Surface Forces: The Collapse Of Competence

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August 19, 2020: During July 2020 the Russian navy put the 5,400-ton frigate Admiral Kasatonov into service after the successful completion of sea trials. This comes eleven years after construction began and nearly six years after the Kasatonov was launched. It also comes two years after the first ship (the Gorshkov) of the class entered service. Two more of these Project 22350 Gorshkovs are supposed to enter service in 2022. These began construction in 2012 and 2013. As of late 2019 these four trouble-plagued Project 22350 ships were to be the only ones built.

There had been plans to build four more upgraded Project 22350M frigates and construction on two of them had begun in early 2019. The 22350M frigates have a larger hull that the original Gorshkov, weigh 8,000 tons and have more weapons and more equipment that might not work. There were many in the Defense Ministry who wanted to cancel the 22350M frigates. Apparently, the success of the Kasatonov during trials changed minds because, the day before Kasatonov entered service, construction of the second two 22350M frigates began. The first 22350M frigate is scheduled to enter service in 2024 with the second one entering service in 2025.

This revived confidence in the 22350 series frigates did not revive interest in the 19,000-ton Lider class (Project 23560) nuclear-powered cruisers. The Lider class ships were originally proposed as 12,000-ton cruisers without nuclear power. With nuclear power they replace the Cold War era 28,000 ton-Kirov class battlecruisers. Without nuclear power the Libers replace the similar, but older, Slava class cruisers. The shrinking Russian defense budget can afford the 8,000-ton 22350M frigates but not cruisers, nuclear or otherwise.

The four Kirovs are not aging well and two have already been retired. The other two are being refurbished, a process that takes at least three years, and keeps both ships operational into the 2030s. The nuclear powered Lider were to cost $1.4 billion each. That’s more than three times what the original Gorshkovs cost and twice what the larger Gorshkov will go for. Many naval experts saw the Kirovs as an expensive type of ship Russia could not afford and really did not need. The same applied to the nuclear-powered Liders and, for a while, the larger Gorshkovs.

What really killed the Liders and nearly eliminated the larger Gorshkovs was not just a shrinking naval budget but the many problems encountered with the Gorshkovs and the realization that these problems might not go away in a larger version. Numerous delays getting the first Gorshkov into service played a large role in the cancellation threats. The navy originally wanted twenty Gorshkovs to replace the Cold War era Sovremenny class destroyers and Burevestnik class frigates.

Until 2019 the government only promised money for 12-15 Gorshkovs. These building plans were contingent on these new ships proving their worth. That apparently did happen, at least as far as the second Gorshkov was concerned. If the builder and the navy ship construction management officers can keep quality up and everything on schedule, there may end up being fifteen of these frigates. The first Gorshkov finally passed sea trials a year after it “entered service” in 2018. One of the delays involved the failure of the anti-aircraft missile system to function properly. There were also problems with the engines. The builder kept insisting it would be ready soon, but “soon” kept getting extended. In part these engine problems were a side-effect of the 2014 Ukraine invasion. That quickly led to Ukraine refusing to supply any more naval turbines. The navy had a Russian firm building these but that is often behind schedule as well and ships like the Gorshkovs had to use turbines.

The original Gorshkov's are armed with a 130mm gun, two Kashtan autocannon systems for missile defense and 8 Yakhont 3M55 or PJ-10 BrahMos anti-ship missiles. Both are three ton supersonic missiles, with the BrahMos being an advanced version of Yakhont developed in cooperation with India. There are also a launcher for 24 Uragan 1 (SA-N-12) anti-aircraft missiles (30 kilometers range, 70 kg/154 pound warhead), four 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes, four RPK-9 (SS-N-29) anti-submarine rockets and a helicopter. Gorshkovs require a crew of 210 sailors and will have the latest electronics the Russians have available for anti-air and anti-submarine work. These ships cost about $400 million each and are capable of doing most of what the older, larger 7,900-ton Sovremenny class destroyers did.

These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. Given the shrinking naval budget and quality control problems with larger ships, the only new ships still being built are smaller ones. The new fleet will be a return to the traditional Russian navy job of defending coastal waters. Even accomplishing that mission is in doubt if Russian cannot get its shipyards up to speed. Russia has been able to build some new corvettes but these are smaller and much less capable ships than the Gorshkovs.

Prolonged low oil prices are also doing major damage to the Russian Navy. Less oil income on top of the damage done by economic sanctions because of the Ukraine invasion, plus the additional production costs caused by loss of Ukrainian defense industry suppliers, has forced Russia to make a number of changes that have not been mentioned in navy press releases.

Russia has been trying since the late 1990s to build replacements for Cold War era warships. Most of these have reached the end of their useful lives and many of them, while still listed as in service, rarely, if ever, seem to leave port. Russian admirals have been aware of the fact that they won't have much of a navy by the 2020s unless these older ships are replaced. The problem is that the older ships cannot be easily or cheaply refurbished or upgraded because that would cost more than buying new ones, These older ships are not just falling apart, but because there was not any money available right after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there were few repairs and no upgrades during the 1990s.

The twelve destroyers currently in service were all completed in the 1980s and 1990s. There is also one 1960s vintage destroyer in the Black Sea, which is more for show than active service. The destroyers are wearing out quickly and won’t be fit for service much longer. The plans for two new classes of destroyers have been put off until the 2020s. The current destroyers suffered from lack of maintenance in the 1990s and there is no money for refurbishment. These dozen destroyers won’t last much beyond 2030, at least not as ships that can stay at sea much. There has been some new construction for frigates (ocean-going ships displacing about 4,000 tons) but some of that construction has stopped or been canceled. Construction of smaller ships like corvettes (500-1,000 tons) and patrol boats is continuing but not at a rate to replace all those currently in service. These smaller vessels are mainly for coastal security and the Cold War era fleet had a lot more of these because Russia was a classic police state that enforced strict border controls. That has been loosened up since the Cold War ended and the loss of many older ships will not leave the coasts undefended.

Submarines were one ship type that got priority for new construction even in the 1990s but that has now slowed down. This is critical when it comes to building replacements for the last Cold War class of SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile subs) which were all completed in the 1980s. These have been quietly retired or “semi-retired” (only going to sea for training). Priority was put on building eight new Borei class SSBNs. These were delayed and the first one did not enter service until 2013. There are now four in service but construction on the other four has been stopped. Some of these are half-built but there is simply no money to finish them now. So the SSBN fleet is in danger of shrinking to four subs for a while, maybe a long while.

The Russian economy revived in the late 1990s and parliament came up with more money after 2000 to build enough surface ships to maintain a respectable fleet. But that revealed another problem. Most of Russia's warship building capability, experience and skills disappeared after 1991. Before 2014 the government thought it had a solution and that was to make a deal with France to import modern warship building techniques, by purchasing two Mistral amphibious assault ship/helicopter carriers, and the right to build two more in Russian shipyards. During that process, Russian shipbuilders would learn how it's done in the West. Since the late 1990s, most of the Russian construction effort went into finishing a few subs and building some surface ships for export. Even these subs had serious construction problems. Mainly it was quality control and the Navy refused to accept ships, especially subs that could not pass sea trials. Apparently, the shipyards were ordered to put all their efforts into the subs and eventually some of these limped into service. But the deal to import French shipbuilding techniques disappeared when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. France refunded the billion dollars paid for the two Mistrals (and later sold them to Egypt) leaving the Russians on their own.

The Gorshkovs are not an isolated example. The same problems have been encountered with the Su-57 stealth fighter, the radical new T-14 tank, the new Borei SSBN and the Bulava ballistic missile for Borei. In general, Russian defense industries continue to have problems developing new technology or even manufacturing older items reliably. The Russian space program is having similar problems with its rockets. The list goes on and on. Russia plays down all these problems but the net result is they have very little locally produced stuff to replace their Cold War designs. Worse, China is now producing improved and more reliable versions of those Cold War era weapons, along with new Western tech (like large, missile-armed UAVs) that Russia cannot master. In the late 1980s the Soviet (Russian) Navy was the second largest in the world and largely consisted of new ships, many of them nuclear-powered and equipped with a formidable array of weapons. All that is largely gone now. China has left its Cold War era ship designs behind and is copying Western ships. So are the Russians, but not as competently as the Chinese. Nor can the Russians build dozens of new warships a year and have them operate reliably. American intel collecting aircraft, ships and satellites monitor sea trials for new Russian and Chinese ships and note that the Chinese are doing much better. Now the second largest fleet in the world is Chinese and it is looking to be a far more dangerous adversary than the Soviet fleet ever was.

 


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