Plans for the nuclear-powered surface ships are conspicuously missing from the Kremlin’s latest military modernization package.
Russia is reportedly moving ahead with aggressive plans to revitalize its military as the country adopts an increasingly revanchist foreign policy. However, some items are noticeably absent from the Kremlin’s latest rearmament program, specifically two all-new surface warships, suggesting earlier proposals may have been, not surprisingly, too ambitious for the Russian defense industry.
Earlier in May 2017, Russian media revealed details about a new tranche of modernization projects, which are slated to run through 2025. Though we don’t know much the Kremlin has set aside for these new purchases, it set aside approximately 19 trillion rubles – around $336.3 billion at the existing rate of exchange – for the previous build up, which started in 2011 and will wrap up in 2020. The amount of overlap between the two is unclear.
“The 2025 program is a black box right now,” Pavel Luzin, a Russian defense industry analyst at Perm State University, said according to Defense News. “It has a lot of overlap with the 2020 program, which suggests it is aimed only to hide the failures of the current program. That isn’t to say the 2020 program failed, just that it has strayed far from its original financing and procurement goals.”
In particular, Russian daily Kommersant, a leading business-focused newspaper, reported that the new plan put work on new classes of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and destroyers for the Russian Navy on hold indefinitely. Big ticket items would still include the RS-26 Rubezh, RS-28 Sarmat, and Bagruzin intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as purchases of more advanced derivatives of Sukhoi’s Flanker fighter jets, orders for PAK-FA/T-50 stealth fighters, and continued work on the still unseen PAK-DA stealth bomber.
The new modernization thrust “will become the most important instrument in implementing Russia’s military and industrial policy in the spheres of defense and security through 2025 and beyond,” Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said, according to state-run media outlet TASS.
Experts and observers, including The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway and myself, have long been skeptical of the Kremlin’s abilities to follow through on many of these plans. Notably, Russian officials repeatedly scaled back purchases of the T-50 stealth fighter, which has experienced numerous delays and setbacks, to the point that they were only planning to buy a token fleet of 12 aircraft as of 2016. Even if Moscow manages to double that order under the latest rearmament push, it would amount to less than half of the aircraft the Russian Air Force initially expected to have in service by 2055.
The changes in spending on surface ships are especially unsurprising. Russian state media included a number of dubious details when it first began talking about the Project 23000E carrier, also known as Shtorm, in 2015. The ship would have “no analogues in the world,” but only cost $5.6 billion, Russian Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, head of the country’s Northern Fleet, boasted to TASS in June 2015. The U.S. Navy’s new Ford-class super carriers will cost more than twice that amount when they finally enter service.
Information on the Project 23560 destroyer, also known variously as the Lider-class, was simply scant in general. In July 2016, state-run outlet Sputnik described the vessel as an advanced, nuclear-powered icebreaker, before additional information emerged later in the year showing it to be a fully fledged destroyer. Of course, the ship’s design could still have had ice-breaking features. The Russian Navy is still set to get a number of smaller Project 23550 Ice-class ships, effectively ice-breaking corvettes, armed with a medium-caliber deck gun and launchers for cruise missiles, such as the Klub-K and Kalibr-NK.
It was immediately unclear how Russian officials expected to pay for both of these large warships, especially given its other priorities in modernizing its nuclear triad and expanding investment in advanced aircraft projects. There was already significant evidence by the end of 2015, that the Kremlin had been forced to scale back those projects in the face of harsh economic realities, too.
After the end of the Cold War, Russia’s economy had been buoyed by a rapidly expanded international market for its vast natural resources, most notably oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, by 2014, it had begun to decline, owing in no small part to the collapse of the international price of crude oil. Then, in March 2014, the Kremlin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, igniting world-wide outrage and leading the European Union and the United States, among others, to institute a flurry of sanctions. Russian support for separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region and Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad only prompted more rebukes.
In October 2016, reports swirled that the country’s defense budget would suffer significant cuts as a result of this new reality. In March 2017, the Russian Federal Treasury put out figures that seemed to imply the country would slash military spending by more than 25 percent compared to the previous fiscal cycle. Some disputed this, saying the real figure was actually closer to 10 percent, but this would still have been a significant change in funding levels. These cuts could easily have doomed the ship-building projects, which in general can require relatively long lead times combined with significant investments in supporting infrastructure and a skilled workforce.
And that may actually have been the bigger issue. Russia simply does not have existing facilities and workers to support massive surface warship projects. So, when it came to the Shtorm especially, the project would have required much more money and resources than just the price of the ships.
When India hired Russian shipyard Sevmash Enterprise to overhaul the smaller, conventionally-powered Admiral Gorshkov – another Soviet-era carrier from another Ukrainian ship builder – the results were disastrous. The firm had no history with carriers in general or the design in particular. It took nearly a decade and more than $2 billion – more than twice the original estimate – for the renamed INS Vikramaditya to finally be combat ready. Reports that Russia had offered to sell India a Project 23000E seemed almost laughably optimistic given this debacle.
So it wasn’t particularly surprising to find that the lead contractor for the Shtorm, the Krylov State Research Center in St. Petersburg, also had no experience what so ever designing and building aircraft carriers. Russia’s only such ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov and its much maligned conventionally fueled steam boilers, came out of a Ukrainian shipyard when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Since Russian shipyards have taken responsibility for the ship, it has become so accident prone that it never leaves port without an ocean-going tug alongside. The Kremlin is now planning a $700 million overhaul of what it officially calls a “heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser,” which could put it out of action entirely for a protracted period of time.
Similar issues were quickly apparent in reports surrounding the Lider-class destroyers. The Severnaya Verf shipyard, also in St. Petersburg, hasn’t built a ship of this type since 1999. If reports about the design’s displacement, an almost absurd 17,500 tons, are at all close to reality, this would the largest vessel to come out of the facility ever. Even a more modestly-sized warship would be taxing on infrastructure and skill labor that has only been called upon to put together 2,200 ton corvettes and 4,500 frigates for more than a decade.
At the same time, Russia is also reportedly in the process of updating one of three inactive Kirov-class missile-armed battlecruisers, the Admiral Nakhimov. The improvements are expected to include new vertical launch missile tubes that can accommodate Onix anti-ship missiles and Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles and a separate navalized version of the S-400 surface-to-air missile. The updated ship may also be able to fire the shadowy Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile. When that ship re-enters service, the Russian Navy will then send the Pyotr Veliky for a three year overhaul to receive the same modifications. State media has offered various different timetables for when the Admiral Nakhimov refit will finish up. Initially, the work was supposed to be done by 2020, then 2019, and finally 2018. Whether that holds true in the end, or if the final product matches the original description, remains to be seen.
“Unfortunately, our shipbuilding is not in good shape,” Ilya Kramnik, a Russian defense expert and columnist with Lenta.ru, acknowledged in an interview with Navyrecongition.com in December 2016. “Everything will depend on what shipyard lands the [sic; they] order and how the latter will be financed. I hope that if they start carrying out the order at all, they will have been able to assess risks realistically by the time the lead ship is laid down, so that we avoid a 10-11-year-long delivery delay.”
It seems that this vital improvement to the country’s shipbuilding infrastructure has not yet come to pass. Until it does, Russia will likely have to keep delaying plans to build new, large surface ships, relying instead on its submarine force and lighter, cruise-missile armed littoral ships.
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