Thursday, 14 August 2014

Russia's main maritime thrust in the 2050 timeframe

Most countries are aiming for the 2020-2025 timeframe to complete the modernization and expansion of their navies. By 2020 the UK is expected to have a carrier strike force again while the US and China will have made further steps in modernizing their carrier wings. Likewise India and other Asian countries are also planning for the 2020-2025 timeframe but this is more in order to keep pace with the Chinese Navy. One major power is however planning for the 2050 timeframe and that is Russia.

Russia’s 2050 timeframe is easy to explain. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian Federation has been struggling to create a major economy that can sustain a large naval force. Russia is further hampered by the fact that it needs 5 fleets: The Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleet and the Caspian sea flotilla. Given the current development of the Russian economy and the state of its shipyards both in size, location and know how Russia will first need to expand its shipyards, modernize them and find the necessary know how to start building modern ships. This is further complicated by the fact that Russia until recently had to import engines from the Ukraine. With the current situation between Russia and the Ukraine this vital source of equipment is no longer available. Although Russia can build modern corvettes and frigates, it is incapable of building anything bigger like destroyers and cruisers without the necessary know how.
Russia will first need a large period of investments, both in its general economy and its shipyards, before it can start to build new modern fleets. This is why Russia looks at the 2050 timeframe.

Russia's geography demands that each fleet can operate independent
as other fleets can not shift fast enough to support another fleet

 Given the current evolution of the balance of power the Pacific will not be a favorite area for the Russians to deploy a fleet. Russia will be incapable of building up a fleet powerful enough to equal China and the Unites States who will be the primary actors in this area. Still, Russia will be an important player in this area and will have the need to deploy a substantial naval force to project its power. Russia’s main adversary will be Japan as both nations have a dispute over the Kuril islands that Russia has occupied since the end of World War 2. As long as Russia controls the Kuril Islands it has a free acces route into he Pacific Ocean. In Japanese hands, these islands can be used to hamper or blockade Russian attempts to sail undetected into the Pacific Ocean.

The Kuril Islands: A blockade for the Pacific Fleet when in Japanese hands

Japan already operates a larger and more modern fleet than Russia’s Pacific fleet but Japan also needs to face the Chinese Navy. As such, a small fleet capable of effectively deterring the Japanese from retaking the Kurile islands will be in all what Russia will be looking for. Of course the Pacific is an ideal place for Russia to deploy its SSBNs. Operating out of Kamchatka, Russian submarines can mount a nuclear deterrence against both China and the US. This nuclear strike capability will make Russia a recognized partner to deal with concerning major political topics in the Pacific.

The Caspian Sea is a vital area for Russia’s economy that is mainly centered on energy. Russia seeks to maintain the status quo that currently exists in the Caspian Sea, with Russia being the main naval power. As such it will monitor the navies of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Iran closely. In the past years a large modernization of the Caspian Sea Flotilla has happened to secure Russia’s position as well as to counter the Iranian naval build up in the Caspian Sea.

The same situation will exist in the Baltic Sea where Russia will maintain a presence large enough to deter the naval forces of the European Union and NATO to use the Baltic Sea freely in case of a conflict. The easy access of the Baltic Sea with the Atlantic Ocean will make the Baltic fleet important to venture out and support either the Northern or Black Sea fleet or to operate on the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the modern Russian shipyards are located either in Saint-Petersburg and Kaliningrad. Thus the Baltic Sea is currently a very important area strategically as it is Russia’s only area, apart from the Northern fleet shipyards, to construct the modern ships the Russian navy so desperately needs. Although the Baltic Sea is a very important area today, in a 2050 timeframe it will lose some of its relevance as other areas will also have modern shipyards.

The Northern Fleet is the most important of all fleets as it has access to the Atlantic. The shipyard in Severodvinsk is the only one capable of building and maintaining aircraft carriers as well as nuclear submarines. The importance of the Northern Fleet will only increase with the melting of the polar caps and the large amount of minerals, oil and gas that will be available for extraction from the Arctic seabed. At the same time new trade routes will open up, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. As all Arctic nations are presenting claims of large area’s to be put in their economic zones it will also become an area of strong militarization. Russia is already in the lead as it has the biggest fleet in the Arctic and is opening new bases to expand its military presence. The melting of the polar caps will also allow the Northern fleet to effectively support the Russian forces in the Pacific by transiting through the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska.

Current claims of  Arctic states

With the most important shipyards centered around Severodvinsk, the Northern fleet has direct access to repair and modernization facilities and can be easily reinforced with new modern ships. The Sevmash shipyard is also named as the only Russian shipyard currently capable of building a nuclear aircraft carrier that the Russian navy will need in order to project power on a global scale.

Perhaps equally important as the Northern Fleet is Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Operating mainly out of the Crimean city of Sevastopol it is the only fleet that operates in a warm water port and with fast access to the Mediterranean, African coastal nations and the Middle East. As Russia seeks to project its power it finds many states that have good relations with Russia in both Africa and the Middle East. As such, the Black Sea Fleet is currently the most important fleet in Russia’s inventory as it can project power in Africa and the Middle east. As such, Russia is currently seeking to expand this fleet into its most important fleet and is seeking oversea bases within the Mediterranean. So far, Russia only has basing rights in the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus and this explains Russia’s mayor role in supporting the Assad-regime. At the same time, Russia is looking for partners aside from Syria. The Russian fleet is planning to conduct amphibious exercises with Eritrea in October. Eritrea used to provide naval bases for the Soviet navy during the Cold War and renewing the ties between Russia and Eritra might allow the Russians to project power into the Red Sea.
With the capture of Sevastopol from Ukraine earlier in 2014, Russia can now station as many ships as it wants in Sevastopol. With Russia also having access to the Sevastopol shipyard it is now capable of building and repairing ships from the Black Sea Fleet without sending them to the Baltic Sea or to Severodvinsk. Further development of the naval facilities in Sevastopol will allow Russia to operate a fleet independent from other areas.

At the moment Russia’s main fleet is the Black Sea Fleet. Its access to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East make it play a vital role in Russia’s foreign policy in projecting Russian power. This fleet will remain to be the most important fleet for the Russians in the next years as Russia seeks to expand its Black Sea Fleet and create a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean.
The Baltic and Caspian fleets play a smaller role and Russia will strive to just maintain a status quo with its neighbours in these areas. At the same time Russia cannot hope to close the existing gap with China and the United States and has to play a secondary role in the Pacific. Its main rival will be Japan as both countries are claiming the Kurile islands, currently under Russian control. Building a force big enough to deter Japan, who also has to face the Chinese navy, will be sufficient in the future.

Russia’s main fleet for the 2050 timeframe is the Northern Fleet as Russia seeks to claim as much of the Arctic Sea as possible and is already militarizing the region. With access to both the Actic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans this Northern Fleet will form a strategic force that can be shifted to areas where a large Russian naval force will be required. As the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk is the only shipyard in Russia capable of building and maintaining aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. It is for the moment also the only place where Russia can start building nuclear aircraft carriers in the future.

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