Winning: The Russian Navy Suffers Heavy Losses

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February 2, 2019: The prolonged low oil prices are 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 the loss of Ukrainian defense industry suppliers has forced Russia to make a number of changes that have not been mentioned in navy press releases. Forced to make major cuts in defense spending and do so in a way that does the least damage ended up hitting naval shipbuilding particularly hard. Only one of these cuts made the news and was because the only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov (built in 1990), was undergoing one last refurbishment in a floating drydock. But a shipyard worker accidentally caused the drydock to sink with the Kuznetsov in it. The carrier got out with some damage but the Swedish built (in 1980) drydock was too expensive to replace or even recover. The refurbishment of the Kuznetsov was canceled and while the ship may be optimistically placed in reserve (pending future opportunities to revive it) the navy now lacks any carriers. It may be decades, if ever, before they have an operational carrier. The two Kirov class battlecruisers (completed in 1988 and 1998) are being scrapped because there is no money for maintenance and needed refurbishment on the older ship.

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 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 available 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) 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 will probably shrink 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.

Now the Russian navy is in desperate shape. The latest example of how this is working out can be seen in the continuing delays getting the new class of 4,500 ton frigates (the Gorshkov class or "Project 22350") into service. Construction on these began in 2006 but by 2010 only one had been launched and it was still only half complete. Two have been completed since then but work on two more has been halted. The navy wanted twenty Gorshkovs to replace the Cold War era Sovremenny class destroyers and Burevestnik class frigates. The government has only promised money for twelve Gorshkovs and has since raised that to fifteen. But so far the first Gorshkov has not passed sea trials. This ship was commissioned in 2017 but could not enter service until it passed the sea trials. So far the Gorshkov has not done so. The latest delay is the failure of the anti-aircraft missile system to function properly. There are also problems with the engines. The builder says all would be ready soon. A second Gorshkov was launched in 2014 and was to be ready for sea trials in 2018. A third Gorshkov is under construction but the launch date is unknown because another side effect of the Ukraine invasion was Ukraine refusing to supply any more naval turbines. Russia said it was having a Russian firm begin construction but that is behind schedule and now it looks like no more Gorshkovs (aside from the first two) will be available for completion until the early 2020s.

The Gorshkov's are armed with a 130mm gun, two Kashtan autocannon systems for missile defense, 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), 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. These ships 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 will replace larger ships like the 7,900 ton Sovremenny class destroyers. These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. 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.

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 designs. 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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