Russian naval shipbuilding plans: Rebuilding a blue water navy

Since I wrote my previous post for Oxford Analytica several months ago, additional information has come out about what is contained in Russia’s shipbuilding program — which reportedly includes a naval development plan going out to 2050. Today, Konstantin Bogdanov at Lenta.ru has published a major update on these plans. The following is based on his article and on conversations with other Russian naval experts.

Submarines

Strategic nuclear deterrence will remain the number one mission of the Russian Navy. As the three remaining Delta IIIs will be retired in the next five years and the six Delta IVs in the 2020s, Russia expects to replace them with a total of 12 Borei SSBNs. Eight are already contracted to be built in the next few years, with another four expected to be ordered in the next decade. The new subs are likely to be an updated version of the current Borei II subclass, with improved electronics and other updated components. The navy plans to locate six in the Northern Fleet and six in the Pacific Fleet.

There has been a great deal of controversy over the Yasen SSGN class, which was initially expected to replace both Oscar class SSGNs and various classes of smaller multi-purpose SSNs. Eight have been ordered so far and there is some debate on whether an additional four Yasen subs will be ordered for construction after 2020. This will depend on whether the cost of serial production can be brought down and on the success of the just started modernization of Oscar class SSGNs (which is expected to extend these subs’ lifespan by 15-20 years). The goal is to have a total of 12 SSGNs, again with six each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

However, there is now a plan to develop a new multi-purpose nuclear submarine class, with the goal of building something cheaper and smaller than the Yasen class. This would be an attack submarine with decreased missile armament, comparable to the American Virginia class. The navy hopes to begin construction of these subs as early as 2016, with the goal of building a total of 16-18 of them, with at least 15 completed by 2035. These submarines would be armed with 16 (4×4) VLS, 4-6 torpedo tubes, updated Kalibr missiles and Tsirkon missiles (which will replace Oniks).

As far as diesel submarines, no more Improved Kilo class submarines will be built after the current contract of six for the Black Sea Fleet is completed. Instead the navy is planning to order a new class of diesel-electric submarines that will in essence be a modernized version of the Lada class, with air-independent propulsion. The goal is to build 14-18 of these subs over a 15 year period, though mainly in the 2020s. These subs will have armaments analogous to the Lada class, though some may be optimized for special operations, with airlocks for swimmers. They will be build primarily at Admiralty Shipyards, though Krasnoe Sormovo may also be involved in the project. The second and third Lada hulls will also be completed, most likely in 2017.

Surface ships

The community of Russian naval experts has in recent months yet again been consumed by the question of whether the navy should build aircraft carriers and, if so, what kind? Bogdanov writes that construction of a carrier could begin no earlier than 2020 and would carry substantial financial and technical risks. The prospective carrier would be a descendant of the never finished Ulianovsk class aircraft carrier, with a deadweight of 65,000-80,000 tons and could carry 55-60 aircraft. The planes would probably be a naval version of the T-50 fifth generation fighter plane, as well as some long-range AWACS aircraft that would be more effective than existing Ka-31 helicopters. The prospective carrier would have air defense and ASW capabilities, but no strike armaments of its own.

Russian experts have noted that Russian shipyards could build a 60,000-70,000 ton carrier in 4-5 years, but could have difficulties if the military decides to build a larger supercarrier. One problem is the lack of a suitably large drydock, as Soviet carriers were built at Nikolayev, Ukraine. A small carrier (less than 60,000 tons) could be built at Baltiiskii Zavod, but the military does not want such a design. If the navy wants to avoid the delays that would come from having to build new construction facilities,  one option that has been floated for building a large carrier is to build two halves at Baltiiskii Zavod and the Vyborg shipyard, and then connect them afloat at Sevmash.

The navy is likely to build eight more Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, in addition to the eight already under contract, as well as a total of 20 corvettes of various versions. Three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates may also be built, in addition to the six currently under construction for the Black Sea Fleet. All of these ships are being armed with Oniks anti-ship missiles and Kalibr multi-purpose missiles, which can both be fired through universal vertical launch systems. The main question here is the extent to which the program for construction of these ships will be delayed due to the shift in turbine production that has resulted from the end of military industrial cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. Most Russian experts believe that two years will be sufficient to set up production of turbines in Russia, though the actual extent of the delay is likely to be clear by the middle of this year. In any case, Russia is believed to have already received turbines for the first four ships of each of these classes.

The navy is planning to begin production of large destroyers (15,000 tons) that some consider to be essentially missile cruisers in all but name. It has not been decided whether these ships will have nuclear or gas turbine propulsion systems. They will have a wide range of both offensive and defense armaments, including Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missiles and a naval version of the S-500 long-range air defense system, both of which are expected to be ready by the mid-2020s. The hope is to have the first ship of this class ready by 2023-25 and to eventually build a total of at least 12 (though other analysts believe that construction of these destroyers won’t begin before 2023).

A number of modernization projects are also in the works. Cruiser modernization is now under way, with the Admiral Nakhimov Kirov class cruiser scheduled to be ready for active duty in 2018 after the replacement of all of its armaments and electronic components. The Peter the Great cruiser may be modernized in a similar fashion once the Nakhimov’s refit is complete. Two or three Slava class cruisers will also be modernized in the next few years. Five to seven Udaloy class destroyers may also be modernized, with new armaments and universal vertical launch systems, while the largely useless Sovremennyi class destroyers will finally be retired as replacing their defective propulsion systems is considered unrealistic.

Regardless of the final resolution of the saga with the procurement of Mistral class amphibious ships from France, the navy is also planning to replace all existing amphibious ships with new classes. Specifically, it plans to build a new LPD type amphibious ship, similar to the Dutch Rotterdam class with a displacement of 14-16,000 tons and able to carry 500-600 naval infantry, six helicopters, and various amphibious vehicles. The goal is to have 2-3 such ships each in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with construction to start late in this decade. In addition, progress is being made in the long-running construction saga of the Ivan Gren amphibious ship, with the lead ship expected to be commissioned in 2015 after more than ten years of construction. Previous delays were caused by irregular financing and frequent changes in design specifications. With the latter now pretty much set, subsequent ships can be expected to be built much faster as long as the financing is available. The goal is to have eight such ships, four each in the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets.

A brief assessment

As always with Russian military construction plans, this program sounds quite grandiose. And if it is fully implemented, the Russian navy will be back as a full-fledged oceangoing force by the end of the next decade. However, it seems to me that given their current capacities Russian shipyards will not be able to carry out the entire plan in the expected timelines. Furthermore, there is a big question over the ability of the Russian state to finance such a program given the economic difficulties that it is likely to face in the next several years. Over the last several years, we have seen repeated delays with the construction of new ship types even when the economic situation was much more positive and the ships being built much smaller and simpler than destroyers and aircraft carriers. The recently-completed long-running saga with the modernization of the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy shows the problems that Russia may face as it starts to build larger and more complex ships.

Nevertheless, it is clear that while the Russian Navy has resigned itself to focus on strategic deterrence and coastal defense missions in the short and medium terms, it still has ambitions of restoring its blue water navy in the long term.

 

The Future of the Russian Navy Part 1: Large Combat Ships

Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to review the likely contours of the Russian Navy’s future force structure. It seems that the increase in financing for the new state armaments program from 13 to 20 trillion rubles will primarily benefit the navy. This will allow the military to carry out a fairly ambitious naval procurement program, beyond the strategic submarine force that has remained a priority for the military, and would have been funded no matter what.

In one of his recent articles, Ilya Kramnik pointed out that the small number of Russian combat ships belong to a relatively large number of classes. These include one type of aircraft carrier, two types of cruisers, four types of destroyers, three types of frigates and at least six types of corvette.  Not counting the corvettes, there are only 31 operational ships spread across the 10 classes. These ships are equipped with four types of anti-ship, two types of ASW and five types of AAW weapons systems. Each type has its own fire control system, as well. Needless to say, this diversity of platforms and equipment makes maintenance much more complicated than in other navies.

Given the expense of building large combat ships and their relative longevity, the Russian Navy will be stuck with many of these legacy platforms for at least the next decade. However, given recent announcements about future shipbuilding plans, we can begin to develop a picture of what the Russian Navy will look like ten years from now, when many of these older ships will begin to be retired as new ships are commissioned.

Aircraft Carriers

First of all, it appears that the Russian navy has, after many decades of hesitation and lack of funding, decided to build a true aircraft carrier. The Admiral Kuznetsov, the navy’s one existing aircraft carrier, is actually officially considered a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” Its aircraft are limited to air superiority, ASW and SAR operations. The ship was built in the late 1980s and, with an expected modernization, could last for another 20-30 years if properly maintained.

This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year.  While designs for the future carrier have not yet been made public, initial speculation centers on a model similar to the British Queen Elizabeth class carriers currently under construction. These ships would have a displacement of around 50-60,000 tons and would carry 50-60 aircraft, including both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Plans call for one CV to be built by 2020, with construction to start by 2015. It is unclear whether the financing for this construction will come from the State Armaments Program or from a separate state financing program outside the regular State Defense Order system. In reality, the likelihood that Russian shipbuilders could build an aircraft carrier in five years is virtually nil. It currently takes Russian factories that long to build a frigate, and the complications of building a type of ship never before built in Russia will likely lead to at least a doubling of the planned construction time. Furthermore, Russia currently does not have any dry docks large enough enough to build such a ship, as the Admiral Kuznetsov and its predecessors were all built in Ukraine. For these reasons, even if adequate financing is available, it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a new functioning aircraft carrier by 2020. A target date of 2025 or even 2030 is far more realistic.

Cruisers

At the moment, the Russian Navy operates five cruisers — the Peter the Great Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser, three Slava-class cruisers and the Kerch, the last remaining Kara-class cruiser, which is likely to be decommissioned sometime in the next year. The Peter the Great, commissioned in 1998, is the only nuclear-powered surface ship currently in active service in the Russian Navy. It serves as the flagship of the Northern Fleet and has recently engaged in several lengthy deployments. The three Slava-class cruisers, designed as surface strike ships with an anti-aircraft and ASW capability, are equipped with Bazalt cruise missiles. They were commissioned in the 1980s and are likely to remain in service for several more decades, especially with a likely modernization.

The Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov and Slava class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization, with the goal of returning it to the fleet in 2012. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) will also be modernized prior to 2020. The Kirov itself could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance.

The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov (or Ukraina) Slava-class cruiser. This ship was launched back in 1990, but has been in dock in Ukraine since then, lacking only some weapons systems and equipment. After the election of Viktor Yanukovich to the Ukrainian presidency last year, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to complete this ship together. Because of its long period of disuse, much of the ship’s equipment will have to be replaced with more modern variants. The modernization will likely include the installation of a modern C2 system, a multipurpose shipboard fire-control system and sonar equipment, as well as new missile systems. If this project succeeds, the three active Slava class cruisers in the Russian Navy are likely to undergo a similar modernization over the next 10 years.

If the planned cruiser modernization takes place as planned, by 2020 the Russian Navy will have 7-8 well-armed cruisers with relatively modern weapons and C2 systems. These ships could serve as the core of the fleet’s force capability for the following 20 years.

Destroyers

The Russian Navy currently operates three types of destroyers, the Kashin, Sovremennyi and Udaloy classes. The one remaining Kashin-class destroyer is based in the Black Sea Fleet. Though it has deployed relatively frequently in the post-Soviet period, it has been in service since 1969 and will almost certainly have to be retired in the near future.

The Sovremennyi-class destroyers, despite being much newer, must be considered a failure. Almost all of the ships of this class have had engine problems at one time or another and the five currently in active service in the fleet almost never deploy. It seems inevitable that these ships will be written off as soon as an adequate replacement can be built, if not before then.

The Udaloy-class ships have been much more successful and have over the last decade served as the mainstay of the Russian fleet for various missions ranging from recent anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to various exercises with other navies around the world. Eight of these ships are currently in service in the Northern and Pacific Fleets, with one more in reserve. They were built primarily in the 1980s, though the Admiral Chabanenko is an improved version that was commissioned in 1999. These ships will remain in service well into the 2020s, if not beyond.

Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000 ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. According to Kramnik, it is likely to be armed with Club-U cruise missiles, 130-152mm artillery, an air defense weapon system (possibly the Kashtan), and 1-2 helicopters. Each of these ships would be as powerful as 2-3 Sovremennyis.  The hope is to build 10-12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than 2-3 could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.

I’ll continue this next week with smaller combat ships and amphibs…