Surface Forces: Eastern Promises

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December 29, 2015: Despite the current financial crisis Russia insists that it is proceeding with plans to rebuild its aging and largely obsolete surface fleet. Recently announced plans include a new aircraft carrier a nuclear powered one at that. Design work has begun on a new class of twelve destroyers to replace the Cold War era ones that remain (barely) in service. These may be large, to replace the modern (during the Cold War) cruisers Russia had as well as the badly needed destroyers. Russia is already building new frigates and corvettes, mainly for export but also for the Russian navy.

Despite all this talk the Russian surface fleet continues to rapidly fade away because of no new ships since the 1980s. The main problem is that Russian Navy 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 ballistic missile equipped 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 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 during the lean 1990s 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. This because Russia believed, rightly, that its subs were its least vulnerable and most effective warships. Despite that 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 twelve of the new, 7,700 ton, Virginia class SSNs in service, five under construction and 31 more planned. 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. This was also when the surface fleet was most active. That rapidly declined until, in 2002, there were no submarine patrols and very little surface warship presence abroad. 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. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, most of the ship building money has gone into new nuclear subs. Six Akulas have been completed in that time. 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 2015 or 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 (6 more Boreis are planned or 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. Russian surface ships face similar life expectancy problems.

The current Russian fleet is not only small but 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 ships have had in the past decade, the training the crews are getting now is not sufficient. Russia is still building new ships, but very slowly and in spite of incompetence and poor workmanship in the shipyards. The only new surface ships built since the Cold War 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 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 unless, as promised, Russia can keep defense spending at pre-2013 (when oil prices began plunging) levels.

 


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