The shift away from large vessels to smaller ones reveals Russia is content to defend its coasts and does not seek to rule the waves
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared at Russian Military Reform
The Russian navy’s missions and procurement plans indicate that it is going to focus primarily on strategic deterrence and coastal defence, while allowing ‘blue-water’ capabilities — its ability to operate in areas far away from home territory and coastal support bases — to deteriorate in the short term.
For many years the Russian navy has been in serious decline — the Kursk disaster in 2000 being the most significant manifestation of this — with underfunding that has led to the decay of many older platforms. While Russia still has the strongest navy in the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s out-of-area naval capability is in overall decline.
- Russia will procure a new generation of vessels that will position the navy as a formidable coastal defence force.
- A new generation of large combat ships is more than a decade away, leading to the erosion of the navy’s blue-water capabilities.
- Submarine-based strategic deterrence will remain a primary mission.
The Russian navy is still primarily a Soviet legacy force. There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small. In terms of large surface units, the navy only operates what it was able to save during the years when it received virtually no funding.
Russia’s shipbuilding industry is not in good shape, as the delays in refitting the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier as the Indian Vikramaditya showed. The United Shipbuilding Corporation has had integration problems and some shipyards have not been modernised since the Soviet period. Additionally, certain elements of the rearmament programme could be delayed as a result of the ending of defence cooperation with Ukraine.
While the industry is not likely to meet the targets set by the current armament programme, it will probably be able to produce 50-70% of the weapons and equipment required by 2020.
Russia intends to restore its navy’s global reach, but given the time needed to renovate shipyards, develop new designs, and build large ships, the effort will not be fully launched until the 2020s. The earliest that Russia could built a new aircraft carrier is 2027, while new destroyers are still on drawing board, with the first unlikely to be commissioned for ten years.
Shipbuilding plans address the most immediate priorities, but will result in further decline of blue-water capabilities, as Soviet-era cruisers and destroyers are retired. One stopgap measure is to modernise existing Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers and Sovremennyi-class destroyers. However, the feasibility of this is questionable because of reactor problems on two of the three Kirovs and unreliable propulsion systems on the Sovremennyi ships.
The current shipbuilding focus is on several types of small surface warships designed primarily for coastal defence and sea lane protection, rather than expeditionary operations:
- Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates: 1 in sea trials, 3 under construction, 5-6 likely to be commissioned by 2020.
- Krivak IV-class frigates: Given slow pace of Gorshkov construction, building 5-6 for the Black Sea Fleet, and possibly 3 additional ships for other fleets.
- Steregushchii-class corvettes: 4 already in active service, 4 under construction; total of 18 planned by 2020. The initial project was considered relatively unsuccessful. Modernized versions are now being built with better armaments. Construction is moving quickly, but the total number built may be limited as the class is superseded by project 22160.
- Project 22160 corvettes: 6 contracted, including 2 under construction. Plans now calling for 6 more to be built. Will have greater range and be more self-sufficient than their predecessors. They can travel 6000 miles and 60 days without refueling, versus 3,500 miles and 15 days for the Steregushchii.
- Buyan and Buyan-M class corvettes for Caspian Flotilla and Black Sea Fleet: 5 in service, 1 in sea trials, 5 under construction, 1 more contracted.
- 6 Ivan Gren amphibious ships: construction started in 2004, little progress to date, first ship due in 2015, will be difficult to get more than 2-3 built by 2020.
- Mistrals: one in sea trials, one under construction in France, option for two more. Transfer may be held up due to EU sanctions. Could be used as either command ships or for amphibious attack.
Russia plans to build a total of ten Borei-class strategic submarines, with five already built or currently under construction.
These will be armed with the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile system. While eight Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarines are planned — with one already in service — only 3-4 are likely to be completed by 2020.
Diesel submarine plans include six improved Kilos and as many as 14 Ladas.
The Kilos should not present much of a problem, while construction of Ladas was suspended in 2011 because of problems with propulsion systems and hydroacoustic sensors.
Construction was recently resumed with a completely new engine. Though 14 is not a realistic target, 5-6 could be built by 2020 if the problems have actually been solved.
CONCLUSION: The Russian navy will see modest improvements in capabilities by the end of the decade, with a shift in focus away from large surface units and nuclear attack submarines, and towards frigates, corvettes and diesel submarines.
This emphasis shows that Russia does not see NATO as a realistic potential maritime opponent.
Whereas the Soviet navy focused on building ships designed to take on carrier groups, the new Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home, at least in the short term.