As the State Armament Program (SAP) 2011–2020 is coming to an end, Moscow has floated a new military program for the 2018–2027 period. Despite the sanctions, economic difficulties and the collapse of oil revenues, the Russian Navy has demonstrated that it can contribute to Russia’s international posture, as demonstrated during the Moscow’s Syrian campaign. Among the five Russian naval formations—namely the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific fleets as well the Caspian flotilla—the Black Sea fleet has undergone the most remarkable changes since 2010. Although modest by their number and their tonnage, its units are involved in operations in the Black Sea basin, the Mediterranean, and more sporadically, beyond the Suez Canal and the Gibraltar Straits, in the “World Ocean.” New platforms inducted in the course of the 2011–2020 SAP have provided the Black Sea fleet with enhanced multirole capabilities, in spite of difficulties experienced by the VPK—the Russian military-industrial complex—to meet the objectives outlined in the armament program. While the Black Sea Fleet is inexorably transitioning to a green-water force, it features a growing ability to carry out cruise-missile strikes way beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood. Furthermore, it retains the ability to operate in remote maritime areas, such as the Levant.
Revamping the Black Sea Fleet: Half a Success
The modernization plan of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet outlined in the 2011–2020 SAP has not been fulfilled as originally thought. However, it has already produced tangible results, the first of which being the end of the continuing attrition of the operational capacities that affected the Russian navy during the 1990s and most of the 2000s. However, the Euro-Atlantic sanctions, on the one hand, and the rupture of the cooperation between the Russian VPK and Western and Ukrainian defense industries, on the other hand, have jeopardized the construction of some platforms, while delaying the completion of other new units. From the six initially planned Project 11356M frigates (Admiral Grigorovicth type), only three have been commissioned, whereas the three others have been left without their Ukrainian made turbines. Russia is waiting for Saturn—a Russian company based in Rybinsk—to come up with a national replacement solution, something that could be done in 2018. The Project 21631 small missiles ships and the Project 21980 anti-saboteur boats received until 2014 their German made engines, manufactured by MTU. Russian VPK have had to turn to China after the Ukrainian crisis to find a replacement solution after Germany ceased its cooperation with Russia. Chinese turbines are problematic, since the they do not seem powerful enough. Only the five first units of the Project 21631 have received their German turbines. Three of them have been assigned to the Caspian flotilla, which is regrouped together with the Black Sea Fleet in the Southern Military District. The two other missiles ships have been transferred to the Baltic Fleet. Russia’s objectives to enhance its submarine capabilities in the Black Sea have been met successfully; the six planned Project 0636.3 conventional submarines have all been inducted in the fleet. They carry Kalibr cruise missiles, and together with the new Project 11356M frigates and Project 21631 small missiles ships, they have carried out cruise missiles strikes in Syria from the Eastern Mediterranean. Dispatched in the Levant and in the Black Sea basin, these platforms can hit targets in most of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia.
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Acknowledging the technical and financial difficulties raised by the sanctions and the cessation of industrial cooperation with foreign actors, Russia decided in 2014–2015 to launch two new construction programs for the Black Sea Fleet: small missiles ships of the Project 22800 and small patrol boats of the Project 22160. The Project 22800 features Kalibr cruise missiles while being a very light surface platform at only 800 tons. Seven units have already been laid down, all slated for the Black Sea Fleet, with the lead ship scheduled to be commissioned in 2018. Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet’s only high sea vessel, the Soviet-era missiles cruiser Moskva (Project 1164), should undergo a reparation and deep-modernization cycle in the near future, possibly at Sevastopol shipyard. The SAP 2011–2020 does not include any refreshment, let alone expansion, of the blue water capacities of the Russian navy at all.
Singularity of the Black Sea Naval Theater: Russia's Need for a Multidirectional Defense
Contrary to the other naval theatres, in the Black Sea, Russia has to maintain a multidirectional defense. From Moscow’s view, the two main maritime threats identified in the Black Sea basin are emanating from NATO navies activity, on the one hand, and Ukraine, on the other hand. The first one is immediate and limited to the Black Sea waters. The second could take shape in the middle term and emanate from the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Whereas Russia intends to contend with the security challenges posed by NATO activity through asymmetric defensive capabilities (A2/AD) and conventional deterrence (Kalibr), the future potential threat posed by the resurgence of a modest Ukrainian naval force calls for different solutions. First, it should be underlined that the Black Sea/Sea of Azov is the only naval theatre where Russia faces a openly hostile neighbor, with which it is in a quasi-open war. Second, Kiev has displayed a willingness to create in the years to come a “mosquito fleet” of small artillery and small missiles ships, that is, to pose an asymmetric challenge to a locally more powerful Russian navy. Therefore, the small missile ships Russia has decided to build are primarily intended to handle this perceived threat, especially in the Sea of Azov where their light tonnage and their speed are designed to counter any sabotage-type operation. Moscow is especially concerned that the Kerch Bridge, which is being built across the Kerch Strait between mainland Russia and Crimea, could be the target of saboteurs or of provocative actions.
Several Russian lines of defense are therefore taking shapes in the Black Sea basin. The first one would cross the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea maritime space between Crimea and Ukraine, where Russian naval plans are aimed at contending with a future asymmetric threat posed by the potential resurgence of Ukrainian “mosquito” naval forces. Fast attack boats of Raptor type, small patrol boat of Project 22160 and small missiles ships of Project 22800 are likely to complement coastal artillery and air assets to counter this first challenged. It should be underlined that, in the Black Sea Fleet, just like in the Baltic and Northern Fleet, the coastal troops have been regrouped in an army corps, providing them with an enhanced autonomy and a greater agility. The second line of defense spans across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and is designed to face NATO. Russia claims a naval supremacy in the Black Sea basin and seeks to be able to lock the area through various asymmetric capacities designed at deterring NATO navies. The aforementioned platform, Admiral Grigorovitch frigates, Kilo-class subs and the missile ships of Project 21631 are assigned to fulfill this mission. Both lines of defense could also be complimented with platforms dispatched on Russian rivers (Volga or Don) and in the Caspian Sea. The third line of defense is in the Eastern Mediterranean, where a Russian naval task force has been permanently cruising since the beginning of the 2010s. The Black Sea fleet provides the bulk of the units that are assigned to the East Mediterranean on a rotational basis. Since its military intervention in Syria, Russia has secured naval and air assets on Syrian shores. Having dispatched anti-air complexes (S-300 and S-400) and anti-ships capabilities (Bastion battery), its taskforce can sail in a relatively safe environment. Project 11356M frigates, Project 0636.3 submarines and the Moskva cruiser have formed the backbone of the task force since 2015. Constrained by the terms of the Montreux Convention (1936) on the Turkish Straits, Moscow cannot send have its conventional subs going back and forth from the Black Sea for combat duty. Therefore, it should be expected to see at least one or two of new Kilo-type submarines based in Tartus, Syria. This would require Russia to upgrade its naval infrastructures in Tartus to properly accommodate the submarines. This third line of defense is nothing but the demonstration of Russia’s ability to project littoral warfare in a remote maritime area. However, whether Moscow would need and would be able to recreate such a favorable environment in another part of the world remains to be seen.
The "Littoralization" and The "Kalibrization" of the Black Sea Fleet
Moscow aims to exert naval supremacy in the Black Sea by fielding a range of advanced nuclear, conventional and asymmetric capabilities to balance its perception of a strategic military inferiority vis-a-vis NATO. At the core of the three-layered multidirectional defense line lies the Kalibr cruise missile, which allows Russia to exert a conventional deterrence. Due to the difficulty in fielding new frigates and heavy corvettes, Moscow has embarked on a construction program of light tonnage vessels which are nevertheless heavily armed. The Russian Minister of Defense is set to place orders for this type of light vessels in the next armament program (2018–2027). One can expect new missiles ships (like those from the Project 21631 or, more likely, from the Project 22800) will be inducted in the Black Sea Fleet. So far, Russia has not displayed any intention of renewing the Black Sea Fleet’s amphibious component—even though it has relied upon it to support the Syrian regime since the beginning of the 2010s. These old Soviet-era amphibious platforms (Project 775 and Project 1171) are nevertheless relatively inexpensive to maintain and easy to repair.