Surface Forces: The Devolution Of The Russian Navy


May 14, 2023: The Russian navy never recovered from the end of the Cold War and the sharp, continuing reductions in the navy budget. Efforts to replace the aging Cold War era ships failed. At the end of the Cold War in 1991 Russia had the second-largest fleet in the world. Now it is in third place, behind the United States and China. China is now the most prolific builder of warships while Russian ship building capabilities continue to decline. This was particularly obvious in the case of major surface ships like carriers, battlecruisers and destroyers. There are only 29 large surface ships including a carrier, four cruisers, 13 destroyers and eleven frigates. The subs and large surface ships only account for 36 percent of the vessels in the fleet. The rest are smaller craft, including some amphibious warfare boats and ships. A third of the subs are diesel-electric boats. The carrier and four large cruisers are not much of a surface strike force. That task is assigned to the eleven guided missile armed nuclear subs. Only 16 of the 40 attack subs are nuclear, the rest are diesel-electric. There are eleven special purpose subs carrying a wide variety of exotic weapons. The Chinese and Western fleets keep it simple, using nuclear and diesel-electric subs with very few special purpose subs.

Since the Cold War ended, Russian warship construction and refurbishment capabilities have declined considerably. An example of this in action are the extended and problem-plagued efforts to refurbish the lone carrier and four nuclear powered battle cruisers. For example, in 2022 a Russian shipyard announced it was ready to deliver the refurbished nuclear-powered battlecruiser Admiral Nakhimov to the fleet. Work on the Admiral Nakhimov began in 2014 and was supposed to be completed by 2018. As usual, there were technical, economic and political problems that delayed delivery unto 2022. To get this done, the plans to refurbish the two oldest Kirovs (Admiral Ushakov and Admiral Lazarev) were canceled after it was discovered that these ships were in worse condition than expected and in 2021, they were officially retired and scrapped (disassembled).

Before this, shortages of cash, shipyard facilities and component suppliers led to the 2014 decision to make a $10 billion effort to refurbish and upgrade its five largest and oldest warships. These were the four 28,000-ton Kirov-class battlecruisers and Russia's last functioning aircraft carrier, the 65,000-ton Kuznetsov. Why spend all that money on five aging warships? First, it’s about prestige. Any of these five ships can make long range cruises and do port visits in countries Russia is trying to impress, or intimidate. Second; practicality. By installing new and improved weapons on these ships they can be sent on these long voyages with minimal escorts (usually one destroyer or frigate) plus one supply ship. Finally, the upgrades do produce some major warships that not only look impressive but have some real combat power.

These upgrade programs were first proposed in the late 1990s but proceeded spasmodically because of money and political problems. Finally in 2014 a final, well financed effort was undertaken to get the work done. In that year Russia began a four year long overhaul of the Admiral Nakhimov, one of four Kirov class battlecruisers. This overhaul was initially supposed to begin in 2005, but got delayed. The upgrade, which all four Kirovs were to eventually go through, keeps each overhauled ship in service for another twenty years. The upgrade included new electronics, upgraded weapons and refurbishment of the nuclear reactor and most mechanical components. Russia currently only has one of these nuclear- powered battlecruisers, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), in service while another, Admiral Nakhimov, was long out of service with the upgrade and is finally reentering service in 2022.

The Kirovs first entered service in 1980 with the Admiral Ushakov, initially called the Kirov but renamed after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Admiral Lazarev entered service in 1984, Admiral Nakhimov in 1988 and Pyotr Velikiy in 1998. The last one to enter service is the only one still in working order and capable of going to sea.

The Kirovs, in addition to their nuclear power plants, carry twenty Shipwreck (P-700) anti-ship missiles and three different types of anti-aircraft missile systems with over 250 missiles. There are also anti-submarine torpedo launchers, eight 30mm cannon for anti-missile and close-in defense, two 130mm guns and three helicopters in a below-decks hanger. There is also 76mm (3 inches) of armor around the reactor and lighter armor in other parts of the ship. The Kirovs are very vulnerable to submarine attack and, despite their formidable air defenses, are not invulnerable to a determined missile attack.

The crew of 710 has plenty of space, as the ship is 252 meters (827 feet long) and 28.5 meters (94 feet) wide. The Kirovs are fitted with additional (quite comfortable) staterooms for senior officers, so that the ship can operate as the flagship of a task force. While the upgrade can be seen mainly as a way to keep shipbuilding technicians employed, and maintain a formidable looking Russian warship in commission, a Kirov on the high seas is a warship to be reckoned with. The high speed (Mach 2) Shipwreck anti-ship missiles weigh seven tons, have a range of 500 kilometers and carry a 750 kg (1,700 pound) warhead. This missile was built to cripple an American aircraft carrier, but it would outright destroy any lesser vessels. The Shipwreck entered service in 1983, evolved into the Yakhont and currently is the Russo-Indian BrahMos. The refurbished Kirovs will receive the Yakhont and more modern anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons.

Currently the Russian navy has about 290 ships but most of the procurement budget goes to the 76 submarines, which get money for maintenance, upgrades and replacements.

Meanwhile Russia’s only aircraft carrier has more visible problems. When Admiral Kuznetzov passed through the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean in early 2014 it displayed some alarming characteristics. The carrier had five escort vessels and non-Russian military pilots flying close by could not help but notice that there was a lot of rust on the deck of the carrier. This was not a good sign. The Kuznetzov had left its base in northern Russia a month earlier heading for the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has been building basing facilities for over a year. Western naval officers who have seen the Kuznetzov up close when it was in the Mediterranean during 2012 noted that the ship is long overdue for a major overhaul. The second ship of the Kuznetzov class was purchased by the Chinese a decade ago and completely refurbished. It is now in service as the Liaoning and looks, and performs, a lot better.

The Kuznetzov has had some updates since the 1990s but a lot of this work was suspect. Back in 2012 a military procurement official was prosecuted for substituting cheaper, substandard parts for new ones meant for the Kuznetzov. The corrupt official used forged documents to get away with this but members of the crew noticed the substandard parts and reported it. The Kuznetsov was sent back to the shipyard several times during the last decade to fix problems and update equipment. Much was wrong with the ship, due to poor design, sloppy workmanship, or corruption. It’s gotten so bad that lackadaisical sailors are threatened with being sent to serve on the Kuznetsov as a way of motivating them.

The Kuznetsov continues to have problems with missing or malfunctioning equipment. This not only degrades the combat capabilities of the ship but also its habitability. At times there was no heat in the living quarters and many of the toilets didn't work. There was no money for a major overhaul, which would cost over half a billion dollars, at least for the Kuznetsov. So essential repairs are made and the ship continues to rust away, often quite visibly.

Kuznetsov class carriers began building in the 1980s and the lead ship was finally launched in 1985 and entered service in 1995. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000-ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers, complete with steam catapults. Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type (STOBAR) flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The 323 meter (thousand foot) long ship normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was meant to regularly carry 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters, and a lack of money and facilities on the ship limits the number of aircraft that can be brought along. Other weapons include a dozen SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles and 18 vertical launch tubes for 192 anti-aircraft missiles. There are also 16 auto-cannon for anti-missile work plus some depth charges.

Officially called an "aircraft carrying cruiser", the ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). Only two ships of this class exist, the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag, which China bought unfinished from Ukraine and has rebuilt as the Shi Lang.

Currently Russia has no firm plans for a major refurbishment of the Kuznetsov. If that remains the case Kuznetsov will have to be retired by 2025. While senior politicians and some senior admirals want to scrounge up the billions needed for refurbishing the Kuznetsov, the admirals in charge of coast security and the submarines, especially the subs carrying ballistic missiles, make a more compelling argument that they need the money more because their ships are more in need of replacement and more essential to the defense of Russia.

Kuznetsov is currently undergoing a more extensive refurbishment that began in 2017 and it was supposed to be complete before the end of 2022. That deadline was missed because of a series of accidents. Kuznetsov finally left drydock in 2023 and is supposed to be back in service by 2024. This refurbishment is supposed to extend the useful life of the Kuznetsov into the 2040s.




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