Leadership: Ukraine Cripples Russian Fleets


April 4, 2023: The Ukraine War did less visible damage to the Russian fleet than to the army (very heavy losses) and air force (mediocre leadership and equipment exposed). The navy lost one of its few destroyers, which was the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, and several smaller warships along with a few amphibious warfare ships and some even smaller ships. These losses were minor compared to the damage the war did to the navy’s upgrade and expansion plans. The unprecedented economic sanctions imposed on Russia for its Ukraine misadventure means drastically less money for the navy and its rebuilding effort.

Since the 1990s, the navy has been trying to recover from the damage done by the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was all about poor economic performance and national bankruptcy. Over two decades of massive overspending on the military eventually led to national bankruptcy and a sharp reduction in the navy budget after 1991. This quickly led to the loss of 80 percent of military personnel as well as the inability to maintain, much less operate all the vehicles, aircraft and ships purchased since the 1960s. Thousands of armored vehicles were literally abandoned somewhere, sometimes in such large quantities that surveillance satellites could see and count them. Some of these vehicles were kept in reserve in guarded facilities with minimal maintenance to keep them available for service if needed. Most surplus armored vehicles were simply abandoned. Many were left in small collections of a few dozen or hundred armored vehicles in remote areas of the country near one of the many abandoned military bases. Locals soon began plundered the abandoned tanks and other armored vehicles for anything useful or valuable to someone else. The same happened with the air force and the many abandoned air bases, or near airbases that had some activity and plenty of space for aircraft that had no crews or maintainers, all of which soon became unflyable because of exposure and looters.

With the navy it was a little different. On average, each ship was a lot larger and more expensive than any tank or aircraft. Ships had to be left at or near a port or naval base, preferably anchored or secured at dockside. In 1991 the Soviet navy was the second largest in the world, right behind the U.S. Navy., The Soviet fleet actually had more ships than the Americans because Russia needed a lot of smaller patrol ships and armed patrol boats to guard a huge coastline. In the early 1990s the admirals running the new Russian fleet tried to keep as many ships as possible operational. This meant staffing many ships with skeleton crews and not sending the ships to sea at all. These ships needed some maintenance and they weren’t getting much at all because of untrained skeleton crews and no budget for needed parts or basic items like paint and rust remover.

It was worse with the many submarines the Soviets accumulated. Since the 1960s the Soviets built about 260 nuclear ships, nearly all submarines, that were still in service. After 1991 Russia was unable to keep most of those subs in service. Russian nuclear boats were expensive to maintain, and many were not worth keeping in service because they were too noisy, too old and had too many other flaws. These ships were also radioactive and, if simply allowed to sink, posed a threat to marine life and fishermen in the region and people who ate that fish. This threat led to an international effort to pay for safely dismantling Russia’s nuclear-powered submarines. Most of the cost (over $15 billion) was covered by the United States with technical help from other NATO member nations. This was part of 1990s agreements with Russia and a coalition including the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy and Norway that contributed cash and technical assistance to this effort.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia only decommissioned two, three or four nuclear subs a year. Many nuclear subs were taken out of service in the early 1990s, although lots of older boats were being decommissioned in the late 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, Russia had 150 decommissioned nuclear subs waiting to be dismantled. Russia hoped to complete dismantling these submarines by 2007, but things went much slower than expected for lack of funding. It cost up to $10 million to dismantle each boat. The primary task was to safely take apart the nuclear reactor and move its radioactive components to a secure storage facility. The foreign nations contributing to this effort are all maritime nations that were concerned about the old Soviet subs falling apart while still in the water. What got this aid program going was the late 1990s discovery that the Soviets had just dumped some of its old ship and submarine nuclear reactor radioactive components into Arctic waters. Russia was more willing than the Soviets to do the right thing, and only needed Western aid to do so here. The early 21st century foreign financial assistance in this effort also enabled Russia to afford new nuclear subs to replace the aging Soviet-era fleet.

The dismantling plan was still operating until Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014 to seize the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas (two eastern provinces). That led to a low-level war with Ukraine as the Ukrainians mobilized to halt the Donbas attack and the first round of Western economic sanctions on Russia. It also brought in NATO aid for Ukraine and more activity in the Black Sea by NATO nation warships, including American destroyers and maritime surveillance aircraft.

While Russian seized some Ukrainian shipbuilding facilities in Crimea, even more vital Ukrainian manufacturing operations were in Ukrainian controlled territory and these firms stopped deliveries to Russia. That halted or disrupted the construction of new Russian frigates and corvettes. There were no new large warships planned but several very large ships were scheduled to be refurbished, as was Russia’s only aircraft carrier. This effort was not only facing financial shortfalls because of the 2014 sanctions, but shortages of skilled shipyard workers. Despite all that, by 2022 180 obsolete or unneeded Russian nuclear subs had been safely decommissioned, despite incidents where naval personnel were caught stealing nuclear fuel rods in the hope of finding a buyer. These fuel rods are not weapons grade and often no longer suitable for nuclear fuel but they are very radioactive. This makes them easier to track but still a health threat to the thieves and anyone close to them. There’s a lot of nun-nuclear material, like copper wire, that is also pilfered for resale. There are more people willing to buy copper wire rather than nuclear fuel rods. The extent of the looting of Russian military equipment, retired or not, became obvious as Russia scrambled to find working armored vehicles to replace losses in Ukraine.

After 2014 the Russian defense budget suffered several substantial cuts and faced more if the sanctions continued or got worse. This was bad because the remaining Soviet-era ships were rapidly reaching, approaching or past retirement age. It’s cheaper and more effective to build new warships, or substantially modernize older ones than trying to keep overage ships in service. Russia had developed contingency plans for current procurement programs. For the navy that meant fewer new submarines and instead more major refurbishment of boats worth keeping in service. What money the navy has left for new construction will go towards a new class of SSBN (ballistic missile carrying nuclear powered boat, also called "boomers") because the old ones are less capable of getting the job done with each passing year. The SSN (attack boats) and SSGNs (anti-ship missile carrying boats) will get production cut severely and see many more recent boats get refurbished. This approach gets the refurbed boats many of the capabilities of new designs but not as much time they can remain in service.

Russia has a centuries old solution for that; use the refurbed subs much less. This was actually the norm doing the Cold War largely because Russian nuclear sub tech was far behind what American boats had and the Russians quickly figured out that whenever one of their nukes (nuclear powered subs) went to sea it was quietly (enough so the Russians could rarely detect their stalker) followed by an American SSN which considered this excellent practice for wartime operations. Cold War era Russian subs rarely went far from coastal waters or stayed at sea for long each time out. Russia confirmed after the Cold War that the American SSNs would often quietly enter Russian territorial waters (less than 22 kilometers from the coast) for training and espionage.

The post-Cold War Russian submarine admirals were hoping they would get the money to build more competitive nuclear boats and put the Americans on the defensive some of the time. But now that goal has to be deferred. The refurbed boats will have better sensors, but little can be done to improve their noise control (how quiet the sub is under water). They will not be able to go to sea as much as the American boats but that will mean Russia will have a nuclear submarine force nearly half the size of the American one and, with China building more nuclear boats, the West will still feel threatened at sea.

For this strategy to work Russia needs better weapons for its remaining subs. This meant replacing most of the older heavy anti-ship (“carrier killer”) missiles on its subs with a more recent design that is very similar to the American Tomahawk. The Russian equivalent is 3M54 (also known as the SS-N-27, Sizzler or Klub/Kalibr), which many Russian and some Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian and Chinese subs are already equipped with. The Kalibr (Klub is the less capable export version) had growing pains that the Russians appear to have remedied. For example, India was an early adopter but encountered reliability problems in 2010 when there were repeated failures of the Klub during six test firings. The missiles were fired off the Russian coast, using an Indian Kilo class submarine, INS Sindhuvijay. That boat went to Russia in 2006 for upgrades. India refused to pay for the upgrades, or take back the sub, until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles, which Russia eventually did. The 3M54 officially entered service in 2012 and has since used the surface ship and air launched versions of Kalibr in combat against targets in Syria.

The Russians are responding to the U.S. Navy discovering that, given current sensor (sonar, magnetic, heat, chemical) technology, it is possible to detect very quiet submerged diesel-electric sub. This includes the new ones using AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) systems that allow diesel-electric sub to stay under water, silently, for several weeks at a time. Since 2000 the United States has done a lot of work on improving systems used to detect submerged subs. This included lots of tests on diesel electric and AIP subs that led to many small tweaks to existing sensors on subs and surface ships. AIP boats, in particular, were found to have many vulnerabilities. The AIP technology generated more noise and heat than just using batteries for underwater propulsion. The more the U.S. studied AIP subs in operation the more ways they found these subs could be detected.

The passive (listen only) sonar systems in the new Virginia class SSNs (nuclear attack sub) were tweaked considerably to better find diesel-electric and AIP boats. The sensors on the Virginia are also among the best (if not the best) available for finding surface ships or other nuclear subs. But it depended on how noisy the other ships were. Diesel-electric subs operating submerged using battery power are theoretically the quietest. But the older a sub gets the more components become noisy and some diesel-electric sub designs are simply quieter. Even the older and noisier diesel-electric subs tend to be quieter than most nuclear subs, which have to run pumps at all times to circulate cooler water around the hot nuclear reactors. The most recent nuclear sub designs have found more ways to conceal the pump noise along with noise in general. Add that to more effective noise detecting sonar and you have a Western edge that Russia was getting close to matching when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Before 1991 the Russians had managed to steal a lot of the silencing tech and smuggle in special manufacturing equipment to create the quieter components. But all that ended in the 1990s and all the Russians had left were less than a dozen “quiet” nuclear subs that had been completed by 1991. After that Western, especially American, silencing and sensor tech continued to improve, although not as fast as during the Cold War.

Stealing tech is one thing, being able to use it in new submarines is another matter. An example of this is the Russian Yasen-Class SSNs. These are the Russian answers to the American Virginia class. The Virginias are a more recent design while the Yasen is a late Cold War effort that had some tech upgrades in the two decades it took to build the first one. The first one entered service in 2017 and currently only four have been completed and only seven more are being built. That’s all Russia can afford. The first Virginia entered service in 2004. So far 22 have been built, with six more presently under construction and plans to build 66 or 70 total.

The 9,500-ton Yasens were built after the Cold War but from Cold War era designs, and are armed with Klub/Kalibr anti-ship or cruise missiles and ten torpedo tubes (8 650mm and two 533mm). What Russia has not been able to do is keep up with silencing and detection (sensor) tech. American sub commanders are not being overconfident about all this but base their assessments on growing opportunities for the quieter American SSNs (especially the Virginias) to detect a Russian SSN (or diesel-electric boat) and stalk it for days or weeks without ever being discovered. This was a Cold War practice as well and how the U.S. Navy discovered, in the 1980s, that the latest Russian SSNs were much quieter. But there are few of them and now improved American sensors make them easier to detect. The U.S. was apparently able to detect and stalk the Yasen, getting a good sense of how much quieter (apparently not enough) it is. As improved as Yasen is, it had lots of problems getting into service.

Russian submarine building has been on life support since the Cold War ended in 1991. Many subs under construction at the end of the Cold War were canceled, and the few which avoided that spent a decade or more waiting for enough money to resume construction. The first Yasen crew was put together in 2007 and then spent years training, and waiting. The crew finally got their new boat in 2014, after record delays and time spent in the shipyard getting tweaked. Russia has not tried to use its ramshackle post-Soviet fleet in the Ukraine War, at least not since suffering several major losses in the first months of the fighting. Since then, the few ships of the Black Sea fleet have served as a potential threat to shipping. The Ukrainians continue to search for and attack the Black Sea fleet. The Russian ships concentrate on defensive measures against the growing threat of Ukrainian attack. The other three fleets (Baltic, Northern and Pacific) are also maintaining a low profile. Not just because of potential attack but because the loss of any warships to hostile action or accidents means replacements will not be available for years, if ever.


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