A Weak Light at the End of the Tunnel for the Russian Navy

A Russian military analyst takes a sober look at navy's shipbuilding program

Mon, Sep 5, 2016 | 3873 Comments

In recognition of Navy Day several weeks back, Mikhail Khodarenok examined the current state of the Russian Navy for Gazeta.ru.

Khodarenok offers a pessimistic assessment of the navy’s shipbuilding program.  He notes there is still significant disagreement over what to build.  The navy, he argues, has also lost some of its bureaucratic heft when it comes to planning for shipbuilding as well as for the operational employment of naval forces. 

Black Sea Fleet Nanuchka III-class PGG Shtil in the Navy Day Parade

Late of Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer, Mr. Khodarenok — you’ll recall — is an ex-General Staff officer and serious military journalist.  He shares interesting and credible opinions from several well-placed former naval officers in his article.

According to him, all observers agree that the start of serial construction of ships after more than 20 years is “one of the most important vectors of the fleet’s current development.”  This might seem obvious, but it’s not widely appreciated.

Khodarenok walks quickly through the current construction program:

  • four proyekt 20380 corvettes in the fleet with eight on the buildingways;
  • three proyekt 11356 frigates delivered, others uncertain;
  • proyekt 22350 frigates under construction;
  • six proyekt 636.3 diesel-electric submarines complete, six more for the Pacific Fleet to be built in 2017-2020;
  • proyekt 955 Borey-class SSBN is a success with three delivered;
  • a single proyekt 885 Yasen-class SSN has reached the fleet, others will likely not arrive until after 2020.

One can quibble with his points.  For example, it’s premature to declare Borey a success when its Bulava SLBM still hasn’t been accepted into the navy’s inventory (NVO made this point flatly on 12 August).  Perhaps Borey is a success, but only in comparison to Yasen.

Khodarenok doesn’t dwell on these points, and his general themes are of greater interest.

He quotes former deputy chief of the Navy Main Staff, Vice-Admiral Vladimir Pepelyayev:

“Serial production is generally a very big deal.  It has big pluses in the deployment plan, lowering costs of subsequent ships in the series compared with the lead unit, and simplification of training personnel for new ships.”

According to Khodarenok, Pepelyayev feels there is light at the end of the tunnel for the navy, but it’s dim and flickering because navy ship construction “fully reflects the realities and condition of the Russian shipbuilding industry,” and not just shipbuilding.

Pepelyayev continues:

“A ship is a visible and material reflection of practically all the technological capabilities of the state.  In a word, we build that which we can build.”

Khodarenok adds:

“Specialists believe that another fifteen years are still needed to recover after many types of restructuring, the 1990s, and the hiatus in fleet construction at the beginning of the 2000s.”

Turning to the sore point of gas turbine engines, Khodarenok writes that Rybinsk may well be able to make them for the Russian Navy by 2017-2018, but someone still needs to replace the reduction gears also once made for navy ships in Ukraine.  This is a more difficult task.  The Zvezda plant in St. Petersburg has gotten the job.

Ex-deputy CINC of the Navy for Armaments Vice-Admiral Nikolay Borisov says:

“This is a highly complex task — highly complex and modern equipment, particularly gear cutters, are needed to work with high-alloy steel.  Whether this task will be completed at Zvezda is an open question.  Many specialists doubt the enterprise’s capability to handle the task in the established timeframe.”

Khodarenok turns to the proposed nuclear-powered destroyer Lider (proyekt 23560), concluding there isn’t agreement among specialists whether the fleet even needs this ship.  An unnamed highly-placed source tells him the fleet needs 20 frigates more than 15 frigates and five Lider destroyers.  The source continues:

“Lider will be a ship of the second half of the 21st century.  However, there are no new weapons which correspond to the second half of the 21st century for it.  There’s just no sense in building a hull and power plant.”

Retired Rear-Admiral Yuriy Gorev, who was involved in ship acquisition, tells Khodarenok that the navy should continue building corvettes and frigates while continuing development of Lider.  But the new destroyer shouldn’t be a goal of the fleet’s near-term plans.

Next, the always-pregnant question of aircraft carriers…

An unnamed Navy Main Staff source says:

“Today there are no conditions for the construction of a ship of such a design.  No buildingway, no drydock.  There is simply nowhere to build an aircraft carrier.”

“The construction of such ships should be realized for concrete tasks, but today the Russian Navy simply doesn’t have such missions.”

“And with further development of aviation, aircraft carriers could even die out altogether as a class.”

Recall that MOD armaments tsar Yuriy Borisov said an aircraft carrier contract won’t be signed until late 2025, and there are three existing “not bad” designs for it.

Former chief of the naval “direction” (department, i.e. not a major bureaucratic entity) of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate (GOU), Rear-Admiral Arkadiy Syroyezhko believes there are no insurmountable obstacles to the construction of a nuclear-powered strike carrier in Russia. He thinks Sevmash could handle the job since it was originally conceived as a yard for major surface combatants and later concentrated on submarines.

But Syroyezhko admits, without preparation to support carriers, Russia could end up with extremely expensive, sporadically constructed carriers.  Today, he concludes, Russia is able to fulfill combat missions typically placed on carriers by other means.

Changing gears, Khodarenok covers the state of play in the Russian Navy’s Main Staff.

According to him, specialists unanimously report that the operational-strategic component has disappeared from the Main Staff’s work.  It no longer plans for the fleet’s employment — for strategic operations in oceanic theaters of military operations.  The naval planning job has gone to Russia’s operational-strategic commands (military districts) and the four geographic fleets (as the operational-strategic large formations of those MDs).  

A Main Staff source tells Khodarenok that the MD commanders have come up with disparate rules for directing the fleets subordinate to them.  The source says the disappearance of a naval component in GOU planning began with the downgrading of the GOU’s naval directorate to a “direction,” and with the concomitant reduction in the quality of its naval staff officers.

Khodarenok writes there is confusion today over what ships to build, how many, what tactical-technical capabilities they should have, and what missions they should perform. The Navy CINC has “no rights” but many demands made of him in this regard.

Russian Navy CINC Admiral Vladimir Korolev

The Navy CINC’s responsibilities for procurement intersect with those of the MOD’s state defense order (GOZ) support department.  It’s unclear exactly where their respective authorities begin and end.  The Main Staff source says all sorts of nonsense result from the confusion.

Still, the CINC has to answer for almost everything that happens in the fleet, according to Khodarenok.

The Navy Main Command’s (Glavkomat’s) move to St. Petersburg was a big mistake, but a return to Moscow would be equally disruptive.  A Glavkomat source tells Khodarenok, as long as the leadership sends people to Vladivostok or elsewhere twice a week over the littlest issues, it really doesn’t matter where the headquarters is.

Khodarenok sums everything this way:

“In other words, there are more than a few problems in the fleet today.  It undoubtedly won’t do to put their resolution on the back burner.  They won’t disappear somewhere from there.”

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