Leadership: Chasing Headlines

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March 23, 2009: Responding to criticism that the Russian Navy has been largely inactive since the early 1990s, the government has sent warships on several high profile operations lately. Late last year, it sent a 7,900 ton Udaloy class destroyer to join the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Another Udaloy class destroyer is on its way to relieve the one, and continue showing the Russian flag into the Summer. The only Russian battle cruiser, the 28,000 ton, nuclear powered, Peter the Great, and a destroyer, crossed the Atlantic recently to visit Cuba and Venezuela. Russia actually has another battlecruier, but it has been laid up for repairs for the last ten years, and won't be back in service for at least three years, if ever. The Peter the Great was later joined by six other Russian warships off the Indian coast, to participate in naval exercises with the Indian Navy. On the way to India, the Peter the Great paused to participate in the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Late last year, Russia also sent its only aircraft carrier and some escorts into the North Atlantic to show the flag and train.

Russia made a big deal about all these ship movements. Lots of media noise must be made to mask the fact that the Russian navy not only shrank since the end of the Cold War in 1991 (from over 600 major warships, to fewer than a hundred), but it has also become much less active. This was especially the case with the submarines, which comprise most fleet. This explains a recent announcement that "up to ten submarines" are at sea at any one time. The subs, especially the 40 nuclear ones, spend most of their time submerged when at sea. So you need a press release to get the word out. This year, Russia hopes to get at least a third of its subs out to sea. 

That will be a big improvement. In the last three years, only ten of their nuclear subs went to sea, on a combat patrol, each year. Most of the boats going to sea were SSNs (attack subs), the minority were SSBNs (ballistic missile boats). There were more short range training missions, which often lasted a few days, or just a few hours. But the true measure of a fleet is the "combat patrol" or "deployment." In the U.S. Navy, most of these last from 2-6 months. In the last three years, U.S. nuclear subs have carried out ten times as many patrols as their Russian counterparts.

Currently, Russia only has 14 SSBN (nuclear ballistic missile sub) boats in service, and not all of them have a full load of missiles. Some lack full crews, or have key systems in need of repair. Russia has only 14 modern, 7,000 ton, Akula SSNs (nuclear attack subs) in service. These began building in the late 1980s and are roughly comparable to the American Los Angeles class. All of the earlier Russian SSNs are trash, and most have been decommissioned. There are also eight SSGN (nuclear subs carrying cruise missiles) and 20 diesel electric boats. There is a new class of SSGNs under construction, but progress, and promised funding increases, have been slow.

The peak year for Russian nuclear sub patrols was 1984, when there were 230. That number rapidly declined until, in 2002, there were none. Since the late 1990s, the Russian navy has been hustling to try and reverse this decline. But the navy budget, despite recent increases, is not large enough to build new ships to replace the current Cold War era fleet that is falling apart. The rapid decline of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet needed international help to safely decommission over a hundred obsolete or worn out nuclear subs. This effort has been going on for nearly a decade.

The Russian admirals made their big mistake in the early 1990s, when the dismantling of the Soviet Union left the second largest fleet in the world with only a fraction of its Cold War budget. Rather than immediately retire ninety percent of those ships, Russia tried to keep many of them operational. This consumed most of the navy budget, and didn't work. There were too many ships, not enough sailors and not enough money for maintenance or training at sea. The mighty Soviet fleet is mostly scrap now, or rusting hulks tied up at crumbling, out-of-the way naval bases. The admirals have to hustle just to get a dozen ships at a time out to sea. But the admirals know enough to provide maximum publicity for every ship at sea. For the Russian Navy, it's more about image than reality.

 


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