Surface Forces: Russia Stumbles Towards The Future


August 21, 2018: In late July 2018 Russia finally received the first (of four) Admiral Gorshkov class 5,400 ton “stealth frigates.” These Project 22350 ships can operate in distant waters and are replacing Cold War era destroyers, few of which can still get to sea. Like most new Russian warships the Gorshkovs arrived late and in far smaller numbers than originally planned. The original plan, from 2003, was for the first of 20 Gorshkovs to enter service in 2011. Construction began in 2006 and the first Gorshkov was launched in 2010. Oncethat the first Gorshkov was in the water it was only about half complete and work slowed down. Already there were money problems and the plan was reduced to 15, then eight and finally four of these ships. A major reason for the delays and reduction of the number of ships was the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. That meant Russia could not get the gas turbine engines for these ships and that technology was developed and monopolized (during the Soviet period) by Ukrainian plants. It took a lot of money to develop a supplier in Russia and do it in a hurry. The second Gorshkov and its Russian gas turbines begins sea trials later in 2018 and it will be a year or so before it is known how reliable the Russian gas turbine engines are.

The Gorshkov's are armed with a 100mm gun, two Kashtan autocannon/missile systems for missile defense, 16 VLS cells for Oniks anti-ship missiles or Kaliber land attack cruise missiles, 32 VLS cells for anti-aircraft missiles (30 kilometers range), eight 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes and a helicopter.

Four Gorshkovs are too little too late and additional four improved models (Project 22350M) are planned but these will not enter service until the mid-2020s. That is something because until a few years ago, Russia was facing the loss of nearly all its surface warships to age and not many replacements entering service. The problem is that by 2010 most of the Cold War era warships that made up the surface fleet since the late 1980s had to be retired. These ships were falling apart, as there was not any money, since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, for repairs and upgrades. Russia came up with more money by 2010 to build enough surface ships to maintain a respectable but much smaller fleet. But there was a problem. Most of Russia's warship building capability had disappeared since 1991. To that end, the government negotiated with France to import modern warship building techniques. This was to be accomplished by purchasing two Mistral amphibious assault ship/helicopter carriers built in France and the right to build two more in Russian shipyards. During that process, Russian shipbuilders would learn how it's done in the West. From 1991 until 2010 most of the Russian construction effort went into finishing a few subs and building some surface ships for export. This plan was another casualty of the Ukraine invasion. The first two Mistrals were complete by 2014 but because of sanctions on Russia (for the Ukraine aggression) France refused to deliver, refunded Russia the billion dollars paid for those two Mistrals and then sold them to Egypt.

In 2010 the Russian surface fleet consisted of one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 17 destroyers, eleven frigates and about fifty corvettes. There were about twenty smaller (than Mistral) amphibious ships. All these Cold War era ships suffered from years of neglect during the 1990s, and most were not in the best of shape and will be gone by 2020. The one Russian carrier is undergoing an expensive, and long overdue, refurbishment to keep it in service through the 2020s but all the other Cold War era surface ships are not worth refurbishing. The Gorshkovs were meant to replace the 32 Krivak class frigates. These 3,500 ton ships were built in the 1970s and 80s and nearly all were retired by 2010.

The Gorshkov's cost about $400 million each and will replace larger ships like the 8,400 ton Sovremenny class destroyers. These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. The new Russian fleet will be a return to the traditional Russian coastal navy. Only four of the original 21 Sovremenny are still in service and one is undergoing refurbishment. These ships all were built in the 1980s and 90s. The last four built were for China. The Russian fleet could no longer afford large warships like this, but China could and is now building its own designs that are more similar to American designs.

The 30 Krirvaks and 20 Sovremennys were the primary surface warships of the Soviet high seas fleet. Two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed there will be about ten newly built “stealth frigates” (improved Krivaks) and nothing to replace the Sovremennys, although the four late model Sovremennys should last through the 2020s. Through the 1990s the rapidly aging Soviet Kirvaks and Sovremennys still gave Russia, at least on paper, the second largest high seas surface fleet on the planet. But after 2000 it became clear that China was going to displace Russia as the second largest surface fleet and it has.

There was one other class of replacement ships being built, a variation on the Krivaks based on a successful export design. In 2016, for the first time since the 1980s, the Russian Navy has received a new frigate (the Admiral Grigorovich) of the Project 11356M class. The 11356Ms are 4,000 ton ships with a top speed of 56 kilometers an hour, a crew of 200 and armed with eight Klub or Yakhont anti-ship missiles, a naval version of the Buk M3 anti-aircraft missiles system (36 missiles), two close-range autocannon for anti-missile defense, four torpedo tubes and a launcher for rocket-propelled depth charges and a helicopter. Delivery dates for more of these frigates were delayed because their gas turbine power plants come from Ukraine.

The 11356M is not a radical new design and is a modified version of the nine Talwar class frigates Russia designed for India in the 1990s as improved versions of the last Krivaks. Once six Talwars were delivered Russia ordered six of these Admiral Grigorovich class frigates to make up for the delayed Gorshkovs. The Grigorovich was based on the “stealth Talwar”. The last three Talwars were "stealth" frigates and the same size as the original Talwars India ordered in the 1990s. The Stealthy Talwars have their superstructure changed so as to reduce the radar signature (making the ship less likely to show up on enemy radars). Improved weapons and electronics are installed as well, making it a more formidable warship than the original Talwars. India built the stealth Talwars itself, as was the original plan. India is not ordering any more warships from Russia, as it has developed the capability to build what it needs locally. This now includes aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.


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