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30 July 2012

Carrier Killers for the Russian Navy: The Strategic Environment

A line of Russian soldiers, courtesy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr
Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons - Attribution 2.0 Generic

Russian soldiers standing in file.

Russia is redoubling its efforts to boost its naval nuclear deterrence and blue water capabilities. Such moves reflect Moscow's growing interest in safeguarding its natural resource interests in the Arctic and the growing military power of the Asia-Pacific region, argues Vladimir Karnazov.

By Vladimir Karnazov

The growing military potential of Japan and China - and continuing territorial disputes over the Kuril island chain and Arctic Shelf - is causing Russia to increase spending on her naval nuclear deterrent and blue-water forces.

In November 2011 the Russian Ministry of Defence firmed up orders for four Project 955A Borey-A strategic missile underwater cruisers (submarines) and five Project 885M Yasen-M cruise-missile submarines. In early 2012 decisions were made to refit and modernization the Project 1144 nuclear powered cruisers and Project 949A cruise-missile submarines. By rough estimates, these commitments combined amount to US$ 10 billion.

In January 2012 Russia handed over the K-152 Nerpa fast attack submarine to the Indian navy on a ten-year lease, the deal reportedly worth US$ 0.9 billion. These and other recent moves may lead to changes in the current balance of forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Where will the enemy be?
The period between late 2011 and early 2012 brought news of the highest-ever level of orders for naval equipment placed by the Kremlin since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also during this period Moscow started to deliver on obligations to New Delhi on helping the long-standing ally and customer build national nuclear-deterrent and atomic-propulsion forces. In addition, this period was marked by the Kremlin leaders expressing their dissatisfaction with the deployment of US antimissile systems in Europe and promising an “asymmetric reply”.

This “reply” calls for keeping Russian nuclear deterrent forces intact and able to meet new challenges. In late 2011 Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin made it clear who are these forces are: the US and NATO. In the Kremlin’s eyes, the missile interceptor shield being created in Western Europe destroys the exisiting strategic balance between US and Russia. So, the nuclear deterrent forces shall be upgraded according to these new realities. Construction of strategic submarines, along with refit and modernization of in-service nuclear assets is a move in this direction.

Whatever great ideas on a new arms-race might be in minds of Kremlin strategists, the current indifferent state of the national economy and the run down military-industrial complex will not allow Russia to immediately restore the lost strategic balance of naval forces with the US and its NATO allies. Besides this, the Kremlin leaders have made certain promises to the West. These include arrangements in return for financial help from Western countries on scrapping decommissioned nuclear submarines in the frame of CTR (“common threat reduction”) and other such programs. CTR has been important for both Russia and NATO. In the course of “Perestroika”, the Russian navy halved its personnel numbers and decommissioned more than 50% of its warships in the five year period between 1992 and1997. In two years alone, 1990 and 1991, 91 and 33 submarines respectively went out of commission. In 1996 Russia had over 150 decommissioned submarines tied up in harbors with their nuclear fuel rods and used fuel still inside their reactors.

With Western help, Russia built additional facilities for warship disassembly and, as of October 2006, had scrapped 137 nuclear submarines. That time the number of decommissioned n-subs reached 197, of which 25 were being processed and another 32 waiting their turn. By now, the warship disassembly facilities in Severodvinsk have reached the annual capacity of six n-subs. The capacity of another plant, Zvezda in the Far East, is probably half of that.

While the issue of decommissioned submarines has largely been solved, Russia may still need Western financial help and technical assistance for used nuclear fuel. According to the recently published book “Soviet navy submarines 1945-1991” by Yuri Apalkov, in 2007 the Russian navy kept in its bases 21,000 boxes of used nuclear fuel. The issue of their processing is still far from being completely solved.

For these and other reasons, the Kremlin has been trying not to run into a direct confrontation with US and NATO. At the same time, it has been trying to defend long-term national interests and widen access to western technologies and financial resources - both much needed for renovation of Russia’s struggling economy. The US, too, has been interested in Moscow as a supporter of the War on Terror.

Washington and Moscow share views on Afghanistan and other hot spots. The two have common interests, including those in the global economy and Asia. Obviously, the White House and Kremlin are in agreement on the oil-and-natural-gas issue: increasing Russian export of fossil fuels shall help decrease the impact on the economies of the US and allied countries following EU ban on Iranian oil purchases.

With above considerations taken into account, it seems more likely that the recent naval equipment orders are aimed primarily at maintaining the Russian navy’s power above those of the growing “Asian tigers”.

Both China and Japan have made great progress recently in strengthening their navies. Shipbuilders at Dalian have now finished work on PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang. She had sea trials for the first time in the second half of 2011. China has declared plans for the eventual construction of several carriers. Beijing continues the development and manufacture of nuclear submarines. Without Russian permission, China has launched into production of the J-11, a clone of the Sukhoi Su-27 land-based fighter, and the J-15, a clone of the Su-33 deck fighter. Local shipbuilders produced copies of Project 636 diesel-electric submarines. Japan has been even more disturbing and challenging in its expansion of capabilities. Her “self-defense” forces have commissioned a number of very advanced blue-water assets of previously unknown classes. Japan has built a series of AIP-equipped large conventional submarines and is working on more advanced ones featuring extended sea autonomy and stealthiness through use of high-power Stirling closed-cycle engines.

The DDG177 Atago and DDG178 Asigara destroyers with full displacement of 10,000 tons entered service in 2007-2008. The DDH181 Hyuga and DDH182 Ise “helicopter destroyers” with full displacement of 18,000 tons went into commission in 2009 and 2011 respectively. The JMSDF is soon be adding the even larger Shirane class to the growing arsenal. The latter three ships carry helicopters, but suggestions have been made that their size and systems allow for deck operations of the F-35 Lightning II fighter.

India, too, has been investing heavily in blue-water forces. This year the INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier shall be inducted and become the largest combat vessel of all time in the national inventory. In addition, India is building “home grown” Arihant-class nuclear powered submarines. Moscow has been helping these and other programs on a commercial basis. Participation in these activities has helped Russian shipbuilders and naval missile makers survive the difficult period of transition from a command to a market-driven economy, and keep skills needed for the development of advanced combat systems.

Territorial disputes
Modern submarines with nuclear propulsion can reach almost any given oceanic point. When launching atomic submarines into mass production in the 1950s, the Soviet Union wanted its underwater cruisers to always follow USN carrier groups and destroy them in case of war.

Today’s plans are different. Moscow wants its underwater atomic warships to serve in protection of Russia’s vast possessions in the North and the East against would-be aggressors. These possessions contain huge natural resources, which, as the Kremlin strategists think, may one day be challenged by economically strong, but resource-limited neighbors. In their view, the Chinese and Japanese forces must be countered for that reason.

In 2007 and 2008 the Kremlin had to make steps towards Beijing and ease the long-standing territorial dispute over lines of the Sino-Russian land border. The two countries signed agreements under which the Russian border guards withdrew from some of the disputed lands, leaving them with their Chinese counterparts. This allowed both parties to claim that the issue has been finally removed from the agenda. However, not everyone is happy about the deal, and so some sort of tension remains.

The situation is similar with Japan, which does have strong claims to the Kuril island chain and the island of Sakhalin. In the course of World War II and shortly after the Japanese unconditional surrender to the Allies in 1945, the Red Army took Sakhalin and the Kuril chain in a rapid and overwhelming military operation. The dispute between Russia and Japan regarding sovereignty over the South Kuril islands came on the agenda in the 1950s, when Tokyo tried to revise peace agreements signed under extreme pressure. The disputed area goes from the Kamchatka peninsula all the way down south to Kunashir near Hokkaido. The islands in question are washed by the Sea of Okhotsk on the west and North Pacific Ocean on the east.

Among other considerations, a good reason for keeping the Kurils is that this island chain effectively blocks entry to the Sea of Okhotsk for USN anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, and thus provides relative safety for Russian underwater missile cruisers on deterrent patrols in this large area. In Gorbachev’s time the Kremlin hinted it could give up claims to the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai in return for Japan’s promises on the non-military status of those. This did not help the situation and since then everything remained as it was.

In February 2010 Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev ordered substantial improvements to Kuril defenses, including refurbishing of two airfields and the deployment of S-400 long-range SAM systems. The move was made after Japan had protested against visits to the islands of high ranking Russian leaders including Medvedev himself and Minister for Defense Anatoly Serdyukov, calling them “provocative”. Meantime, during these visits the [Russian and native] population of the islands strongly rejected the idea of Japanese sovereignty and asked the Kremlin for protection.

According to the Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper, the Russian army units on the disputed [South Kuril] islands include the 18th Machine-gun/Artillery Division made up of two regiments. The 46th Regiment is stationed on Kunashir, and the 49th Regiment on Iturup. In addition, there is an independent tank regiment on Kunashir (during 2010 its 92 outdated T-55 main battle tanks were replaced by a non-specified number of more modern T-80s) and an independent motorized infantry battalion on Iturup. The newspaper gives the following [incomplete] list of weapons in the possession of the above-mentioned units: 18 BM-21 Grad multiply rocket launchers, 36 Giatsint-B towed cannons and 18 D-30 towed howitzers, 12 Buk and 12 Strela-10 SAM launchers, 12 ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled and 8 ZSU-23-2 towed anti-aircraft gun systems. The 39th motorized infantry brigade on Sakhalin Island supplements these forces. Interestingly, the newspaper does not mention the 451 Missile Brigade. Reportedly, the brigade was formed in the early 1990s to unite under a single command separate units stationed on Sakhalin and Kuril islands, including four missile regimens which at that time were armed with the Rubezh (P-15M) and Redut (3M44 Progress) anti-ship missile systems. Last year the Russian defense ministry spoke of plans to further strengthen Kuril defenses with the Bastion system (3M55).

The Arctic Shelf is one more part of the Earth whose sovereignty is currently being discussed. The Kremlin wants to have a greater part of it, while the US, Canada, Norway and other NATO members have different views.

Today, Russia is world’s largest possessor of natural resources, whose value is estimated at US$ 140 trillion, roughly ten times US GDP and some 200 times greater than its own. Russian share in the world’s known oil reserves is 23%, natural gas 33%, coal 50% and timber 23%. The annual income from oil exports alone is estimated at US$ 300 billion. Through exploration of the vast territories, the Kremlin wants to keep its world leadership in the development and exploitation of natural resources. A capable navy is essential to provide protection of these territories from would-be aggressors.

Nuclear shipbuilding: current state
According to official statistics, in 1955-1993 the Soviet Union [and then Russia] constructed 234 nuclear powered submarines falling into three generations. These included 123 n-subs made in Severodvinsk, 56 in Komsomolsk, 39 in St. Petersburg and 25 in Nizhny Novgorod. Russia now continues at a much slower rate. The lead vessel of the Project 955 class, the Yuri Dolgorukiy, became the 1001-th [armed] submarine constructed in Russia since October 1917.

After collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's nuclear shipbuilding industry has been transformed into something much smaller. Key enterprises on the Black Sea coast appeared to be on the territory of now-independent Ukraine - which proclaimed non-nuclear status. Admittedly, these enterprises had little to do with nuclear propulsion technology, except for some ambitions in the late 1980s when the Soviet navy planned the construction of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Nuclear activities in the city of St. Petersburg have been diminishing for a number of reasons. Under current international agreements, the Baltic Sea has a non-nuclear status. The Russian navy does not deploy atomic warheads on warships and does not place orders for the construction of nuclear-powered vessels in the area.

The Admiralty Shipyards completed their last Project 671RTMK fast attack submarine, the K-448 Tambov, in 1992. Since then the enterprise has been completely focused on diesel-electric submarines. The last nuclear powered surface combatant built in St. Petersburg was the Peter the Great of Project 1144.2. The 23,800-tonne cruiser, forth and the last in the Atlant series (after Ushakov, Lazarev and Nakhimov) was commissioned in 1998, and serves with the Northern Fleet.

Saint Petersburg shipbuilders continue working on civil projects. They have completed one floating nuclear electric power generation station known as Project 20870 with displacement of 21,500 tons. Six more such stations and five nuclear-powered ice-breakers are on order. However, this business is under heavy criticism as not suitable and potentially very dangerous for a city with a population of five a million.

The Red Sormovo yard in Nizhny Novgorod built a number of unique submarines, including the titanium-hulled Project 945, which are still in service. Under the Kremlin’s orders, this enterprise was restructured in the 1990s and no longer works for the military.

The Amur Shipbuilding Plant (ASP) is located in Komsomolsk. The Amur river runs through the city and into Pacific Ocean. ASP has suffered during the transition of Russia’s economy from command to market driven principles. If not for the Indian deal for Project 971 fast attack submarines, this enterprise would have closed down. In 2008 ASP completed the K-152 Nerpa. After sea trials and Indian crew training, the vessel was handed over to the Indian navy on 23 January 2012. But even with the Indian customer in existence, ASP is unlikely to go further than completion of one or two more Project 971 ships.

This leaves Russia with only one fully-fledged enterprise capable of nuclear shipbuilding in the longer term. This is Sevmash Dockyards (SMP) in Severodvinsk, located near the far northern border with Finland. The company had difficult times in the period 1998-2003 when orders ran low. However the company’s management refused massive laid-offs, instead trying to keep workers in place by serving free dinners during working hours to all staff and distributing food to their families. This helped save a core of the enterprise’s competent staff until the financial situation improved.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin have been frequent visitors to Severodvinsk, helping the city and local businesses ease their financial, technological and social problems. Today, Sevmash directly employs 27,000 people, with average monthly salary slightly above US$ 1,000. The management considers this figure as “sufficient” to keep the employees’ families above the poverty line. With recently won orders for Project 955 and Project 885 submarines, the share of domestic military orders in the company’s portfolio has risen above 70%.

Visiting Severodvinsk in February, deputy premier of the Russian Government in charge of defense industry Dmitry Rogozin said the local shipbuilders are contracted to build eight fourth-generation nuclear submarines by 2020, and that more orders are coming. He further said the earlier program for scrapping third-generation submarines is being revised so that “these vessels will get newer missiles and be subjected to a series of repair efforts … enabling them to serve for another seven years”.

Pricing
In November 2011, the Russian defense ministry awarded Sevmash orders for construction of four Project 955A Borey-A strategic underwater cruisers armed with the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missiles. This order comes after construction of three Project 955 Boreys (Yuri Dolgorukiy, Aleksander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomakh) now undergoing acceptance trials.

The customer also ordered five Project 885M Yasen-M fast attack submarines, in addition to the head vessel, the K-329 Severodvinsk, now undergoing sea trials. The exact sum of these contracts has not been made public. It is only known that the Alexander Nevsky was built under contract worth Rouble 23 billion, which equates to US$ 0.75 billion.

In 2012 Sevmash expects additional orders for the completion of certain third-generation submarine hulls laid in the mid-1990s, as well as for the refit and modernization of earlier commissioned submarines and large surface combatants. Why did the MoD place so many orders with Sevmash and its key industrial partners only recently? Why did the ministry not act in a similar way during a few preceding years? We can suggest an answer to these questions.

The big orders of late 2011 – early 2012 were preceded by a long process of MoD and industry working out a completely new pricing calculation system. When current defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov took his position in 2007, he called for a new approach to contracts with industry that would prioritize the price-efficient series production of modern weapons. As he put it, that approach had to be worked out and needs to remain in place until 2020.

Local shipbuilders were not ready for this change in the government’s procurement policy. Only in 2011 - after a series of structural changes - was the industry was able to resume talks with the customer. In the middle of 2011 the sides formulated mutually agreeable principles and proceeded with the calculation of contract values for a selected range of naval products.

The Project 955 served as a guinea pig on which the new price calculation methods were tried. This product had already been mastered by industry, while the MoD wanted to procure more such ships. In September – October the calculations were made and submitted to the defense minister for approval. This enabled the November 2011 contract signing.

The gist of the new system is to encourage industry to continually reduce manufacturing expenses and improve resource management. Manufacturer profits are made directly dependant on savings it achieves during the series production of modern weapons. This requires more effective resource management, cutting manufacturing costs and making production more economically efficient.

Figuratively speaking, Serdyukov’s role in the transformation of the Russian military defense complex is similar to that of Robert McNamara in the US. But pricing considerations are only one part in the answer to the above questions. Also, there is the Factor 2012: the presidential elections in March, which Putin won. On the eve of the elections, the Kremlin increased military spending in the hope of getting more support from voters employed by large defense enterprises and citizens of the cities where these enterprises situate.

Aviation threat evaporated
In February the Russian air force spokesman said the service intends to upgrade about 30 Tu-22M3 swing-wing supersonic bombers during the next eight years. Reportedly, between 50 and 60 such big jets are airworthy. Today, the Tu-22M3 is the only effective aviation asset available to combat carrier groups and naval task forces formed around modern cruisers and destroyers.

The aircraft inventory of Russia’s Naval Aviation suffered 78% numerical reduction during the period 1992-1997. It further dwindled until mid-2011, when most of the Naval Aviation’s large airplanes were transferred to the Air Force. Effectively, the navy has lost its aviation anti-carrier component. The move was controversial, and yet there was a good reason behind it. The most powerful and complex aircraft types in service with the Air Force and Naval Aviation became so small in numbers that their separate operations and maintenance lost combat worthiness and economic sense. This particularly applies to the Tupolev bombers and reconnaissance planes.

Surface warships of little account
With the Tu-22M3 no longer in its possession, the Russian Navy has to completely rely on its warships when it comes to countering enemy carriers. The Navy does have some surface combatants, but these can do little in the face of the potential enemy’s air superiority and larger ship counts. The most they can do is to assist submariners during joint operations.

The 2005 shipbuilding program calls for construction of 30 corvettes, 20 frigates and six destroyers. By displacement, ability to operate in rough seas and duration of autonomous operations these ships are no match for in-service cruisers.

The Russian MoD has scheduled the Admiral Nakhimov for refit and modernization in 2013. Her builder Severnoye PKB was asked to prepare an appropriate documentation package by April 2012. The third Project 1144 nuclear-powered cruiser was commissioned in 1988. She stands in Severodvinsk harbor awaiting repairs. The destiny of her sister ship completed in 1984, the Admiral Lazarev, will be decided later, while the earlier Admiral Ushakov was decommissioned long ago and is due for scrapping.

The MoD is seeking a cost effective way for the Project 1144 upgrade. This involves keeping their machinery and replacing older missiles by more modern ones. The P-700 Granit anti-ship system employing the 3M45 cruise missiles is no longer in production and considered outdated.

The KR-93 turbojet engine accelerates the 7-tonne, 10-meter-long missile with a 750kg warhead (cumulative, vacuum or nuclear charge) up to Mach 2.5. For effective employment at maximum advertized ranges of 500-600km, the Granit’s missiles need target designation either from aircraft or spacecraft. The Russian Navy no longer operates the dedicated designator airplane Tu-95RTs (all of 53 such aircraft have been grounded). The Legend-M satellite constellation was in full strength in 1983, but has degraded since then. In theory, vulnerable Kamov deck helicopters can provide targeting at longer ranges than the ship’s own radar. This particularly applies to the most recent Ka-31 with its long-range Oko radar.

The Russian Navy operates three Project 1166 cruisers with gas-turbine propulsion - the Moscow, Varyag and Ustinov. These are armed with the Bazalt or Vulcan anti-ship systems in service since 1975 and 1982 respectively. Their 3M70 missile with maximum firing range of 700km shares Granit’s targeting problems.

Cruise-missile submarines
Along with upgraded cruisers, the nuclear-powered submarines will remain the most powerful assets in the Russian inventory. Today, the navy operates dedicated carrier-killers of the third generation in the form of the Project 949A submarines armed with the P-700 Granit systems. It also operates nearly twenty third-generation fast attack submarines of the Project 971, Project 945 and Project 671RTMK able to fire Tomahawk-alike missiles from torpedo tubes.

In late 2012 the navy expects the commissioning of the K-329 Severodvinsk. This lead vessel of the Project 885 is considered to be of the fourth generation. The K-329 is outfitted with eight vertical SM-346 silos (10m-long, diameter 2m) each capable of housing either four Onix or five Caliber missile containers.

The P-800 Onix (the export version is called Yakhont) employs 3M55 ramjet-powered missiles. These weapons are nearly 9 meters long and weigh 3 tons without booster [air launched version, also known as the Alfa] or 4 tons with it. The missile accelerates to 750m/sec and has a firing range of 150-300km depending on altitude profile. It has a radar homing head able to detect a cruiser at a distance of 75km. The Onix provided the platform for the development of Indo-Russian BrahMos PJ-10.

The Caliber is non-exportable version of the Club-N/S that already equips the Indian navy Project 1135.6 Talwar-class frigates and Project 877EKM submarines. Both are able to employ three baseline missile types: the 91R antisubmarine (carries a torpedo, either APR-3M or MPT-1UM), 3M54 anti-ship and 3M14 land-strike. In addition, the non-exportable system can also fire longer-range RK-55 Granat missiles (Russia’s Tomahawk) and their derivatives, the Biruza. Compared to the exportable 3M14, the non-exportable Granat has much longer firing ranges.

The Granat became operational in 1984 with 3M10 missiles fired from torpedo tubes of fast attack submarines. The 1.7-tonne turbojet weapon had a range of 3,000km. The 3M54 differs in having a third stage (in addition to booster and cruise turbojet) running on solid-fuel and accelerating to 1,000 m/sec. This version can be fired from either surface ship or submarine if her torpedo tubes can house this 8.2m-long weapon. Without the third stage, the 3M54 weighs 1.8 tons instead of 2.3 and has length of 6.2 meters.

The K-329 went to sea for trails on two occasions in 2011, and successfully performed tests using dummy Caliber missiles. Throughout 2012 the submarine shall continue testing Caliber and Onix systems. To complete customer acceptance trials, the K-329 is required to spend a total of 180 days at sea. The next in the series, the Kazan, is being built to the improved design [Project 885M] and is due for completion later in the year.

The design documentation for the refit and modernization of the Project 949A has been prepared. It calls for replacement of the Granit by the Onix and Caliber. No changes to the submarine’s original load bearing structures are required. Three Onix or four Caliber missile containers can be squeezed into one Granit launch site – the latter will be reworked accordingly. The submarine will receive an improved combat system able to employ the newer missiles.

With a standard displacement of 15,000t, the Project 949A is one of the most complex and difficult-to-maintain n-subs in the world. So far, extensive repairs were successfully conducted only in Severodvinsk, while such attempts in the Far East proved ineffective.

According to open sources, the Northern fleet operates the K-119 Voronezh and the K-266 Orel. The Voronezh completed a major overhaul in November 2011, which made numerous but unspecified improvements to missilery and onboard equipment. This enabled the Northern Fleet to send the K-410 Smolensk for repairs in late 2011. The K-525 and K-206 have been scrapped. The K-148 Krasnodar and K-173 Krasnoyask have been decommissioned and await their turn for disassembly.

The Pacific Fleet keeps the K-456 Tver, K-186 Omsk and K-150 Tomsk on duty, while the K-132 Irkutsk has been undergoing overhaul since 2005. The status of the K-442 Chelaybinsk is unclear. The K-139 Belgorod is at a high degree of completion (over 70%) at Sevmash, but the customer has continued to change its views about whether to complete her. In February the Russian Navy commander Admiral Vysotsky said the Belgorod will be commissioned as a submarine for special operations.

If the Kremlin stays with its current naval development plans, the Russian navy will have a potent force of dedicated nuclear powered “carrier-killers” by the year 2020. In the foreseeable future this kind of weapon systems will continue to be the most important element of Russian deterrence in relation to economically and militarily growing Asian neighbors with limited natural resources but reviving empire ambitions.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
The Role of the Submarine in the Fight for Naval Supremacy in the Pacific
Defense Reform and the Russian Navy
China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities


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Vladimir Karnazov is a correspondent for Defence Review Asia.

Editor's note:

This article originally appeared in Defence Review Asia and was republished with the generous permission of the Singapore based Asian Press Group.

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