Opinion: Russia's reducing naval might
The Russian Navy has unveiled its latest plans to build two helicopter carriers (LPH) over the next 10 years, which will form the basis of a new amphibious force. These plans, on paper at least, are just part of a much larger ambitious programme of naval construction that, if completed, would see Russia introduce a varied range of ships into service including multiple new cruisers, additional escorts and several aircraft carriers in order to retain its status as a blue water navy.
On paper, and in model form at least, the Russian Navy has one of the most ambitious shipbuilding programmes in the world. Whether it will actually deliver anything though is a more difficult question to answer.
In the last 10 years for example Russia has suggested it is building an up to 100,000t aircraft carrier (putatively known as the Shtorm class), a class of at least 12 15,000t 200m-long nuclear-powered destroyers known as the Lider class to enter service in the early 2020s and at least 12 Yasen-class nuclear submarines.
Despite these ambitious plans to rebuild a stronger naval presence following a decline after the Cold War, Shephard Plus analysis of current Russian naval procurement shows that it is submarines and the smaller ship classes such as the Project 22350 and 22380 frigates and Project 22800 corvettes that will in fact be the focus for procurement in the near term.
Over the next two to three years, Russia is expected to commission the remaining two Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) ships and both Gremyashcy-class (Project 20285) ships, while 17 new Karakurt-class (Project 22800) are expected to be commissioned by 2026 with a further seven Buyan-M class (Project 21631) making up the majority of Russia’s new modernised fleet.
This stands in stark contrast to funding for new large ship starts, which appears to have dropped down the priority list, with the recent State Armament Programme (GPV) 2018-2027 making no provision to build new large combatants before 2025.
So despite the impressive promises of delivery of various ship types, these have yet to physically manifest themselves into any form of practical construction. Of all of this work announced above, only one submarine has actually entered service, while construction has yet to begin on the carrier or destroyers. The current approach appears to be to announce an intention to grow the Russian Navy by delivering a project in a clearly specified timeline, produce some impressive models and then go remarkably quiet about progress.
There is a growing disconnect between the aspirational plans to introduce new ship types into service, their delivery dates coming and going, and the ongoing ability to sustain a sea going force for the medium term.
The reality facing the Russian Navy is that it is an increasingly elderly fleet built around a core of Soviet era vessels such as the Slava-class cruisers and the Udaloy-class destroyers. These vessels are capable, but as they age will require increasing amounts of repair and maintenance to remain seaworthy and operational. The sole Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetzov now appears to be on the verge of being deleted from service following major damage sustained in dry dock, leaving Russia without any major carrier in service.
The submarine service appears to be faring little better. Despite grand aspiration, for example the 2011-20 State Arms Programme called for the delivery of 24 new submarines of which very few have been delivered, there appears to be a disconnect between aspiration and reality. Submarine construction is proceeding slowly, with a trickle of vessels entering service compared to projected plans.
It is not just the age of the force that matters, but the wider ability of the Russian state to design and build the next generation of vessels. The ability to design and build complex warships and submarines is a quickly perishable skill, as the UK found out in the 1990s with delays to the Astute class programme as a result of skills fade.
In the case of Russia, the continued failure to design and deliver ships will make it ever harder to regenerate and retain the skills needed to build the next generation. It is now 30 years since Russia last built an aircraft carrier or new cruiser design. Fairly soon there will be no one left in the workforce with any practical first-hand experience of this process. An entire generation will have missed out, leading to a skills gap that may take many years to recover, if at all.
Of concern too is the ongoing conflict with the Ukraine, which previously was responsible for the manufacture of engines for major Russian surface ships. This supply has now been cut off, leaving several ships under construction for the Russian navy reportedly without any engines fitted.
With this situation unlikely to change in the near term, Russia needs to quickly move to establish a credible new source of engine suppliers and do so against the backdrop of challenging economic conditions and sanctions. While some reports indicate that a new indigenous supplier may have been set up, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to produce desperately needed engines for the fleet.
This problem is also felt in the gradual loss of customers for export orders for Russian designed and built vessels. While during the Cold War there was a global market for Soviet escorts and submarines, particularly to India and China, this appears to have significantly dried up.
The Chinese Navy is now producing its own indigenous designs at a faster rate than Russia can produce, and is quickly cornering the market for cheap and simple naval platforms in many countries that used to rely on Russian platforms. The Indian Navy had an extremely negative experience with the sale and conversion of the carrier Admiral Gorshkov, which was heavily delayed and costs rose from $400 million to over $2.3 billion to complete. Although there are still close relations between the two navies, over time it is possible to see India diversifying suppliers and relying on indigenous designs.
The medium-term prospects for Russian exports look increasingly bleak, as they lose ground to competitor nations to win orders in previously secure markets, which in turn impact on the sustainability of the defence industry and ability to support construction for their own navy.
The risk for the Russian Navy is that it faces a future where despite the aspiration to be a truly blue water force, built around carriers, major surface ships and submarines, it is instead facing ‘rust out’ and a decline into being primarily a coastal state navy.
For Russian policy makers and admirals alike, the challenge will be to work out how to employ a navy that operationally at least will be constrained by geography (particularly in the Baltic and Black Sea) and is hugely reliant on a limited number of overseas bases to support its operations (for example in Syria).
While there may be the occasional individual deployment going to locations like the Gulf or Indian Ocean, the cold war heyday of a truly significant blue water force deployed across the globe seem to have gone forever. Instead the future seems likely to be built around a smaller force of corvettes and offshore patrol vessels, able to aggressively protect Russian waters, and operate in the littoral, but be realistically unable to compete against a peer NATO threat in the open ocean.
This is not to write off Russian sea power, which remains a formidable regional asset, as seen off the coast of Syria, where Russian vessels maintained a reasonably effective presence for some time. But it is notable that the core of the deployments was built around the elderly Cold War fleet, and not newer more modern construction. Where it was deployed, the service experienced challenges, ranging from the Admiral Kuznetzov losing several aircraft in crashes, to at least one vessel being towed back after breaking down.
The future operational posture of the Russian Navy is likely to be built around three core themes. Firstly, providing surface support in the margins of land operations – e.g. Syria or the Black Sea, with easy support to shore bases and repair facilities. Secondly, the provision of a small but capable nuclear submarine force capable of posing a credible threat to Western ballistic missile submarines and shipping, and maintaining their own SSBN force. Finally the delivery of nice ‘covert operation’ capabilities, such as the so-called research ship Yantar and the highly specialist submarine force, exemplified by the Losharik submarine (which recently suffered a major incident at sea killing multiple sailors) that can focus on delivery of covert effects such as cable cutting or delivery of saboteurs and mines.
This force plays well into Russian aspirations, in that it regards maritime power as something that is fundamentally there to be used to support the land environment (not dissimilar to the experiences of the Soviet Navy in WWII), rather than an independent blue water force to spread Russian influence and power as envisaged by Gorhskov. At the same time the submarine and covert action capability will help support the Russian form of hybrid warfare, delivering a variety of effects short of outright war.
The result is likely to be a force that is numerically smaller than it is now, and probably less capable. Russia has traditionally been keen to run on older military equipment (witness for instance the retention for decades of WWII era stockpiles as reserves). Expect to see Russia try to run on for as long as possible its older vessels, while eventually replacing them with far fewer ships.
The challenge for Russia will be to keep the skill base alive to build, repair and refit vessels in the medium term as sanctions bite and practical experience drops away. Ensuring the long-term survivability of the Russian defence industry is going to be essential for the ability of Russia to maintain a navy credible enough to meet its foreign policy goals.