Submarines: The Great Russian Fade


September 29, 2011:  The Russian nuclear submarine fleet will be reduced to about 30 boats in a few years. Russian rulers, and any citizens who care to dig around the Internet, have been aware of this trend for over a decade. The admirals have had a hard time getting anyone excited about this, even when it was pointed out that, twenty years ago, Russia (then the Soviet Union) had a nuclear sub fleet larger (at 180 boats) than that of the United States (150 subs). Since 1991, the U.S. sub force has also shrunk, but only by about half.  The U.S. sub fleet is now nearly twice as large, and the Americans are building more each year than Russia, although not enough to prevent the American fleet from gradually shrinking. The Russians are currently mostly concerned with replacing SSBNs (ballistic missile carrying nuclear subs) and boats that carry anti-ship missiles (for handling aircraft carriers.) The admirals admit, at least among themselves, that this is all they are likely to get.

In the last few years, the Russian public has becoming aware of the fact that they won't have much of a navy in 5-10 years. There has been no public outcry over this. Russia has never been a great naval power, and whenever it tried to be, the effort was expensive and ultimately disastrous. Most Russians have more pressing concerns than the size of the fleet.

The basic problem is that, in the last two decades, very few ships were built, and most of the Cold War era warships that now comprise the fleet, will have to be retired. These ships are falling apart, as there was not any money, since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, for repairs and upgrades. Some Russian politicians are calling for more money, to build enough surface ships to maintain a respectable fleet. That is proving difficult, particularly because of the lack of popular support for such an effort. Then there's the problem that most of Russians warship building capability has disappeared since 1991.

For the last two decades, most of the Russian naval construction effort went into finishing a few subs, and building some surface ships for export. In the last decade, some effort was put into building new surface ships. Thus there is a new class of 4,500 ton frigates (the Gorshkov class), but only a few are being built or planned. The Gorshkov's have a 130mm gun, plus anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. The navy wants at least a dozen of these 4,500 ton ships, but the money has not been provided yet.

There are two Stereguschyy class corvettes in service, with five more building. These are small ships (2,100 tons displacement), costing about $125 million each. These "Project 20380" ships have impressive armament (two 30mm anti-missile cannon, one 100mm cannon, eight anti-ship missiles, six anti-submarine missiles, two eight cell anti-missile missile launchers). There is a helicopter platform, but the ship is not designed to carry one regularly. Crew size, of one hundred officers and sailors, is achieved by a large degree of automation. The ship also carries air search and navigation radars. It can cruise 6,500 kilometers on one load of fuel. Normally, the ship would stay out 7-10 days at a time, unless it received replenishment at sea. Like the American LCS, the Russian ship is meant for coastal operations. The navy wants at least fifty of them (but there is only money for 30). There is also an amphibious ship under construction, and lots of talk about aircraft carriers. But until money is allocated, and construction starts, it's all just talk.

Russia has proposed putting some retired (because they were too expensive to operate) ships back into service. This includes two Typhoon class SSBNs (the largest subs, at 24,000 tons, ever built) and three Kirov class battle cruisers. These 28,000 ton ships carry over 400 missiles each (for anti-ship and anti-aircraft use). But this is a partial, expensive and one time solution to the problem that the Russian fleet is fading away, because of too little concern, and too little cash.



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