Russia Says It Will Add 180 New Warships by 2027 (But There Is a Big Problem)
Russia says it will add 180 new warships by 2027.
But can it afford to do so?
“In accordance with the 2018-2027 state armament program, the Navy is to get over 180 ships and vessels of new Projects," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Russian military chiefs, according to Tass.
"You face the task of creating modern conditions for the moorage and all types of support for the most advanced Yasen-and Borei-class nuclear-powered missile-carrying submarines, blue-water multirole frigates, warships furnished with long-range precision weapons and other ships and vessels," Shoigu said.
This year alone, 15 warships and 20 logistics vessels will be delivered to the Russian Navy, he said. To accommodate these ships, new naval bases will be built and existing ones expanded. In particular, the port of Kaspiysk will be upgraded for the Caspian Sea Fleet.
Interestingly, Shoigu claimed that the new naval bases won’t cost more money. “The draft armament program is aimed at both reconstructing the moorage places and engineering infrastructure facilities and optimizing the number of moorages, which will considerably cut expenses on their maintenance,” he said. “"The program has been drafted on the basis of the budget funds allocated to the Defense Ministry and won’t require any additional appropriations.”
Which raises the biggest question of all: can Russia afford such a massive expansion? The navy has about 300 surface warships and submarines, but only about half are major combatants such as carriers, cruisers, submarines, destroyers and frigates. The remainder are small craft such as missile boats, gunboats, minesweepers and landing craft.
Russia’s perennially anemic economy seems to be doing well at the moment, and much better than the post-Cold War doldrums, when budget cuts slashed Moscow’s military to a shadow of its Soviet glory. The Russian economy reportedly grew 2.3 percent in 2018, but even if true, that rate is unlikely to be sustained. The World Bank predicts only modest growth of 1.5 to 1.8 percent through 2020. Funding for an eight-year shipbuilding program would depend on several factors, especially the fickle oil and natural gas prices that provide the rubles for Russia’s military.
Paul Goble, a Russia expert at the Jamestown Foundation, is dubious about Russia’s capacity for massive naval expansion. “Moscow will likely not be able to overcome these problems anytime soon for three main reasons: massive corruption in the defense industry and especially in the shipbuilding yards, sectoral problems, including antiquated and inadequate facilities, and last, but far from least—Western sanctions,” he wrote last year.
This brings to mind a notorious incident in a Russian shipyard last year, in which one of the world’s largest floating drydocks sank – and tore a hole in Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
“Ships, shipyards and trained personnel cost money,” says Craig Hooper, a former U.S. shipbuilding executive. “I do not see how Russia can add 180 warships by 2027 without money. Russia could, of course, count tiny unmanned baubles as new ships and subs, but, at some point, fancy unmanned ‘adjuncts’ to a capable manned vessel become a poor country's only possible means to engage in the great game in the maritime.”
The problem with naval shipbuilding is that ships take a long time to build. As the U.S. Navy has discovered, budgets can be cut, and purchases of ships canceled or delayed, for a variety of political and economic reasons. Indeed, American shipyards have major problems, Congressional investigators concluded last year. Scheduled maintenance for many U.S. nuclear submarines has been persistently delayed by overtaxed shipyards and labor shortages that have created massive maintenance backlogs.
The indications are that Russia’s naval expansion will face even worse problems. The Russian Navy will certainly receive new warships by 2027. It remains to be seen how many it will get.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.