The Russian Navy is since the collapse of the Soviet Union a shadow of its former self. This situation has two reasons. First the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia made it impossible to find the funds to operate a large navy. Navies are very expensive because they rely heavily on technology to keep up with other navies. A second reason is that a large amount of schooled technicians and skilled workers fled Russia to work abroad. The loss of funds and a skilled workforce made it impossible to design build and operate a modern navy. Only when President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000 did the economy of Russia start to improve so that new ships could be afforded.
The Russian Navy already suffered badly in the decade after the Soviet Union. All of its ships were leftovers from the Soviet Union and even maintaining a small portion of the former Soviet Union was difficult. As such the Russian Navy was falling far behind against its main NATO adversaries. Due to poor maintenance ships started to break down often up to a level that every Russian naval task force in the past years has been accompanied by an ocean going tug to tow the vessels to a shipyard in case of a breakdown at sea.
Russia still wants to claim its place as a superpower with global reach and in order to accomplish that it needs a strong navy. Under the Putin regime several plans were made to rebuild the Russian Navy but progress has been very slow. At the moment Russia is however capable of building modern corvettes and frigates to replace to old Soviet build ships. What Russia still lacks is the capability to build anything bigger than a frigate. Already the decay of the Russian Navy in the 1990s and the slow build-up of a new modern navy are showing its signs.
The large surface combatants of the Russian Navy are starting to get too old and become too unreliable to be operational for much longer. Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is very prone to break downs and is currently being modernized in Severodvinsk. This will most likely be her last modernization program before Russia is forced to deactivate her. The same story is becoming true for Russia’s cruisers. The cruisers of the Kirov and Slava class are still in a decent condition and can remain operational for the next several years, depending on how good they can be maintained. There are still unexpected events that can change this prospect. Recently the Russian cruiser Kerch caught fire in the port of Sevastopol and the damage was too big to be repaired. As a result Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is currently without an operational cruiser as the Slava class cruiser Moskva is also undergoing maintenance.
|Kerch class cruiser|
As stated earlier, Russia lacks the know how to build large surface combatants and the aging ships it has now will not be replaced any time soon. Russia is already trying to minimize the impact. It recently started to modernise the Kirov class cruiser Admiral Nakhinov. Build in 1983 it was placed out of commission in 1992. Ever since then the cruiser has been placed in reserve. Throughout the past decade there were several plans to modernise the Admiral Nakhinov but these programs were all terminated by the lack of funds and other priorities. In January 2014 the modernisation of the Admiral Nakhinov finally started and she is now planned to join the fleet in 2018.
The biggest attempt so far to acquire the know-how that is required to build large surface combatants was the deal with France to build Mistral class amphibious landing ships. France took the lead in building the first two ships while subsections would be built in Russia and assembled in France. There was the option of building two more Mistral class ships in Russia with the assistance of France. The situation in Eastern Ukraine and Russian support for the pro-Russian separatists forced France to cancel this deal. It is unclear what kind of level of expertise and know-how was transferred to Russia but it is most likely to be minimal. Russia would still need the assistance of France to build two Mistral class ships at Russian shipyards.
The failure of the Mistral deal leaves Russia without the transfer it badly needs to rebuild its navy. Russia does however plan to have a modern ocean going fleet in 2050 so it still has a 35 year window to organize its ship building capabilities. However Russia lacks currently the know how to build cruisers, let alone new aircraft carriers capable to rival their US counterparts. Designs for new destroyers still remain on the drawing boards. At the immediate future we expect Russia to still be able to operate its last remaining large surface combatants for the next 5 to 10 years but afterwards it will only have a nay that consists of corvettes and frigates. This would reduce the Russian Navy to a green water navy with a main focus on coastal defence and operating up to 200 nautical miles from its coast. This falls short of a new blue water navy with a global reach that is envisioned.
Russia does have options available to get the necessary know-how to build large warships. India is currently building its own aircraft carriers. Russia and India already have a big history over the past decade on cooperating together to build new ships and weapon systems. Russia build the 6 Talwar class frigates for the Indian Navy and both countries worked together to develop the BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile. Russia also modernised the old aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy. The progress on the modernisation of the Admiral Gorshkov shows how bad Russia is in building, maintaining and modernizing large warships. The project was plagued with cost overruns and delays.
Another source of knowledge and expertise could be China. The Chinese Navy (PLAN) is making a transition from green water to a blue water navy. It already operates one carrier, the Liaoning, and is building two to three more of these carriers. China is also developing a new destroyer, the Type 055, which resembles a US Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer although the Type 055 is in size more a cruiser then a destroyer when one looks at the tonnage. China also develops amphibious landing ships. In all, China is developing its shipbuilding know-how and since both China and Russia are allies under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) it could transfer this technology to Russia.
Russia is still able to keep up in building modern submarines. Despite a decade long gap in which no new submarines were build, except for projects already started in the last days of the Soviet Union, Russia still knows how to build modern submarines. The nuclear missile submarines of the Borei class are good vessels. Russia’s newest attack submarine, the Severodvinsk, of the Graney class is an improvement over the Akula II class submarines despite the fact that the project was started in 1993. The second submarine of this class, the Kazan, will no doubt be even a better version as it incorporates new weapon systems.
Just as with the surface fleet, Russia’s submarine fleet is nearing the end of its capabilities. The new submarines are not being built to expand the submarine fleet but to preserve the combat capabilities it has right now.
Even though in the past years we have witnessed a strong Russian Navy operating at the high seas there is the reality that the last large surface combatants of the Russian Navy are at the end of their limits and will be placed out of service in the very near future. The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is undergoing what will most likely be its last modernisation and operational period. The Admiral Nakhinov cruiser will be modernised and operational in the 2020-2030 timeframe but one modernised cruiser will not be enough, especially if the other cruisers of the Kirov and Slava classes are nearing the end of their operational lifetimes.
Russia is in dire need for the know-how of building large surface combatants but it is unlikely that it will get it from western shipyards. India and China are other candidates for the transfer of this know-how. Given how difficult it is for India to build an aircraft carrier and the fact that the country still hasn’t built cruisers and destroyers it seems more likely that China will be the source of this knowledge. China already builds modern frigates, amphibious landing ships and aircraft carriers. It also started to develop the Type 055 destroyer, another type of surface combatant that Russia hasn’t been able to build.
Although Russia is still able to operate a decent blue water navy this capability will end in the near future. Given the fact that Russia is running behind in shipbuilding capabilities the near future will see the Russian Navy to regress into a green water navy of corvettes and frigates.