You'd be surprised to see how well Russia stacks up against the world’s shipbuilding superpowers
How often do we hear about "unwashed Russia”, hopelessly behind the "progressive West" in this or that. For some people, not only at home, the repetition of this theme has become a meme, regardless of whether it’s true. They don’t notice Russia’s rising reputation, or the growth of its military power. They’ve been told that our backwardness is hopeless, and that’s just the way it is. In 2010, a Russian admiral told a friend of mine that Russia only put one warship into operation that year, which is how he came to the conclusion that the shipbuilding industry has collapsed. But let’s compare facts: a check of Russian Naval ships under construction at the time identified 53 units.
On how Americans and Russians build nuclear ships
Recently, the US Navy received another Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarine, the SSN Illinois. Construction of the $2.7 billion ship with a displacement of 7.8 thousand tons began in March 2011, sponsored by the First Lady. The construction cycle took 5.5 years. Not bad, especially compared to Europeans.
For example, the smaller British Astute-class nuclear submarines are built on average over 10 years, and the construction of similar French Barracudas according to not yet implemented plans will take 10-11 years.
And what about Russians, whose shipyards were presumably completely destroyed?
The construction of the first Yasen-class nuclear submarine, Project 885 Severodvinsk started back in 1993, then was suspended, later resumed. Times were difficult, yet in 2014 the ship was commissioned after almost 20 years…
The first Russian multipurpose nuclear submarine after the disastrous 1990s was the 885 - Kazan project, that reestablished mass production. It was started in mid-2009 and is likely to be commissioned in 2018, having been built in 9 years. That’s better than the Europeans, but not as good as the Americans. But that's okay, the first Virginia also took more than seven years to build.
The third ship of project 885M - Novosibirsk commenced construction in mid-2013 and is scheduled to be completed in 2018, again in 5.5 years. Even if it takes till 2019, it won’t be more than 6.5 years, which is excellent, considering that American submarine construction technology was tested for decades and the country did not breakup as did Russia in the 1990s.
Comparing construction times of strategic ballistic missile submarines, the third ship of the project 955 Borei-class submarine Vladimir Monomakh with a displacement of 24 thousand tons was put into operation 8.5 years after construction started, and the fourth planned will be commissioned in 6-6.5 years.
Similar in size, the US Ohio-class SSBNs took an average of five years to build during the Cold War, comparable to Soviet construction at the time. However, Great Britain took 5.5 years or more to build its much smaller Vanguards (16 thousand tons displacement). Of the even smaller French Triumphant-Class submarines, the second took only 6 years to build.
Here we see a relatively small gap with the US and much better performance compared to Europe. But how does Russia’s "ruined" defense industry cope with the construction of diesel "black holes"?
Diesel-electric submarines: two ships or one?
We can’t compare them to the American ones, since the last American diesel ship came off a building berth nearly half a century ago. But let's look at the recognized industry leaders - Germany, who outpace all Europeans and some Asians with type 212 ships and their slightly modified copies.
The German Navy’s Type 212A boats, with a displacement of 1840 tons, took five or more years to build, and can only be compared to Russian diesel-electric submarines type 636 Warszawianka with double displacement.
The series of six ships for the Russian Black Sea Fleet are about to be completed, then there will be a series for the Pacific Fleet. The most recent, the fourth in a row, joined the fleet only a year and 9 months after the start of work. The next two ships will be completed in no less than 2 years, which is slow. Russian shipyards built ships like this in about a year in the late 1990s, under a contract with China. Similar in size, Japanese Soryu-class subs take four years to build. So for diesel submarines, Russian shipbuilders still best their competitors: while Japan or Germany build one submarine, Russia builds two.
It’s time to move on to the comparison of surface ships.
Russian shipbuilding’s weak point: frigates
It’s pointless to compare aircraft carriers and large open-ocean destroyers that Russia doesn’t build. The largest class of ships that can be properly compared is the frigate class. It’s the most problematic for Russia, because construction depended on Ukrainian suppliers, no longer available for foreign policy reasons.
Two series of ships of this class are currently being built for the Russian Navy: projects 22350 and 11356.
Construction of the lead ship began in 2006, to be delivered in six years. Things went wrong from the beginning, but the main culprits were not the shipbuilders, rather weapons systems that did not pass inspection in time. The ship was launched in 2010, then waited several years for various weapons systems. It’s only now being inspected and if all goes well it will be commissioned by the end of the year, construction having taken 10 years.
The second in the Admiral Kasatonov series began construction three years later. It will probably join the fleet less than a year after the lead ship, since the Ukrainian engines for the third ship were not delivered, disrupting the construction schedule.
The second series of modified Project 11356 frigates are well-mastered, and earlier, another series was built for the Indian Navy. They’re a bit smaller than a type 22350 frigate (4 vs. 4.5 thousand tons), and not packed with so many novelties, allowing us to assess the true potential of shipbuilders.
The first series of ships for the Russian Navy was built in 5 1/2 years, the second in under five years. If tests are successful, the third will take 4 1/2 years, the fourth ship having been left again without a Ukrainian power set.
What about competitors?
In the 2000’s German Sachsen type frigates with a displacement of 5.7 thousand tons were built in 4.3 years, and the next Baden-Württemberg series,with a displacement of 7.2 thousand tons will take a little more than five years.
Franco-Italian 5,8 thousand ton FREMM type frigates are built in 4.5 years in France and in less than four years in Italy, however they are not the leaders: Spain built its Alvaro de Bazan class ships in a record 3 years.
Norway has been building its Fridtjof Nansen 5.3 thousand ton frigates in three years, but it is not the champion. If destroyers are included, Japanese ships like the Akizuki with a displacement of 6.8 thousand tons, fly off the berth in 2.7 years, which is much faster than the US.
These, and the US Arleigh Burke - Kongo type destroyers, entered service in less than three years, thanks to first class construction traditions. Seventy years ago it was exactly the opposite.
To sum up, Russian frigates are inferior to competitors, but not hopelessly. Comparisons will only be accurate when frigate class ships are equipped with Russian power sets and not dependent on the political conjuncture.
Having compared construction times of the main classes of warships in Russia, the US, Japan and Europe, overall, Russian shipbuilders are in middle place, except for diesel submarines where currently the competition cannot even come close.
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