The One Word the Russian Navy Fears More Than Anything Else
Instead of cruisers and destroyers, Russia is focusing on smaller, but much more capable and heavily armed frigate and corvette-class vessels. Russia is building two frigate classes—the Admiral Gorshkov-class and the Admiral Grigorovich-class—which both displace under 5,000-tons, but unlike their Soviet-era predecessors, these are multi-mission warships that pack a significant punch. But the problem for the Russian Navy is that the vessel’s gas-turbine engines are built by Zorya-Mashproekt in Ukraine—a legacy of the Soviet Union. “The frigate program has run into a mess because of Ukrainian engines,” Kofman said. “They’re looking at substantial delays of probably at least five years.”
On the positive side, the Russians have learned to maintain and overhaul Ukrainian-made engines onboard their existing ships, Kofman said. However, the solution was to hire as many Ukrainian technicians as possible who were willing to work in Russia. Kofman noted Russia has not yet been able to indigenously produce its own gas turbines to replace those currently installed in its fleet. But Moscow is exploring the purchase of Chinese-built engines (which are “derived” from German engines made by MTU and China similarly benefitted from extensive cooperation with Ukraine in this sphere).
In addition to the frigates, the majority of Russia’s surface fleet construction has focused on corvettes, which are tiny, but pack an oversized punch. Unlike many larger U.S. Navy vessels—including the Littoral Combat Ship—Russian corvettes displacing around 2000-tons carry long-range land-attack cruise missiles—as the Caspian Sea flotilla demonstrated in Syria. Two major Russian corvette classes include the Steregushchy-class and the Buyan-M class. “You looking at a Navy that’s very green water, small ships that are not designed to go sustain themselves out on the ocean, but they’re going to have these really nasty Kalibr missiles on them,” Kofman said.
But the problem that plagues the Russian Navy is that its builds vessels in boutique quantities before moving onto a new class. That results in a logistical nightmare in terms of sustaining those vessels. One good example of that is the Ivan Gren-class tank landing ships, which are large and capable—but the Russians are building exactly two of those ships. That’s despite the fact that Moscow needs to replace the rest of its aging landing ship fleet, Kofman said. In fact, there are a host of vessel classes within the Russian Navy that were—and continue to be—built in pairs. “The Russian Navy suffers horribly from this distributed classisity problem,” Kofman said.
The underlying problem for Russia is that many of its shipyards—with the exception of those engaged in submarine construction—are an unmitigated disaster. On many occasions, ships are ordered simply for the sake of keeping a shipyard open or political patronage. “Russia’s shipbuilding industry is the worst of all its defense industries,” Kofman said—delays, technical problems and rampant corruption are commonplace. “A couple of the shipyards got racked with terrible corruption, the owners basically stole billions and ran off with them, which really hurt Russia’s shipbuilding plans.”
But while quality control or the lack thereof and corruption are problems, the single most fundamental—and easily solvable—problem with the Russian Navy can be summed up in one word: fire. The Russian fleet has lost more ships to fire than any other single cause. In June, a brand new state-of-the-art minesweeper lit up in the shipyard during construction—and while the Russians say the vessel can be salvaged and delivered on time, Kofman said that it is highly unlikely that will happen. Another incident was the November 2014 fire in Sevastopol that destroyed the Kara-class cruiser Kerch—which many regarded as the pride of the Black Sea fleet. “The Russian Navy's biggest enemy isn’t NATO, but its own maintenance and repair crews,” Kofman said.
But while the Russian surface fleet is a shadow of the former Soviet armada, it does afford the Kremlin significant combat capability—even given its limitations and materiel condition. The Russian fleet will likely never again possess the kinds of capabilities that its Soviet forbearer did, it will move to smaller but more capable platforms and use technology to make up the difference—less quantity and more quality. New weapons like the Kalibr cruise missile allows the Russian fleet to hold Western targets at risk from extended ranges—which means that from the Kremlin’s point of view—it’s worth the money. “The surface combatant fleet can do a lot, frankly, hardly having to leave port,” Kofman said. “It now has the missile range to do land attack and anti-ship pretty far out.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image Credit: Creative Commons.