Russian admirals recently received some bad news. The persistent low oil prices and continued economic sanctions have caused the military and political leadership to reassess Russian strategy and procurement policy. GDP is shrinking and the government is having a hard time maintaining the high levels of spending planned to replace a lot of Cold War era equipment. Operations in Ukraine and the perceived threat from NATO and Eastern Europe means that the army and air force have priority when it comes to the budget. The navy leaders were assured that current spending plans would be supported, but the sanctions meant that importing ships and ship building technology have to be put on hold. This is very bad news for the navy because Russian ship yards are mostly mired in Cold War era practices (largely inefficient) and technology (obsolete in the rest of the world.) Admirals fear that the “Red Fleet” (as the mighty navy, second largest in world, was called during the Soviet period) is fading away. Russian industry cannot produce a lot of the electronics and special equipment modern ships (commercial and military) require. This makes upgrades difficult as long as the new Cold War with the West continues. The only alternative source available to Russia is China and while these two countries are currently allies, long term China has ancient claims on the Russian Far East provinces and is replacing Russia as the dominant economic power throughout Central Asia.
The Russian Navy has been fading since the Cold War ended in 1991 and the navy budget was cut by over 80 percent. This had some really drastic consequences. For example in 2012 Russia announced that its SSBNs (nuclear powered ballistic missile boats) would resume long range "combat patrols" that year. That didn’t happen. Before 2012 there had been only about ten such patrols a year by Russian nukes, each lasting three months or less. Most did not go far from Russian coastal waters and some were not even made by SSBNs. The problem here is that the Russian Navy has not only shrunk since the end of the Cold War in 1991 but it has also become much less active. Since the 1990s fewer and fewer of their nuclear subs went to sea on combat patrols. Most of the boats going to sea were SSNs (attack subs), not SSBNs. Most of these trips were 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 decade U.S. nuclear subs have carried out ten times as many patrols as their Russian counterparts.
Despite lots of effort (fiscal and otherwise) the Russian Navy is not being rebuilt and that means it is fading away. No amount of media razzle dazzle or government promises will replace the actual presence of your warships in distant waters. In the last few years the only such appearances have been mainly for show and the few that occurred were heavily covered by the Russian media.
On paper the Russian Navy currently has 270 combat ships (including amphibious and combat support vessels). But only about half of these are in any shape to go to sea. The rest are too old, and usually too poorly maintained for too many years, to leave port. Russian shipyards are terrible at building or repairing ships and efforts to remedy this have so far failed. Thus only about 15 percent of Russian naval vessels are major surface warships or submarines. In comparison the U.S. Navy has 290 warships and about 85 percent can go to sea (the others are being upgraded or repaired.)
In the last decade most of the Russian investment in ships has gone to maintaining submarines or building a few new ones. 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. Twelve of the SSBNs are Delta IVs, which are overdue for retirement and rarely got to sea. Russia has only 15 modern, 7,000 ton, Akula SSNs (nuclear attack subs) in service. Actually only nine are in service plus another that has been leased to India. The rest are in “reserve” for lack of money and crews. The Akulas began building in the late 1980s and are roughly comparable to the American Los Angeles class. All of the earlier Russian SSNs are trash (by current standards) and most have been decommissioned. The Chinese still have a few SSNs similar to these older Russian designs and when encountered it is surprising to young sailors manning the sonar how loud and easy to find they are.
Currently, the U.S. has 11 of the new, 7,700 ton, Virginia class SSNs in service, two getting ready to enter service and five under construction. Ultimately there will be 48 of these subs. The mainstay of the American submarine force is still the 6,100 ton Los Angeles-class SSN. Sixty-two of these submarines were built, 39 of which remain in front-line service, making it probably the largest class of nuclear submarines that will ever be built. The Seawolf-class of nuclear attack submarines stopped at three from a planned class of twenty-nine. The 8,600 ton Seawolf was designed as a super-submarine, designed to fight the Soviet Navy at its height. Reportedly, it is quieter going 40 kilometers an hour than the Los Angeles-class submarines are at pier side.
The Cold War spurred an arms race between the Russian and American navies. Thus 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. Now the navy is facing more budget cuts. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, most of the ship building money has gone into new nuclear subs and this will apparently continue, at the expense of new surface ships.
Since the 1990s six Akulas have been completed. Two of a new generation of SSBNs, the Borei class were completed but prevented from entering service by continued technical problems with a new ballistic missile and lack of money. The first two Borei class boats ended up costing over two billion dollars each. The ballistic missile for the Borei was just approved in 2014 there won't be enough of them to fill all the Borei silos until 2106 (or later).
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. By the late 1990s the mighty Soviet fleet was mostly scrap or rusting hulks tied up at crumbling out-of-the way naval bases.
While Western nuclear subs can last for about thirty years Russian models rarely get past twenty. That means two new SSN or SSGN have to be put into service each year to maintain a force of forty Russian boats. Unless the sub construction budget get billions more dollars a year, that is not going to happen. Right now, the priority is on producing a new class of SSBNs. Three Boreis are in service while six more are under construction. These Boreis are essential because they carry SLBMs that provide a critical (they are much harder to destroy in a first strike than land based missiles) portion of the nuclear deterrent. The rest of the Russian armed forces, like most of the navy, are in sad shape and unable to resist a major invasion. Only the ICBMs and SLBMs guarantee the safety of the state. So the way things are going now, in a decade or two, Russia will end up with a force consisting of a dozen SSNs and a dozen SSBNs.
The current Russian fleet of nuclear subs is tiny and the Russians would rather keep them tied up at dock most of the time. The crews can do a lot of training at dockside, and only go to sea a few times a year to check on their state of training. Given the number of accidents their subs have had in the past decade, the training the crews are getting now is not sufficient. Russia is still building new subs, but very slowly and in spite of incompetence and poor workmanship in the shipyards. The only new surface ships in the last decade have been small (under 2,000 tons) corvette types, good mainly for coastal patrol. Even smaller missile boats are also being built, in small numbers and again only really useful in coastal waters. The navy will be lucky to get any more of these coastal ships.
The current economic sanctions on Russia (over the attacks on neighbors like Ukraine) and plunging oil prices prevent any progress on halting the further decline of the navy and that is not expected to change for year. It is unclear how the Russian Navy is going to remain competitive. It is this vagueness that upsets the admirals the most. That and the fact that the Russian Navy is now being reassigned to its traditional role, as a supporting force for the army.