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Part II: A Restored Navy

A Restored Navy – Much Better Submarines, Same Game  

Moscow envisions a dual fleet concept for its Navy. The blue water expeditionary components of the Russian Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and Black Sea fleets are based on the nuclear submarine and allow Russia to project power across the world’s oceans. Green water components of the Northern, Baltic, Pacific, and Black Sea fleets and the Caspian Flotilla are responsible for patrolling Russia’s coasts.

The expeditionary component of the Russian Navy will be able to support the deployment of Russian troops abroad, much like the U.S. Navy supports the deployment of American troops abroad. If the Kremlin chooses to initiate a war far away from Russia’s borders, then a blue-water Navy will be required. In fact, Russia’s recent intervention in Syria required the deployment of the Black Sea Fleet into the Mediterranean Sea to conduct cruise missile strikes on rebel groups inland, and the Fleet was further used to rapidly move troops and supplies to Russia’s regional bases in Syria from Black Sea port facilities at Sevastopol. A high priority for the blue water fleet will be dominating the Arctic Ocean, which the Kremlin is increasingly treating like a Russian lake.

Russia’s green-water capability, which defends Russia’s coastal waters, is based on frigates, corvettes, and other small vessels that are inexpensive to procure and can be produced without constructing new dry-docks and other large-scale ship-building facilities. In addition to nuclear submarines, the surface component of Russia’s blue-water expeditionary fleet consists of primarily large, legacy Soviet vessels updated with modern hardware and standoff weapons like the 3M54 Kalibr and P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles, and the 3M22 Zircon hyper-sonic missile. 

While the Russian Navy received the lion’s share of funding under GPV 2020, it has experienced setbacks. Due to a reliance on legacy Soviet-era manufacturing facilities, Ukraine was an important partner for the Russian military-industrial complex, providing the Russian Armed Services with gas turbines for ships, helicopters, and transport planes. In addition, Ukraine was so integrated into Russian strategic planning that Ukrainian technicians were responsible for performing ballistic missile maintenance tasks. In fact, much of the steel used to build the Soviet Navy came from Ukraine. However, the Russian Annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for insurgencies in Donbas led Kyiv to terminate all arms, military systems, hardware, and support deliveries to Russia. Combined with the poor condition of Russian naval shipyards, a halt to all military imports from Ukraine has hobbled the production of large surface combatant vessels in GPV 2020. 

Like the Soviet Navy, Russia’s blue-water expeditionary fleets are based on the nuclear submarine. The impressive (and expensive) Yasen-class cruise missile/attack submarine is now in production, with two already at sea and another five on order. The Yasen-class has proven to be highly capable and is at functional parity with Western competitors. Naval planners have chosen to keep the venerable Shchuka B-class (NATO-designated Akula) attack submarines operational for at least another decade. They are being rotated through shipyards for modernization. Russian naval planners will likely maintain 7 or 8 active Shchuka-Bs when modernization efforts are complete. The Antey-class (NATO-designated Oscar II) cruise missile submarines are also being modernized and will likely be fielded in similar numbers to the Shchuka-B. Under GPV 2027, planning and development of a successor to the Yasen-class (dubbed the Huskey-class by the media) is ongoing. However, it’s unlikely to enter production by 2027, particularly given the success (and expense) of the Yasen-class, the deprioritization of Naval expenditures and increasing fiscal constraints on the Russian State.

The 3M22 Zircon anti-ship missile was successfully test-fired from a Yasen-class submarine on 04 October 2021. The vessel fired from a surfaced position in the Barents Sea. The Zircon is a scramjet-powered maneuverable hypersonic cruise missile. Though designed primarily for penetrating Aegis missile defenses surrounding American Nimitz and Ford-class supercarriers, the Zircon can also be deployed against land targets. The Zircon has also been successfully test-fired from Gorshkov-class frigates. While Russian defense industries are struggling to produce such technically sophisticated and complex weapon systems in large numbers and at an acceptable cost, contracts have been signed for the delivery of a limited number of Zircon missiles to the fleet.

The surface component of the blue-water expeditionary fleets consists of large, modernized Soviet-era ships. Two massive Kirov-class battlecruisers are being given service life extensions. They will form the backbone of their respective surface fleets. The Admiral Nakhimov is currently in shipyards for refit and modernization. When its modernization is complete, it will join the Pacific Fleet while its sister ship, the Pyotr Velikiy, returns from the Northern Fleet to undergo the same process. Slava-class cruisers, Sovermennyi-class destroyers, and Udaloy-class anti-submarine warfare destroyers constitute the majority of blue-water surface combatants. The heir-apparent workhorse of the Russian Navy is the smaller Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate, which was put into production to replace the older Sovremenny-class destroyers and Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers as a multi-role vessel capable of long-range patrols, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and escort missions. This is likely a stretch for the smaller Gorshkov’s capabilities, but Russia can produce them in sufficient numbers and is continuing to further enhance them throughout the procurement process. Currently, there are two Gorshkovs active, one undergoing sea trials, five under construction, and another 15 planned. A “super-Gorshkov” weighing in at 8,000 tons is also under development, and it can support more extended endurance missions on the open ocean. The Russian Navy requires 20-30 ships of the class. 

Production of the new Lider-class destroyers has been delayed due to additional sanctions on gas turbine deliveries from Germany (in addition to Ukraine’s many military-industrial export bans for Russia). New proposed variants would utilize a nuclear reactor, partially due to the low quality and availability of replacement marine turbines. The Lider-class multi-role destroyer was designed to become the backbone of the Russian surface fleet, delivering all the capabilities of a destroyer, anti-submarine warfare destroyer, and guided missile cruiser (designed to replace Sovremenny-class destroyers, Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, and Slava-class cruisers in a single platform). With each vessel carrying a complement of over 200 missiles, they would have comparable firepower to the massive Kirov-class battlecruisers, despite being much smaller and less costly to maintain (though each vessel is estimated to cost an astronomical $1.25 billion). A dearth of available shipyards for 20,000+ ton vessels has caused production to be postponed indefinitely. Difficulties in replacing imported marine gas turbines have also created delays in the corvette and frigate procurement.

The Admiral Kuznetsoz aircraft carrier remains a symbolic but impractical component of the Russian surface fleet. The Soviet Navy classified the Kuznetsov as a “heavy aircraft-carrying guided missile cruiser,” rather than a fleet-carrier. It was complemented with a large array of cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles for exactly that purpose. Admiral Kuznetsov’s role in naval air superiority remains unrealistic as it faces competition from larger, better equipped, better protected, and more sophisticated Western fleet-carriers and super-carriers. 

Cold War planners intended for the Kuznetsov and the smaller Kiev-class carriers (now decommissioned) to check NATO air supremacy. These carriers offered some measure of protection to surface vessels and the submarine fleet when operating in deep water. Unfortunately, the Kuznetsov proved cumbersome, expensive to maintain, and a liability to combat operations during the Syrian Intervention. Nevertheless, as a symbol of national pride, the Russian Navy is making every attempt to refit the vessel and keep it active until a more credible carrier can be procured. The Kuznetsov currently supports a squadron of 24 Mig-29K multi-role fighters, which are being phased in to replace older Su-33s (their service life ended in 2015). There have been proposals to revive the Ulyanovsk-class supercarrier design from the Soviet era, but Russia lacks the shipyards for large surface ships and would likely have to build entirely new naval shipyards for such a large undertaking. The lack of credible naval aviation continues to be an Achilles Heel for the Russian Navy.

In 2011, prior to the Annexation of Crimea, the Russian Ministry of Defense ordered two Mistral-class Amphibious Assault Ships from France. As these vessels were expected to exceed 20,000 tons, it was unlikely that Russian shipyards were capable of the construction in 2011. But after the Crimean Annexation, France voided the contract and returned Moscow’s deposit. As a result, Russian military planners immediately began searching for an alternative means of procurement. Naval architects designed the 30,000+ ton Priboy-class helicopter assault ships as a replacement and began searching for shipyards capable of supporting the project. In May 2020, it was announced that Russia had signed a contract with Zaliv Shipyards in Kerch, Crimea to deliver two vessels in 2026 and 2027, respectively. 

This is an ambitious undertaking for a shipyard that has not committed to a project of this scale since Soviet times (the nuclear-powered icebreaker container ship Sevmorput launched in 1988 was 38,000 tons). Zaliv Shipyards has specialized in building container ships and tankers since the 1960s, but Russia has increasingly harnessed it to produce small surface combatants (corvettes, frigates, and smaller coastal patrol craft). Production of the Priboy-class helicopter assault ships is another example of “making it work” with existing facilities, infrastructure, and personnel, which has typified post-Soviet military modernizations. If the Priboy-class vessels prove a success, the Lider-class multi-role destroyers may also be produced at Zaliv Shipyards, provided Moscow has sufficient funds for procurement over the next decade.  

The green-water fleets are a mix of small, modernized legacy vessels and new coastal vessels, generally categorized as frigates, corvettes, or small destroyers. Green-water fleets conduct littoral zone operations, engage enemy submarines and surface ships, and offer gun support for landing operations. Russia currently maintains four Krivak-class frigates in active service. The Steregushchiy-class corvette is the new workhorse of the green fleet. There are nine vessels active and three more under construction. The debuting Gremyashchiy-class are enhanced Steregushchiy-class corvettes with increased habitability for long-duration missions and the ability to launch Kalibr land-attack and P-800 Oniks anti-ship cruise missiles. Currently, there is one active vessel, one vessel undergoing sea trials, and four vessels under construction. In addition, the Admiral Grigorovich-class, an enhanced Krivak-class frigate, is being procured for both the Russian and Indian Navies. Russia is producing the Grigorovich at the Kaliningrad shipyards. There are currently three active and another three in production. The Grigorovich-class will serve as a lower-cost stop-gap measure until the Gorshkovs can be produced in sufficient numbers. The Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate will replace Burevestnik-class frigates in littoral zone operations, coastal patrolling, and its blue-water duties. 

Diesel-electric submarines will, by nature, be forced to remain close to Russian shores, and thus belong with the green fleets. However, they are also being used in an expeditionary capacity, where such operations don’t force them to operate beyond the envelope of shore-based air cover. A recent example was their role in Syria, where they bombarded inland targets with cruise missiles. The Varshavyanka-class (NATO-designated Kilo-class) diesel-electric submarines have played a larger role in Syria than the Admiral Kuznetsov fleet carrier. Diesel-electric submarines have been a bright spot in otherwise struggling naval ship production. 

An enhanced/improved variant of the Varshavyanka-class (NATO-designated Kilo-class) diesel-electric submarines have exceeded production goals set under GPV 2020. Six have joined the Black Sea Fleet alone since 2016, and another six were delivered to the Pacific Fleet by the end of 2019. An export version of the Varshavyanka submarines is also now in use in Venezuelan, Indian, Polish, Romanian, Vietnamese, Algerian, Chinese and Iranian navies, offering foreign purchasers a high quality, low maintenance, ultra-quiet submarine that can deliver Kalibr and P-800 Oniks cruise missiles on either surface or inland targets without detection. Though the enhanced Varshavyanka-class will likely remain in production to export for many years, the Russian Navy is moving ahead with its new Lada-class (NATO-designated St. Petersburg-class) diesel-electric submarines. The Ladas are smaller and quieter than the Varshavyankas, designed for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, defense of shore and sea lanes, and reconnaissance. The Ladas feature an air-independent propulsion system in addition to their onboard complement of batteries; however, in sea trials the air-independent propulsion has been an abject failure. The Russian Navy continues to try to salvage the program, but it is clear that the Lada-class suffers from poor engineering. GPV 2027 also includes the development of the Kalina-class diesel-electric submarine. It’s unlikely that any Kalinas will go into active service by 2027, but they are intended to replace the Varshavyanka and Lada classes. 

The GPV 2020 and 2027 procurements are attempting to remake the Russian Navy into a formidable blue-water maritime force that can project power globally. The Kremlin will continue to improve the military-industrial complex. When large drydocks are once again available to support the construction of large surface vessels, Russia will begin retiring Soviet legacy ships and introducing brand new vessels like the Lider-class destroyers. Moscow also deeply desires a credible super-carrier that features 5th-generation fighter aircraft.

Establishing a global logistics and supply system is the most significant obstacle to a true blue-water navy. Russia is investing in fleets that can fight in deep water, particularly in the Arctic, Pacific, and Northern Atlantic. First, however, Moscow must establish a global network of bases and supply points to credibly project power like the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, or French Marine. 

Russia maintains its Tartus naval base in Syria, the Cam Rahn naval base in Vietnam, and a small facility in Port Sudan. Moscow may also support the Libyan GNA to secure a naval facility in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow is also exploring plans to build naval bases in Eritrea, Madagascar, and Mozambique. This would establish invaluable logistics points along the east coast of Africa, granting access to a dozen frontier economies and guaranteeing that the Russian Navy can project power deep into the Indian Ocean.  

Many defense experts have expressed concern that Russia may establish naval facilities in Latin America as well. Moscow maintains cordial diplomatic relations with any and all Latin American countries with populist anti-American politics, including: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Argentina. A permanent Russian naval presence in the western hemisphere would be an endless strategic headache for the United States. However, overseas naval installations are expensive to build and even more expensive to keep operational. The Tartus Naval Facility has been active for decades, but it remains a backwater installation rather than a hub for projecting real naval power. Whether such ambitions are truly within Russia’s reach remains to be seen.