Moscow’s proclaimed “pivot to Asia” has mainly materialized since 2014 through deeper ties with China, a renewed dialogue with Japan, and an expanding Russian interest in the Korean peninsula. Since then, the Kremlin has sought to demonstrate to the Euro-Atlantic community its ability to circumvent sanctions and assert its status as a Pacific power. Despite the numerous security challenges on the Asia-Pacific stage, the Russian Navy’s Pacific Ocean Fleet has been neglected by Moscow. Recently, neither the astonishing ascension of the Chinese Navy nor the quiet increase of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force have compelled Moscow to undertake the renewal of its naval capabilities in the Pacific.
A Nuclear Deterrent Under Pressure
The main tasks of Russia’s Pacific Fleet consist of: nuclear deterrence, protecting offshore energy infrastructure, and showing the flag through port calls on the Asia-Pacific stage, in the Indian Ocean, and in the Mediterranean. While the Russian State Armament Program 2011-2020 comes to an end, Moscow has already drafted the next defense program covering the 2018-2027 period. The Navy should not get the lion’s share, as it did in the early 2010s when it was granted 25 percent of the then $664 billion budgeted. Of the five Russian naval fleets—namely the Northern, the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Pacific, plus the Caspian flotilla—the Pacific and Baltic Fleets are the “biggest losers” of the finishing defense plan. However, the nuclear strategic component of the Pacific Fleet is being renewed, as Moscow remains deeply committed to maintaining strategic deterrence in both the Northern and the Pacific theatres.
Two new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) of the Project 955 Borey class have already joined the fleet: the K-550 Aleksandr Nevsky, commissioned in late December 2013, and the K-551 Vladimir Monomakh, commissioned in December 2014. Both belong to the 25th submarine diviziya dispatched in Vilyushinsk, near Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. These new subs are set to replace the remaining Delta III-type SSBNs, as well as the Northern Fleet’s Delta IV-type strategic submarines. A new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Bulava, has been designed for the Borey. Although formally inducted in the Navy, it has encountered difficulties and experienced failures during flight tests, giving it the highest failure rate among all the Russian submarine-launched ballistic missile programs (36 percent, as of April 2018). The Bulava has never been tested by any of the Pacific Fleet’s submarines, though it has already been fired from the Northern Fleet 34 times since 2003. The one strategic submarine of the Delta III project still active in the Pacific Fleet—the K-44 Ryazan—is thought to be in reserve. In sum, Russia’s nuclear deterrent in the Pacific appears to be under pressure with only two fully operational platforms and one doubtful missile.
Budget constraints, chronic delays, and technological challenges as well as upcoming strategic talks with the U.S. could influence the development of the 2018-2027 armament plan. With the New START Treaty expiring in 2021, Moscow and Washington will have to negotiate to extend the document. The Kremlin might be interested in further reducing the level of strategic vectors, as it could generate some savings for the defense budget. This timing would coincide with the moment when Russia could lay down the new generation of SSBNs. Should the U.S. and Russia succeed in extending the treaty, Moscow could order fewer SSBNs or reduce the number of missiles for each submarine, affecting the strategic balance in the Pacific. However, considering the current level of tension and distrust between the Russians and the Americans, extending the treaty seems unlikely.
The Pacific Fleet’s ex-Soviet underwater and surface forces have been phased out since 1991 with no real plan to replace them. Facing a dangerous attrition of its naval capabilities in the Pacific, the Kremlin eventually reacted: In September 2016, the Ministry of Defense placed an order for six new Kilo-class submarines from Admiralty Shipyards (St. Petersburg). These are similar to those of the Black Sea Fleet, which fired Kalibr cruise missiles from the Mediterranean waters against targets in Syria. The keels of the two first units were laid down in late July 2017, and all five are expected to be commissioned by 2022. These submarines will face eight Japanese subs of the Soryu class (with three additional units set to be commissioned by 2021) and nine South Korean subs of the Son Won II type (derived from the German Type 214). Unlike the Russian Kilo subs, the Japanese and South Korean boats are equipped with air independent propulsion (AIP), which enhances their autonomy. The new Kilos will replace the five old Project 877 diesel submarines. Their main task is protecting the SSBNs departing or returning from combat missions. Furthermore, the second SSGN of the new Yasen type, the Kazan, may be inducted into the Pacific Fleet in 2019. Although expensive, this project is state of the art for the Russian submarine force. Both the Kilo and the Yasen submarines will be equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles.
The Pacific Fleet’s large surface combatants—one missile cruiser and three to four large amphibious vessels—are Soviet-era platforms. However, they are still the backbone of Russia’s Pacific Fleet surface force, showing the flag and sailing in the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. The absence of any replacement program will jeopardize Russia’s ability to project naval power from its Pacific bases in the decade to come. In July 2017, the first new surface combatant vessel of the post-Soviet period was commissioned in the Pacific Fleet: the 2000-ton corvette Soversheny, which took 11 years for Amur Shipyards (Komsomolsk-on-Amur) to build. Four Soversheny-class sisterships are set to be inducted in the Pacific Fleet by the end of the decade, provided there are no more delays. Russia also plans to commission a limited number of new small missile ships of Project 22800, which are equipped with Kalibr missiles. The contract should be placed this year with Amur Shipyard. Expect some delays considering the poor record of this shipyard.
The Gatekeeper of the Access to the Northern Sea Route
With no concrete plan to revamp its blue water capabilities, the Pacific Fleet will encounter more and more difficulties showing the flag in the World Ocean in the years to come. The induction of new naval platforms will turn the Pacific Fleet into a potent littoral force during the 2020s, with enhanced antiaccess / area denial (A2AD) capabilities provided by renewed green-water submarine capabilities (Kilo type) and small surface vessels equipped with Kalibr. Apart from nuclear deterrence, the Pacific Fleet’s primary role will evolve, increasingly focusing on littoral warfare. Should a major crisis occur on the Asia-Pacific stage, the Russian Pacific Fleet should be capable of denying access to the Bering Strait, closing the Eastern outlet to the Arctic. New Russian naval platforms will sail under the protection of the already deployed S-400 antiair missiles, Bastion antiship missiles, as well as Bal coastal batteries. Moscow’s plan to remilitarize the Kuril Islands fits into this picture, as that would allow Russia to secure the access and monitor the situation along the route to the Arctic.
Russia acknowledges the increasing commercial navigation along its northern flank, and in a way welcomes it as a potential channel for investments to develop economically depressed regions. However, Moscow intends to set the rules of the game for security in the High North. Reviving Soviet military facilities along Russia’s northern shores and on islands in the Arctic region should give Moscow the ability to monitor, secure, and, if need be, close the Northern Sea Route to navigation. In that perspective, the fortification of Russia’s Far East appears as the eastern extension of a broader military plan spanning from the Russian-Norwegian border to the Kuril Islands. Should a major crisis erupt on the Asia-Pacific stage, Moscow intends to dispatch a battle group to the East from the Northern Fleet via the Arctic Route, a scenario the Navy has been testing for six years. This approach acknowledges that the Northern and the Pacific theatres tend to merge in Russia’s strategic thinking.
The overall Russian naval posture in the Pacific will remain fundamentally defensive in the years to come, but unlike the Black Sea, the Far East will require far more ships, submarines, aircraft, and personnel if Russia wants to exert solid control. At this stage, it is not clear whether Moscow intends to order new frigates, let alone destroyers, for the Pacific Fleet. If it does, the Russian Pacific Fleet still could not offset the tonnage of the Chinese navy, but it will reinforce Russia’s ability to implement an A2/AD strategy in the Far East.
Dr. Delanoe is the deputy head of the French-Russian Analytical Center Observo in Moscow.