May 1, 2009  

The Russian Navy revitalized

Moscow will use sea power in its quest for greater world influence

he Russian Navy today is not nearly as powerful as its predecessor, the Soviet Navy, at the peak of its strength in the mid-1980s. However, its prospects are brighter today than they were only few years ago. Russia seems to be determined to restore its status, and its Navy is perhaps the most effective instrument to achieve that end.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Navy was decimated by a shortage of funds. Many of its ships were scrapped or laid up. The Navy’s inventory of ships was reduced by a half and naval aviation reduced by about 60 percent. In 1997, the Black Sea Fleet was divided between Russia and Ukraine. The Caspian Flotilla was divided among Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. All naval bases outside of Russia were evacuated except Sevastopol. The shipyard at Nikolayev, Odessa, was lost. Naval ship repair facilities in the Baltic States were also lost. Nevertheless, about two-thirds of the 170 factories supporting shipbuilding remained under Russia’s control. The lowest point in the Navy’s activity was in 2002, by which time fleet construction was essentially at a stop. Since then, however, the Navy’s fortunes have turned with the improvement in the country’s economy. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in late January that despite the financial downturn, plans to expand and modernize the Navy would proceed. Therefore, the Navy’s future role will increase, if for no other reason than Moscow’s firm determination to restore Russia as a great power.

The Russian Navy’s main mission in peacetime is to enhance strategic nuclear deterrence; secure Russia’s access to the resources of the world’s ocean; prevent any state or military-political bloc from dominating those areas of the world’s oceans critically important to Russia, especially the seas bordering the Russian Federation, to safeguard Russian sea lines of communications; and to maintain naval presence in various parts of the world’s oceans in support of the country’s foreign policy objectives. The Navy also can be called on to prevent outbreaks of regional conflicts, eliminate breeding grounds of international terrorism as part of international forces under the United Nations, and to take part in international operations safeguarding economic activity in the seas and oceans and along the continental shelf zone.

In the case of war, the Navy participates in the activities of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, including the use of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons.

In early 2008, the Navy had about 230 combatants in service. Their average age was 21 years. It was organized into four seagoing fleets — Northern (headquartered in Severomorsk); Pacific (Vladivostok), Baltic (Baltiysk), and Black Sea (Sevastopol) — plus the Caspian Sea Flotilla (Astrakhan). The largest and most important of these was the Northern Fleet. In 2008, it consisted of 10 ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and 22 nuclear- and diesel-powered attack submarines (SSNs and SSKs), one aircraft carrier, one nuclear-powered heavy missile cruiser, five destroyers, two frigates and 26 patrol ships. The Naval aviation fleet consisted of 25 Tu-22M Backfire bombers, 24 Su-27 Flanker interceptors and 10 Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft.

The Navy’s personnel strength is estimated at 161,000, not including naval aviation and naval infantry. A great majority of sailors are poorly trained, one-year conscripts and skilled two- to three-year volunteers serving under contract.

Strategic deterrence has the highest priority for both the Soviet and the Russian navies. Currently, Naval Strategic Nuclear Forces consist of 12 SSBNs in active service: one Borey class, three Typhoons, three Delta IVs and five Delta IIIs. The Delta IVs were built between 1984 and 1991, while the Delta IIIs were commissioned between 1978 and 1981. All Deltas underwent midlife repair and modernization to extend their service to 2020. This used up a major part of the Navy’s funds for ship repair and therefore negatively impacted older SSK maintenance. The Delta IVs are being fitted with new sensors and 7,175-mile-range R-29 Sineva missiles, each carrying 10 warheads.

The lead boat of the Borey-class was laid down in 1990 and launched in April 2007; two others were laid down in 2004 and 2006. All three SSBNs are planned to be in service by 2012, and a fourth boat is planned. Each boat will be armed with 12 new 6,200-mile range R-30 Bulava-M missiles carrying 10 warheads. About 70 percent of all the Navy’s construction funds were assigned to the construction of the Borey-class SSBNs plus Bulava missiles. The Bulava missile is a naval version of the land-based Topol-M missile. It is designed to change course and altitude, and penetrate any anti-missile system. Originally, the missile was planned to be fully operational in 2007. However, five of 10 tests, including one in December, were failures. Despite these setbacks, the Russian Navy plans to conduct more than five tests with Bulava this year and next. The requirement to field Bulava by 2010 is to have two more successful tests.

The Russian SSBNs conducted only one patrol in 2001 and none in 2002. They resumed deterrent patrols in 2003 and have averaged two or three a year since. In contrast, the Soviet SSBNs conducted 61 patrols in 1990 alone. Because of the shortage of the funds, Russia cannot maintain more than 20 percent of its SSBNs on patrol. In contrast, the U.S. Navy maintains about 50 percent of its SSBN force on patrol at any time.

Only six Oscar II-class nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarines (SSGNs) are currently in service. The number of SSNs has declined steadily since the 1990s because of the lack of funds. There are 15 SSNs in service, and the only new SSN under construction since 1993 is the Graney-class SSN/SSGN. Reportedly seven of these boats are planned to be built, with the first entering service in 2010.

The Russian Navy still operates about 15 Kilo-class SSKs. The construction of the first Lada SSK started in 1997. However, because of the technical difficulties, the lead boat was not launched until 2004. It underwent trials in 2008. Reportedly two more Ladas are under construction.

The lifetime of Western nuclear-powered submarines is about 30 years, compared with 20 years for Russian submarines. This, in turn, means two new SSNs or SSGNs must be put into service each year to maintain a force level of 40 boats. Unless more funding is available, that force level is bound to decline in the future years. This means the Russian Navy might end up with a force of only about a dozen each SSNs and SSBNs.

The sole aircraft carrier in service is the Kuznetsov-class with one air regiment of 24 Su-33 Flanker-D fighter aircraft on board plus 17 attack helicopters. This situation will apparently improve in the next decade. In 2007, the Russian Navy’s then commander in chief, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, said several Russian design bureaus received a state order to design a prospective aircraft carrier. The new carriers will displace 60,000 tons and will be nuclear-powered. (By comparison, a U.S. Nimitz-class carrier displaces about 97,000 tons.) They also would carry the fifth-generation fighters intended to replace Su-33s plus unmanned aerial vehicles. At least three carriers each will be built for the Northern and the Pacific Fleets. The construction of the lead ships will start in 2012-2013 and they are expected to enter into service in 2017. Each aircraft carrier will require up to six escorts, including one or two missile cruisers, a missile destroyer and two or three anti-submarine destroyers/frigates. The Russian shipyards must have the capability to launch one aircraft carrier every three years and four months if the current plans have to be fulfilled.

The largest surface combatant in service is one 25,000-ton Kirov-class heavy missile cruiser. Only three of the smaller Krasina/Slava cruisers remain in service. The Navy also operates 18 guided-missile destroyers. Also in service are 16 frigates, including two new Gepard-class ships. The Gepard class was intended to replace the older Koni-class. Several interim hulls were laid down but subsequently scrapped. The lead ship was commissioned in 2002, and the second entered service in 2008. Construction of the first of the Admiral Gorshkov frigates began in 2006. Reportedly three or four ships of the same class are planned to be built by 2015. Eventually about 20 ships are planned, five for each of four fleets.

The fleet also includes 145 corvettes, a single large landing ship and nine smaller amphibious ships. The first Steregushchy multipurpose corvette was commissioned in November 2007, and two more are planned.

In the 1990s, the failure to provide sufficient funds for maintenance and repairs resulted in the decommissioning of many ships that could have remained in service for another 10 to 20 years. The Russian ships are estimated to be some 20 to 30 years behind comparable foreign ships technologically. Because of the emphasis on the modernization of SSBNs, large-scale modernization of surface forces is simply not possible. In the current modernization program through 2015 and totaling 4.9 trillion rubles ($146 billion), some 25 percent is assigned to warship construction.

The aviation fleet has about 230 aircraft operationally controlled by the respective fleet headquarters. Each of four fleet air forces has one air division consisting of three air regiments, each with two 10-aircraft squadrons. The main mission of naval aviation is to obtain air superiority in the respective fleet area of deployment. In addition to aircraft and helicopters carried by the sole aircraft carrier, the inventory of fixed-wing aircraft includes 45 Tu-22M Backfire nuclear capable bombers (also carrying anti-ship cruise missiles), 25 Tu-142 Bear-F reconnaissance aircraft, 54 Su-24 Fencer interceptor/attack aircraft, 10 Su-25s, 30 Su-27s, and 30 Su-33s, plus additional transport and search-and-rescue aircraft. In service are also about 70 Ka-27 Helix-A anti-submarine warfare helicopters, 30 Ka-29 combat/transport helicopters and 15 Mi-24 Hind-A gunships, plus 60 to 70 transport helicopters. By the early 2000s, naval aviation had the brunt of the funding cuts. The average flight time for air crews fell to 25-30 hours, instead of the 100-150 hours intended. This trend reversed only after 2003.

Naval infantry and missile/artillery troops comprise about 7,500 men. One 3,500-man naval infantry division is deployed with the Pacific Fleet, while three independent naval infantry brigades are attached to the Baltic, Pacific and Northern fleets. Each fleet also has one Spetsnaz platoon or company trained for underwater operations. The level of combat readiness of the naval infantry is relatively high.


After 1991, the Navy continued to use all naval bases and airfields that the Northern and the Pacific fleets used during the Soviet era. However, the Baltic Fleet was left only with the bases in the Bay of Kronstadt and in the Kaliningrad area. All bases in the Baltic states were lost, as was the access to naval bases/airfields in Poland and the former East Germany. In 1997, the Russians were able to negotiate with Ukraine a 20-year lease (the annual rent is about $97.5 million) on the large naval base at Sevastopol and other bases on the Crimean Peninsula. Under the terms of the agreement, the Russians can maintain a force of 100 ships and 25,000 men on the Crimea, but only 34 ships and 13,000 men are based there now. The Ukrainian government has made it repeatedly clear to Moscow that it does not want to extend the lease beyond 2017. This is a major point of contention between the two countries. If the Russians are forced to leave Crimea, one option for the Black Sea Fleet would be to rely on smaller and inferior naval bases at Novorossiysk and Temryk in Sea of Azov. Novorossiysk is considered a seasonal port because of the often hurricane-strength winds and ice it experiences in winter. By leaving Sevastopol, the Russians would lose leverage over Ukraine. However, if they choose to remain despite the Ukrainian opposition, then the Russians will become the occupiers. A major problem blocking the Ukrainian government’s ability to resolve this problem is that the majority of Crimea’s population is Russian. In the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008, the Ukrainian government decided to reinforce its forces in the region.

Still, the prospect of losing access to Sevastopol is the main reason Moscow’s plans to build a naval base at Ochamchira, Abkhazia. The new base at Ochamchira, some 40 miles east of Sokhumi, can accommodate large and small landing ships, combat craft and ocean minesweepers. However, it would take years before Russia could transfer many ships to the new base. In addition, Moscow also is reportedly planning bases for ground troops at Gudauta in Abkhazia, Dzhava and Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. If these plans are realized, Russia would clearly be in violation of Georgia’s internationally recognized borders.

In 2000, after almost a decade of relative inactivity, Russian naval vessels and aircraft began to conduct out-of-area operations. Russian out-of-area activities have increased both in number of ships and longer missions, especially over the past three years. For example, in 2008, Russian ships visited ports in Syria, Portugal, France, Norway, Turkey, Japan, China, South Korea, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba. The main purpose was to show the flag and thereby enhance the country’s prestige and influence. These visits were sometimes coupled with negotiations involving undisclosed countries to secure access to the foreign bases. Recently, it was reported that the Russians are seeking access to the island of Socotra off Yemen; Tartus, Syria; and Tripoli, Libya. The political decision to seek naval bases overseas has been made, but it will take a few years to be realized.

In 2008, Russian ships from the Baltic and Pacific fleets started regular deployments in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy in the region. One frigate took part in counterpiracy patrols off Somalia’s coast. This deployment demonstrated Russia’s commitment to uphold international security and its ability undertake independent military action.

Former president Vladimir Putin announced in mid-August 2007 the resumption of flights of strategic bombers off Norway and Iceland and across the Bering Straits. Such flights were suspended in 1992. Since August 2007, Russian strategic bombers conducted about 70 flights over the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans and the Black Sea. They also carried out several low-level flights over U.S. carrier groups in the Pacific.

The Russian Navy’s decline has been reversed. Its strength is bound to increase in the years ahead despite Russia’s current economic difficulties. Moscow is determined to increase its prestige and influence not only in its immediate neighborhood but worldwide. The Russian Navy is potentially the most effective instrument to support its country’s foreign policy. While its power projection capabilities are modest compared with the U.S. Navy, they should not be underestimated or, even worse, ignored.

The U.S. Navy is second to none in terms of its combat power. However, combat power should not be confused with naval influence. The Russian Navy might be inferior in overall combat power compared with the U.S. Navy, but a combination of shorter distances and time to project its power, along with skillful diplomacy, might result in a greater naval influence in the ocean/sea area close to Russia’s shores. The resurgence of Russia’s naval power is bound to find the U.S. and NATO navies operating in a far more complicated environment in the years ahead compared with the one in the 1990s and early 2000s.

MILAN VEGO is a professor of operations at the Joint Military Operations Department at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Defense Department.