Another Oxford Analytica brief. This one originally published on October 3, 2014. There have been some changes since this was written, but I’ve largely left it as is, except for restoring some material cut by the editors due to space constraints.
The Russian navy’s missions and procurement plans indicate that it is going to focus primarily on strategic deterrence and coastal defence, while allowing ‘blue-water’ capabilities — its ability to operate in areas far away from home territory and coastal support bases — to deteriorate in the short term. For many years the Russian navy has been in serious decline — the Kursk disaster in 2000 being the most significant manifestation of this — with underfunding that has led to the decay of many older platforms. While Russia still has the strongest navy in the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s out-of-area naval capability is in overall decline.
- Russia will procure a new generation of vessels that will position the navy as a formidable coastal defence force.
- A new generation of large combat ships is more than a decade away, leading to the erosion of the navy’s blue-water capabilities.
- Submarine-based strategic deterrence will remain a primary mission.
The Russian navy is still primarily a Soviet legacy force. There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small. In terms of large surface units, the navy only operates what it was able to save during the years when it received virtually no funding.
The Northern Fleet has historically been the most important, but the emphasis is now more on the Pacific Fleet.
Changes in Northern Fleet
In the past this has had the most large ships and now consists of ten large surface units, no more than seven of which are operational. The fleet operates a relatively small number of smaller ships, although this may change as the fleet begins to focus on Arctic coastal defence and offshore energy platform protection missions.
It expects to get more frigates and corvettes for these missions in coming years. Of the current ships, only the Peter the Great cruiser, the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, two Udaloy-class destroyers, five corvettes, two landing ships and five smaller ships are considered deployable.
The Northern Fleet has historically been the main base for Russia’s submarines. The active ship submersible ballistic nuclear (SSBN) contingent includes six Delta IVs, one Borei-class which is just out of sea trials, and one Typhoon-class SSBN used as a testing platform.
Non-strategic submarines include one new Yasen-class currently undergoing sea trials, three Oscar II-class submarines with cruise missiles, 14 multi-purpose nuclear submarines of various classes and seven Kilo-class diesel submarines. About half of the non-strategic submarines are on active duty, while the rest are in various stages of modernisation or repair.
Overall, somewhere between 40-70% of the Northern Fleet’s ships and submarines are not fully operational.
Pacific Fleet rising
The Pacific Fleet is likely to become Russia’s largest fleet over the next decade in recognition of the region’s increasing geopolitical importance and the concentration of naval powers in the region. The fleet consists of ten large surface units (of which six are operational), four amphibious landing ships and approximately 34 operational small ships, missile ships and minesweepers.
The fleet’s Udaloy destroyers and Varyag cruiser are very active, frequently deploying to the Indian Ocean. The fleet’s submarines include four SSBNs and ten other nuclear submarines (three operational), as well as eight Kilo-class diesel submarines (five operational).
Black Sea Fleet
The Black Sea Fleet has some of the oldest ships in the navy. It is considered critically important to future Russian naval strategy, as it is best positioned to provide ships for Russia’s Mediterranean squadron. However, the cruiser Moskva is the only large ship capable of regular out-of-area deployments.
In the new geopolitical environment in the Black Sea, coastal defence is becoming a priority. An extensive rebuilding programme is under way and the uncertainty over the status of the main base in Sevastopol clearly played a role in Russia’s decision to annex Crimea. The fleet is expecting to receive new frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines.
The main role of the Baltic Fleet is coastal defence plus testing new ships, as it is near all the major shipyards. It has been the first fleet to get new ships — a frigate and four coastal defence corvettes.
The Caspian Flotilla is seen as important in securing the volatile southern region. The fleet’s primary tasks include efforts to eliminate poaching, protecting trade and petroleum exploration, and counter-terrorist activities. The flotilla has received a number of new ships, including two Gepard missile frigates and five Buyan corvettes.
Russia’s shipbuilding industry is not in good shape, as the delays in refitting the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier as the Indian Vikramaditya showed. The United Shipbuilding Corporation has had integration problems and some shipyards have not been modernised since the Soviet period. Additionally, certain elements of the rearmament programme could be delayed as a result of the ending of defence cooperation with Ukraine.
While the industry is not likely to meet the targets set by the current armament programme, it will probably be able to produce 50-70% of the weapons and equipment required by 2020.
Russia intends to restore its navy’s global reach, but given the time needed to renovate shipyards, develop new designs, and build large ships, the effort will not be fully launched until the 2020s. The earliest that Russia could built a new aircraft carrier is 2027, while new destroyers are still on drawing board, with the first unlikely to be commissioned for ten years.
Shipbuilding plans address the most immediate priorities, but will result in further decline of blue-water capabilities, as Soviet-era cruisers and destroyers are retired. One stopgap measure is to modernise existing Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers and Sovremennyi-class destroyers. However, the feasibility of this is questionable because of reactor problems on two of the three Kirovs and unreliable propulsion systems on the Sovremennyi ships.
The current shipbuilding focus is on several types of small surface warships designed primarily for coastal defence and sea lane protection, rather than expeditionary operations:
- Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates: 1 in sea trials, 3 under construction, 5-6 likely to be commissioned by 2020.
- Krivak IV-class frigates: Given slow pace of Gorshkov construction, building 5-6 for the Black Sea Fleet, and possibly 3 additional ships for other fleets.
- Steregushchii-class corvettes: 4 already in active service, 4 under construction; total of 18 planned by 2020. The initial project was considered relatively unsuccessful. Modernized versions are now being built with better armaments. Construction is moving quickly, but the total number built may be limited as the class is superseded by project 22160.
- Project 22160 corvettes: 6 contracted, including 2 under construction. Plans now calling for 6 more to be built. Will have greater range and be more self-sufficient than their predecessors. They can travel 6000 miles and 60 days without refueling, versus 3,500 miles and 15 days for the Steregushchii.
- Buyan and Buyan-M class corvettes for Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet: 5 in service, 1 in sea trials, 5 under construction, 1 more contracted.
- 6 Ivan Gren amphibious ships: construction started in 2004, little progress to date, first ship due in 2015, will be difficult to get more than 2-3 built by 2020.
- Mistrals: one in sea trials, one under construction in France, option for two more. Transfer may be held up due to EU sanctions. Could be used as either command ships or for amphibious attack.
Russia plans to build a total of ten Borei-class strategic submarines, with five already built or currently under construction. These will be armed with the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile system. While eight Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarines are planned — with one already in service — only 3-4 are likely to be completed by 2020.
Diesel submarine plans include six improved Kilos and as many as 14 Ladas. The Kilos should not present much of a problem, while construction of Ladas was suspended in 2011 because of problems with propulsion systems and hydroacoustic sensors. Construction was recently resumed with a completely new engine. Though 14 is not a realistic target, 5-6 could be built by 2020 if the problems have actually been solved.
CONCLUSION: The Russian navy will see modest improvements in capabilities by the end of the decade, with a shift in focus away from large surface units and nuclear attack submarines, and towards frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines. This emphasis shows that Russia does not see NATO as a realistic potential maritime opponent. Whereas the Soviet navy focused on building ships designed to take on carrier groups, the new Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home, at least in the short term.