Murphy's Law: Russian Outer Limits


May 25, 2021: In early 2021 a recently refurbished Russian frigate, the Shaposhnikov, test fired a Kalibr-NK cruise missile. The test did not go well as the Kalibr flight control system failed and the missile veered off course and crashed into the sea not far from the frigate. While the Kalibr has been in use since 1994, and numerous upgrades and modifications have been made to the original design, it has proved less reliable than equivalent Western missiles. There have been embarrassing failures of exported Kalibrs, in particular the ones sold to India for use in their Kilo-class diesel electric submarines bought from Russia and upgraded during a refurbishment to use the torpedo-tube launched version of Kalibr. Several of these missiles failed during test firings and India refused to accept or pay for the refurbished Kilo until the Kalibr problem was fixed. That took a while but eventually the updated sub-based Kalibr worked satisfactorily. Russia has had similar problems with other new missile designs as well as recently built ships and submarines.

An example of the problems with shipbuilding and maintenance, consider ships like the refurbished Shaposhnikov, which is actually a 35-year-old 7,500-ton Russian destroyer which underwent a three-year long refurbishment and upgrade that turned the Cold War era destroyer into a 7,900-ton multi-use frigate. The new Shaposhnikov underwent sea trials in mid-2020 after refurbishment that saw about 20 percent of the structural elements of the ship repaired or replaced. The engines and other mechanical components were refurbished or replaced and electronic systems upgraded. Weapons systems were also upgraded, to include sixteen VLS (vertical launch system launchers Kalibr missiles and eight launchers for Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. There were also VLS cells for 64 SAMs (surface to air missiles). The refurbishment took longer than expected because of a fire in 2018. Russian shipyards have proved better at building and refurbing smaller ships. The Shaposhnikov was at the upper limit of current yard capabilities and the refurb was considered a success.

In most navies a destroyer is considered ready for the scrap yard after 30 years, but the Russian warships that entered service in the 1980s spent much less time at sea after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. During the 1990s the navy could not afford to send many ships, even new ones, to sea very often.

By 2006 the Shaposhnikov, which entered service in 1985, was one of only two Udaloy Class ships that still regularly went to sea. At least half a dozen Udaloys did so regularly during the 1990s. With no money for upgrades or even shipyard maintenance, most of these ships eventually became unable to leave port.

For long distance cruises the Udaloy Class destroyers were usually accompanied by a supply ship and a sea going tug. During the Cold War this was standard practice when units of the Russian fleet deployed, and has on occasion proven useful. Pictures of Russian surface ships or submarines being towed back to port were common. The tugs still accompany Russian warships on long voyages.

There were other problems during the 1990s. For example, the Russian Navy experienced a severe shortage of spare parts for the gas turbine engines common in destroyers and frigates. Decades ago, the Soviets put the factory for these engines in Ukraine and, in the 1990s, independent Ukraine began charging serious bucks for spares. The Russians built their own plants to ease the problem but that took time. After the 2014 invasion of Ukraine Russia was cut off from any military equipment manufactured in Ukraine. This made the maritime turbine situation worse.

Twelve Udaloys entered service between 1980 and 1991. Three more were under construction in 1991 but two were scrapped before completion and the third one was finished and entered service in 1999. The other operational Udaloy is currently out of action and awaiting refurbishment, which is expected to be completed in 2023. Three of the first twelve have been scrapped and Russia hopes to refurbish five Udaloys and keep them in service for another decade or so.

The 7,500-ton Udaloys were originally called destroyers and were meant to emulate the popular and numerous (35 built) American 8,000-ton Spruance class ships. Most of these were retired after 30 years and replaced by the current Burke class, which is still being built. These 8,100-9,500-ton ships were very effective and there will eventually be 82 of them.

Like the Spruance and Burke class ships, the Udaloys were armed to handle anti-ship, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine operations. With a top speed of 65 kilometers an hour and a crew of 300 the Udaloys were similar in capabilities to the Spruances, but not the Burkes. The last Spruance retired in 2005 and the Russians hope to upgrade six of the Udaloys to near-Burke capabilities. These will be the last Russian destroyers for a while because Russia cannot build a new class of destroyers. Most new construction consists of smaller frigates and corvettes. The newly built frigates are not much more than 5,000 tons and the corvettes are less than half that.




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