Russia's Navy Will Remain Strong Beyond 2000

By Norman Polmar

Battleship firepower grew during World War I and into the 1920s and 1930s as the "big three" navies—U.S., British, and Japanese—introduced successive classes of battleships carrying 12-inch guns, then 14-inch (356-mm) and 16-inch (406-mm) guns. Japan's superbattleship Yamato , completed in 1941, displaced 62,000 tons and carried nine 18.1-inch (460-mm) guns-the largest gun battery ever mounted in a warship. 2

Both the Yamato and her sister ship Musashi were sunk in 1944-45 by U.S. Navy carrier-based aircraft. The achievements of aviation in World War II and the first use of atomic bombs in 1945 ushered in a new era for naval forces. Within a decade, guided missiles and nuclear propulsion were put to sea by the U.S. Navy, soon followed by the Soviet Navy and other fleets.

This postwar decade represented a revolution in military affairs. Soviet Navy Admiral S. G. Gorshkov characterized the change in the measurement of warships when he wrote:

We have had to cease comparing the number of warships of one type or another and their total displacement (or the number of guns in a salvo or the weight of this salvo), and turn to a more complex, but also more correct, appraisal of the striking and defensive power of the ships, based on a mathematical analysis of their capabilities and qualitative characteristics. 3

Admiral Gorshkov's "mathematical analysis" would take into account a variety of warship features. Still, "firepower"—be it guns, missiles, or aircraft—remained a critical measurement of warship effectiveness in the Cold War era.

The post-Cold War, so-called information era will require a new approach to measuring naval strength, one that begins with an assessment of the following core factors:

  • Space—a navy's ability to employ satellites and other space systems effectively for ocean surveillance, targeting, communications, navigation, and other functions.
  • Command, Control, Communication, and Intelligence (C3I)—a navy's effectiveness in employing advanced, computer-based systems for command and control, communications, and intelligence collection and processing.
  • People—well-trained and motivated personnel who can man the fleet and provide the vital command and support services ashore.

These core factors will be the keys to measuring the effectiveness of navies—more important than the numbers of guns, missiles, aircraft, or even warships in a fleet. Without them, a major navy is reduced, at best, to a coastal-defense force of questionable potency.

For the Russian Navy, these core factors must be considered in the context of a hierarchy or structure for addressing naval forces. Russia—as a major political, economic, and military power—certainly requires a navy. From a Western viewpoint, the principal naval missions for the Russian Navy beyond the year 2000 could be postulated as:

  • Coastal Defense: Russia has a lengthy maritime border, which requires surveillance and patrol, to monitor and, if required, stop intrusions by foreign naval forces.
  • Strategic Deterrence: Strategic missile submarines provide an effective and highly survivable strategic defensive force. Considering the wide expanse of Russia, a mixed force of land-based missiles and missile submarines appears to offer the optimum nuclear deterrent force.
  • Forward Presence: Warships will be used to represent Russian political-military interests in the Third World. In many respects, this will be the most important role for the Russian Navy in the early 21st century. The focus will be different from that of the Cold War, when Third World operations were peripheral to the superpower confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The conduct of these naval missions will require the performance of various naval functions, including: antiair, antisubmarine, and antisurface warfare; strike (against shore targets); strategic deterrence; reconnaissance and surveillance; amphibious assault; and mine warfare. The Soviet-Russian Navy demonstrated a high degree of competence in all of these areas during the Cold War, but it is questionable whether that high level still is being maintained. Reductions in at-sea time for ships and flight time for naval aviators, the decreasing availability of munitions for training, the lack of maintenance funds, and numerous other constraints are degrading these capabilities.

In time, certain capabilities will be depleted beyond realistic value. It is unlikely that the Russian naval high command wants any capability to disappear completely, but some naval functions probably will have to be deleted, and amphibious assault—an offensive function—easily could be given up in the interest of maintaining the others. It will take very careful management of resources to ensure that at least a minimal capability is retained in the other naval functions, both for actual operations and as a basis for possible future rebuilding.

Naval functions are executed by naval forces: both manned and unmanned aircraft; surface ships; submarines; land-based systems; and space systems. The Soviet-Russian Navy put to sea impressive ships and aircraft and has developed impressive weapons and sensors. But, again, it is expensive to maintain this broad range of capabilities. Naval aviation—especially conventional carrier aircraft—is particularly costly. One must question the viability of an aviation force that for the foreseeable future will have just one large carrier—the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Sovuza Kuznetsov . A more cost-effective alternative might be to develop a force of several smaller VSTOL carriers, possibly similar in size to the British Invincible class (20,600 tons full load) or the U.S. amphibious assault ships (40,500 tons). 5

It is unlikely that Russian surface ship or submarine programs can be reduced further, except in the amphibious category. Indeed, their excellence in undersea craft indicates that this category of warships must be preserved at all costs.

Land-based forces also are important to the Russian Navy. This category includes not only land-based C3I systems and land-based naval aviation, but also certain land-based long-range or strategic missiles. Their potential use against naval forces is highly significant. Little has been said about this aspect of Russian naval forces, but there is ample evidence that from at least the early 1960s, the Soviets had considered the use of land-based ballistic missiles against surface ships and submarines. In a then-classified article published in October 1961, Admiral V. A. Kasatonov, later the First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy (1964-72), wrote:

The essence of the problem is to create effective means for the distant destruction of submarines from the air, which will make it possible to employ for their destruction the most effective modern means of destruction-missiles with nuclear charges launched from submarines, aircraft, and ships and possibly also from shore launching mounts. 6

In this and possibly other areas, land-based forces may be able to support naval operations to a far greater degree than in the past.

In addition, space activities will be increasingly important in naval operations. No modern navy can operate without the extensive use of space, nor without competent and comprehensive C3I systems. Virtually all naval activities are dependent on these core factors. Again, the Soviet-Russian expertise in this area must be continued and exploited for naval use. Of particular significance is detection and targeting of surface ships by satellites, and possibly the detection and targeting of submarines. 7

To judge from recent articles in the Russian press, Russian military planners know that the capability to wage electronic warfare and information warfare already are of great importance—and will continue to increase in significance. 8 In light of past Soviet successes, Russia's potential opponents should consider the possibility that their most secure communications could be jammed, altered, or read covertly. 9

Finally, people will be the key to the effectiveness of the future Russian Navy. The funding problems that plague the Russian military establishment as a whole have limited the Navy's ability to recruit, train, and pay its personnel—both officer and enlisted—and effectiveness already is suffering. At the end of the Cold War the Soviet Navy totaled some 450,000 men (including 34,000 Marines and coastal troops). 10 Today, the Russian Navy has about 270,000 men, which is estimated to include approximately 150,000 personnel actually manning the fleet.

These personnel man 500 combatant ships and the various supporting forces and activities, but at only 75% of requirements. To attain 100% manning, 360,000 personnel would be needed. 11 This clearly is impossible in the near term. The impact of this situation is seen in Table 1.


Table 1: Russian Naval Combat Strength


Missile Submarines

Other Submarines

Surface Warships

Combat Aircraft

Marines / Coastal Troops














Fulfilling all of the naval missions described earlier will, for a great state, require more submarines, surface ships, and naval aircraft than indicated for a force of 150,000 men. This, then, is the greatest challenge for the Russian Navy's leadership-building an effective personnel foundation for the 21st century. In addition to convincing the nation's leaders of the need for an effective navy, it must be the Russian Navy's highest priority.

1 The Furious had her 18-inch gun removed in 1917 and a separate flight deck was installed amidships (with her centerline superstructure being retained).

2 Subsequently, a full flight deck was installed. 2The largest U.S. battleships were the four ships of the low-a (BB-61) class, completed in 1943-44. they displaced 45.000 tons standard and carried nine 16inch guns.

3 Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union S. G. Gorshkov, "Navies in War and in Peace," .Morskoy shorn/k (No. 2, 1972).

4 The relatively high cost and relative limitations and vulnerabilities of manned-bomber aircraft in the strategic role severely reduce the viability of manned aircraft in the strategic role.

5 The Kuznetsov has a full-load displacement of 67,500 tons; the one-of-a-kind VSTOL carrier Gorshkov displaces 44,500 tons. Only slightly larger than the U.S. LHA/LHD helicopter/VSTOL carriers, the Gorshkov has much heavier weapons and sensor suites.

6 Adm. V. A. Kasatonov, "On the Problem of the Navy and Methods for Resolving Them," noted by Capt. Harlan Ullman, USN, in "The Counter-Polaris Task" in Soviet Naval Policy: Objectives and Constraints, ed. Michael McGwire, et al. (New York: Praeger,1975), pp. 585-600. An excellent exposition on the use of land-based missiles against naval forces is Raymond A. Robinson, "Incoming Ballistic Missiles at Sea," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (June 1987), pp. 67-71.

7 See Hung P. Nguyen, Submarine Detection from Space: A Study of Russian Capabilities (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

8 See, for example, Major D. Pozhidayev, "General Problems," Zarubezhnoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (Moscow) (No. 1996), pp. 2-4.

9 U.S. naval-military C3I has been compromised by a long list of traitors, among them Ronald Pelton, John A. Walker, and Jerry Whitworth. These men, whose treachery was disclosed in the 1980s, and others had provided the Soviet Union with extensive information on C3I systems and procedures. See Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Spy Book (New York: Random House, 1997).

10 At the time, the U.S. Navy had 582,900 personnel, plus a Marine Corps of 196,700.

11 All Russian personnel data are from Capt. 2nd Rank S. Gorbachev, "We Were a Great Naval Power. Will We Remain One?" Flag Rodiny (Sevastopol) (11 June 1996), p. 2.

Mr. Polmar is a distinguished defense analyst, author of Guide to the Russian Armed Forces and The Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet , and a regular columnist in Proceedings .

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is based on a paper presented at a recent international conference sponsored by the Studies and Analysis Group of the Swedish Ministry of Defence.


Norman Polmar is an internationally known analyst, consultant, and award-winning author specializing in the naval, aviation, and intelligence areas. He has participated in or directed major studies in these areas for the U.S. Department of Defense and Navy, and served as a consultant to U.S. and foreign commercial firms and government agencies. He has been an advisor or consultant on naval issues to three U.S. Secretaries of the Navy and two Chiefs of Naval Operations, as well as to three U.S. Senators and a Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is the author or coauthor of more than 50 published books, including nine editions of Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet and four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy as well as U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Ship Killer, and Project Azorian. Mr. Polmar is a columnist for the Proceedings and Naval History magazines. He is a resident of Alexandria, VA.

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