Category Archives: Naval Modernization

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.

Submarine Update

С новым годом ! !  Happy New Year ! !

To finish 2013, here’s some submarine news for anyone who might be a bit behind.

Oscar II SSGN Smolensk (K-410)

Oscar II SSGN Smolensk (K-410)

Yesterday Mil.ru and Interfaks reported Oscar II-class SSGN Smolensk has returned to Zaozersk, its Northern Fleet base, following two years of overhaul and modernization at Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk.

Its commander said the 24-year-old submarine successfully completed “tasks of the first phase of factory underway trials” as well as the transfer back to home base.

He said, in 2014, Smolensk will operate in “distant ocean areas” and surface at the North Pole to plant a Russian national flag and Navy ensign.

During the overhaul, the “technical readiness” of all systems, including hull and power plant, was reestablished.  Radioelectronic and navigation systems were modernized, according to Mil.ru.

An overhaul of Voronezh was completed in 2011, and Orel just arrived for refit.

The Oscar II overhauls indicate Russia is investing to keep its third generation nuclear sub numbers up, as Dmitriy Rogozin said it would in early 2012.

Shifting gears to proyekt 885 SSN Severodvinsk, RIA Novosti reported an industry source claimed this first unit of new attack submarines would be accepted at Sevmash on 30 December.

Didn’t happen.  But could soon.

Unit two, proyekt 955 Borey-class SSBN Aleksandr Nevskiy, however, officially joined the fleet on 23 December, according to RIA Novosti.

Aleksandr Nevskiy (photo: Sevmash)

Aleksandr Nevskiy (photo: Sevmash)

Mil.ru covered the acceptance ceremony.  Navy CINC Admiral Viktor Chirkov reconfirmed that Nevskiy will eventually report to the Pacific Fleet’s 25th DiPL at Vilyuchinsk.

But Russianforces.org yesterday covered the arrival of Nevskiy and unit one Yuriy Dolgorukiy at the Northern Fleet’s Gadzhiyevo base.  There, of course, they await the resolution of issues with their primary armament, the Bulava SLBM.

Nevskiy will test fire a Bulava again in 2014.

Unit three, Vladimir Monomakh, is supposed to enter the force in 2014.

Apparently, there was something to the General Staff source who told RIA Novosti that Nevskiy (and Monomakh) would be accepted without their complement of Bulava missiles.

New SSBNs Won’t Serve as Multipurpose Submarines

Failed Bulava Launch on 6 September (photo: Northern Fleet Press Service)

Failed Bulava Launch on 6 September (photo: Northern Fleet Press Service)

The Russian Navy doesn’t intend to use its two newest Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) without their Bulava missiles in a multipurpose role.  Not even temporarily.  At least according to one source.

On 1 November, a Navy Main Staff source told ITAR-TASS that operating the new SSBNs without 16 Bulava (SS-NX-30) submarine-launched ballistic missiles would be analogous to employing Tu-160 strategic bombers like fighter aircraft.

Earlier, however, RIA Novosti reported the Navy might accept the two Borey SSBNs for “experimental” use without Bulava missiles, citing a highly-placed General Staff source.

A submarine in such a status would not technically be in the order-of-battle.  Russia’s first Lada-class (proyekt 677) diesel submarine Sankt-Peterburg currently operates “experimentally” in the Northern Fleet.

The General Staff source said, without their primary armament, Borey hull 2 Aleksandr Nevskiy and hull 3 Vladimir Monomakh could serve temporarily as multipurpose submarines. Their crews could fulfill non-strategic combat training missions until problems with Bulava are resolved.

Both new SSBNs were ready for fleet acceptance before the end of 2013.  Vladimir Monomakh just completed sea trials in early October.

On 6 September, Defense Minister Shoygu stopped the acceptance process for both submarines after an unsuccessful Bulava test launch from Aleksandr Nevskiy. Before that failure, the missile had five consecutive successful launches in 2010-2011.

The Navy accepted the first Borey-class submarine, Yuriy Dolgorukiy, in early 2013.

Ulyanovsk Redux

Artist’s Rendering of Ulyanovsk Under Construction (photo: Soviet Military Power, 1984)

A Glavkomat source has told Izvestiya the Navy plans to send a draft plan for a  60,000-ton displacement nuclear-powered aircraft carrier back to the designers for revision.

The Krylov TsNII and Nevskiy PKB have been on the task for 2 and 1/2 years, and have not received official word back from the Navy, according to the paper.

The source said:

“They essentially proposed the old Soviet ‘Ulyanovsk’ aircraft carrier to us, which wasn’t built due to the USSR’s collapse.  At the end of the 1980s, it was a modern carrier, a worthy answer to the American ‘Nimitz,’ but today it’s literally last century.”

This is the same complaint made by at least some generals and defense officials and commentators — the OPK is proposing (or providing) Soviet- or 1990s-era weapons systems to the military.  By the same token, that may be about all it can do in its current condition.  The Russians don’t seem to have an answer for breaking this vicious circle.

The Russian carrier design is half the size of the future Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), envisions steam rather than electromagnetic catapults, and lacks AWACS aircraft.  But the designers claim the Navy gave them little to go on.

Izvestiya recalled former Navy CINC Vladimir Vysotskiy saying last year he hopes for one carrier strike group each for the Northern and Pacific Fleets by 2027.