Category Archives: Naval Modernization

Sorry, Not a Victor

Sorry, Not a Victor (photo: Reuters / Yuriy Maltsev)

Sorry, Not a Victor (photo: Reuters / Yuriy Maltsev)

What great fun when the general press covers Russian military issues!  Business Insider ran this pictorial presuming to show an outdated Victor-class SSN headed for scrap.

In fact, it’s two not-quite-so-old Pacific Fleet Akula submarines headed for overhaul.

But what great pictures!  

One supposes this is how the hull looks when it hasn’t seen a drydock in many years.

Russified Dokdo

It is, by no means, clear that the first Russian Mistral won’t be delivered when it’s due at the end of October 2014.  Maybe it will be just quiet enough on the eastern front of Ukraine for Paris to fulfill its contract with Moscow.

But CAST’s Andrey Frolov suggests in a recent VPK article that, if the first Mistral isn’t delivered, Russia could team with South Korea to build its own LHD at Zvezda shipyard in Komsomolsk.

South Korea's Dokdo

South Korea’s Dokdo

Frolov says:

“If we leave parenthetical the question about the need to have a UDK [multipurpose assault ship] in our Navy and accept as an axiom that our fleet needs them, next the question arises about the possibilities of Russian defense industry for import substitution for such a class of ships.”

Then he turns to what it would take and the rather large obstacles Moscow faces:

“Obviously neither Russian nor Soviet shipbuilders had experience in similar construction, especially on such a technological level.  Those large assault ships [BDK], which entered the USSR Navy and were inherited by the contemporary fleet, represent a completely different direction conceptually and technologically.  Taking into account the fact that, according to well-known data, in the post-Soviet period the design of an UDK has not been ordered from a Russian KB [design bureau], it is possible to suppose:  in the best case, only draft drawings, done on initiative, exist.  That is, in the event of a possible order from the Defense Ministry, several years would be needed just to prepare a design.  The experience of developers of designs like aircraft carriers by OAO Nevskoye PKB as well as a ship of less displacement in the destroyer class (the design has been in the works for several years already) speaks eloquently about the possible difficulties on this path.”

“It is possible to trace the pitfalls in the construction of our own forces in the history of the modernization of CVHG project 11434 Admiral Gorshkov for India, in the serial frigates of project 22350, and also in the lead unit of large assault ship project 11711 Ivan Gren, which we note, is much simpler to build than Mistral.”

Russia’s shipyards are so busy with naval and civilian orders that laying down even two LHDs seems improbable, according to Frolov.

Nor, with sanctions in place, does Frolov think it’s realistic to believe that Russia can obtain all the dual-use technology it needs for such ships.  It’s also doubtful it can develop its own.  And the cost of these ships is a large issue.

But, says Frolov, the possibility of foreign cooperation remains.  European partners are already irrelevant because of sanctions.  Daewoo Marine Shipbuilding and Engineering (DSME), however, already partnered with Zvezda in an effort to land the contract Mistral won.

Frolov believes Russia and South Korea have similar views for an LHD:  a ship for littoral operations close to home rather than for transoceanic expeditionary warfare.

Russia would have to develop some equipment, components, and systems for a Russified Dokdo to replace U.S. ones that Washington would certainly not permit the South Koreans to provide to Moscow.

Frolov reminds that Russia already has a record of weapons development cooperation with Seoul.  For example, the Russian radar developed for the ROK’s KM-SAM will be used on Russia’s new Vityaz SAM.

He concludes that a Russian-Korean LHD could become “a more threatening player on the world arms market” and fill Zvezda’s construction program.

Where’s My Sub Base

Not His Happy Face (photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneyev)

Not His Happy Face (photo: RIA Novosti / Sergey Guneyev)

Now they’ve done it.

They’ve failed to finish new facilities for Borey-class SSBNs on Kamchatka expeditiously, and they’ve forced Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to demand “strict control” over their work.

But who “they” are isn’t exactly clear.

According to Mil.ru and RIA Novosti, the annoyed Shoygu said:

“These things are too serious to joke about the time period for their construction.  The joking is over.”

As regards the current plan to base Borey units 2 and 3 at Rybachiy (presumably in 2015):

“At that time everything must be ready.”

Mil.ru reported that the Defense Minister was also dissatisfied with the quality of the construction he observed.

Shoygu laid responsibility on General Staff Chief, Army General Valeriy Gerasimov and Eastern MD Commander, General-Colonel Sergey Surovikin, ordering them to take the work at Rybachiy under “strict control” and to give him a weekly progress report.

Shoygu should have turned to his old friend and subordinate from MChS days, Aleksandr Volosov, who directs the Federal Agency for Special Construction (Spetsstroy).  Spetsstroy is building the new pier zone at Rybachiy.  It used to be known as the Main Directorate for Special Construction (GUSS) in the old days when it fell squarely under the MOD.

Rybachiy and Environs

Rybachiy and Environs

The current Defense Minister’s not the first to ask when his sub base will be ready.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin revealed that he arranged significant financial assistance from two Russian oil companies to keep the Pacific Fleet strategic sub base open in 2002.

He visited periodically to check progress in modernizing its naval and social facilities.  He was usually unhappy with what he found.

Speaking from Vilyuchinsk in 2004, Putin said:

“They told me here in the past two years an improvement [in military living conditions] was being felt, but I didn’t see this.  The material base of public facilities here is in a pathetic state.  This situation is absolutely intolerable.”

By 2007, according to Izvestiya, he saw some improvement, but still said officials were “just picking their noses” instead of getting Gazprom to gasify Kamchatka.  Army General Anatoliy Grebenyuk, chief of the MOD’s billeting and construction service, and the chief of the Main Military-Medical Directorate were unceremoniously retired for failing to finish their respective work on the remote peninsula.

Gazprom reports that Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy was gasified in 2010, but it’s unknown if local gas lines have, as yet, reached the sub base.

As it has long planned, Moscow intends to homeport four Borey-class SSBNs on Kamchatka, starting with Aleksandr Nevskiy and Vladimir Monomakh.  But first it wants a fully functioning system in place to support their operations.

In March, a Navy Main Staff source told ITAR-TASS that the complete system for basing the new submarines – piers, utilities, logistical support, weapons storage facilities, and other infrastructure – still needs to be finished. Consequently, neither SSBN will arrive in the Pacific Fleet earlier than the fall of 2015.

Pacific Fleet Akulas Bound for Severodvinsk

Akulas Loaded on Transshelf (photo: www.dockwise.com)

Akulas Loaded on Transshelf (photo: http://www.dockwise.com)

On 9 September, ITAR-TASS reported two Pacific Fleet Akula-class submarines had begun a three-week Northern Sea Route (NSR) transit to Severodvinsk for a “deep modernization” at Zvezdochka.  They will reach the shipyard during the last ten days of the month, according to the Defense Ministry press-service.

Pacific Fleet proyekt 971 / Shchuka-B SSNs Bratsk and Samara were loaded on Dockwise’s heavy transport Transshelf at Avachinskaya Bay on 23 August.

This is the first time two submarines have been transported together. Nuclear-powered icebreakers will accompany Transshelf along the NSR.  Until now, Pacific Fleet Akulas were repaired at Vilyuchinsk or Bolshoy Kamen in the Far East.

Zvezdochka publicized the boats’ imminent departure back on 20 August. Buried in this item is a reported RF government decision on a shipyard division of labor, under which Zvezdochka will modernize Akulas and Zvezda (Bolshoy Kamen) will work on Oscar II-class SSGNs (proyekt 949A / Antey).

But it looks like Zvezdochka already worked on the Northern Fleet’s Oscar IIs in previous years; Pacific Fleet units remain for Zvezda.

Zvezdochka has a contract for four Akula modernizations.  Two Northern Fleet units — Leopard and Volk — are already there.  According to Flot.com, the 21-year-old Improved Akula Leopard arrived in 2013 and will return to the fleet in 2016.  22-year-old Volk got to Zvezdochka this year.  Both were built by Sevmash in Severodvinsk.

Akula II Bratsk and Samara — 24 and 19 years old respectively — were both built at Komsomolsk in the Far East.

Zvezdochka’s “deep modernization” reportedly includes a recore and replacement of all electronic, control, and weapons systems.

Mistrals Not Needed

It’s possible the endgame for the Russian Mistrals is approaching.

First Russian Mistral at DCNS (photo: RIA Novosti  / Daniil Nizamutdinov)

First Russian Mistral at DCNS (photo: RIA Novosti / Daniil Nizamutdinov)

But Moscow’s not sad.  Officials have already said it’s not a tragedy.

Mikhail Nenashev — not an official, but a former Duma member and well-informed commentator — has called into question the need for the Mistrals. He’s a former Captain First Rank who chairs the All-Russian Movement for Support of the Navy.

According to RIA Novosti, he said the Mistrals have no utility but political.  The news agency quotes Nenashev:

“These ships are no kind of necessity for the navy — we don’t intend to land troops in such a way.  As I recall, the French themselves earlier and now are searching for how to deploy these ships — for a decade of fulfilling these missions by the French Navy there were few places where these ‘Mistrals’ were deployed in reality.”

That’s a bit of an exaggeration.  The most cursory look shows that the French contributed the Mistrals to the NATO Response Force, and deployed them during unrest in Lebanon and Cote d’Ivoire, among other places.

Nenashev and others (including Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov) say Russia can build ships like to the Mistrals since it was already participating in their construction, and providing the internal command and control systems for the ships.  It would take longer (3-4 years) but cost less (€150-200 million vs. €1.2 billion).  The French, he says, can build it in a year because they have a smooth production process for these ships.

The former officer suggested that Sevmash or Baltic shipyard could construct such a ship if desired.  But he fails to note that these builders are already absolutely chockablock with orders today, and every new ship type is taking substantially more than 3-4 years to build.

But Nenashev willingly admits there are “acute questions” about the shipbuilding industry.  Specifically, issues of components, parts, technology, and skilled labor are a “little rough” and require coordination.

It’s exactly what Moscow will miss — a chance to see first-hand how fairly robust and modern French shipbuilders do their work.  No doubt there are things the Russians could have learned and taken home.

For their part, the French carefully note that the delivery of the first Russian Mistral has not legally and finally stopped. But President Hollande signaled Moscow that, if the situation in Ukraine does not improve, he will not approve the ship’s transfer in November.  That final decision will actually come at the end of October.

Improvement in Ukraine is defined by a relatively high bar of an effective ceasefire and agreement on a political resolution of the conflict.

The Elysee is quick to repeat that the Mistral sale remains unaffected by EU sanctions on Russia, and is a decision for Paris to make.  Hollande adopted his current stance in the last couple weeks as unavoidable evidence of direct Russian participation in the fighting (i.e. POWs and KIAs) in eastern Ukraine surfaced.

As of 9 September, RIA Novosti reported that planned at-sea training for the first Russian Mistral and its 400-man crew-in-waiting in Saint-Nazaire was put off for “technical reasons” having nothing to do with the French President’s current stance on the sale (or no sale).

Ambitious Sub Building Plans

This news is dated, but wasn’t picked up widely (if at all).

Sevmash is a Busy Place, Likely to Get Busier

Sevmash is a Busy Place, Likely to Get Busier

Russia will start construction on eight nuclear-powered submarines in 2014-2015, according to the chief of Sevmash.

In 2015, Russia will lay the first sections of two Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and three Yasen-class attack submarines (SSNs), Sevmash General Director Mikhail Budnichenko told ITAR-TASS on 7 February.

Speaking at Defexpo 2014 in New Delhi, Budnichenko indicated that Sevmash will begin construction on two Borey SSBNs and one Yasen SSN in 2014.

The Borey SSBNs will be modernized Proyekt 955A submarines, reportedly stealthier than the first three Proyekt 955 boats. The Yasen SSNs will be improved Proyekt 885M submarines.

If Russia keeps to the schedule outlined by the Sevmash chief, it will put all remaining units of eight planned Borey SSBNs as well as seven Yasen SSNs into build.

The total number of Yasen-class submarines has been reported at six or seven at various times. They would include Severodvinsk (Proyekt 885) and either five or six Proyekt 885M boats.

Second Tier Pacific Power?

Chinese Carrier Liaoning, or ex-Soviet Kuznetsov-class Varyag (photo: Reuters)

Chinese Carrier Liaoning, or ex-Soviet Kuznetsov-class Varyag (photo: Reuters)

Militaryparitet.com wrote recently about Jane’s Defence Weekly’s report on the possible start of construction of an indigenous Chinese aircraft carrier on Changxing, near Shanghai.  A new one, not an old one bought abroad and refurbished.

It may, or may not, be a carrier in the end.

Nevertheless, Militaryparitet quoted a 23 [sic] December Russia Today story about the Chinese carrier program:

“China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier will be a larger version of Liaoning.  The design is reportedly based on drafts of a Soviet-era, nuclear-powered, 80,000 ton vessel capable of carrying 60 aircraft.”

In other words, a later-day Ulyanovsk.

Militaryparitet also cites Voice of Russia.  It quoted Pavel Kamennov of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of the Far East, who claimed China will build two conventionally-powered carriers by 2015 [sic?] before constructing a nuclear one by 2020.

The government broadcaster tends to see a threat from China.  Its report came against the backdrop of Liaoning’s first deployment.

Then VoR turned to nationalist military commentator, retired naval officer Konstantin Sivkov to describe how the “geopolitical situation” will change when Chinese carrier groups take to sea in the future:

“. . . somewhere across 10 years China could put naval power comparable to the Americans on the Pacific Ocean.  This will signify that Russia has moved to the second tier on the Pacific Ocean, and the main players will be the USA and China.”

Now it seems likely China will soon surpass Russia as a carrier power.  Though one notes Moscow, even with a less than robust program, still has years of experience operating Kuznetsov that constitute a final remaining advantage over Beijing.

China catching the U.S. Navy is altogether different.

To its credit, Militaryparitet wrote that acquiring carriers is complex and expensive.  They take years to build, and many more to master their tactical and strategic operation.  There’s no substitute for experience in controlling carriers and battle groups under real-world conditions.  And the U.S. Navy has launched aircraft into combat from flattops for decades.

Those aren’t the only hurdles.

As the Russians learned, and the Chinese are learning, perhaps the most difficult step is fielding a high performance, carrier-capable fighter that can deliver a large combat load.  As RIA Novosti’s military commentator wrote in 2008:

“. . . to turn an ordinary fighter into a deck-based one through a small modernization is not possible.  The aircraft has to be designed from scratch, because the airframe of a deck-based aircraft experiences stress 2-3 times greater on landing than its ‘land-based brethren.'”

Not to mention the stress when the cat hurls it skyward.

So where does this leave us?

It’s no surprise Russian military observers and nationalist-minded elements lament the rise of China’s naval power and its fast-developing and emblematic carrier program.

But were it not for politeness, they could be reminded that China quite some time ago supplanted Russia as a “first tier” power in the Pacific in many ways.  Demographically, economically, diplomatically, and perhaps even militarily.

Other China-watchers (including many Russian ones) have a more benign, less zero-sum view.  They see Beijing as simply preparing to represent and defend its interests, which may or may not conflict with Moscow’s (or Washington’s for that matter).

Meanwhile, Western Russia-watchers tend a little cottage industry of trying to divine how Moscow really feels about China.  And the wisest ones probably say there’s more than one correct answer to this question.