Today’s Russian Navy taking the asymmetric route – with caveats

DR ROD THORNTON

On the day that the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, put to sea for the first time in June, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon compared it to what he called the ‘old and dilapidated’ Russian carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov – seen recently operating off Syria. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman shot back saying that the Queen Elizabeth represented a ‘large convenient target’. This statement rather echoes what Dimitri Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister responsible for defence procurement, said recently. When discussing what types of vessels would be ordered for the Russian navy in future, he said that it would be receiving what he called ‘muscular ships’ (myshechnyye korabli). By this he meant small but quite heavily armed multi-role vessels – i.e. frigates and corvettes. These, said Rogozin, would not ‘provide a great target for the enemy’ – himself implying that the likes of aircraft carriers would do. Thus Rogozin seems to be implicitly indicating a move away from any future Russian carrier-building programme or, indeed, of any capital ship; at least anytime soon. Small, it seems, is now beautiful in the Russian navy.

Reflecting such a sentiment, the word now being used in naval circles, much as it is across the rest of the Russian military, is ‘asymmetric’. That is, debates are ongoing as to how a relatively weak Russian armed forces (compared to its NATO opponent) can develop and utilise radical thinking allied to smaller, high-tech systems to best create strategic, operational and tactical effect on adversaries. And while, in terms of the Russian navy, there is much in this move towards asymmetric thinking that is driven by a change in the maritime operational environment where greater risks are, indeed, now being run today by ‘large targets’, it is also a reflection of the fact that this navy is having to adjust to certain fundamental domestic factors which are imposing restrictions on the size and nature of its fleet.

It is these restrictions that will more than likely shape the soon-to-be-published State Armaments Programme (Gosudarstvennnia Programma Vooruzheniia – GPV 2018-2025). In this new GPV it seems that the navy overall – which in recent years has been the favoured arm of service in terms of defence-budget funding – will be moving well down the procurement pecking order. Thus it is unlikely, reflecting Rogozin’s comments, to include any plans to build capital ships – including aircraft carriers. However, the capital ships that the navy currently possesses will, it seems, be kept afloat for as long as possible. This is despite the fact that they do themselves represent ‘large targets’; are very expensive to maintain, and do not fit into the current asymmetric logic. To understand this seeming anomaly a small historical excursion is called for.

Given that Russia is a land power, the navy has rarely figured large in Russian/Soviet military thinking. During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy – and despite the efforts of the inimitable Admiral Sergei Gorshkov from the 1960s onwards – ranked last in terms of the armed forces ‘order of preference’. It was behind the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Ground Forces, the Air Defence Forces and the Air Force. And after the end of the Cold War, of course, the service went into steep decline: hundreds of vessels simply rotted away in port; building programmes were halted, and only a threadbare force of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) was kept in any way operational. From roughly 2008 onwards, however, the situation changed. The Russian navy now came to occupy first place in terms of any order of service preference. For instance, in the last GPV of 2011-2020 (which was approved in 2010 and was backed by increased oil and gas revenues), the navy was allocated the largest share (i.e. 25%) of the defence budget that was devoted to procurement and modernisation across the whole of the armed services. New surface vessels and submarines then came to be built with notable speed and the July 2015 Maritime Strategy (Morskaia Strategiia) trumpeted plans for the construction of a large, blue-water navy.

The navy had, importantly, now become the politicians’ favourite service. Both President Dimitri Medvedev (now prime minister) and then Vladimir Putin lauded the navy and are seen to look upon it with perhaps undue ‘affection’. This is not so much because the Russian state’s prime means of strategic deterrence lies with the navy’s SSBNs (of which there are now 12 capable of operational patrols), rather the affection is for surface vessels – and the bigger the better – that serve as symbols of state power and also, by extension, as symbols that underline the power of the political leaders themselves. Big warships are very good at reflecting and advertising what Russian politicians, going back to Peter the Great, have always wanted their country to exude – a sense of derzhavnost’ (‘greatpowerness’).

Russia has six such large surface vessels: the 55,000-ton Admiral Kuznetsov; the 25,000-ton nuclear-powered battlecruisers, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and its sister ship, the Admiral Nakhimov (currently in refit), and three 10,000-ton Slava-class cruisers (Moskva, Marshal Ustinov and Varyag). These all might be ageing legacy systems from the Soviet era, and they might be very costly to keep running, but they are still capable of being sent on long, blue-water and well-advertised voyages and to thereby garner considerable prestige given the image created by their sheer size.

Putin would today undoubtedly like to populate Russian naval slipways with replacement units of dimensions similar to those above. There are, however, significant impediments to such a course of action; and these are the ones which will influence the content of the aforementioned and upcoming GPV 2018-2025.

First, Russia no longer has shipyards which have either the facilities or the skilled workforce to construct large vessels. Prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union, all the navy’s capital ships were built in facilities that are now in Ukraine (although luckily for Moscow, all of the submarine-building yards were left on Russian territory). Construction of new frontline naval vessels has thus been limited to what these Russian yards are capable of producing, i.e. submarines of various designations (SSBN, SSGN, SSN and SSK) and relatively small surface vessels – frigates and corvettes. The second impediment is cost. With a falling oil price, the Russian budget is not currently in a position to consider funding the construction of large, expensive vessels, let alone the new facilities/construction techniques that would be needed to produce them. The third impediment to the development of larger units relates, as stated, to questions about their vulnerability in an era where they might, and without a host of protective guard ships, be said to represent a ‘large target’. The fourth impediment relates to current naval strategy and how long-range, blue-water assets fit into it. This strategy is built around three main tasks that do not require such assets. These are: maintaining a nuclear-strike capability (via SSBNs); providing a land-attack (cruise missile) capacity to support ground operations (as seen in Syria), and the creation of a green-water, anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) shield for home defence (a role which includes having assets in the eastern Mediterranean). These latter two tasks can be performed perfectly adequately either by submarines or the smaller surface vessels – Rogozin’s ‘muscular ships’ – the frigates and corvettes armed with highly capable land-attack cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles and anti-aircraft missiles. Large platforms have no obvious role in current Russian naval strategy.

But they do have a role if the concept of derzhavnost’ is considered. They are needed as status symbols; to show both Russian power and, in essence, to help bolster Putin’s own position, internationally and (perhaps more importantly) domestically, as the strong-man of Russia. Hence, the Russian navy will make every effort to keep operational for as long as possible (and at the very least) the Admiral Kuznetsov (currently about to undergo a $750m refit), the Pyotr Velikiy and the Admiral Nakhimov.

Image: Russian Navy anti-submarine ship Severomorsk, via Wikimedia commons.

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