On April 5, 2021 the Severnaya Verf shipyard in Saint Petersburg launched the Project 20386 Merkuriy corvette nearly five years after her hull was laid down in October 2016. The stealth ship is intended to combine anti-submarine warfare, air defense, and surface warfare capability in one relatively compact package.
But the lack of fanfare accorded the launch may be explained by the total absence of super structure atop the vessel’s 109-meter-long hull, as you can see in this photo. While that will eventually be built (and the hull may even return to the slipway), the Project 20386’s immature state attests to the delays and controversy it has elicited.
Its design concept may sound familiar: a stealthy but unusually large littoral operations corvette, with modular mission systems, a complicated hybrid propulsion system and a high degree of automation to reduce crew size.
That perfectly describes the U.S. Navy’s notoriously troubled Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program which produced two types of expensive and complex but badly under-gunned corvettes prone to mechanical breakdown.
The similarity reportedly may not be a coincidence: in 2013 Russian Navy chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov visited the United States (pictured here) and was briefed on the littoral combat ship’s hoped-for capabilities. This was before the collapse of Russia-U.S. relations in 2014.
Upon returning, Chirkov eventually cut short construction of Project 20381 and 20385 corvettes to pursue a new modular Project 20386 evoking the LCS, originally named the Derzkiy (“Audacious”).
Project 20386 at least on paper comes out the gate with formidable firepower. But Russian press criticism suggests the project ran into many of the same problems bedeviling the LCS.
While preceding corvettes cost around 18 billion rubles, the Project 20386 officially has cost 29 billion rubles ($385 million), approaching the cost of an Admiral Gorhskov-class frigate. Rumors allege the real price to be as high as 40 billion rubles.
The Russian Navy has decided it can’t afford to wait longer for Project 20386. In 2020, it announced it was rebooting construction of Merkuriy’s predecessors, likely explaining why she was rushed off the slipway.
Russia’s Modular Stealth Ship
Navies are notoriously inconsistent in ship classifications, but both critics and advocates of the Project 20836 agree that at 3,400 tons the new corvette is practically a light frigate in terms of weight and cost.
While the Russian Navy does deploy smaller “third-rank” single-role corvettes like the Buyan-M missile boat, Merkuriy follows a line of “second rank” heavy corvettes begun with the 1,800-ton Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380 and 20831) and more heavily armed 2,500-ton Gremyashchiy-class (Project 20835).
These mount unusually powerful and versatile armament for their size, but suffer from unreliable diesel engines.
On paper, 109-meter-long Project 20386 continues their tradition, mounting an A-190 100-millimeter dual-purpose gun capable of 80 rounds per minute and a USKS vertical launch system in the central superstructure that can fire Kalibr supersonic anti-ship missiles (range 350 miles).
A sixteen-cell Redut surface-to-air missile system (a navalized version of the S-350) on the bow provided medium-range air defense, a rare capability for a corvette. Two AK-630M six-barrel 30-millimeter gatling cannons overlooking the vessel’s stern offer close defense.
Two Paket-NK 324-millimeter quad torpedo launchers nested in the hull sides can engage submarines, or even intercept incoming torpedoes. And finally, a Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopter can be tucked into a hull-interior hangar accessed via hydraulic lift.
But effort is being made to maintain the Merkuriy’s sleek, stealthy geometry by inserting weapons and sensors into cutouts in the hull. Use of vacuum infusion-molded composites (non-compustible multi-layer fiberglass and high-strength carbon fiber) further reduce the vessel’s radar reflectivity ostensibly to one-third that of her predecessors. Sound-dampening technologies developed for submarines were also integrated to reduce acoustic signature.
The vessel also will feature integrated open-architecture digital systems, with increased automation reducing crew complement from 100 in the Project 20385 to 80. Instead of diesel engines geared for fuel-efficient cruising, Merkuriy uses a novel arrangement: two Saturn 90FR gas turbines optimized for speed combined with two low-power Anzipod electric motors.
The Project 20386’s lower weight and wave-cutting hull designed to reduce water-resistance by 25%, ostensibly will lead to increased maximum speed of 30 knots (up from 27), and range from 4,000 to 5,000 nautical miles. The hull’s greater stability also allegedly allows the ship to remain combat effective in Sea State 5 (up from 4.)
The ultimately unsuccessful development of a modular mission system was a key source of cost overruns on the LCS. Russia’s modular concept differs somewhat: platform-agnostic containers that need only be plugged into a ship’s electrical grid.
Weapons modules include four-shot Kalibr cruise missiles containers, an additional Redut missile launcher, or a Pantsir-M short-range air defense system. An anti-submarine warfare module instead supports a Vignette-EM towed active/passive sonar array, which can ostensibly detect submarines in noisy shallow waters up to 10-20 kilometers away.
Other touted modules include facilities to support underwater mine-countermeasure drones, electronic warfare, electronic intelligent, hydrographic surveying, and a hospital facility with a surgical theater and intensive care unit.
Future of the Russian Navy—or costly boondoogle?
The immature state of the Merkuriy five years after she was laid down testify to cost overruns, funding shortfalls and technical difficulties encountered in her development. That has led to much criticism of the vessel in Russian media.
For example, in 2019 engineer Alexander Shishkin described Project 20386’s “absurdities” as including:
“1) over-sized at 3,400 tons; 2) lacks combat effectiveness (older Kh-35 anti-ship missiles, weak hydro-acoustics); 3) overloading of the precious non-penetrated stealth hull by the sub-deck helicopter hangar; 4) overly complicated 5) excessive cost of construction (close to the cost of Project 22350 frigate); 6) excessive cost and complexity of operation (associated with the maintenance of additional modules with service personnel); 7) Extreme ugliness of appearance; 8) Overloaded with innovations.”
(Note the firepower critique reflects the large eight-missile battery on the Project 20385, and initial plans to install older Kh-35 anti-ship missiles.)
More recently, military writer Alexander Timokhin ripped into the ship, arguing its design suffered from excessive focus on stealth and modularity. He pans the vessel’s AESA radar panels, mounted on corners of the superstructure for their low vantage, exposure to rough seas and compatibility with the Redut system.
“The bottom line is that it will be very difficult to shoot at low-flying targets [ie. missiles] even when the radar is working. They will simply be detected too late - the antennas are too low.”
He also singles out the hybrid gas-turbine/electric propulsion:
“…they missed the mark with the propulsion system: the electric motors used are too weak for this ship with a towed sonar array to have a sufficient search speed. And fuel economy while cruising will be low. Most likely, she will have to constantly cruise using the turbines in order to have an acceptable speed, even while searching. And this significantly increases fuel consumption and, consequently, cost, resulting in a reduction in range.”
Furthermore, he claims the gearbox for the hybrid system has created a production bottleneck and acerbically concludes: “[The launch] is really the first good news for Russian corvettes since 2016. Why good? Because a slipway has been freed up, on which something useful can theoretically be built….We have not laid down new littoral ships capable of fighting submarines for almost five years.”
Meanwhile, military writer Vladimir Volkonsky sees things differently:
“In the future, [Project 20386 corvettes] can become a useful asset for the Russian Navy. Recent events in the Middle East suggest that almost all operational and tactical tasks can be solved by warships of smaller displacement.”
Even if true, the new order for ten Steraguschiy and Gremyashchiy-class corvettes indicates that Merkuriy essentially remains a unique testbed for now until her capabilities mature—starting with having a superstructure atop her hull.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.