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 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.

Russian Naval Shipbuilding: Is It Possible to Fulfill the Kremlin’s Grand Expectations?

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russian naval shipbuilding from our September policy conference. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.


Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent reinforcement of the region’s military forces have been combined with a general increase in naval activity—including aggressive activity vis-à-vis NATO countries’ maritime interests beyond the Black Sea. All this has led to increased international interest in Russian naval modernization plans. Although this modernization effort is going slowly, the Russian Navy’s ability to place effective long-range cruise missiles on relatively small ships means that Russia remains a serious regional maritime power with the capability to threaten not only its neighbors but much of Europe in the event of a conflict.

Russian Naval Construction Plans

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy in the coming decades. For this reason, the construction of Russian nuclear submarines has received priority financing and has been largely insulated from budget cuts.

The main new submarine projects include the following:

  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which will replace the remaining Delta III and Delta IV submarines over the next 15 years. Three are commissioned, 3 are under construction, and 2 more are contracted.
  • Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), which are large and expensive. One is currently commissioned and a total of 8 are planned. Only 2 are likely to be completed by 2020 due to financial constraints on construction.
  • New, smaller, and cheaper nuclear submarines. Two versions:  one designed for protecting naval strike groups against attack submarines and the other to be armed with cruise missiles. Construction on these submarines will start in 1-2 years, with a production goal of 16-18 of them in service by 2040.
  • Kalina-class diesel submarine with air independent propulsion (AIP). This will serve as the successor to the Lada-class submarine. Although the head of the Navy has said that an AIP design will be complete by the end of 2016, it is unclear how much progress has actually been made.

As for surface ships, the Navy is primarily building small ones at present, while finalizing designs for larger ships for the future. The main projects include:

  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates (FFG). Construction of these ships has been unusually slow even by the glacial pace of recent Russian shipbuilding. Eight are currently under construction, with the first scheduled to be commissioned this year. At the current rate of construction, the Navy can expect to have 5 ships of this class by 2025, and 9 by 2030.
  • Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates (FFG) (updated Soviet design). Six have been ordered to fill the gap left by the slow construction of the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Construction of the last three ships has been suspended due to the end of military cooperation with Ukraine, which produced the gas turbines for these ships.
  • Steregushchiy-class corvette (FFC). Four ships are in active service, 7 are under construction, and 9 more are under contract. Eighteen were originally planned to be built by 2020, although delays associated with Western sanctions are likely to reduce this number to 12-14.
  • Admiral Bykov-class corvette (FFC). Two are under construction, with 4 more under contract and a total of 12 expected to be built over the next 10-15 years. These ships are expected to have greater range and more self-sufficiency than their predecessors.
  • Buyan-M-class missile ships (PFG). These small ships are designed to be used primarily in the Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet. Three are in service, 2 are in sea trials, and 4 are under construction.
  • Lider-class 15,000-ton nuclear destroyers (DDG). Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018-2019, with a goal of 12 in the fleet by 2035. Some analysts argue that financial limitations mean only 3-4 of these ships will be built.
  • New large amphibious ships (LHD). These would have at least 14,000-ton displacement and be capable of conducting expeditionary missions. Construction of these ships is likely to start before 2020.

The Feasibility of Russian Shipbuilding Plans

Official statements related to naval shipbuilding give the appearance that the Russian Navy is undergoing a rapid revival. However, the reality is that many of these 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 main reasons for these delays and cost overruns involve a) long-term decline in naval research and development; b) an inability to modernize the shipbuilding industry, which is considered to be particularly outdated and poorly structured as compared to other sectors of the Russian defense industry (and has suffered more than other sectors due to Western sanctions); and c) pre-existing budgetary constraints that have been exacerbated in recent years by Russia’s economic downturn.

Russia’s current shipbuilding industry was primarily formed in the 1960-70s, and its ship design capabilities have changed little since the early 1980s. As a result, Russian naval research and development (R&D) has fallen several decades behind Western and Asian capabilities. Russian leaders recognized this problem in the late 2000s and sought to absorb Western knowledge through joint projects, such as the Russian version of the French Mistral amphibious assault ship. In addition, they organized joint projects with foreign designers such as Saipem, Wartsila, and STX in civilian shipbuilding. However, the freezing of military cooperation with NATO states in 2014 as a result of the Ukraine conflict has largely foreclosed the possibility of catching up by borrowing Western know-how. Russian naval R&D is therefore likely to remain significantly behind when compared to the Western state-of-the-art.

Western sanctions have also resulted in major problems with the production of ship components, particularly in navigation and communication equipment. Most of these components are not produced domestically in Russia, and the industry has long been dependent on imports from Europe for high quality components. Efforts to start domestic production are underway, but prices for domestic variants are relatively high while quality is relatively low.

Although it has improved somewhat in recent years, shipbuilding is one of the more poorly performing sectors of Russia’s defense industry. Russian analysts argue that Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation is the least effective of all state corporations in Russia’s defense sector. This results from its excessive size, bloated management structures, and misguided efforts to combine military and civilian shipbuilding under a single corporate roof.

Financial Constraints

The State Armament Program (SAP) for 2011-2020 assigned five trillion rubles—a quarter of its total expenditures—to military shipbuilding. This amount was almost double the amount allocated to the ground forces and airborne forces combined. According to Russian analysts, currently announced naval procurement plans would require the amount of spending on military shipbuilding to increase to six to seven trillion rubles for the next SAP.

That said, funding the existing SAP through 2020 was beyond the means of the Russian government even prior to the budget crisis that began in 2014. While the percentage of Russian GDP devoted to military spending increased from 1.5 percent in 2010 to 3.4 percent in 2014, this higher level of spending was sustainable for the Russian economy at the time. However, 70 percent of the program’s expenditures were scheduled for the second half of the ten-year program. Since Russia’s economic growth was already slowing, fulfilling these plans would have required Russian military spending to increase to unsustainable levels of 6-8 percent of GDP even without the cuts in Russia’s government budget required by the collapse of world oil prices.

Potential Russian Navy Order of Battle, 2020-2030

The following tables are based on the Russian Navy’s announced construction plans, modified by an analysis of the financial and industrial constraints the Navy faces. These show that the Navy will substantially renew its submarines and small ships over the next fifteen years while it will just be starting on construction of a new generation of large surface combat ships.

Table 1. Submarines in the Russian Navy

Class 2020 2025 2030
Delta III 0 0 0
Delta IV 6 5-6 0-2
Borei 6 8-10 10-12
Sierra I & II, Victor III 0 0 0
Oscar 6 6 4-6
Akula 6 6 4-6
Yasen 2-3 6-8 6-8
New class SSGN 0 4-6 6-10
Kilo (project 877) 10-15 5-10 0
Improved Kilo (project 636.3) 6 6 6
Lada (project 677) 3 3 3
Kalina 0 4-6 6-10

The Russian Navy plans to have 12 SSBNs in active service by 2020. The three remaining Delta III SSBNs will be retired by this point, with six Borei-class SSBNs taking their place in the fleet. All six Delta IV SSBNs will most likely be retired in 2025-30. The Navy is planning to overhaul six Oscar-class guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) and six Akula-class SSNs, which will extend their lifespan by 12-15 years. Older classes, such as the Sierra and Victor III, will be retired before 2020. Yasen-class construction will proceed slowly, with no new orders expected after the current set of 6-8 are completed. Instead, the Navy will focus on the new class of nuclear submarines currently being designed. Older Kilo-class diesel submarines will be gradually retired as the Kalina-class begins to enter service in the early 2020s. The recently built improved Kilo-class and Lada-class submarines will serve as a bridge until a sufficient number of the Kalina-class are constructed.

Table 2. Large Combat Ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Kuznetsov CV 1 1 1
Kirov CGN 1 2-3 2-3
Slava CG 2 3 3
Sovremennyi DDG 0 0 0
Udaloy DDG 8 7 4-5
Lider DDG 0 0-1 4-6
Krivak I & II FFG 0-2 0 0
Neustrashimyi FFG 2 2 1-2
Admiral Grigorovich FFG 3-5 3-6 3-6
Admiral Gorshkov FFG 2-4 4-6 8-10

The Navy is currently refurbishing its cruisers. The program should be complete by 2025, although it is not yet clear whether the Admiral Lazarev Kirov-class cruiser will be modernized or decommissioned. All Sovremennyi-class destroyers will be decommissioned before 2020, while six Udaloy-class destroyers will be modernized to extend their lifespan through the early 2030s. The total number of Admiral Grigorovich frigates to be constructed will depend on the state of defense cooperation with Ukraine. If no agreement can be reached on purchasing gas turbines for these ships, only three will be commissioned.

Table 3. Small combat ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Grisha  FFC 18-20 8-10 0
Parchim FFC 7 5-7 0-3
Steregushchii FFC 12-14 20-24 20-24
Admiral Bykov FFC 4-6 6-12 12-15
Gepard FFL 2 2 2
Tarantul PFG 13-15 8-10 0-3
Nanuchka PFG 8-10 0-4 0
Bora PFG 2 2 2
Buyan PG 3 3 3
Buyan-M/Sarsar PFG 12-14 20-24 30-32

The overall number of small combat ships is expected to remain fairly steady over the next fifteen years. The older classes of corvettes and missile ships will be gradually retired as new corvettes and missile ships are commissioned. The new Sarsar-class of missile ships that has been announced recently will be a further modification of the Buyan-M-class and will be built in the 2020s.

Table 4. Amphibious ships

Class 2020 2025 2030
Ropucha LST 12-15 8-10 0
Alligator LST 2-4 0 0
Ivan Gren LST 2 2 2
New class LST 0-1 2-3 6-8
New class LHD 0 0 2-3

The overall number of amphibious ships is likely to decrease over the next fifteen years due to the retirement of Ropucha-class tank landing ships (LST). The overall amphibious capability of the Navy will nonetheless increase as the replacement LSTs will be larger and more capable than the ships they are replacing, while the helicopter landing ships (LHD) will add a capability that the Navy has not previously possessed.


Regardless of what long-term development path the  Russian Navy chooses to pursue, in the near to medium term it will remain almost exclusively a coastal defense and deterrence force. For the foreseeable future, the strength of the Navy will be in its submarines. Under any development scenario, Russian SSBNs will retain an adequate strategic deterrence capability. Meanwhile, Russian SSGNs will be sufficient to protect the SSBNs and deter enemy naval forces from attacks on Russian territory. These forces will be supported by a new generation of small- and medium-sized combat ships, most of which will be equipped with anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. These naval forces will be fully sufficient to ensure Russian dominance in neighboring waters.

They will not, however, provide Russia with the forces to make it even a near-peer competitor to the U.S. Navy. Even under the most optimistic projections, the  Russian Navy will not have a serious expeditionary capability for at least 15 years. Planning for large amphibious ships and aircraft carriers is still very much in the early stages.  Whether the Navy should build either type of ship is still highly disputed among both the expert community and military planners. If they are built in the numbers currently being discussed and in the most likely timelines, then the United States may have to be prepared to deal with expeditionary Russian forces in the mid-to-late 2030s. It is far more likely, however, that financial and industrial limitations will lead to the cancellation or significant reduction of plans to develop a naval expeditionary capability.

Furthermore, out-of-area deployment capability is likely to deteriorate in the medium term as legacy Soviet-era large combat ships age and become less reliable. This trajectory will depend to some extent on the ability of the Russian Navy to successfully modernize its existing cruisers and Udaloy-class destroyers. If these programs are all carried out as currently planned, then the Navy will be able to continue to deploy large combat ships in numbers and frequency comparable to present-day rates until the next generation of destroyers are ready in the late 2020s. If these programs are fulfilled only partially or not at all, however, by 2025 the Navy will have few if any large combat ships capable of deploying regularly outside the immediate vicinity of their bases.

Overall, in the next 10-15 years the Russian Navy will most likely be good enough to defend the Russian coastline and ports. It will also be capable of posing a threat to its smaller neighbors and potentially to European NATO member states. The main source of the threat will be Russian ships’ ability to launch land attack cruise missiles from a distance of up to 2500 kilometers away from the target. The launch of cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria from small ships in the Caspian Sea in October 2015 was a demonstration of this capability that was not lost on NATO planners or neighboring states. Ships capable of carrying out similar strikes could be based in the Black or Baltic Sea, where they would be well protected by ship-based and coastal air defenses. The construction of a fairly sizeable fleet of small missile ships and corvettes equipped with land attack cruise missiles, combined with a strong layered coastal air defense capability, obviates to a large extent the need to build a sizeable fleet of large combat ships. Russian missile ships will be able to target most of its smaller neighbors and a large part of Europe without leaving the relative safety of enclosed seas where Russian forces are dominant.

In summary, although the Russian Navy will continue to have problems with its platforms, its offensive capabilities will increasingly not be dependent on the size and range of its ships. The new generation of ships will allow the Navy to mount new generations of long-range cruise missiles in a modular fashion on a variety of platforms. While the Navy will not be able to project power globally or reach the levels of the U.S. Navy, it will be able to target U.S. allies in Europe and states it wants to influence on its borders. Since these countries are likely to be its primary targets in any case, Russia’s naval capabilities will be good enough to achieve Russia’s main maritime military goals in the short to medium term.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 2)

(Based on a report in Moscow Defense Brief. For a discussion of submarines and surface combat ships, see part 1)

Auxiliary ships

The Russian Navy is getting a number of new support ships in the near future. These include three Project 23120 9000 ton ocean-going logistics ships, the first of which was laid down at Severnaya Verf in November 2012. The ships are similar to civilian offshore hydrocarbon exploration ships and are to be delivered at a rate of one a year in 2014-16. The navy is also expecting to receive six Project 20180 support and weapons transport ships. Two of the ships are currently under construction, with delivery expected in 2014 and 2016. The ships, being built at the Zvezdochka shipyard, are modified versions of the Zvezdochka salvage tug commissioned in 2010. The Igor Belousov (project 21300S) large submarine rescue ship, which was laid down in December 2005 in response to the Kursk disaster, was finally launched in October 2012 after a long delay caused by the failure of a Russian design bureau to provide a deepwater diving complex for the ship. In the end, the navy has settled on a British design that is being built in Russia. The ship is due to be commissioned in 2014, with another three ships of this type likely to be ordered in the near future. In addition, the navy has ordered a large number of harbor support ships and tugboats, with around 80 expected to enter service by 2016.


Russian shipyards continue to have a thriving export business. The biggest customers in 2012 were India, Vietnam and Algeria. Vietnam has ordered six Improved Kilo class (project 06361) submarines from the Admiralty Shipyards. The first two submarines of this order were launched in 2012, while subs three and four were laid down last year. The first sub is expected to be delivered this year. The Vietnamese navy took delivery of two Svetlyak class (project 10412) patrol boats in October 2012. It also ordered two modified Gepard class (project 11661E) frigates, to be delivered in 2016 and 2017. These are in addition to two similar frigates delivered in 2011. Both ships are to be built in Zelenodolsk. Vietnam is also building, under license, a series of ten Tarantul V class (project 12418) corvettes, with the first two ships expected to be commissioned this year.

Contracts with the Algerian navy are for modernization of existing ships, rather than the construction of new ones. These include the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine at the Admiralty Shipyards, which was completed in July 2012, and the ongoing modernization of a Koni class (project 1159TM) frigate and Nanuchka II class (project 1234EM) corvette at Severnaya Verf. Further surface ship modernization orders are expected once the current pair are finished.

India remains the most important foreign military customer for Russian shipyards. In 2012, the Indian navy inducted the INS Chakra, an improved Akula class nuclear-powered attack submarine that was leased to India for a ten-year period. There is some speculation that a second submarine of the same type may be leased to India in the future. Yantar shipyard completed a second series of Talwar class (project 11356) frigates for the the Indian navy, with two ships delivered in 2012 and a third in June 2013. Negotiations are currently under way for another set of three frigates to be built. In January 2013, the Zvezdochka shipyard completed the mid-life overhaul of a Kilo class (project 877EKM) submarine for the Indian navy. This was the fifth Indian diesel submarine to be modernized at this plant. Finally, the long-term effort to modernize the former Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier for the Indian navy, which was due to be handed over in 2012, hit another snag because of problems with the main power plant, causing at least a one year delay in the project.


Based on Boltenkov’s summary and my own past research, it seems to me that the Russian shipbuilding industry has improved in recent years but remains in relatively poor shape overall. Yantar Shipyard in particular has been reported to be in fairly poor shape due to a lack of investment. On the other hand, the Severnaya Verf, Sevmash, and Zvezdochka shipyards are in relatively good condition. Russian shipyards are good at building ships that they have been building for some time, such as the Talwar (modified Krivak) class frigates and improved Kilo class submarines. The implementation of new designs, on the other hand, has led to numerous problems and delays regardless of the type of ship and the shipyard building it. The construction of Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, Lada class submarines, and Admiral Gren amphibious ships have all been affected by construction delays and other problems. Construction of nuclear-powered submarines is proceeding, but at a much slower pace than hoped for by the Ministry of Defense. Frequent changes in requirements have resulted in a number of ship classes that have been cancelled after only one or two ships, which will have a negative impact on maintenance. Finally, the goal of renewing the Russian navy’s fleet of larger surface combat ships still seems a long way off, with a design for a new class of destroyers still several years away from completion.

Russian military shipbuilding: an update (part 1)

The cover article of the brand new issue of Moscow Defense Brief (subscription required) from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, examines developments in Russian military shipbuilding in 2012, written by Dmitry Boltenkov. Since the article is not publicly available, I thought it might be useful to provide a brief summary. Part 1 covers submarines and surface ships. Part 2, coming soon, will cover auxiliary ships, export contracts, and provide some analysis.


Construction of Borei-class (project 955) submarines progressed significantly in 2012. The navy took delivery of the Yury Dolgoruky, the first sub of this class, at the end of 2012. After some training exercises, the sub is expected to enter regular service by the end of 2013. The second sub, the Alexander Nevsky, is expected to be commissioned in the fall. The third sub, whose construction started in 2006, was launched in January 2013, while construction of the fourth started in July 2012. Two more subs are to be laid down this year. Given the 7-8 year construction times on these submarines, it seems unlikely that all eight will be completed by the 2020 target date.  2023 seems to be a more realistic goal. Furthermore, the lack of new tests on the Bulava missile in 2012 is concerning, though additional tests are expected this autumn — most likely using a new automated missile launch control system.

The Yasen-class (project 885) nuclear attack submarines are being built far more slowly, with the first submarine in the class (the Severodvinsk, which was laid down back in 1993) currently undergoing tests and expected to enter the fleet later this year. The Kazan (the second submarine of this class) will be commissioned in 2015 at the earliest, with the third to be laid down in July. Again, the chances of all 8 contracted subs being completed by 2020 is virtually nonexistent.

Diesel submarines are also being built, including the recently restarted, but still troubled, Lada class. The first sub in this class, the St. Petersburg, entered sea trials in 2004. Problems with its propulsion systems have prevented its commissioning and led the project to be suspended indefinitely several years ago. The project was restarted in 2012, but the St. Petersburg still has not been commissioned. Construction on the two other subs in this class that were laid down before the suspension has resumed and they are expected to be ready for sea trials in 2015 and 2016, respectively. MDB reports that  the second boat may be equipped with new lithium-ion batteries, while the third may have air-independent propulsion. It seems unlikely that any more subs of this class will be built, which means the navy will get three essentially different boats, each with its own maintenance needs. This is precisely the sort of the thing the Russian military has been trying to get away from. The hope is that a fifth-generation conventional sub currently being designed by Rubin Design Bureau will soon be ready for construction, obviating the need for the Lada class. In the meantime, the navy will have to depend on old and new Kilo-class submarines. The first of a set of six improved Kilos is expected to be launched later this year. Two more are under construction and another is to be laid down by the end of 2013. All six are expected to be in service by 2016.

Surface ships

The first of the two Mistral-class ships ordered from France is currently under construction, with the second to be laid down sometime in 2013. Both ships are to be completed and delivered to Russia by the end of 2015. Boltenkov reiterates that both will be assigned to the the Pacific Fleet. Furthermore, he notes that the Russian Navy has ordered four assault-landing boats from STX L’Orient in France. The fate of the third and fourth Mistral-class ships, which were to be built entirely in Russia starting in 2016, remains unresolved.

Two types of frigates are being built for the navy. The first of the Admiral Gorshkov class (project 22350) frigates is expected to enter sea trials in late 2013. Two others are under construction, with a fourth to be laid down later this year. Two more ships of this class have been ordered, with hopes of completion by 2020. MDB reports that the project is facing serious delays with its primary Poliment-Redut SAM weapon system, which is being developed by Almaz-Antey (a company that has had many problems successfully completing the development of new weapons systems in recent years). The second type of frigate (project 11356R) is essentially the Talwar class previously built for the Indian Navy. This is an updated version of the Soviet Krivak class. Russian defense industry is much better at building updated versions of tried and tested designs than at building something completely new. It’s therefore not surprising that construction on these ships is proceeding quite quickly, with three ships already under construction and another to be laid down this year. The first ship of this class, the Admiral Grigorovich is expected to be launched this summer and to enter service in 2014.

The navy is also receiving some smaller combat ships. Construction on various versions of the Steregushchiy class (projects 20380 and 20385) of corvettes continues, with two in service, one in sea trials, one expected to begin sea trials later this year, three under construction and another to be laid down in July. Severnaya Verf is building these ships in about three years, while Amur shipyard is taking much longer. Various sources indicate that contracts have been signed to build another 10 of these corvettes, which would bring the total number in service to 18 by the time the program is complete.

Several types of ships are being built expressly for the Caspian Flotilla. The Dagestan missile ship, equipped with Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles, was commissioned into the Caspian Flotilla in November 2012. No further ships of this type are planned, however. Two Buyan-class (project 21630) small artillery ships were commissioned into the flotilla in 2012. An updated version of this class (project 21631), to be armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, has been ordered. Five ships are now under construction with an estimated completion date of 2015. A contract for three more of these ships was signed in January 2013. The Caspian Flotilla is also expected to receive three Serna class (project 11770) high speed air-cavity landing craft this year, built according to an existing late Soviet design.

Finally, the navy is building a number of specialized surface ships, including the Admiral Gren (project 11711) large tank landing ship, which has been under construction since 2004 and was finally launched in May 2012. Completion will be no earlier than 2014 and initial plans to build another 4-5 of these ships have been shelved. Four Dyugon class (project 21820) high speed amphibious landing craft are also under construction, though Boltenkov reports that problems with the design mean that no more ships of this type will be built once these four are completed. The first ship of the Aleksandrit class of minesweepers (project 12700) is under construction as well, with three more expected to be built in the near future. Two Grachonok class (project 21980) anti-sabotage boats were commissioned in 2012, with two more expected to be completed by the end of 2013 and another four currently under construction. A total of about 20 are expected to built in the next few years.


The Mistral Comes to Town

On November 23, the French amphibious assault ship Mistral arrived in St. Petersburg for what is expected to be a three-day visit. Reports indicate that during this visit, a decision will be made on the purchase of one ship of this class together with a license to build another 3-4 ships in Russia. The ship is likely to be purchased without weapons or radar equipment. The prospective purchase has raised a great deal of questioning and opposition among Russian military experts.

The questioning mostly revolves around uncertainty about the purpose to be served by having such a ship in the Russian Navy. This is an important point. It seems obvious that a large ship such as this would not be needed for anti-piracy operations or protection of shipping lanes, the two main missions of the Russian Navy these days. For those missions, the Admiral Gorshkov frigates that Russia is (slowly) building domestically are perfectly adequate.

It’s possible that the Navy hopes to use this ship for political purposes, similar to those served by the cruise of the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser last winter. But this is not sufficient — and it’s not clear how effective such cruises are in any case.

It seems to me that the Russian Navy can best use the Mistral as a command ship. The ship has space for a command center that can accommodate up to 200 people and, if properly equipped, can be used to control operations up to fleet level, as well as joint operations with air and ground forces. But it may not be so useful as an amphibious assault ship, given differences between Russia and France in how naval infantry is used.

Experts also question whether Russia can afford such a purchase. They point out that the total expenditure on this purchase would be greater than the entire domestic military shipbuilding program. That may well be the case, but at least it would result in some ships actually entering the Russian Navy. Domestic construction has so far resulted in virtually no new ships entering the fleet. Highly touted projects such as the Ivan Gren amphibious assault ship, two of which should have been built by now according to the timetable announced in 2004, have instead disappeared entirely. The Ivan Gren is not even listed among the ongoing projects on the shipbuilder’s website.

Opposition to the purchase is based on two factors: the fear that purchasing major weapons systems from NATO countries will make the Russian military dependent on the West and the potential that such purchases will destroy what remains of Russia’s defense industry. On the first point, Russian military analysts continue to demonstrate their perception of the West in general and NATO in particular as an enemy that might be tempted to use any sign of Russian weakness to attack. In the event of a future conflict, they believe that Western-built platforms (such as the Mistral) would be useless, because Western countries would refuse to supply spare parts.

On the second point, it is striking that those who argue that the Russian Navy should procure ships such as this from domestic shipbuilders often simultaneously argue that the Russian defense industry is in such a state that it is no longer capable of building serious ships.

Neither of these objections make very much sense given the Russian military’s plan to license the production of these ships and build all except the first at a Russian shipyard. Doing so would both help revitalize domestic military shipbuilding and ensure that Russian suppliers could provide spare parts in the (highly unlikely!) event of a future conflict with NATO. In fact, licensing a ship series from a Western country such as France for domestic construction may be the best thing that could happen to Russian military shipbuilding. In order to build French-designed ships in Russia, the builder would have to bring in trainers from France. This would be more useful for revitalizing the industry than years’ worth of empty declarations by government officials about revival efforts.

Overall, it is not entirely clear to me why the Russian Navy needs this type of ship. But the opposition to its purchase is largely based on outdated and contradictory thinking. The general goal of purchasing a license to build foreign-designed ships at Russian shipyards is a laudable one and may be the best way to actually revitalize the shipbuilding industry. But perhaps the Russian Navy would be better served by licensing a frigate, rather than an amphibious assault ship.