January 8, 2021:
The Russian Navy has slowly been introducing stealth into its surface warfare tactics. Its latest surface ships, like the Buyan and Karakurt corvettes, are designed to be difficult for radar to detect and are equipped with weapons and systems that can operate in a radio-silence environment. These corvettes, all under a 1,000 tons displacement, are designed for coastal patrol and defense and in wartime can fight without transmitting any electronic (radio or radar) signals. Each Karakurt carries one or two Orlan-120 UAVs. These can stay on the air up to 16 hours and operate under pre-programmed instructions. The ship can send an Orlan out 300-400 kilometers from the ship to patrol an area and transmit encrypted messages with pictures and location of anything spotted. The corvette would receive this and determine if the target was worth one or more Kalibr or P800 anti-ship missiles. Both of these travel at about 700 kilometers an hour to the area where the target was reported to be, taking into account where the moving enemy ships were since their last reported position. The enemy would be listening for any radio broadcasts and, if spotted, Orlons could easily be shot down. Distance and the speed of the targets and incoming anti-ship missiles are important. Russia has been practicing using networks or ships, aircraft and satellites to monitor the position of enemy ships and enable surface ships to remain silent for as long as possible. That means a Russian corvette would never be operating alone. Rather it would be part of a battle-group that could also involve submarines posted at locations from which passive (just listening) sonar could detect enemy warships and launch Kalibr missiles via their torpedo tubes. If an enemy ship was close enough the subs could use torpedoes. These new tactics involve enabling the “shooters” to remain silent and concealed as long as possible while using expendable UAVs or other sensors, like land or space-based radars to do the spotting.
Stealth warfare is not radically new, it has been practiced since World War I when all ships had radio and World War II when most had radar, at least by the end of the war. German intelligence monitored use of ship radios and were able to triangulate where the allied convoys were in the Atlantic and order their subs to head for where the convoy was and assemble for a Wolf Pack attack. The subs did not broadcast during an attack, and then only briefly after an attack as they dispersed. The Wolf Pack tactics were lethal in an area midway between the U.S. and Britain where land-based patrol aircraft could not reach. To deal with this problem the Americans built 124 escort carriers, which were cargo ship hulls rebuilt as small carriers capable of carrying about a dozen aircraft, usually fighters that could carry out reconnaissance as well as attacking ships or air defense missions. A small group of destroyers, cruisers or battleships would be accompanied by one of more escort carriers to provide reconnaissance and airstrikes. Escort carriers also escorted convoys of merchant ships through submarine infested waters, especially in the North Atlantic. The escort carriers were key to eliminating the stealth advantage of the German subs and, despite desperate measures to counter the escort carriers, the Germans never recovered their edge against the convoys.
Russian military planners are keen students of history and during the Cold War had to cope with the fact that their adversaries were much better at providing aerial and space-based reconnaissance. With the Cold War over Russia was slow to adopt UAVs and stealth warfare but they are catching up. Both Russia and China are also developing anti-satellite weapons and the ability to quickly put replacement satellites into orbit to replace losses.
All naval powers are seeking to maintain an edge in stealth warfare and it is a category of naval operations that gets little publicity. In wartime it is critical, something everyone was reminded of during World War II and what little naval combat that has taken place since.