07/31/2011 By Richard Weitz
July 31 marks Russian Navy Day. Tsar Peter the First founded the modern Russian Navy in 1696. This year’s celebrations and naval parades occurred in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Vladivostok, St Petersburg, Baltiysk and other Russian cities. The service finds itself in an interesting situation. It is undergoing a period of renewal, restructuring, and reform that, if things turn out well, should see Russia return as a great naval power in future years. But a lot of things need to go right for this to happen—and some of the impediments represent formidable obstacles.
President Medvedev celebrates Russian Navy day 2011. Photo: RIA Novosti
The recent reform of the Russian Navy has proceeded at a much slower pace than that of the Russian Army, Air Force, and other services. The reasons for this could be that the Georgia War highlighted the urgency of reforming the Army and the Air Force, that Russia’s maritime ambitions are less than during the Soviet period, or that the attention of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has focused on revitalizing the country’s seaborne nuclear deterrent, under threat due to the problems with the sole submarine-launched ballistic missile under development in Russia today—the Bulava.
Nonetheless, the reform process has proceeded in a similar manner for all the combat services. The government has sought to consolidate the number of service-level command and support elements, purchase new weapons systems to replace aging Soviet-era systems, and reduce the number of active duty personnel and non-combat officers while relying more on civilian service providers and contractors. In accordance with these priorities, more funds have been allocated for buying weapons while less money goes to non-combat support functions.
The Navy’s main operational command body, the Central Navy Command Post, has already become part of the General Staff’s united Central Command Post, along with the central command posts of all the other armed services.
Meanwhile, the various fleet commands are now subordinate to the newly created Operational Strategic Commands (i.e. the new Military Districts), whose headquarters now have navy departments. The Russian Navy comprises the Northern Fleet, the Pacific Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, the Caspian Flotilla, Naval Aviation, Naval Infantry (marines), and coastal artillery. The Northern and Baltic Fleets now belong to the Western Military District, the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla are subordinate to the Southern Military District, and the Pacific Fleet now answers to the Eastern Military District. The intent is to promote closer integration (“jointness”) between the services within each military districts, though the subordinate fleet commands still are subordinate to their fleet commands.
In terms of personnel and functions, the intent of the reforms is for Navy commanders and sailors to focus on preparing for combat. The number of people working in non-command elements or non-combat tasks (such as upholding morale) has decreased. As in the United States, many non-combat servicemen have become civilian contractors. There has also been a consolidation of some subordinate headquarters.
Each Fleet now has its own logistics and supply bases that provide units with fuel, food, equipment, and other supplies. These are located in St Petersburg, Astrakhan, Krymsk, Murmansk and Vladivostok. They have absorbed all the Navy’s many former supply and logistics units. The new JSC Oboronservis holding company has taken charge of housing and other utilities, equipment repair, and munitions arsenals.
A similar transfer from Navy management has taken place with many other non-combat functions: JSC Oboronstroy (construction); JSC Agroprom (farms); Oboronenergo (electricity grids); Voentorg (wholesale and retail trade); JSC Aviaremont (aircraft repair); and Spetsremont (car and truck repair). MoD-wide centers have taken over some education and training activities previously undertaken by the Navy and other services by themselves.
Until recently, the priority placed on reviving Russia’s ground and air forces has meant that the Russian Navy consists overwhelmingly of warships that were built and commissioned during the late Soviet period, especially the 1980s. As of 2008, about a third of the fleet’s 115 combat ships were not even operational. About half of them were undergoing essential repairs or servicing.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government lacked the resources to begin building new vessels, and struggled to complete construction of ships already begun during the Soviet period. Even though new shipbuilding has resumed during the last few years, after skipping a generation of ships, the fleet is still declining in size due to the need to decommission vessels that have reached the end of their operational lifespan.
The 2007-2015 Russian State Armament Program (SAP) allocated 25% of its 4.9 trillion rubles to constructing several dozen new warships. These included five Project 955 Borey nuclear-powered strategic ballistic missile submarines equipped with the troubled Bulava ballistic missiles, two Project 885 Yasen nuclear-powered multipurpose submarines, six Project 677 Lada diesel-electric submarines, three Project 22350 frigates, and five Project 20380 corvettes.
The ability of the Russian defense industry to produce all these ships proved exaggerated. The government has decided to spend significant sums to purchase Mistral amphibious assault class ships from France in order to fill a capability gap and hopefully spur greater competition and improved performance by Russian shipbuilders.
The latest SAP, for 2011-2020, aims to increase the proportion of modern weaponry in service with the Russian military to 30 per cent by 2015, and to 70 percent (up to 100 per cent for some types of weapons) by 2020. The MOD will spend 19.5 trillion rubles for its share of the program, with other security services paying smaller sums for their orders. The Navy will receive about one-fourth of this total (4.7 trillion) to purchase about one hundred new warships, mostly submarines, frigates and especially corvettes.
Under the 2011-2020 SAP, the Navy will procure 6-8 Project 955A and 955U Yuriy Dolgorukiy class strategic ballistic missile submarines, 150 R-30 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), about 40 R-29RMU-2 Sineva SLBMs, 6 Project 885/885M fourth-generation nuclear-powered Severodvinsk class attack submarines, 2 St. Petersburg class Project 677 diesel-electric submarines, and 3 Project 06363 Novorossiysk class diesel-electric submarines. The Navy will also upgrade its fleet of third-generation Project 971, 949A and 945 nuclear-powered submarines.
In terms of surface ships, the Navy will acquire 2 foreign-made landing helicopter docks (presumably France’s Mistral class ships), smaller Project 11711 Admiral Gren class large tank landing ships, 8 Project 22350 Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov class frigates, 6 Project 11356M Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, and 1 Project 11661K frigate.
In addition to completing the Project 11611K Dagestan corvette, the 2011-2020 SAP will fund procurement of 12 Project 20381 and 20385 Steregushchiy-class corvettes as well 22 ships of a new class of corvette and at least one Project 18280 intelligence ship. St. Petersburg’s Severnaya Verf shipyard began constructing the first of these new corvettes this year.
These ships are larger than the Steregushchy class corvette and have stealth technology to reduce its secondary radar field and acoustic, infrared, magnetic and visual signatures. The Navy will also receive 26 MiG-29K carrier-based fighter planes.
The SAP will also finance the repair and upgrade of the Project 11435 Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft carrying cruiser and the Project 11442 heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser.
In terms of naval aviation, priority has been given to repairing the existing fleet of Su-33, MiG-31 and Su-27 fighters and the Su-24M attack aircraft rather than developing and purchasing more advanced naval helicopters. The 2011-2020 SAP will also finance the repair modernization of the Project 11435 Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft carrying cruiser. The Navy has said it is considering designs for possible new aircraft carriers but none will be built until after 2020.
Fleet combat assets are being reallocated in accordance with changing geopolitical conditions. During the Cold War the Soviets prioritized the Northern Fleet, which would fight NATO ships in the Atlantic. Now the government is making it a priority to strengthen the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets to deal with perceived threats in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Asia-Pacific region.
Much public attention has been focused on the need to protect Russian shipping from piracy, while worries about China rather than Japan more likely explain the decision to assign some of the newest and most powerful ships to the Pacific Fleet.
Meanwhile, Marine units and other Coastal Forces have been allowed to accept conscripts and have expanded in size as well as obtained new equipment. Naval aviation and support units have been consolidated into fewer airbases and naval training centers under a single chain of command. Plans to transfer most naval aviation units to the Air Force remain unimplemented..
Several impediments could disrupt these plans.
The most obvious is that the Russian government’s spending priorities could change during the next decade, perhaps due to unanticipated revenue shortfalls. On many occasions in recent decades, the ambitious naval procurement plans announced in Moscow with great fanfare were quietly abandoned later when policy makers gave funding priority to meeting other needs. At least on this occasion the authorities forthrightly acknowledged that they will not procure an aircraft carrier for at least another decade.
In addition, the Russian defense sector is replete with delays and cost overruns. Many of the planned MoD contracts for 2011 remain incomplete due to the exceptionally high inflationary pressures that continue to plague the Russians defense sector. In an effort to contain costs, the MoD has pledged to sign all the contracts for Russia’s 2012 state defense orders by the end of this calendar year—a seemingly impossible goal.
MoD officials blame the high rate of defense inflation on their being too many defense subcontractors as a lack of transparency that encourages price gauging and corruption. According to some observers, corruption absorbs as much as half of all Russian defense procurement spending due to the irresistible opportunities for graft undertaken behind the veil of military secrecy. MoD plans to force a consolidation of the defense sector remain unimplemented. Its procurement personnel could more easily monitor fewer firms. Quality control, especially at the sub-contractor level, also currently receives inadequate attention.
Another reason for the above average inflation in the military sector is the limited impact of market forces such as competition and transparency in containing costs. One reason the MoD is buying the Mistral is to use the threat of foreign competition to help induce the Russian military industrial complex to keep its prices under control.
Additionally, the condition of the Russian defense industrial base makes realistic pricing difficult as well. Perhaps one-third of Russia’s defense companies are bankrupt while another third desperately need an infusion of financial and human capital to modernize their aging production lines and work force. Many of the weapons intended for purchase in the latest SAP were still designed during the Soviet period. Pending their modernization, many defense firms will prove unable to design and produce sophisticated weapons without frequent cost overruns and production delays.
Unfortunately, some bad practices have become so ingrained in Russia’s defense sector that they could take more than a decade to extirpate. The record of recent SAPs is not encouraging. They all envisaged providing the Russian armed forces with hundreds of new weapons, but their execution was undermined by insufficient financing, inefficient Russian defense manufacturers, and pervasive corruption.