Thursday, 2 April 2015

Update on Russia's naval program

The Russian Navy has set for itself a very ambitious plan to rebuild its naval forces and become once again a decent blue water navy. The only problem is that Russia has these plans a lot and even after 15 years it still finds itself without a decent navy. Hampered by a weak economy, several priorities, expensive technology, a lack of knowledge and a decent maritime defence industry it will be hard for Russia to change the tide in the next years.

As we stated earlier, Russia aims for the 2050 deadline to have its new fleet but it faces a large gap in the next years. As the life expectancy of its soviet build warships are ending it seems that Russia must find the means to rebuild its naval forces to bridge the 2020-2050 gap or face the prospect of several years without a blue water navy to rely on.

Modernisation of older ships
Russia has problems with keeping enough large surface combatants active. It indeed had to resort to modernizing decommissioned Kirov class cruisers to maintain a decent force of large warships afloat. More problematic is the situation in the Russian submarine forces. Depending on the numbers and analysis it is estimated that between 40 to 70% of all nuclear submarines in the Russian Navy are not operational. Since most of these ships were outdated models that were left over from the Soviet Union it is debatable if they possess any real combat power.

Russia had plans to modernize its submarine fleet by 2020 but delays were encountered in the construction of the Borei-class SSBN and the Yasen-class SSN. These delays were mostly financial in reason. Still, these delays mean that by 2020 Russia will not have its full complement of modern submarines and thus will have to rely longer on it soviet submarines. A new plan has recently emerged to modernise up to 10 nuclear submarines of the Akula- and Oscar II-class. This modernisation plan will extend their lifespan with 15 to 20 years making their projected end-life last between 2030 and 2035. Modernizing 10 submarines is aimed to counter the gap created by the slow construction of the Yasen-class SSN as only three to four submarines out of the projected eight will be ready in 2020.

Indeed, Russia’s naval program is very ambitious and even neglects its economic and technologic deficiencies. It is estimated that between 50 and 70% of the weapons and equipment envisioned for 2020 will not be ready. This forces Russia to keep modernizing its already aging and worn out fleet of Soviet era ships to keep its Navy up to strength.

Impossible carrier ambitions?
Russia has always stated that it wants aircraft carrier. The exact amount was always debatable, depending on the defence budgets. A fair assessment would be that Russia wants to operate 4 to 6 aircraft carrier by 2050, spread equally between the Northern and Pacific Fleets.

A couple months ago a design of a new Russian aircraft carrier was unveiled in Saint Petersburg. Nuclear powered, carrying 100 aircraft and with a ski ramp and catapults, the ship was unlike anything seen so far. This was just an early design and there can happen a lot between the first scale model and the carrier that will eventually be build. We must however focus on how realistic a 100.000 ton carrier is for Russia.

During the Soviet Union it was the shipyard “Nikolayev 444” in Ukraine that built the aircraft carriers. Russia no longer has access to this shipyard with the brake up of the Soviet Union. Even if it had the Nikolayev 444 shipyard it would still not be enough as even that shipyard wasn’t built to construct 100.000 ton aircraft carriers. Indeed, no shipyard in Russia can build such an aircraft carrier. The only possibility would be to build it in two segments and weld them together in the deep water basin at Sevmash in northern Russia. But a better option would be the construction of a new large dry dock but this goes beyond Russia’s current defence budget. Russia also never had experience in building this type of aircraft carrier and there is doubt if she could do it on her own. An earlier deal with France regarding the purchase of the Mistral class ships was also aimed in bringing modern shipbuilding technology to Russia. China seems a likely partner as the country has ambitions to build its own nuclear powered aircraft carrier. Still, even if Russia would find the skills and means to build an aircraft carrier it would take 10 to 15 years before they get it operational.

Own developments
Russia isn’t incapable of building warships and it has experience, just not in building large warships. Russia’s newest generation of corvettes and frigates are of a good quality but they serve only as a green water navy and lack the means to project power globally.

Russia does have the ambitions to build its navy and new projects are beginning to take shape that air aimed to build larger surface combatants. A new class of destroyers, the “Leader” class is currently on the drawing board. Destroyers will be the backbone of any blue water navy and Russia will need them in combination of its carrier ambitions.

Russia’s new aircraft carrier is designed to project power, unlike the previous carriers that were only designed to protect the own task force. A power projecting aircraft carrier lacks the means to protect itself, in spite of its large arsenal of aircraft. This is why aircraft carriers always travel with an escort, usually made up by destroyers armed with a lot of missiles. If Russia wants to project power globally and is serious in its carrier program then it will need a substantial amount of destroyers in its arsenal.

Russia also hasn’t given up on the Mistral-class. Plans are under way to build a copy of the Mistral-class in Russia. The construction of a Russian version will most likely be taken place in the Baltic shipyards according to the latest media statements. Once again the deadline of 2020 is envisioned. Once again it should be noted that Russia lacks the expertise to build these warships on their own but this doesn’t deter them. It is possible they manage to build some variant on the Mistral-class but the question will remain how good the vessel will be. Still, Russia needs to learn how to build large surface combatants and has to start somewhere.

Outside pressure
Reality starts to face the Russian Navy. Most of its current fleet is old and nearing the end of its surface life. The current ship building plans are aimed at 2020. It is estimated that by then most of the Soviet era warships are no longer functional. A full recovery for the Russian Navy still remains for 2050.

Can Russia afford itself to scale back its ambitious shipbuilding program and invest first in its defence industry? The answer is no. Russia feels the need to stay involved in the world and the best thing to do that is by having the tools to project power. The 21ste century will most likely be a maritime one and Russia can not afford itself to be left over with a fleet of corvettes, frigates and diesel-electric submarines that are most suited for coastal defence. It needs powerful warships capable of operating a long way from home.

Already Russia is feeling the pressure of outside nations. China and the United States are building up their naval forces in the Pacific. Russia already feels the need to strengthen its fleet in the Pacific in order to maintain its influence or faces the prospect to be bypassed by smaller nations like Japan and South-Korea.

Likewise it needs to be able to defend the Black Sea and maintain its naval presence in the Mediterranean. A smaller Russian navy can not be active everywhere.

The Russian navy finds itself at the cross roads. It needs to have a decent navy, capable of operating globally and compete with other naval powers. There are however lots of doubts if Russia can make it. The plans for 2020 are very ambitious and might even fall short. This will be true in the field of nuclear submarines. The Yasen-class SSN will only consist of four boats by 2020 instead of eight fully operational in the planning. This means Russia needs to fall back on its Soviet-era submarines but their combat power and relevance remains questionable.

In the field of surface warships Russia needs to learn how to build ships bigger than a frigate. The “Leader” class destroyer and a Russian version of the Mistral are good initiatives to learn how to build large warships. This experience will be needed once Russia starts building nuclear powered aircraft carriers but without a decent dockyard the whole carrier program seems difficult and troublesome to realize.

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