Remnants of the once great Soviet fleet still comprise much of the Russian Navy. Here the Black Sea Fleet Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyy, in service since 1969, belches smoke heading through the Turkish straits. (Cem Devrim Yaylal)
The surface combatants in today’s Russian Navy are an eclectic mix of mostly Soviet-era designs built in the 1980s and early 1990s—from guided-missile cruisers to a host of small missile boats, frigates, corvettes, and legacy flotsam inherited by the five fleets.1
The Russian Navy still has “capital ships”—including the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Petr Velikiy and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, which recently made her combat debut off Syria.2 Similarly, three Slava-class missile cruisers are in service, as well as at least two operational Sovremenny-class destroyers, and eight Udaloy-class large antisubmarine ships. But after this short listing of major warships, one begins to count the smaller, lesser ships and craft. Two Neustrashimyy-class frigates in the Baltic and a pair of Krivak frigates assigned to the Black Sea Fleet bring up the rear guard, together with two newer Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three of the Admiral Grigorovich design. Perhaps another 60 corvettes, patrol boats, and missile boats—many with advanced missiles—round out the current surface forces. Thus sails the remnants of the massive, ocean-going fleet built by Admiral Sergei G. Gorshkov.
For the past two decades, the Russian Navy’s principal purpose has been status projection, showing the flag to demonstrate Russia as a great power outside its land boundaries. Squadrons of two or three ships—sometimes including the Petr Velikiy—typically would undertake port visits or exercises, always with a tanker and a tug in escort, given the frequency of breakdowns among Soviet-era ships.
Indeed, some of today’s Russian Navy ships are akin to floating naval museums: the Smetlivyy, a Kashin-class guided-missile destroyer, launched in 1968, is still in service. Despite being overhauled in the 1990s, she impresses no one. Russia’s amphibious ships also suffer from aging. The Ivan Gren-class tank landing ships (LSTs), intended to replace the aging Alligator and Ropucha classes, so far number only one ship, with only one other yet laid down. The first ship of the class took 12 years from laying the keel to entering service. The Alligators and Ropuchas now vary in age from 25 to nearly 50 years. Remarkably, with life extensions and modernization, these LSTs remain in service and are supporting Russian forces fighting in Syria. They should not be underestimated. In fact, five landing ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet demonstrated the ability to land a battalion during exercises in Crimea as recently as September 2016. The two French-built Mistral-class helicopter-carrying landing ships (LHAs) were embargoed after the Russian seizure of Crimea and have been sold to Egypt.
The Russian Navy’s vision for next-generation warships began with corvette and frigate construction programs—in part because they are ships Russian shipyards still can produce in significant numbers—and then moves on to larger ships in the next decade. However, large, nuclear-powered destroyers of the so-called Lider class, promised to be laid down in 2019, are unlikely to be completed in the 2020s, if at all. Such projects are announced regularly to domestic applause, but they are likely to remain on paper for a decade if not longer.
The restoration of the Russian surface fleet has met with harsh realities. First, about one-half of the Soviet shipyards building warships were “relocated” outside of the country when the Soviet regime fell in 1991. No different from the rest of Russia’s defense industry, shipbuilding has survived in large part on export orders from other countries. Ships being built for foreign navies, as well as those for domestic service, have suffered long delays and cost overruns. Some shipyards worked slowly in the hope of extending work, while their prominent owners embezzled funds and often fled the country.
Russia also was entirely dependent on Ukraine for gas turbines for large ship propulsion, a legacy of the integrated defense industry of the Soviet Union. When ties were broken after the Russian seizure of the Crimea in 2014, Russia found itself in possession of engines for only two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and three Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates then under construction. Other ships of these classes were left with empty engineering spaces.
Russia’s solution to this predicament has been to delay both frigate lines awaiting future indigenous turbine production, expected no sooner than 2018, and to sell existing Grigorovich hulls to India as part of a large arms deal, with the expectation that Ukraine will supply India with its gas turbines. Domestic frigate (and larger ship) production will stall while Russia tries to develop domestic gas turbines. In the meantime, the only new surface combatants at the Navy’s piers will be corvettes and lesser craft.
Another problem—how to repair gas turbines traditionally overhauled in Ukraine—has been partially solved by the Russian firm Novik, located in Samara on the Volga River. Novik has completed maintenance and repair on a Neustrashimmy-class frigate. There may be a line of ships waiting for such overhauls, especially given the current, high operational tempo. Western sanctions following the Crimea seizure also have taken their toll, cutting off supplies of German MTU diesel engines for some corvettes and forcing a shift to less reliable domestic engines.
The State Armament Program, announced in 2011, breathed new life into Russian shipbuilding. Valued at 20 trillion rubles at the time ($670 billion), the program allocated roughly one-quarter of its expenditure to military shipbuilding, but delays are likely to continue as the gas turbine and diesel propulsion issues are being solved. The Russian Navy’s near-term vision is sacrificing displacement and endurance to build smaller warships with families of advanced defensive and offensive systems. They are a philosophical break from specialization to smaller, multipurpose designs stressing flexibility and long-range offensive firepower. Russian frigates and corvettes either already feature these weapons or are under construction with them integrated into the design. These ships combine highly capable antiship and land-attack missiles fired from vertical-launch cells that can house all Kalibr (NATO designation SS-N-27/30) missile variants or Oniks missiles (NATO designation SS-N-26 Strobile).
Larger displacement ships feature the Poliment-Redut surface-to-air missile (still in testing), while smaller ships will employ the short-range Pantsir-M variant. Close-in weapon systems have been upgraded, and many ships come with Paket-NK for the antisubmarine/antitorpedo roles. Now in development is the Tsirkon family of hypersonic missiles, planned for deployment on the modernized Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov and other future ships.
Thus, the smaller warships joining the Russian fleet can conduct strikes across Europe, or range hostile ships at great distances. Although their individual magazines may be limited, these ships are easily massed. A typical Russian corvette displacing roughly 1,000 tons is armed with 100-mm and 30-mm guns, eight vertical-launch cells, and advanced electronic warfare and sensor packages.
There are interesting additions to the Russian fleet of oceanographic research ships that regularly conduct “research” near Western underwater infrastructure and communication cables. The 5,200-ton Yantar oceanographic research ship was completed in 2013 and is reported to be equipped with two deep submergence vehicles. The Vishnaya-class 3,470-ton intelligence collector Viktor Leonov visited Cuba in 2015, just as U.S.-Cuban relations were undergoing major changes. Plans to construct armed icebreakers with antiship missiles may produce a unique, hybrid ship class. Meanwhile, Russia has not expanded naval sealift—instead reflagging commercial ships as needed.
Although reinvigorated, and relatively well-funded at this time, Russia’s Navy will retain one foot in its Soviet past at least through the 2020s. Its transformative vision is not without merit, but it is threatened by delays, outdated shipyards, shortages of engines, and other problems. The abundance of new ship designs demonstrates the Russian Navy continues to suffer from the Soviet disease of distributed “classality,” the inability to produce more than a few warships of any given type before moving on to another design, leading to a diverse and difficult-to-maintain force.
Despite its limitations, the Russian Navy has a viable vision for its future—not as the major blue water fleet that was Admiral Gorshkov’s Cold War goal—but as a force that can show the flag in distant waters and support Russian political-military interests in bordering seas.
Michael Kofman is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Previously he served at the National Defense University as a program manager.
1. The five are the Baltic, Northern, Black Sea and Pacific Fleets, and the Caspian Sea Flotilla.
2. A second nuclear cruiser, the Admiral Nakhimov, is undergoing a long-term overhaul and modernization.