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.


  • 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.


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:


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.

More details on Baltic Fleet shakeup

In the last 24 hours, more information has come out on yesterday’s purge of the Baltic Fleet command structure. First of all, the size of the purge is unprecedented, with around 50 high ranking officers being removed, including squadron and brigade commanders. Second, it is highly unusual for removals of top military officials (or of any senior officials in present-day Russia) to be public and openly for cause, rather than officially being described as being for health reasons or because the individual(s) were ready to retire.

Clearly, for the purge to be so large and so open, the misconduct in the Baltic Fleet had to be very serious and very widespread. Yulia Nikitina and Irina Tumakova from have published a long article documenting the faults attributed to the fleet’s now-former leadership. The condition of the fleet under Viktor Kravchuk had supposedly declined when compared to how it was under his predecessors, who received much less financing than he did in the last four years.

Nikitina and Tumakova discuss unconfirmed rumors about a collision between the recently completed Krasnodar diesel submarine and a Polish vessel (variously described as either an intelligence collection ship or Poland’s single remaining Kilo submarine). They also mention the poor state of housing for Baltic Fleet officers and obvious failures during recent exercises, such as when a submarine that was towed out to sea started to emit smoke rather than submerging and had to be returned to pier for repairs.

But if that was the extent of the problems, the leadership change is unlikely to have been so broad or so public. The most likely cause for the way this purge has been carried out is corruption. As Nikitina and Tumakova note, back in 2012 Kravchuk was tasked with creating the Kaliningrad defense region, a large  joint military grouping that is to combine naval, aviation, and ground forces units under the command of the Baltic Fleet commander. At that time, Kravchuk was given command of strike aviation, air defense units, Iskander units (when located in Kaliningrad) and four infantry brigades that make up the 11th army corps.

The establishment of the 11th Army Corps required the construction of barracks, housing, and other facilities. The money that was allocated to these tasks was spent elsewhere or embezzled and the command proved to be unprepared to take in the additional troops. Furthermore, Kravchuk was known to have close ties with criminal “authorities” in Kaliningrad, including the “Amber baron” Viktor Bogdan, who, in addition to cornering the amber trade in the region seems to have also been involved in stealing diesel fuel from Baltic Fleet ships.

In other words, the Baltic Fleet purge appears to be a signal to other Russian military commanders (including mid-level ones) that corruption that has a negative effect on combat readiness will not be tolerated and will result in punishment far more severe than the usual honorable retirement given to senior officials who misbehave.


Baltic Fleet commanders fired

Today, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the commander (Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchuk) and chief of staff (Rear Admiral Sergei Popov) of the Baltic Fleet were both fired for cause, as were several other unnamed senior officials at the fleet. This was the largest mass replacement of senior naval officials in the Russian Navy since the Soviet period. The official statement indicated that the removal was the result of serious shortcomings in the officers’ work that were revealed in a month-long review of the fleet’s performance that concluded on June 10. The official notice highlighted “serious shortcomings in organizing combat training, daily activities of their units, poor care of their subordinates as well as misrepresenting the real situation in their reports.”

Although Kravchuk has his defenders, it appears that his removal  was the result of real shortcomings, although combined with external factors that made his removal relatively easy to carry out. Ilya Kramnik and Konstantin Bogdanov have done some very interesting reporting on this subject. They argue that these shortcomings include the unsatisfactory performance of Baltic Fleet minesweepers during exercises that took place in August 2015, combined with a low level of combat readiness among the fleet’s newest ships. The fleet’s four Project 20380 Steregushchiy class corvettes have not deployed to the Mediterranean Sea or Indian Ocean a single time in the nine years since the first of the ships was commissioned into the fleet. Furthermore, the ships have had more than their share of accidents and fires.

In addition to questions about the fleet’s combat readiness, the commanders were also criticized for inadequate living conditions for personnel stationed at the fleet’s bases. The commanders were given until this spring to correct the problems in both areas, and today’s announcement shows that the recently completed review found them still wanting.

Kravchuk’s enforced departure was smoothed by the replacement last winter of the Commander of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, who was removed in November 2015 officially because of health concerns. Chirkov, who had been Kravchuk’s patron in the navy for many years, was rumored to have also been removed due to complaints about inadequate readiness in some units — in his case naval infantry and support ships. These problems had come to a head because of increased requirements related to the Syrian Express operation for supplying Syrian and then Russian troops in Syria with military equipment.

Kramnik and Bogdanov note that although problems at the Baltic Fleet may have been particularly noticeable, they do not differ that much from problems evident in Russia’s other fleets. The reason that the leadership of the Baltic Fleet was chosen may be more a factor of the fleet’s relative lack of importance in present-day Russian operations. Therefore, today’s announcement may also serve as a warning to the commanders of the other fleets that they need to improve their work or face similar consequences.


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.

Shipbuilding constraints drive downsized but potent Russian navy

Official announcements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance of a Russian Navy that is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many projects have faced lengthy delays and cost overruns. As a result, some of the most prominent naval procurement projects have been scaled back, while others have been postponed for years at a time. The delays and cost overruns are the result of a long-term decline in naval research and development, an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry made worse by Western sanctions, and pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn. However, the Russian Navy has developed a strategy that compensates for these gaps by utilizing its strength in submarines and cruise missile technology to fulfill key maritime missions such as homeland defense and power projection in the face of a failure to build an adequate number of large combat ships.

Originally published by CIMSEC. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Russia’s Naval Power in the 21st Century

A week or so ago, I gave a presentation at the Wilson Center on the current state and future development of the Russian Navy. Michael Kofman of the Kennan Institute was the moderator and Olga Oliker of RAND provided commentary. The audience was very well-informed and asked excellent questions. The Wilson Center has made a video recording of the event available on YouTube. For those interested in what the Russian Navy is up to, it’s worth watching.