Morale: Sustained By Symbols


March 22, 2020: For over a decade now Russia has been seeking to keep most of its larger (over 5,000 tons) warships in service. There are only 17 of these ships still in service compared to 72 when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. New construction of these larger ships halted in 1991 and several of these ships still under construction then were eventually completed later in the 1990s. But after that, nothing. Russia can no longer afford to build these large ships. But such behemoths are still needed more for psychological than military reasons.

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to the second largest fleet in the world rapidly decaying in less than a decade. Russia lost over 80 percent of its naval power during the 1990s. It was still the second largest fleet in the world for another twenty years but by 2016 it became clear that China had replaced Russia as the second largest fleet in terms of numbers. At that point, 25 years after the Soviet Union was gone, China had forty large Surface warships in service or under construction. All of those were completed by 2019 and more are being built. By 2016 China had already replaced Russia in terms of combat power when it came to surface warships. All the large Chinese ships were of recent manufacture with more modern weapons and equipment based on more successful (than Russian designs) Western ships.

China is now closing in on the Americans. In the 1990s U.S. Navy found itself with over half the naval combat power (numbers modified by quality) in the world, and even more of the kinds of ships that can be sent anywhere on the planet. At the start of the 21st century, the world found itself in the third century of either Britain or the United States being the dominant naval power. The U.S. may well remain dominant for the rest of the 21st century, but not as dominant as it was in the second half of the 20th century.

When the Cold War ended, all navies shrank, even the U.S. fleet. But those of the European nations were reduced the most. In the Pacific, Japan, South Korea and China continued to expand their fleets. So did India.

Europe is still dominated by the Russian fleet. Despite the sharp (over 80 percent) decline in the Russian military in the 1990s, this still left them with the most powerful combat force in Europe. That's largely because most European also cut their military spending, and manpower, in the 1990s. Russia is much less of a military threat to Europe than it was during the Cold War because its ground forces now largely consist of paramilitary troops and army combat units that are no longer trained for offensive warfare. Russia can still invade neighbors, as it did in Georgia and Ukraine, but that was done mainly with a small number of lightly armed special operations troops, mercenaries, local militias and paramilitary troops.

At sea, it’s a different story. Russian naval power is only a major force in the Baltic and Black Seas plus off its northern coast where most of its major naval bases are. On the high seas, the Americans and Chinese are the most frequently seen naval presence.

Russia is still spending a lot of money on keeping a dozen or so of its larger surface warships in service so it can at least have these ships show up in the Atlantic and Mediterranean often enough to remind the world that Russia still has a fleet. Beyond those few large ships the Russian navy is building smaller (often 1,000 tons or less) that are used mostly for local security, including coast guard functions. 

To maintain this illusion Russia continues refurbishing these older ships to keep them operational and presentable for another decade or so. The largest “presentation” ships are the one remaining aircraft carrier, two nuclear-powered battle cruisers and three 11,400 ton Slava class cruisers. The Slavas entered service in the 1980s. A fourth was launched in 1990 but construction was halted. The uncompleted ship is in a Black Sea port and is now scheduled to be dismantled. The last Slava to enter service, in 1989, was stationed in the Pacific where it spent most of the 1990s tied up in port because all the budget could afford was a skeleton crew and enough fuel to keep the lights on. It was returned to service, after some refurbishment, in 2008. The other two Slavas remained in service after 1991 but one also underwent refurbishment in 2009 and is now undergoing a second refurbishment. This is the oldest of the Slavas, renamed Moskva in the 1990s after entering service in 1982 as Slava. The second Slava, which entered service in 1986, completed its refurbishment in 2016. One Slava is based in the Baltic, one in the Black Sea (with frequent trips to the Mediterranean) and the third in the Pacific.

These 11,500 ton ships look impressive, despite their elderly weapons and electronics. Each carries a crew of 485, two 130mm cannon, sixteen P-500 anti-ship missiles, 64 S-300PMU long-range anti-aircraft missiles, 48 short-range OSA-M anti-aircraft missiles, six 30mm anti-missile autocannon, two launchers for rocket-powered depth charges, ten 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes and a helicopter.

The refurbishments were necessary to upgrade engines and other mechanical components, as well as missiles and electronics. This work takes two or three years. The refurbishment of the larger nuclear battlecruisers and non-nuclear aircraft carrier takes longer. These refurbs are expensive and don’t do much to modernize these 1980s era warships. But these ships mainly serve as a symbol of fading Russian naval might. This means a lot for many Russians because for about 25 years, from the late 1960s to 1991 Russia was a major naval power. That was never the case before and won’t be again as long as the U.S. and China maintain their fleets.

After 1991 Russia continued to build nuclear and diesel-electric submarines. In 1991 Russia had the largest submarine force in the world. There was another problem. Up through the early 1990s, Russia had built nearly 260 nuclear ships (nearly all submarines). After 1991 Russia found itself unable to keep most of those subs in service. Russian nukes were expensive to maintain, and many were not worth keeping in service because they were too noisy, too old or had too many other flaws. Most of the submarine dismantling was paid for by the U.S., which spent over $15 billion to implement the 1993 Strategic Offense Arms Elimination Implementing Agreement with Russia. Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy and Norway also contributed cash and technical assistance to this effort.

Throughout the 1990s, Russia only decommissioned 2-4 nuclear subs a year. Many nuclear subs were taken out of service in the early 1990s, although lots of older boats were being decommissioned in the late 1980s, just before the Cold War ended. That's because Russians tend to keep old weapons in service or storage, long beyond the time it's worth it. By the end of the 1990s, Russia had 150 decommissioned nuclear subs waiting to be dismantled. It costs about $7 million to dismantle one submarine. The primary task is to safely take apart the nuclear reactor, and get the radioactive components to a secure storage facility. The foreign nations contributing to this effort are all maritime nations that were concerned about the old Soviet subs falling apart while still in the water. What got this aid program going was the discovery that the Soviets were just dumping some radioactive components into Arctic waters. Russia was more willing, than the Soviets, to do the right thing and is determined to safely dispose of all these old nuclear subs. This work is still underway, but most of the oldest subs have been dismantled.

Meanwhile, Russia has been building new nuclear attack (SSN) and ballistic missile (SSBM) subs. This work has gone slowly because the Russian shipbuilding industry also collapsed in the 1990s and, while some of the shipyards could be revived, most of the skilled personnel who built the Soviet Fleet were retired or off to more lucrative employment. The trouble with nuclear subs is that they don’t do much to show off Russian naval power to foreigners. For that, you need surface ships, and the larger the better. So while the Russian submarine force is now in better shape than the surface force there is no way to demonstrate to the media or public. As a practical matter the 33 Russian nuclear subs (and 21 non-nuclear boats) still in service, despite many them approaching retirement age, are a more potent force than the more numerous surface ships. But as long as at least a dozen of those surface ships are big enough (over 10,000 tons displacement) to impress the foreigners (and many Russians) the surface fleet is a more potent symbol.




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