Russia's Navy Remains in Decline

By Richard F. Staar

A caveat: One must be careful in accepting such Russian "facts" at face value. The true relative strengths are not at all as represented. In fact, Sweden has 10 submarines, no major surface combatants, and 31 patrol or coastal combatants. Russia's Baltic Fleet comprises 6 submarines, 25 major surface combatants, and 31 patrol or coastal combatants. Hence, Sweden is not "twice as strong as Russia in the Baltic."

Germany has 16 submarines, IS major surface combatants, and 34 patrol or coastal combatants. It does not appear that Germany is four times more powerful. Turkey (some in the Black Sea, some in the Aegean) has 15 submarines, 21 major surface combatants, and 50 patrol or coastal combatants. Russia's Black Sea Fleet includes 11 submarines, 25 major surface combatants, and 25 patrol or coastal combatants. Therefore, Turkey does not have twice the naval power of Russia.

Japan has 16 torpedo-launching submarines, 58 major surface combatants, and 6 patrol or coastal combatants. Russia's Pacific Fleet has 28 torpedo-launching submarines (2 SSGNs, 14 SSNs, and 8 SSs), 39 major surface combatants, and 35 patrol or coastal combatants. Thus, in the Pacific, Japan does not maintain the same number of torpedo-launching submarines as Russia.

A former first deputy commander of the Russian Navy laments that only two nuclear-powered submarines were under construction during calendar year 1997, whereas more than 100 had been retired from the fleet. He suggested that reform include the following:

  • Retention of ships and naval aircraft as the combat nucleus during a 15- to 20-year federal building program
  • A quantitative development of nuclear forces, with a balanced rebuilding of all naval aspects
  • Preservation of existing units (submarines, surface ships, aviation, and naval infantry) for all fleets
  • Maintenance of the Navy's infrastructure

Another admiral predicted that at the beginning of the 21st century, Russia will have only six to eight nuclear powered submarines that are armed with submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Among surface combatants, 1 aircraft carrier, 2 or 3 guided missile frigates, 7 to 10 destroyers, about 30 minesweepers, and 30 to 40 missile-launching patrol boats will remain. The admiral also recommended a holding operation until new generations of naval ships can be built and deployed.

On 7 November 1997, some 12 of the 56 depots storing mines and torpedoes near Vladivostok exploded the fifth such major accidental explosion in as many years. The next day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin dismissed the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Felix N. Gromov. The Navy's new head is Vladimir I. Kuroedov, formerly First Deputy Commanding Officer, who earlier had commanded the Pacific Fleet. Born in 1944, he is a graduate of the General Staff Academy and has held various assignments in command positions.

Four Fleets and One Flotilla

Pacific Fleet . On 5 December 1996, Admiral Kuroedov, then commander of the Pacific Fleet, complained that the number of his ships had dropped from 335 to 140 over the preceding four years. Among those remaining is the guided-missile destroyer and flagship Variag , which made a 16-day cruise and a port call at Inchon, Republic of Korea, to commemorate the February 1904 battle with the Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Straits. Two weeks of maneuvers with more than 40 surface vessels, several nuclear-powered submarines, about 30 smaller ships, and more than 30 aircraft, as well as naval infantry, reportedly fulfilled 200 assigned military tasks.

Northern Fleet . Similar exercises were held near the Kola Peninsula, with the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov , powered by four steam turbines—the only such warship in the Russian Navy. According to the fleet commander, first strikes in a future war will be launched with cruise missiles from submarines as well as from surface ships—the center of warfare will have moved to the seas. The Northern Fleet is considered to be the most powerful of all such Russian formations. In terms of manpower, it is about the same as the Pacific Fleet.

The largest naval exercise since collapse of the Soviet Union, held in March 1996, was code-named "Redoubt96" and involved 13 submarines, 16 surface combatants, and more than 40 aircraft. The Kuznetsov , with escorts, represented an enemy force approaching the northern fortress. Coordinated multi-axis strikes were designed to overwhelm the carrier battle group. The current strategy of a multilayered defense replicates that espoused in the former Soviet Union.

Baltic Fleet . This unique and oldest of all Russian navies absorbed under its command, as of 1 December 1997, the 11th Guards Army, which had been stationed in the former Kaliningrad Special District. The Navy disposed of Baltiisk and Kronshtadt naval bases. The frigate Nastoichiv recently made a 20,000-mile cruise around Europe and Asia. The Baltic Fleet commander claims that 96% of his officers' billets are filled. During the past six years, the fleet has been cut back to about 30,000 men, which involved most recently some 6,000 officers being discharged into reserve status. In mid-November 1996, the new heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Velik sailed from Kronshtadt near St. Petersburg to Baltiisk as the new fleet flagship.

Black Sea Fleet . On 3 October 1992, at Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula, an understanding was reached in principle to divide the Black Sea fleet between Russia and Ukraine. Three years later, Boris Yeltsin and his counterpart Leonid Kuchma finally agreed on the details. It took another two years for a decision on transfer of certain ships, port facilities, etc., to the Ukrainians. Russia now has two major bases, one at Sevastopol in the Crimea (leased) and one at Novorossiisk. It also deploys two warships "on permanent patrol" in the Mediterranean. The first joint naval exercise took place during early November 1997 with about 3,000 Russian and Ukrainian sailors on 29 warships and 16 aircraft under the code name "Fairway to Peace '97." Reportedly, there will be no general cuts in the Black Sea Fleet, which has only 22,000 officers and men.

Caspian Sea Flotilla . Bordered by Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, this land-locked salt-water sea is important because of its oil and natural gas deposits. The three former Soviet republics, especially Azerbaijan, are not necessarily friendly toward Moscow, which maintains its flotilla base as well as naval infantry units at Makhachkala. These other littoral states dispose of 50 patrol and coast-guard vessels (Iran); coast guard launches, amphibious landing craft, minesweepers, and trawlers, plus one missile-launching patrol boat (Azerbaijan); coast guard ships, trawlers, and two modern amphibious landing craft on air cushions (Turkmenistan); and 12 patrol boats from the U.S. and Germany, as well as support craft (Kazakhstan). Of the five flotillas that had existed in 1991, only the Caspian apparently remains viable today.

Increasing Role of Submarines

Russia's strategic submarine (SSBN) force is assuming an ever-greater role in the country's deterrence posture. Currently, 29% of all nuclear warheads are carried on these warships; by 2010, they will carry 62%. Over the next several years, operational submarines will drop to fewer than 100 (including those in mothballs). About two new submarines per year will be launched, such as the latest Akula II, Delta IV, Oscar II, Typhoon, and Severodvinsk . Surface ships will continue to be produced, although primarily for export.

During 21-30 September 1997, an Oscar II guidedmissile submarine cruised about 100 miles off the state of Washington. It is reported to have been within striking distance of three U.S. aircraft carriers: the USS Constellation (CV-64), the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), and the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). This attack submarine is designed to sink aircraft carriers. It carries 24 SSN-19 cruise missiles as well as long-range torpedoes, both of which can be armed either with high-explosive or with nuclear warheads. The submarine returned to its base at Petropavlovsk Kamchatsk in Russia's Far East on 1 November 1997.

Danger from Radioactivity

The two most explosive regions in Russia today are centered around naval installations of the Northern and Pacific fleets. Radioactive leakage through micro-cracks in the hulls of tankers used for storing such waste is already entering Pavlovsk Bay and the Gulf of Strelki in the maritime region of the Far East. Solid waste in the past had been transferred for dumping in the burial grounds on Novaya Zemlya. This was discontinued more than two years ago.

The area around Vladivostok is contaminated with both heavy metal (cadmium, cobalt, arsenic, mercury) and radioactive waste. Until 1993, this waste was being dumped into the Sea of Japan. Tokyo offered $100 million toward construction of a liquid radioactive disposal facility. It would take 20 to 30 years, at the rate of two to three ships per year, to dispose of the 61 nuclear submarines in line for such service.

The Northern Fleet has even greater problems. As of last year, about 80 radioactive sites had been detected in dump areas that were already 100% full. Used liquid nuclear fuel from submarine reactors, after separation from the hard waste, could be transported out of the Andreeva Guba site, which dates back to 1957. It would take more than a decade to remove the liquid and for construction of a sarcophagus to store the hard waste.

One must add to the 140 retired nuclear-powered submarines from the Northern and Pacific fleets that currently are waiting to be cut up, another 120 that by treaty must be taken out of service by the year 2000. The Soviet Union had spent about $500 billion to expand this category of weapon systems. One dangerous byproduct involved accidents that led to the sinking of:

  • The K-129 in 6,000 meters of water near Hawaii (1968); nuclear weapons removed by the Glomar Explorer , 1974
  • The K-8 in 4,000 meters off Spain and France (1972); 2 reactors and 12 nuclear weapons on board
  • The K-219 in 5,500 meters near Bermuda (1986); with 50 nuclear warheads on board
  • The Komsomolets in 1,685 meters off Norway (1989); 116 kgs. of reactor uranium, two torpedo nuclear warheads, and more than six kgs. of plutonium-239 on board.

These nuclear graveyards could explode or be robbed. Some 80% of Norwegian fish for export are caught in the region where the Komsomolets rests. The Russians claim they have no money for salvage operations. Will the West step in? If not, the consequences may become too terrifying to contemplate.


When comparing navies, one should note that the one Russian carrier group represents only a pale image of a U.S. Navy Nimitz -class carrier battle group. Each nuclear powered carrier has 50 F-14s and F-18s plus 27 other aircraft and helicopters. Escorts include two cruisers, four destroyers, three frigates, and two attack submarines for each carrier group. All of these U.S. ships, except the frigates, carry cruise missiles with a range of 500 miles.

We should anticipate that the Russian fleets' capabilities will weaken further and become incapable of anything more than coastal defense. Certainly the aspirations to a blue-water navy belong to the past. Nevertheless, one should not forget the strategic nuclear-powered submarines, which will continue to be produced with improvements and modifications. Today, the Russian Navy still operates 40 SSBNs that carry 584 SLBMs.

From this strategic point of view, a former First Deputy Defense Minister and current head of the recently established State Military Inspectorate, as well as Secretary of the Defense Council, emphasized that the major focus should be establishment of a "northern strategic bastion" on the Kola Peninsula. He further contends that a naval presence must be maintained, "usually temporary, in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf."

The steady depletion in size and manpower of the Russian Navy because of economic problems have caused Russia to become a less formidable naval power.

Dr. Staar , a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford, is visiting research professor of international relations at Boston University and associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard (1997-99). He is author of The New Military in Russia: Ten Myths that Shape the Image (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).


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