Surface Forces: Russia Revives Its Imperial Fleets


August 23, 2010:  Russia has committed over $3 billion to start rebuilding its Black Sea fleet. The new force will consist of six Tornado class, 500 ton missile boats, three 4,000 ton Krivak IV frigates and three Kilo class submarines. There will also be a dozen or more mine sweepers, amphibious craft and smaller patrol boats, plus about twenty support ships and a few dozen aircraft and helicopters. Russia needs a Black Sea fleet that is modern and capable, because this force does more than just look after Russian interests in the Black Sea. These ships are also needed for any emergencies in the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean.

The Tornado class boats are basically for coastal patrol, although the anti-ship missiles make the boats potentially useful if there is a major conflict. The 4,000 ton Krivak IVs are 125 meters/386 feet long, carry 24 anti-aircraft and eight anti-ship missiles, four torpedo tubes, as well as a 100mm gun, close in anti-missile guns, a helicopter, and anti-submarine weapons (depth charges and missiles). The ship has a very complete set of electronics gear and a crew of 180. Krivak IVs cost over $600 million each. The Kilos are 2,300 ton (surface displacement) subs armed with six torpedo tubes and have a crew of 57. They are quiet, and can travel about 700 kilometers under water at a quiet speed of about five kilometers an hour. Kilos carry 18 torpedoes or SS-N-27 anti-ship missiles (with a range of 300 kilometers and launched underwater from the torpedo tubes.) The combination of quietness and cruise missiles makes Kilo very dangerous to surface ships. North Korea, China and Iran have also bought Kilos. But the Kilos are an old design, as are the Krivaks. For the rebuilt Baltic fleet, the new Kilos and Krivaks will be upgrades of these old, and proven, designs.

The current Black Sea fleet has about 70 ships, but most are in bad shape, and only about twenty warships can put to sea, and then only briefly. This was demonstrated last November, when the Black Sea Fleet's only operational submarine, a 19 year old Kilo class boat, broke down at sea and limped back to port on partial power. The only other sub in the fleet, a 29 year old Tango class boat, was undergoing repairs (and appears likely to continue doing so for some time.) During the Cold War, the Black Sea Fleet had thirty or more submarines.

The current Black Sea fleet is a pretty ragtag outfit, equipped with Cold War leftovers (the Kilo class sub was the youngest major ship it has). Most of the fifteen major surface ships are in need of repair, or not able to leave port at all. Some of the twenty minesweepers and missile equipped patrol boats date from the 1990s, but for the most part, the Black Sea fleet is a rest home for Cold War relics.

Last year, the government ordered the navy to concentrate on building new ships for the Black and Baltic Seas, instead of planning a high seas aircraft carrier fleet. The Black Sea fleet has been continually declining since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That decline was the result of new countries (like Ukraine and Georgia) inheriting old Soviet ships and bases. That was the dissolution deal. Whatever Soviet weapons or bases were normally were, belonged to one of the 14 new nations. Most of Russia’s high seas ships were based in northern Russia (the Northern fleet, based next to Finland and Norway) or the Far East (the Pacific fleet, based north of China and North Korea). But the Baltic and Black Sea fleets were largely based in ports that were now part of a foreign nation. Russia negotiated a lease on their large naval base in Sevastopol, but that lease expires eventually,  so Russia is building a new base to the east, on the Russian Black Sea coast.

For over a century, Russia had four fleets (Northern, Pacific, Baltic and Black Sea). The latter two were virtually destroyed by the dissolution. But now Russia is having political problems (largely caused by Russia) with Georgia and Ukraine, and could really use some additional (and modern) naval power. To a lesser extent, the same situation applies in the Baltic (where Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania harbored, and often built, many of the Soviet ships of the Baltic fleet.) Poland, while not part of the Soviet Union, was a major naval ally, as was East Germany. Thus the Baltic fleet is a fraction of what it once was, and needs rebuilding. That is expected to take a decade, at which point the new ships will have to be in place, because all the current ones will be dead of old age.





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