November 12, 2018:
In September Russian naval infantry (marines) conducted an amphibious operation in the Baltic Sea. The exercise was conducted in the Kaliningrad enclave. This area used to be part of the ancient German province of East Prussia, which disappeared after World War II. Most of it went to Poland, but Russia retained the city of Konigsberg and its environs (15,100 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland.) Russia renamed the city Kaliningrad and made it a major naval base. The coastline there is similar to what is found in Poland and the Baltic States. So an amphibious operation in Kaliningrad also sends a political message to other Baltic nations as well as providing some training for the 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade that is stationed in the Baltic as part of the Baltic Fleet. The September exercise involved 25 ships and 30 aircraft as well as 1,500 naval infantry. The Russian marines landed with 30 armored vehicles, using half a dozen of their elderly (Cold War era) amphibious warfare ships.
These amphibious exercises are becoming larger and more frequent. The September one landed a battalion of naval infantry as did the ones in 2015 and 2017. But each of these three exercises grew more complex (more ships and aircraft) as the years went by. Before 2015 these exercises were smaller (landing a company of troops) and much less complex. The naval infantry have recently replaced their older light tanks with upgraded T-72s or T-80s. The naval infantry is also receiving new IFV (infantry fighting vehicles) and light weapons along with modern equipment. The naval infantry (sometimes referred to as naval Spetsnaz) are the last of the special operations troops to receive new equipment. The airborne forces have received several new armored vehicles and the commandos (including the few hundred naval commandos) were the first to get their gear upgraded, often with Western-made stuff.
Russia currently has about 9,000 naval infantry, organized into brigades assigned to the regional fleets (Northern, Pacific, Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea). The brigades now have 30 or so tanks and even more amphibious infantry vehicles. While considered an elite force, they are in need of new amphibious shipping to be effective. All the current amphibious ships entered service before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since then only one new class of amphibious ship was built and it was not a success. That is not a good sign for the Russian marines. As has happened the Russian naval infantry can be used as high-quality infantry but Russia would prefer to use them for the job they train to do.
How that one new amphibious ship got built and accepted by the navy Russian reveals much. Fourteen years after construction began the first of a new Russian class of amphibious ships that Gren class ships finally entered service in early 2018. There were many delays but the final one had to do with “design flaws” discovered when Gren began its sea trials in mid-2016. The main flaws where hull stability and engine reliability. It took 18 months to deal with that and sea trials resumed in late 2017. Finally, the Russian Navy declared the Gren fit for service in May 2018. However, only two of this class will be built. The second one began construction in 2014 and has had the flaws of the first one fixed before it was launched in May 2018. The second ship should be in service by 2019.
Gren was launched in 2012 and was supposed to be fitted out and delivered by 2014, a decade after construction began. But there were more delays. Called the Ivan Gren class, after its lead ship, these 120 meter (384 foot) long vessels each displace 6,500 tons, have a crew of 110, and can carry 13 tanks or 36 infantry fighting vehicles and 300 infantry. Top speed is 33 kilometers per hour and max range is 6,500 kilometers (cruising at 30 kilometers an hour) with max endurance of 30 days. Armament consists of three AK630 30mm automatic cannon for missile defense as well as against aircraft and small naval targets. The range of these weapons is 5,000 meters. One of the AK630s is the dual version (two six barrel 30mm autocannon in one turret) while the other two are single six barrel versions (similar to the American Phalanx). There are also two 14.5mm machine-guns and a helicopter pad and hanger for two KA-27/29 helicopters.
Four more Grens were to be built if the first one performed well. It didn’t. The first one cost about $200 million (including all the extra expense of fixing the flaws). The Grens appear to be updates of the Ropucha class LSTs, 28 of which were built in the 1960s and 70s. A few of these 4,100 ton Ropuchas are still in service but just barely.
The Russian government has been unhappy with the performance of Russian shipyards and sought to buy amphibious ships from France, in part to get some French shipbuilding technology and an opportunity to show Russian shipbuilders how it should be done. These Mistral class ships were completed by 2014 but never delivered because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent (and still existing) sanctions. France refunded Russia the billion dollars already paid and eventually sold the Russian Mistrals (complete with winterization features to deal with arctic conditions) to Egypt.