior Research Scientist at CNA in the US, and Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk, RUSI Research Fellow, discuss how security relations have shifted around the Black Sea following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent build-up of regional military forces with host Dr Neil Melvin, Director RUSI International Security Studies.

The HMS Defender Incident: What happened and What Are the Political Ramifications?

I wrote a piece on the HMS Defender incident for Russia Matters. Here’s a preview. You can read the whole article here.


On June 23, the HMS Defender—a British Type 45 destroyer—was involved in a confrontation with the Russian military while sailing near the Crimean Peninsula. The ship was in the Black Sea to participate in NATO’s Sea Breeze exercise. Prior to the start of the exercise, it had completed a port visit to the Ukrainian port of Odesa and was on its way to make a similar port visit to Batumi, Georgia. As it passed through territorial waters claimed by Russia, the ship was closely shadowed by Russian forces. Furthermore, the Russian military claimed that it fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the vicinity of the ship, forcing it to move into international waters. What actually happened during the incident? Why did the British and Russian governments take the actions they took? What is the likely impact of the incident on the confrontation between Russia and NATO? And how does it affect the likelihood of future escalation?

Timeline

The HMS Defender was part of a NATO naval task force participating in Operation Sea Guardian, NATO’s counter-terrorism mission in the Mediterranean. It entered the Black Sea on June 14 after a port visit to Istanbul. Its first stop was Odesa, Ukraine’s main Black Sea port. While they were moored in Odesa, the HMS Defender and a Dutch navy ship had their automatic identification system (AIS) signals spoofed by Russian electronic warfare systems to indicate that they were traveling toward Crimean waters, approaching to within two nautical miles of the entrance to Russia’s Sevastopol naval base. In actuality, video evidence showed that the ships did not leave Odesa harbor for several more days. After the visit to Odesa, the HMS Defender was scheduled to make a port visit to Batumi, Georgia before joining the multi-national NATO-led Sea Breeze exercise that began in the Black Sea on June 28.

The most direct route from Odesa to Batumi involves a passage through Crimean territorial waters off Cape Fiolent, and this was the route that the HMS Defender took on June 23 as it transited from Odesa to Batumi. The ship entered Crimean waters at either 11:50am (according to British sources) or 11:52am (according to Russian sources). It was shadowed by two Russian Coast Guard ships. Approximately 20 Russian aircraft, including a Su-24 bomber, a Su-30 fighter, and a Be-12 amphibious aircraft flew near the British ship. At noon, the Coast Guard warned that a live fire gunnery exercise would start imminently. At some point, the Russian military warned the HMS Defender by radio that it would fire if the British ship did not change course. One of the Russian ships fired shots in the general vicinity of the British ship at 12:08pm. According to Russian sources, the Su-24 dropped four unguided OFAB-250 fragmentation bombs at 12:19pm. However, no video evidence of this action has been released and the British Navy has repeatedly rejected the claim that any bombs were dropped in the vicinity of its ship. The HMS Defender then departed Crimean waters at either 12:24pm (according to Russian sources) or 12:26pm (according to British sources) and made its way to Georgia without further incident. In his call-in show on June 30, Vladimir Putin claimed that a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was in the vicinity and operating in concert with the HMS Defender, suggesting that the two countries were therefore working together during the confrontation.

Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russia’s Naval Strategy in the Mediterranean

One more in the series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian naval strategy in the Mediterranean, written in June but only recently published. As with the last one, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Over the last decade, Russia has expanded its military footprint in the Mediterranean. Since establishing its Mediterranean Squadron in 2013, it has largely maintained a permanent naval presence in the region, based primarily on ships from the Black Sea Fleet, with support from ships and submarines of the Northern and Baltic Fleets.
  • Russia’s strategy uses the Mediterranean’s geography to protect Russia’s southern flanks while seeking to challenge the naval supremacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia depends on maintaining and gradually expanding its naval presence in the Mediterranean while also securing expanded access to ports and bases, with the possibility of eventually contesting NATO’s dominance in the central Mediterranean as well.
  • Although the Russian Navy’s missions in the Mediterranean are primarily related to coastal defense and protection of territorial waters, conventional deterrence has come to play an increasingly important role since the development of a ship-based cruise missile capability. The Russian Navy has sought to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence versus NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which work together to signal that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

Russia’s Strategic Goals

Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is focused on three key goals: taking advantage of the Mediterranean’s geographical position to improve Russia’s security, using Russia’s position in the Mediterranean to increase Russia’s status as an alternative world power to the United States, and providing support for the Syrian regime. The strategy has three key elements. The first element is the positioning of a credible military force in the Mediterranean. A permanent force in the region is important for several Russian objectives, including protecting Russian approaches and reducing Russia’s vulnerability to surprise.

This force also affords Russia more flexibility and capability in countering Western activities in the Mediterranean, grants Russia more-ready access to the world’s oceans, reduces the time needed to shuttle forces and platforms to the region in case of a conflict, and gives Russia a constant presence for spreading influence in the surrounding countries.

The second element of the strategy consists of an effort to secure allies and partners in the region with the goal of increasing port access for Russia’s naval squadron. Although Syria remains the critical ally for Russia, efforts to enhance cooperation with Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and other states have been successful to a greater or lesser extent.

The third element of the strategy builds on the second and focuses on establishing naval bases in the region—an effort successful only in Syria, so far. A base in the central Mediterranean, such as in Libya, would be particularly important from a strategic point of view, allowing Russia to expand its naval footprint beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

Without access granted by allies in the Mediterranean, a standing military presence, and regional basing, Moscow would likely find it more difficult to conduct operations in pursuit of its overarching strategic goals in the region. Were the three elements achieved, the Russian military would be in a much more favorable position in the event of hostilities or conflict in the Mediterranean.

Russia’s Naval Capabilities in the Mediterranean

In 2013, Russia reestablished a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea with its Mediterranean Squadron. The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been the primary supplier of ships and logistics for the squadron. Since 2014, the BSF has acquired six new attack submarines, three frigates, and several patrol ships and small missile ships. In conjunction with these acquisitions, Russia has begun major overhauls of some of its Soviet-era ships. Russia has moved air defense batteries into Crimea, where these batteries provide further cover for Russian platforms operating in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. The introduction of multiple platforms armed with long-range cruise missiles, and the addition of air defense batteries in Crimea, has fundamentally changed the way the Black Sea Fleet operates. Armed with Kalibr missile systems, which have a demonstrated range of 1,500–2,000 km, the fleet’s newest ships can strike distant targets from well-protected zones near Russia’s coastline in Crimea and Novorossiysk.

Since the addition of six Varshavyanka-class submarines to the BSF in 2017, Russia has stationed two such vessels in Tartus, Syria. Surface ships and submarines from Russia’s other fleets, mainly the Northern and Baltic, have participated in squadron operations at various times as well. The force has actively contributed to Russia’s military operations in Syria. In addition to delivering troops, BSF vessels have fired Kalibr missiles at ground targets throughout Syria. Russian ships have also shadowed U.S. ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and Russian submarines deployed to the Mediterranean have tracked U.S. and NATO platforms there as well. The squadron has also facilitated Russian naval diplomacy efforts, as ships from the squadron have called at ports at Cyprus, Egypt, and Malta.

The BSF will continue to acquire new ships during the next ten years, allowing Russia to increase the number of ships potentially able to deploy for operations in the Mediterranean. In addition, Russia has strengthened its air and air defense forces in the Mediterranean, positioning a range of tactical combat aircraft at its air base in Syria and having demonstrated the ability to surge long-range aviation into the Mediterranean from bases in Russian territory. Russian defenses can control the entire Black Sea from Crimea, including all approaches to Russian coastal areas. Russia has been deploying similar protective capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean, including placing S-400 and S-300 air defense systems, Bastion and Bal coastal defense systems, and Pantsir point-defense systems together with air force and naval units. Although the political geography of the region and the more-limited nature of Russian forces there mean that Moscow does not have the same kind of defensive control as it does in the Black Sea, its forces in the Mediterranean are strong enough to present a potent challenge to U.S. and NATO naval dominance in the region.

The Missions of the Russian Navy

Strategic deterrence remains the most important mission for the Russian Navy globally, but coastal defense and control of territorial waters are a close second and are paramount concerns in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Russia has traditionally considered coastal defense to mean simply keeping foreign navies away from the Russian coast; since 2015, however, the coastal-defense mission has come to encompass protection of Russian forces in Syria as well. Furthermore, over the last decade, the Russian Navy has increasingly focused on improving its ability to work closely with Russian ground forces and the Russian air force in joint operations. This coordination was on display as early as 2014, when all of the services worked closely together to move forces to Crimea as part of the operation that resulted in Russia’s annexation of that region. Since that time, Russia has repeatedly focused its military exercises on joint operations. The positive effects of that focus have been evident in Russian naval operations in and near Syria, where Russian naval forces have coordinated closely with Russian air and ground forces both in striking targets on shore and in transporting personnel and equipment for Russian operations.

Russia is achieving its coastal-defense mission primarily through capability development rather than platform acquisition. This is why the Russian Navy is not as concerned as some Western analysts think it should be about the difficulties and delays it has faced in building large surface ships. Instead, it has built a large number of smaller patrol ships and corvettes that are highly capable in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) operations. The idea is that the Russian Navy can use these ships to create maritime zones that are difficult for enemy forces to penetrate. These “A2/AD bubbles” in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean form a set of layered defenses and multiple vectors of attack through the combination of long-range sea-, air-, and ground-launched missiles used to deny access, with shorter-range coastal and air defense systems focused on area denial. As part of the coastal-defense mission, the Russian Navy will seek to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence against NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which will work together to highlight that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

In contrast, the Russian Navy has a relatively limited focus on traditional power projection and expeditionary warfare in the Mediterranean. Russia’s largest naval surface ships are Soviet legacy vessels that are becoming less reliable over time. Most of the new surface ships being built are relatively small and are unlikely to deploy far beyond Russia’s naval outposts in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. As a result, power projection will be largely based on the new generation of advanced Kilo-class diesel submarines and the regular presence of one or two cruise missile–carrying nuclear submarines deployed to the Mediterranean from the Northern Fleet. Russia’s legacy fleet of Soviet-era surface ships will continue to focus on status projection, carrying out port visits and similar activities to project the image of a great power. The Russian Navy also has a fairly limited expeditionary capability. Its small number of aging landing ships have reached the limit of their operational capacity in supporting Russia’s operations in Syria.

Constraints on Russian Naval Operations in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy’s future plans in the Mediterranean face several constraints. On the financing side, Moscow invested heavily in naval procurement as part of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program. It was not willing to maintain such a high level of spending for the next ten years, especially given the constraints on overall military spending resulting from a relatively stagnant economic situation. As a result, the Russian Navy appears likely to be the biggest loser in the 2027 State Armament Program.

On the shipbuilding side, most Russian naval construction projects have faced significant delays. This is due to the combination of a long-term decline in naval research and development that is only starting to be reversed, an inability to modernize its shipbuilding industry, budgetary constraints that have forced the government to make tradeoffs about which construction and modernization programs to fund, and the end of defense cooperation with Ukrainian and Western suppliers in the aftermath of the 2014 conflict with Ukraine.

In terms of industrial capacity, most of Russia’s shipyards are not in the best shape. The Sevmash and Admiralty shipyards are exceptions and reveal the importance attached to submarine construction over surface ships. Russia’s other shipyards have generally been very slow in building ships. The situation has not been helped by the disruption of supply chains as a result of Western sanctions. Until the advent of Western sanctions in 2014, many key components were purchased from abroad. Although this disruption has been most evident in the cases of gas turbines and diesel engines, Moscow has also experienced problems with the acquisition of various electronic components and precision machine tools. For several years, therefore, the acquisition and development of advanced components were the biggest constraint on the construction of new ships with modern systems. However, most of these issues are now being resolved through the development of domestic alternatives, so faster naval construction is likely in the future.

Russia also faces operational challenges in naval operations in the Mediterranean. The primary challenge is one of logistics and bringing platforms to the fight. The Turkish Straits would likely be a severe hindrance to sending reinforcements and to Russia’s ability to redeploy back to the Black Sea in the event of a conflict involving NATO, especially if Turkey continues to follow the strictures of the Montreux Convention. Additionally, Russian intermediate-range bombers would likely face challenges transiting from Russia to the airspace over Syria.

Because of these challenges, Russian leadership would, prior to any outbreak in the eastern Mediterranean, have to choose whether to fight in the Mediterranean or attempt to bring forces back to the Black Sea to defend Russia’s southern borders. Should Russian forces stay in the Mediterranean, they would pose a serious threat to U.S. and NATO forces by creating an increasingly dense missile and electronic-warfare environment farther into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia would have to expect that it would lose these forces to an ultimately numerically and qualitatively superior enemy force, albeit after exacting a potentially high cost on its adversary.

Russia’s Future Naval Role in the Mediterranean

In the future, the BSF is expected to support an even larger Mediterranean squadron, with a constant presence of one to two multipurpose submarines from the Northern Fleet and 10–15 surface ships (primarily from the BSF). Russia’s efforts to expand its presence in the Mediterranean would also require the establishment of more and bigger bases in the region. Such bases would not just provide an opportunity for refueling and repair of ships: They could also house coastal defensive systems that would protect the squadron.

In the near to medium term, the Russian Navy’s role will be to serve primarily as a deterrence force to constrain U.S. and NATO operations in the eastern Mediterranean and to provide forward defense for approaches to the Russian homeland through the Black Sea. It will have some power projection through its ability to hold opponents’ territory at risk with its cruise

missile capability, rather than through traditional naval strike groups. Out-of-area deployment capability will increasingly shift to smaller patrol ships and to submarines as Russia’s remaining Soviet-era large surface ships become increasingly less reliable.

Over the last decade, there has been a transition in the Russian Navy’s future planning from unattainable blue-water aspirations to establishing a fairly capable green-water force. Its overall focus remains defensive in the near term, with the possibility of greater emphasis on power projection in the medium term as more Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines come online and older Soviet submarines are armed with Kalibr cruise missiles as part of ongoing modernization plans.

This future force has the potential to threaten the naval forces of the United States and its allies with land-attack and antiship cruise missiles based on small ships in enclosed seas that are highly protected from attack and with difficult-to-detect modern submarines. The result will be a Russian Navy that, compared with the past, has much greater firepower and offensive range despite its dependence on relatively small platforms. This capability will make the Russian Navy a far more potent regional threat by the mid-2020s than it has been for several decades.

The Mediterranean will play a key role in Russian naval strategy because of its strategic significance as an access point to southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. For Russia, the Mediterranean symbolizes the larger competition between Moscow and Washington. By building up its naval forces, Russia is hoping to circumscribe NATO access to the region, protect Russia’s southern flank, and assist its current and potential future client states in the region. At the same time, maintaining forces in the eastern Mediterranean is less of a priority for Russian strategy than defending the homeland. Maintaining naval presence in the Mediterranean is a far more effective strategy for the Russian Navy than pursuing a globally active blue-water navy because Russia has neither the resources nor the global ambitions to challenge U.S. naval supremacy around the world. Moscow’s focus on developing and augmenting the Mediterranean squadron is thus a far more achievable limited objective that is well-aligned with Russia’s foreign policy objectives in the region.

A guide to becoming an admiral in the Russian Navy

New analytical article up at War on the Rocks, co-authored with Kasey Stricklin. Here’s a preview of the introduction.


It is widely acknowledged that general and flag officers are important actors. Senior uniformed leaders are, of course, crucial in determining the trajectory of a country’s military development and in some cases even of its foreign policy. Yet, with vanishingly few exceptions, even those Americans who closely track national and international security focus little on the generals and admirals of other nations’ militaries. In the case of Russia, the U.S. national security community has an almost comical obsession with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, and his eponymous (but largely fictional) doctrine. But that’s where it ends.

American national security analysts and practitioners would be well advised to follow who is rising to the senior ranks of the Russian military. Over the decades, these leaders have been important in shaping the trajectory of a foe that was once America’s most formidable and remains, arguably, its most troublesome. From the decision to avoid developing aircraft carriers in favor of cruisers and submarines during the Cold War to the debate over the primacy of ground forces or strategic rocket forces in the post-Soviet period, Soviet and Russian generals and admirals have played critical roles. Understanding the background and preferences of those who are likely to be the next set of leaders of the Russian armed forces thus can give analysts a better idea of how it will develop over the next two decades.

….

In May 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a transition in the senior leadership of the Russian Navy. Adm. Vladimir Korolev, having served as commander in chief of the Russian Navy for three years, retired and was replaced by Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov, who had served as commander of the Northern Fleet since 2016. Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseyev moved from his command of the Black Sea Fleet to replace Yevmenov at the Northern Fleet and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov was appointed as the new head of the Black Sea Fleet. Some commentators were surprised by the appointment, including one analyst who suggested that Moiseyev seemed a stronger candidate on paper. Now is therefore an opportune time to examine the career factors that lead to the selection of Russian naval leaders and to make some predictions about who is likely to rise to the highest positions in the Russian Navy in the coming years.

Our analysis of career trajectories of senior Russian naval officers highlights the career mileposts that increase the likelihood of promotion to the senior-most positions in the Russian Navy. These mileposts also help to explain why Yevmenov was appointed to head the service ahead of Moiseyev. In fact, our initial research, completed in early 2018, highlighted Yevmenov as the most likely candidate to succeed Korolev as commander in chief.

How to Reach the Highest Ranks in the Russian Navy

To develop our findings, we put together a database of Russian Navy flag officers who were active between 2005 and 2016. For this part of the analysis, we examined the career trajectories of 199 officers who had already retired at the rank of rear admiral or higher. Fifteen officers reached the rank of admiral (including two who made admiral of the fleet), 48 officers retired at the rank of vice admiral, and 136 officers retired as rear admirals.


Read the rest here.

The Kerch Strait naval battle — Here’s what you need to know

Michael Kofman and I published a short analysis of the naval battle in the Kerch Strait on the Monkey Cage. Here’s a sampler.


The Nov. 25 skirmish between Russian Border Guard and Ukrainian navy ships in the Kerch Strait has escalated tensions not just between the two countries, but also between Russia and NATO.

Two Ukrainian navy small-armored boats and a tugboat attempted to cross into the Sea of Azov via the Kerch Strait. A Russian Border Guard ship rammed the tug. Russian forces eventually captured all three boats, holding them in the Crimean port of Kerch. 

This crisis kicked off months ago 

In March 2018 Ukraine seized a Russian-flagged fishing vessel, claiming that it had violated exit procedures from the “temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine.” Although the Russian crew was released, the boat remains detained in a Ukrainian port. Subsequently, Russia began to seize Ukrainian vessels for inspection, starting in May when a fishing vessel was detained for illegally fishing in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.

A new Russian-built bridge linking Crimea to southern Russia is at the center of Russia’s attempt to assert sovereignty over the entire Kerch Strait. The bridge opened in May, and its low clearance height cut off many commercial ships and reduced revenue at the Mariupol port by 30 percent. Russia has imposed an informal blockade on the remaining maritime traffic, with ships often waiting more than 50 hours to cross, and Russian authorities insisting upon inspecting the cargo. This has substantially raised transit costs — and has been slowly strangling the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk.


To read the rest, please click here.

Is a new Russian Black Sea Fleet coming? Or is it here?

New short article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview….


Last summer, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia will continue to strengthen its forces around the Black Sea in order to “neutralize the security threat in the Black Sea region from NATO.” This rhetoric highlights the change in threat perceptions that has taken place on both sides in the region in recent years. Just 10 years ago, the Black Sea was touted as a model of naval cooperation among former adversaries. Collaborative naval activities such as BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, as well as regular Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor, promised a future where all Black Sea littoral states worked together to ensure regional security and mitigate security threats such as smuggling. This cooperation started to falter after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war but was maintained through the combined efforts of Russia and NATO members – especially Turkey.

The situation changed radically after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with NATO leaders expressing concern that Russia could turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake by devoting significant resources to the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and strengthening Russian military forces in Crimea more generally. Russian political leaders, naval commanders, and policy experts have been open in explaining why they have prioritized the Black Sea Fleet in their naval modernization efforts. Part of that has to do with the parlous state of the fleet prior to 2014. Due to tensions with Ukraine and a general lack of investment in military procurement, Russia had sent only one new combat ship to the fleet between 1991 and 2014. As a result, by 2014 the fleet was barely functional and ships from other fleets had to be used to carry out Russian naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden.


Read the rest here.

Russia’s New and Unrealistic Naval Doctrine

I have a new article up on War on the Rocks. Here’s a preview.

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The Russian Navy is keen on showy demonstrations of strength. Just in the last week, it has begun an exercise with the Chinese navy in the Baltic Sea and sent its largest warship, the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser, and the world’s largest submarine, the Dmitry Donskoi, from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic to participate in the Navy Day parade on July 30. In another act primarily significant for its symbolism, Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian naval doctrine last week. Taken at face value, the doctrine appears to promote a vision of a revived Russian Navy that can maintain its superiority over up and comers like China’s navy, and even pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy in certain environments. The reality is, as with most such documents, the gap between aspiration and feasible plans remains quite large. Since no English translation of the document is currently available, it may be useful to briefly summarize some key portions of the 22-page text, put the doctrine’s aims into context, and show where the gaps between dream and reality can be found.

What Does It Say?
The doctrine highlights many of the usual threats and dangers to Russia. First on the list of dangers is the “ambition of a range of states, and foremost the United States of America and its allies, to dominate the high seas, including in the Arctic, and to press for overwhelming superiority of their naval forces.” Other threats include territorial claims on maritime and coastal zones, efforts to limit Russian access to maritime resources, and attempts to weaken Russian control over the Northern Sea Route. Only three potential specific threats to Russia are listed in the document. The first is a sudden decline in the political-military situation leading to the use of military force in maritime areas holding strategic interest for Russia. The second is the deployment of strategic non-nuclear precision weapons and ballistic missile defenses in territories and maritime zones adjacent to Russia. And the third is the use of military force by other states in ways that threaten Russian national interests. In addition to the Arctic, the doctrine highlights the importance of protecting access to energy resources in the Middle East and Caspian Sea, and expresses concern about the negative impact of regional conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa on international security. It also notes the danger posed by the growth of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet and Russian forces in Crimea, as well as the maintenance of a constant naval presence in the Mediterranean, are singled out as the most critical geographic priorities for the Russian Navy’s future development.

<The rest of the article may be found here>

What we learned from the Russian naval salon (МВМС-2017)

Every two years, St. Petersburg hosts a major naval salon, where Russian and foreign shipbuilders come to show off their latest products. Representatives of the Russian Navy also attend, and often take the opportunity to discuss their procurement plans (and dreams). The 2017 salon was held from June 28 to July 2. Mike Kofman has laid out the outline of the surface ship construction plans, highlighting the sheer number of different classes of corvettes being planned. The key takeaway is that the Russian Navy is looking to increase the size of its smaller ships in order to increase their armament and endurance. This is the main reason for the development of the 3,400 ton Project 20386 corvette, which is significantly larger than the 2,500 ton Project 20385 variant and is considered by the Russian Navy to be a blue water ship. Larger ship projects are being scaled down, with the 8000 ton Super Gorshkov likely to be the largest ship built for the Russian Navy in the next 10 years, despite regular claims by various design bureaus that their giant projects are ready for construction.

In fact, these types of salons are usually a prime opportunity for design bureaus to promote various completely unrealistic projects that they hope to have funded by the Ministry of Defense. At the 2017 salon, the Krylov design bureau cemented its position as the leader in such self-promotion. In announcing the Briz corvette class, it has completed a full set of unlikely to be built surface ship projects. Here’s the complete list, from smallest to largest. First, there’s the Briz, a 2000 ton corvette that has enough armaments to fill a 3000 or even 4000 ton vessel. Next, the Lider destroyer, a 14,000 ton nuclear powered monstrosity that was once supposed to be under construction beginning in 2019. I have grave doubts that we will see construction start this decade, and there’s a decent chance that these ships won’t be built at all, given their high cost and the reduced priority the Navy will receive in the new State Armament Program that is expected to be approved later this year. Then there’s the Priboi, a 23,000 ton amphibious assault ship that is meant to be Russia’s answer to the French Mistral. Again, cost makes construction of these ships unlikely. And finally, and least likely of all, is the Shtorm aircraft carrier design. While Russian shipbuilding companies and navy admirals make regular statements about plans to build an aircraft carrier in the next decade, the reality is that Russia has neither the need nor the resources to devote to such a project.

What we will see in the near future, other than the various corvettes and missile ships, is an extension of the Project 11356 (Admiral Grigorovich class) frigates, with three new ones expected to be built for the Russian Navy with Russian-made propulsion systems while the two hulls whose construction was frozen in 2015 will be sold to India and equipped with Ukrainian turbines. The Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov) line of frigates is also expected to be completed, with significant progress being made in the development of Russian turbines. However, the first ship of the class is still in sea trials, pending the completion of the long-delayed Poliment Redut naval air defense system.

Though Redut is still not ready, another prominent defensive weapons system did have its debut at the salon. The Pantsir-M integrated CIWS has a range of 20km, compared to its predecessor’s 8-10km, and can simultaneously target 4 objects. It will be placed on most new Russian ships, including the Project 22800 Karakurt patrol ships, two of which are being built in Zelenodolsk. There is also talk that Pantsir-M systems will replace existing Kortik systems on existing Russian combat ships, though no specifics have been announced in that regard.

The Navy also announced a full-scale renewal of its minesweeper fleet, with Admiral Bursuk stating that 40 Project 12700 (Alexandrit class) fiberglass minesweepers will be procured, with two a year being build in St. Petersburg starting in 2018 and additional ships at plants in the Far East. One ship of the class is already active in the Baltic Fleet and three others currently under construction. According to Admiral Bursuk, the Ivan Khurs, the second of the Project 18280 (Yuri Ivanov class) intelligence ships, is expected to be commissioned by the end of the current year, as is the long-delayed Project 11711 Ivan Gren amphibious ship. The second ship of that class is officially still on track to be commissioned next year, though given the track record of delays on this class, dates for both ships could certainly slip again.

There was relatively little news regarding submarines at the salon. Admiral Bursuk did announce that two more Project 677 (Lada class) diesel submarines would be built after the current series of three is completed, though there was no information on progress on air-independent propulsion systems and nothing on the status of the Kalina submarine project that is supposed to be equipped with AIP. Bursuk also announced that construction of the first two of the six Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo class) diesel submarines for the Pacific Fleet would start in July, with all six scheduled to be completed by 2021. Finally, the sixth Yasen-M nuclear submarine is to be laid down in July, with construction expected to take at least six years. Five Yasen-M class submarines are already in various stages of construction, with the Severdvinsk Yasen class in active service.

To conclude, there was another sign of the gradual reactivation of Russian shipbuilding in the Far East, with the announcement that starting next year, Russia will hold a Far East version of its naval salon, to be held biannually in even numbered years.

Russian naval air defense in trouble

There have long been reports that the ongoing delays with the commissioning of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate have to do with defects in its air defense systems. These were thought to be primarily related to problems with integration of the Poliment Redut air defense missile system. The Poliment system was designed to be Russia’s answer to AEGIS, with four phased array antennas that are able to track 16 targets at the same time. The Redut system consists of four or eight vertical launch systems that launch three types of missiles. The 9M100 is the short-range missile, with a range of up to 15km. The 9M96M is the medium-range missile, with a range of 40-50km. Finally, the 9M96 long-range missile is supposed to have a range of up to 150km.

It now appears that the Redut’s problems are much more serious than just integration. A recent report notes that the Ministry of Defense has stopped trials of the system because of continuing problems with the 9M96 long-range missile. Specifically, the missiles appear to fail after three seconds of flight. Some reports indicate that the Redut system works well hitting targets up to 40km away, but fails in the long range. The implication is that the short and medium range missiles work well, but the long range missile does not. Nevertheless, this may be an improvement over previous results, as trials of the Redut system on the Steregushchiy class corvettes in 2014 showed that they were only able to hit targets at distances of up to 15km because the medium-range Furke-2 radar system was not functioning properly.

Instead of further trials, the problems will now be sorted out by an inter-agency commission, a sure sign that the problems are serious and are not expected to be fixed any time soon. The problems stem from issues at the design bureau, which is reportedly not up to the task of designing a missile with the requirements provided by the Defense Ministry. The Fakel machine design bureau, which is developing the missiles is supposedly in relatively poor condition, using technologies and equipment left over from the Soviet period.

Redut systems are supposed to be installed on both the Admiral Gorshkov frigates and the Steregushchiy class corvettes. The corvettes that have been commissioned so far with partial Redut systems that are not able to strike long-distance targets. It looks like the Russian military is now facing a choice regarding how long it is willing to wait to commission the already long-delayed first ship of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate class. So far, the Defense Ministry has not been willing to commission the frigate without a fully functional air defense system, though this may change as the delays grow longer.

 

Black Sea Fleet projects power westwards

In April 2016, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the role of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet post-Crimea annexation. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT: The growing power of the Russian navy in the Black Sea region.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russia’s annexation of Crimea has reshaped the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea and its neighbourhood. New frigates and submarines are being acquired, and cruise missiles will provide a much extended range. With its strategic options no longer constrained by Ukrainian sovereignty over the Sevastopol base, Moscow can use naval and air forces to dominate the sea and create a forbidding environment for potential adversaries, including NATO.

Impacts

  • The deterioration in relations with Turkey could manifest itself in maritime tensions between the two states.
  • Access to the Bosphorus may restrain both Russia and Turkey from encroaching on one another’s maritime rights despite hostile rhetoric.
  • US and European militaries will review naval capacity and may reinforce Mediterranean patrols to counter the increased Russian presence.

ANALYSIS:

The Black Sea Fleet ranks third in importance for the Russian navy, behind the Northern and Pacific fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet has had four main missions:

  • protecting shipping in the Black Sea;
  • controlling maritime access to the sea in general and to the Caucasus in particular;
  • supporting the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean; and
  • maintaining links with the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria.

The bulk of the fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea, as is its land-based air arm.

The Black Sea is of great economic significance to Russia, whose commercial ports — mainly Novorossiysk — carry 30% of its total maritime exports.

For Russia, the sea is an access route to the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and hence important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. The Black Sea Fleet is needed to underpin that access, as well as to deal with potential instability in the Caucasus. It provides logistical support to the Mediterranean squadron which was reconstituted in 2013.

Reviving the fleet

During its post-Soviet history, successive lease agreements of the Sevastopol naval base from the Ukrainian government stipulated that Russia could not base new ships in Crimea.  This clause was intentional, designed for the fleet to rust away.  By 2014, the Moskva cruiser was the only Black Sea Fleet surface ship able to operate out of area for extended periods of time. Even its basing arrangements in Ukraine were such that it had little need to defend the peninsula, since this was Ukrainian territory.

After annexing Crimea, Russia moved quickly to rebuild its forces on the peninsula. The fleet is undergoing a dramatic transformation and is rapidly rebuilding its forces. The Sevastopol base is central to Russian anti-access/area denial efforts in the Black Sea and its airspace. There are several components to the ongoing build-up:

  • up to six new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates;
  • two Buyan-M-class missile corvettes;
  • six improved Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines;
  • Su-30SM interceptors and Su-34 tactical bombers; and
  • nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.

Three of the frigates will be commissioned in 2016, while the others will take some years to complete because Ukrainian-made gas turbines are unavailable. Both the corvettes and two of the six submarines have been commissioned, with the remaining submarines to enter service within two years.

Cruise missiles extend fleet’s reach

The corvettes and submarines will carry the 3M-54 Klub anti-ship system, a supersonic cruise missile allowing the navy to deny access to much of the Black Sea. They will also be armed with the 3M-14 cruise missile designed to attack targets on land at ranges of up to 2,500 kilometres.

The combination of coastal and air defences, maritime aviation and corvette-based groups will free the submarine and frigate force to operate in the Mediterranean.

Amphibious capacity

The Black Sea had been likely to receive one of the two French Mistral helicopter carrier/amphibious assault vessels that Russia ordered in 2010. Since France cancelled the sale in August 2015, there has been no announcement from Moscow about acquiring amphibious ships from elsewhere. Nor is it clear what will happen to the old Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships which were instrumental to the occupation of Crimea.

Naval support for Syria campaign

The Russian military intervention in Syria, begun in September 2015, has redefined the mission of the Black Sea Fleet:

Transport

Before Russia aircraft were deployed in Syria to bomb rebel forces, vessels from the fleet were playing a key role in the military supply operation known as the ‘Syrian express’. Initially, older landing ships were used to supply arms and equipment to the Syrian military. Once Russia decided to launch air attacks, the Black Sea Fleet provided the maritime transport.

The conventional wisdom that Russia was incapable of conducting military operations beyond its immediate vicinity was confounded by the successful use of large transport aircraft, naval freighters and even Turkish commercial cargo ships reflagged as Black Sea Fleet vessels.

Missile strikes

The Russian navy provided long-range air defence with the S-300 missile system carried on the flagship Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defence system allowed Russia to protect Syrian airspace while avoiding tensions with Israel, which had made it clear it would be unhappy if such weapons went to the Syrian army.

In October 2015, the Russian navy launched 3M-14 cruise missiles against targets in Syria from relatively small vessels in the Caspian Sea. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated its strike capacity from well inside its air defence perimeter. The cruise missiles were also meant to show NATO military planners and neighbouring states the successful development of a missile capability that would be difficult to neutralise.

Once the Black Sea Fleet acquires vessels armed with 3M-14 cruise missiles, its range will extend to most of Southern and Central Europe and the Middle East.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015, when Kalibr cruise missiles were launched against targets from a new diesel-powered submarine which was transiting the Mediterranean en route to its permanent base at Sevastopol. This use of hard-to-track platforms further highlighted the threat to Russia’s potential opponents.

New missions for the post-Crimea context

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has remade the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea. Crimea’s geographic position allows the country that controls it to dominate the maritime environment. Sevastopol is by far the best harbor on the sea. By taking Crimea, Russia has ensured that its military will not be constrained by Ukraine. This will allow its navy and air force to dominate the Black Sea, creating a forbidding A2/AD environment that will be difficult for any potential adversary, including NATO, to penetrate.

Given the adversarial nature of Russia’s relationship with the West, the Black Sea Fleet will take on additional missions beyond the Black Sea in the coming years. In addition to continuing to provide sealift for Russian operations in Syria, the BSF’s cruise-missile equipped ships and submarines will have a power projection role in the Mediterranean. Even with a fairly small number of frigates and diesel submarines, the fleet will present a potential threat to other naval forces in the region, even U.S. carrier strike groups.

This does not mean that the Russian Navy should be expected to undertake aggressive actions in the Med. Rather, its objective will be to create conventional deterrence against a Western attack by threatening to use its air and sea capabilities to inflict unacceptably high casualties on enemy naval forces attempting to engage Russian forces in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean.

CONCLUSION: In the context of Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West, the fleet is likely to be assigned tasks outside the Black Sea such as sustaining a capable naval force in the eastern Mediterranean and continuing to support the Russian military presence in Syria. The fleet will also deliver conventional deterrence through its implicit capacity to inflict unacceptably high casualties on potential adversaries in the Black Sea or the eastern Mediterranean.