MVMS-2013 naval salon prompts more reflections on the future of the Russian navy

There have been a number of interesting articles written on the future of the Russian Navy in conjunction with the naval salon in St. Petersburg earlier this month. I’ll try to summarize the interesting points without repeating material found in my earlier articles on this topic.

The most recent bit of news is that the Russian navy is planning to order an additional three Talwar class (project 11356) frigates, on top of the six already in the works. The idea is that these are relatively capable ships that can be built and outfitted very quickly (at a rate of one per year for the construction). Three are currently under construction and according to the most recent reports, two more are to be laid down this year. These are well armed ships, comparable to the Sovremennyi class destroyers in armament, though more versatile. Whereas the original plan had been to deploy all six to the Black Sea Fleet, the current plan is to station the first three there while the next three would go to the Baltic Fleet. As Prokhor Tebin points out, this makes absolutely no sense. The Baltic Fleet should be the Russian Navy’s lowest priority, focused primarily on testing new ships and training. Both the BSF and the Pacific Fleet are in much greater need of new ships of this type. But that sort of thing can be changed once the ships are actually ready for commissioning. The truly significant news is that three more such ships will be built in the near future and, unlike the more complicated Admiral Gorshkov class frigates, are likely to be put to use quite quickly.

Ilya Kramnik had an interesting summary of plans for the future that adds some information and analysis to what I’ve already discussed.  He mentions plans for a new attack submarine that is expected to become the mainstay of the fleet for the next several decades. This will be a smaller and cheaper submarine than the Yasen class. It will combine the usual missions of protecting Russian and tracking foreign SSBNs. In other words, if we thinking of the Yasen as the Russian Seawolf, then this new class will be the Virginia. Plans call for 20 such submarines to be built by the end of the 2020s, with construction of the first sub to start in the next 5-7 years.

So if all the submarine plans are carried out, by 2030 the Russian Navy will get a total of 35-36 new nuclear submarines, including 8 Boreis, 7-8 Yasens, and up to 20 of the new class. The total cost would be 1.5 trillion rubles at current prices, not including expenses for modernizing existing submarines. Personally, I think this is overly ambitious. Even if we assume that the design process will proceed without delays and construction and construction does start in 2018 or thereabouts, I highly doubt that the Russian shipbuilding industry is capable of building 20 new submarines in 10-12 years. I realize that the submarine-building sector is the healthiest part of the industry, but there is just no record even in the industry’s Soviet history of building two nuclear submarines of the same type per year. Even one would be ambitious, given recent history.  I suppose it would be possible if the Amur shipyard was pressed into service, though my understanding is that it is not building submarines any more. Even if it were, it would take a lot to get that shipyard up to speed.

In addition to the new destroyer that we discussed last week, new plans for surface ships include a littoral combat ship. The design of the LCS has not been finalized and fairly non-traditional options such as a catamaran or trimaran are supposedly on the table.  Industry representatives want to build 1-2 ships of the two best designs to test their capabilities and then select one for serial production. 35-40 such ships could be built for all four fleets, at a total cost of 250-280 billion rubles. Such pace of construction would be made possible by using multiple shipyards, including those in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Komsomolsk-na-Amure, Zelenodolsk and possible Krasnoe Sormovo.

Discussions are still under way about the design of a potential new aircraft carrier.  Photos of a model that represents current thinking show a classical design, equipped with a ski jump and a catapult, and with an estimated length of 320 meters and 80,000 tons displacement. While discussions continue, the Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service. Its modernization, originally scheduled to begin in 2012 will be postponed until the second half of this decade.

The main problem with all these plans is the continued weakness of the shipbuilding sector. In a separate article, Kramnik mentions the complexity of new equipment, including radars, control systems, hydroacoustics, and weapons.  He notes that this has led to delays in construction of the Admiral Gorshkov class frigates and the Yasen class submarines, among others. (I would also add the Lada class diesel submarines to this list.) There are also complications resulting from the merger of many disparate plants, in varying condition and with different ways of doing business, into the United Shipbuilding Corporation. This has resulted in various problems with finances and personnel that presently can only be resolved through “manual control.”

Igor Zakharov, the vice president of United Shipbuilding Corporation, argues that the way to solve the sector’s problems is to give the chief designer of any major shipbuilding project both personal responsibility before the client and the right to ensure that sub-contractors fulfill their obligations on time. He doesn’t spell out what mechanisms would be used to ensure the latter, but he does call for the introduction of arbitration mechanisms to resolve conflicts between industry and the MOD over issues such as pricing.

He also notes that Russian shipbuilding needs to adapt to the modern world, where hulls can last 50 years or more while electronics and armaments become outdated much more quickly. This requires ships to be built in a way that allows for easy modernization and replacement of weapons and equipment. Soviet ships, by contrast, did not consider the possibility of such updates, making their modernization in the new environment very costly and time consuming. New capital ships will be built in small series. Furthermore, rapid advances in electronics will require that even these series be divided into sub-series that will maintain unity of ship design while updating electronics and weaponry. Some systems and weapons can be used across ship classes. We are already seeing elements of these ideas in systems such as the multipurpose shipboard firing system (УКСК) and in the modular construction of the latest classes of Russian corvettes and frigates.

These are good ideas. The problem is the extent to which they are stymied by the conglomerate nature of United Shipbuilding and by the difficulty its personnel and business structures face in adapting to the new way of doing business. Over time, I imagine the shipbuilding industry will improve. But time is needed, while the navy is providing the industry with somewhat unrealistic timetables for the construction of new ships. The result will be more delays, though probably not as bad as in the recent past.