Russia couldn’t get the frigates it wanted, and so it is doubling down on larger and larger corvettes until the engine problem is solved. When it comes to ship classes much can get lost in translation. Often when Russians say “corvette” they mean the firepower of a frigate, and when they say “frigate” they mean the firepower of a destroyer. There are also signs that older Soviet ship classes, like Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyers, will be armed with Kalibr VLS cells. This would adapt Soviet hulls to better serve the strategy and vision behind the new navy Russia is trying to build, and thus extend their utility.
However, the Russian surface force still suffers from “distributed classality,” a disease inherited from the Soviet Union. Its chief symptom is building too many different ship classes with too few ships in each class. This, of course, is not a problem but a feature of Russian procurement, since it allows the Ministry of Defense to keep shipyards busy and employed building countless corvette variants, most of which will feature the same families of weapon systems. Part of the problem is also that the Russian Navy is learning what it wants—and what works—by building three to four ships in a class and then determining that changes should be made. The transition, like all remodeling jobs, is messy and will continue to look this way into the 2020s.
The Russian Navy Looks Best Underwater
Like the Soviet fleet, the Russian Navy’s best ships are submarines. This force is perhaps one fifth the size of its Soviet predecessor. Russia’s SSN roster includes ten Akulas, eight Oscars, three Victor IIIs, and perhaps three Sierras. The SSBN fleet has six Delta IVs and three Delta IIIs, along with three of the eight new Borei-class being built. The diesel-electric force consists of fourteen Project 877 kilos, six improved Project 636.3 kilos in the Black Sea Fleet, with another six being built for the Pacific Fleet.
While some of these submarines will begin to age into the 2020s and 2030s, several have had life extension and modernization packages already applied, and most have seen little in terms of operations through much of the 1990s and 2000s. Currently, a number of Russia’s SSNs and SSGNs are sitting in slipways receiving upgrades. Many of these subs have not been ridden very hard, and given Russian naval strategy centered on defending maritime approaches, they don’t have to venture far from home. Some believe that Russia’s submarine fleet is quickly approaching the end of its collective life span by 2030 and can’t be replaced in time. On the off chance they’re completely wrong, anyone thinking about forced-entry operations, or an easy trip into a Russian SSBN bastion, should probably bring life rafts.
Russia plans to upgrade some Akulas and Oscars, perhaps half, with new systems and missiles. In the case of the Oscar SSGNs, the conversion will produce a seventy-two missile package, with Kalibr or Oniks loaded. The rest will be retired, probably leaving Russia with four to six Akulas, four Oscars and no Victor IIIs by 2030. Sierra-class submarines will stay on since their titanium hulls are likely to outlive most of the readers of this article. Meanwhile Russia is building five more Borei-class SSBNs, and is completing the second ship of the Yasen-class SSGN (known in the United States as Severodvinsk-class), the Kazan. The Kazan (Project 885M) is an improved version of the Severodvinsk and the true lead ship in this class. Five more have been laid down, although given the submarine’s high cost, Russia is unlikely to build all of them, and might cap the class at a total of six or seven.
Despite the problems in Russian shipbuilding, submarine construction has actually fared quite well. Russia can produce a diesel-electric Kilo in about eighteen months, and can complete an order of six quite quickly. The entire diesel-electric fleet could be replaced with upgraded Project 636.3 submarines in eight to ten years. These submarines are cheap, quiet and can range much of the critical infrastructure in Europe with their Kalibr missiles. Success with air-independent propulsion continues to elude Russian engineers, but the 677 Lada-class is still going ahead in limited production as a tentative improvement on the Kilo.
The eight new SSBNs are due to be completed by 2021, and seven Yasen-class SSGNs by 2023. Assuming these deadlines slip to the right, as they always do, it would probably still leave Russia with eight new SSBNs and six advanced SSGNs by the mid-2020s. The refit packages on Akulas and Oscars will make Russia’s submarine fleet more multipurpose and versatile, allowing the same ships to perform new missions.
In the interim, Russia is designing a fifth-generation submarine that will serve as the base for a new SSN, SSGN and follow-on SSBN. These ships are intended to be modular, and the SSN variant particularly cheap to produce. Russia currently has twelve nuclear-powered submarines in construction or laid down. Not all are being worked on, but it’s evident that Russia can build quite a few nuclear-powered submarines at the same time. Assuming the first fifth-generation submarines are laid down by 2023–2025, Russia could begin recapitalizing retiring Soviet submarines by early 2030s. Most likely the Russian Navy will have thirteen less SSNs and SSGNs by 2030, made up for by six new Yasen-class SSGNs along with whatever additional submarines are built between 2025–2030.
The Yasen-class is of special note, since it is integral to Russia’s strategy of holding the U.S. homeland at risk in the event of a conflict. According to official statements, the submarine is the most technologically advanced adversary the United States faces in the undersea domain. Yes, Russia can only afford to build a handful, but this should bring little comfort and no cause for cheer. A single Yasen-class in the Atlantic can deliver thirty-two nuclear-tipped Kalibr missiles to the east coast. This is not a submarine one needs to have in large numbers.
Russia also has another navy, the one less heard from, called the General Directorate of Undersea Research (GUGI). This fleet has special purpose submarines based on modified Soviet designs, like the Podmoskovye Delta-stretch SSBN. Some are meant as motherships for smaller submarines, others perhaps to deploy drones, new weapon systems, or engage in innovative forms of undersea interdiction. Belgorod, a modified Oscar II, is currently under construction for this fleet as well. You may not spend much time thinking about GUGI, but GUGI is probably thinking about you.
Looking over the Horizon
The Russia’s defense industry still has plenty of problems to work through, from dysfunctional air-defense systems that struggle with integration, to air-independent propulsion that refuses to work. Nevertheless, there are interesting trends afoot based on the past several years of shipbuilding. Russian ship classes are staying the same in name, but the ships themselves are getting bigger. Note the Stereguichy corvette started at 2,200 tons when it was Project 20380, then it became 2,500 tons as Project 20385 (Gremyashchiy), and then it was laid down for 3,400 tons when modified to Project 20386 (Derzky). Similarly, rather than build some obscene nuclear-powered seventeen-thousand-ton destroyer, the Russian Navy seems set to expand the Gorshkov frigate class into a “super” Gorshkov. This might become a pocket destroyer, with one thousand to two thousand additional tons of displacement and more firepower. Corvette designs are also shifting towards “heavy” corvettes in the 3,500–4,000 ton range.
At first glance the Russian Navy appears to be the loser in the upcoming state armament program, soon to be announced in September. In reality, it will lose fairly little. The inane super projects like nuclear-powered destroyers and LHDs were unfunded, saving the Russian Navy from its occasional indulgence of maritime power megalomania, and instead focusing it on more pragmatic spending. Russia’s frigate program will continue once the gas-turbine problem is solved, but likely with a substantial redesign. The countless new systems introduced with the Gorshkov class all need to be worked out anyway.
In the interim the Russian Navy will remain a mess, but one that is slowly being cleaned up. The “kalibrzation” of the Russian Navy will continue, more Kalibr missile shooters, larger magazines and higher missile counts in storage. Russia will continue pumping out diesel and nuclear-powered submarines and refitting some of the existing Soviet platforms with current generation offensive systems as a cost-saving measure.
While the coming years will be spent on system integration and working out the problems in shipbuilding, new generation weapon systems—like hypersonic missiles—are already in development. For all its woes, the Russian Navy is actually in better shape than it ever has been in the post–Cold War period. Today ships and submarines are staffed entirely by contract servicemen, with conscripts used for shore duties. On the whole this is a service trying to recover from some of the worst decades in its history, but the Russian admiralty has room for cautious optimism.
There are still plenty of deficits to point to, but the Russian Navy isn’t going anywhere; when you look at the trend lines over the near to midterm, they are actually positive. Russia is building a navy that makes sense for its strategy. It is transitioning to a green-water force by design, while retaining and investing in capabilities that will allow it to deter or threaten stronger maritime powers for decades to come. So the next time you hear that the Russian Navy is disappearing, Russia is running out of people, out of money, or out of business, and want to test this theory, just remember to pack a life raft.