2015/11/23

What would make sense for the Russian navy?

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Assuming Russia does insist on great power games, an elaborate MAD deterrence instead of a minimal deterrence AND enjoys fine economic growth (unlikely) - what would make sense was an objective strength for an all-new Russian navy by 2035?

First of all, Russia will still have multiple coasts:

(1) The Arctic coast with its main base near Murmansk and Arkhangelsk as potential reserve base, both well suited for accessing the Arctic regions North of Russia and thus potentially able to exchange ships with the Pacific bases even during hostilities:

(2) The Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok and near Petropavlovsk.

(3) The Baltic Fleet, now reduced to St. Petersburg and its vicinity, and kind of locked up behind the Kattegat and Skagerrak (I don't think Baltiysk is a serious naval base in the long term even thought h navy is important for the economy there).

(4) The Black Sea Fleet, with recently secured Sevastopol as main base but kind of locked up behind the Bosporus.

(5) The Caspian Sea Fleet with Arkhangelsk as main base, in the inland Caspian Sea.

Russian new corvette Steregushchiy,
a photo added solely to make the text easier to the eye


There's little that can be achieved in the Baltic Sea other than if necessary violent (peacetime) convoys to Kaliningrad. Likewise, there's almost no potential for achievements in the Caspian Sea. The Black Sea Fleet is dependent on passage through the Bosporus (under control of Turkey) for effect beyond the Black Sea, and there's hardly any real military utility in the Black Sea other than a largely irrelevant naval blockade against Georgia.
The Pacific Fleet is no doubt the first choice for naval or at least sea-based great power games in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The only possibly opposing power in East Asia that would not destroy the Russian Pacific Fleet with ease would be North Korea and maybe South Korea, though.
It's hard to tell (for me) which of the three Western bases would be best for a great power games squadron for the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean. The Black Sea would be best for the Med, and unlike the other two it doesn't freeze over during wintertime. Murmansk on the other hand is the least bottled-up by NATO, but the Baltic Fleet has a less restricted passage to the ocean than the Black Sea as well.

Overall, I would expect a four-part Russian navy:

(a) Dedicated Arctic naval ships, especially icebreakers. These would be based at Murmansk.

(b) Nuclear deterrence flee, mostly SSBNs. The Russians could make do with air-launched cruise missiles, rail-mobile ICBMs, road-mobile ICBMs and submarine-launched cruise missiles, but they may choose to insist on SSBNs as well (their navy lobbyists no doubt will). 

(c) Atlantic and Pacific great power games squadron with an aircraft carrier, ASW/AAW escorts, LPDs and possibly a hospital ship each. These would often visit overseas bases at friendly countries (the Atlantic squadron would likely do so during Northern hemisphere wintertime).

(d) Small, general purpose frigate-based coastal squadrons for Baltic Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Long endurance non-nuclear and thus affordable submarines with air-independent propulsion (SSI) could be used if naval warfare played a big role in plans for great wars (wars against one or multiple great powers), but the need for operations below the Arctic ice would necessitate nuclear propulsion submarines. It's imaginable that a SSBN could take over the job of a SSN with a reduced payload of ballistic missiles (SLBMs), though. The sub forces would make most sense for the Northern/Arctic and Pacific fleets, but at least some SSI would be needed for ASW training of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets as well.


This leads to requirements for these ship classes in addition to policing and rescue ships for coast guard-like duties:

SSBN (with SSN-like qualities and reduced SLBM payload)
SSI
DDG (general purpose)
CV
LPD
FFG (general purpose, including the new-built so called corvettes)
icebreaker (long range)
hospital ship
replenishment ship


2 Great power games squadrons each:
   1 CV
   4-6 DDG
   1 SSBN
   4-6 LPD
   1 hospital ship 
   2 replenishment ships

3 Coastal squadrons each:
   2-4 FFG*
   0-1 SSI (none in Caspian Sea)

2 Strategic deterrence squadrons each:
   5 SSBN
   2 icebreakers
   2 FFG
   1 SSI

for a total of

   12 SSBN
   2 CV
   10-12 DDG
   8-12 LPD
   8-14 FFG
   4 icebreakers
   4 SSI
   4 replenishment ships
   2 hospital ships

This was already sorted, with the more expensive ship class programs first.

A navy of this size would allow to pick the low hanging fruits in regard to warmaking potential in the vicinity to Russian harbours and provide a more than minimal nuclear deterrence with one SSBN patrolling in the Arctic and one in the Pacific at all times (in addition to air force nuclear deterrence).
The great power games squadrons would see a SSBN catching up in time** for interventions in or against poor small powers with a powerful air defence that keeps the demand for combat air patrol small, powerful anti-submarine defence, some land attack capability and enough air power to enjoy air superiority against >90% of countries.

This begs the question which aircraft would be used to equip the carriers? I suspect PAK-FA or a still undisclosed J-31 equivalent are the only realistic options for 2035-2040.
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How would "the Western powers" (including Japan) react?

Most likely the navy lobbies would point at the carrier battlegroups and the silent submarines as great threats, and expenses to counter these threefold would be demanded. Why threefold? Well, the U.S.Navy requires three ships to counter one 'threat' ship of lesser capability: One in port or shipyard, one cruising the very long distance between home port and patrol zone and one "forward deployed".*** Other navies would welcome the bogeyman to 'justify' their funding as well.

Somewhat more rational responses would include the development of a doctrine for how to block or counter such seaborne interventions, a doctrinal emphasis on offensive minefields and SSI ambushes in order to limit the utility of the Russian fleet to exactly one sortie in the event of war and effective shadowing of both CVBGs.
 

Weak countries with more or less overt hostilities with friends of Russia (state or non-state) would have much more reason to be concerned about such a (still hypothetical!) Russian Navy. How does a small power defend itself against a nuclear power's CVBG? A victory in battle might prove to be a Pyrrhic victory real quick not only due to the nuclear threat, but also due to the prestige at stake. Russia might lose one CVBG, but it would soon thereafter seek a new battle using not only a CVBG, but additional naval forces including submarines. The only real counter would be a naval or air force effort by another nuclear power, and this could re-polarise the world into a Western bloc, a Russian bloc and a Chinese bloc after the first or second display of intervention power.
_ _ _ _ _

There's very little to be gained for Russia both in prestige and in actual military potential by a larger navy than this hypothetical one. This is especially true in comparison to what utility additional land-based air power and ground forces would offer (opportunity costs).

An attempt to match and potentially defeat the Chinese, American or even only Japanese naval power would be wasteful for such an obviously continental power as Russia.

It's remarkable that Russia has hardly ever benefited much of having a large navy at all. A navy wasn't even necessary to conquer Finland during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Ever since, the Russian navy failed during wars or was of little utility (such as against the Ottomans). Its Cold War nuclear deterrence role was made redundant by mobile land-based ICBMs afterwards, but I suspect they will stick with expensive SSBNs.

related:

S O

P.S.: I skipped mine countermeasure ships and boats because the required quantities are very hard to guess.
This is the real Russian navy today (infographic by RIA Novosti).

edit: Murmansk and other Arctic harbours don't have the problem of St. Peterburg with a freezing sea during wintertime. They're saltwater ports, where the water doesn't freeze. Still, there's precipitation, and the Arctic regions are no nice place for a surface fleet during wintertime at all. I'm not sure, but this may be a big issue with the Russian Pacific ports as well. The decontamination system and water guns may be used to disperse anti-freeze over the ship, but I have never seen this in the context of the antenna masts

*: Caspian Sea FFGs would be a good choice as training ships, since there's so little military utility otherwise and little need for a high crew competence.
**: There wouldn't be a SSBN ready to leave with the squadron at all times due to the limited quantity of SSBNs in this scenario. 
***: I'm still amazed how that navy lobby pulled it off that nobody questions then navy's competence and sanity whenever they use such a rotation scheme to 'justify' their need for a huge fleet. Then again, we're talking about taxpayers and politicians who do not dismiss the demands of "regional combatant commanders" as meaningless even though all CO and other bureaucrats ask almost always for more, no matter how much they have already.
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17 comments:

  1. First of all as a long-time reader I'd like to thank you for a very interesting blog (and apologize not having a login alias available).

    Two of Russia's fleets have direct access to world's oceans: Arctic (btw Murmansk is an ice-free port) and Pacific. As you wrote Russia's deep-sea fleets will be based on these.

    However I'd expect Russia to put much more weight on the inland seas of especially Baltic sea and Black sea, and perhaps also Caspian sea.

    Baltic and Black sea fleets were supposed to be destinations for the four French built Mistral class vessels, which points us to the offensive dimension of Russian naval thinking. Nowadays Russia obviously wants to view itself as a great power that is able to project power to it's neighbours. In the Baltic 2-4 FFG + 1 SSI would be inferior to all other national navies except the three Baltic countries, and I doubt that would be too much for Russian admirals' self-esteem. On the contrary, Russia most likely wants to be able to dominate these seas against non-NATO adversaries and challenge the local NATO fleets. After all there are five capital cities on the Baltic coast with two more in the near vicinity of less than 200 km.

    The Black sea on the other hand is gateway to the Mediterranean and via Suez canal also to highly strategic shipping lanes of Red sea and Gulf of Aden, The Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. NATO-Turkey does control the access via Bosphorus but despite an all-out war is unlikely to block Russian navy passing through.

    However as a continental power Russia probably sees shipping routes more as vulnerability than opportunity. Baltic sea is home to it's 2nd largest city and the isolated enclave of Kaliningrad. While Russia's enemies can reinforce their navies Russia's naval forces are separated. Partly because of this Russia has never managed to fully benefit from it's maritime power. Most notorius example is the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, when the Baltic fleet sailed around the world only to be destroyed at first contact with the Japanese in Tsushima Strait.

    To summarize, if you're looking from Moscow Baltic sea, Black sea and to some extent also Caspian sea are highly strategic hotpoints needing to be controlled. Looking from the West they may seem like dead-end backwaters.

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    1. These seas close to Russian bases can be swept with air power by both sides of a conflict, and submarines would find hardly any targets thus. Even OTH radars or satellites and land-based missiles could dominate these seas.
      It's simply outdated to think of the Eastern Baltic Sea or the Black Sea as offering much work for a navy. The Russians/Soviets learned in 1941/1942 how easy it is to lock them up in their bases.

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    2. In all out total war yes, but for anything more subtler a navy may be useful. I mean situations when you want to grab Gotland or Åland by surprise or want to send commandos to the Stockholm archipelago. Naval dominance over the lesser players gives Russia room to act.

      Or, in the case of Black sea, you want to send troops to Syrian civil war...

      Overall I think Russia wants to be The Most Powerful player on these inland seas. That has more to do with national prestige than military rationale, but there is nothing new in that.

      scip10

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    3. Well, this was about what would make sense given the initial assumptions.

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  2. The invention of lightweight radiation shielding in the form of metallic foam and the development of supercritical fluid turbines (100x smaller than turbines with traditional working fluid) finally makes nuclear powered aircraft, even smaller ones, feasible.

    This in turn makes aircraft carriers, and perhaps many other surface warships, obsolete.

    Thus far none of the great powers seem to have realized this, or at least not publicly.

    This would restrict navies in the future to submarines, land-based aircraft optimized for naval missions, and space assets.

    To the extent surface ships would be viable at all, they would be limited to amphibious warships. This could perhaps be replaced by ekranoplans which would be more survivable owing to their higher transit speed.

    It may be that a convergence of technologies would cause a return of the battleship concept. Heavily armored warships, capable of icebreaking, would bristle with lasers, rail guns, and guided missiles. Lasers, with their unlimited shot capacity, would greatly enhance survivability against air and missile attack. Rail guns would be a very useful indirect fire capability compared to current technologies as eliminating the need for propellant would greatly increase magazine capacity.

    These battleships would then be escorted by submarines and perpetual aircraft escorts. Perhaps disposable drone screen ships for cheap torpedo and mine defense could be employed as well.

    Then again, what would the utility of these battleships be if aircraft could reach any target in the world within 10 hours? Escorting and supporting amphibious landing ships?

    So it might be that Doenitz's vision of the future, a navy of nothing but submarines and aircraft, is at hand.

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    1. The nature's law of conservation of momentum proves conclusively that such micro turbines would be useless substitutes to normal gas turbines.

      A fleet of submarines has no targets but submarines if air power wipes the surface of the seas clean; it's thus useless.

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    2. Submarines would remain useful for mine laying, surprise, hunting other submarines, nuclear strikes, special forces insertion, covert bomb damage assessment, and quietly tracking surface ships.

      Toshiba is currently building an electricity generating turbine in Texas in partnership with Exelon which uses supercritical carbon dioxide as its working medium. I don't think they'd be undertaking this project if they expected it to be useless.

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    3. No, almost all of these jobs disappear if air power wipes the sea surface clean anyway.

      A powerplant can use a medium in a closed cycle, an aircraft cannot. To suck in air in front and push it out rearwards is necessary for aircraft turbines. A closed cycle would not provide propulsion becuase of the law of conservation of momentum.

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    4. I don't see why any of the jobs I listed would disappear.

      Submarines can insert special forces covertly, aircraft can not.

      If any great power retains SSBNs, other great powers will require hunter-killer submarines and the existence of those HK subs creates a requirement for more submarines still.

      Submarines are very useful for stealthy intelligence and secure communications are now possible by using a pencil beam transmission with no side lobe emissions to an appropriately located satellite.

      An aircraft can absolutely have a closed cycle powerplant as electricity can be used to power an electric fan. The powerplant side of the 1950s era ANP and NEPA programs worked, the problem was the shielding was too heavy. The USSR had similar programs, which were also abandoned due to the weight of radiation shielding.

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    5. No, submarines have hardly any pupose if both warring parties can wipe th sea clean of surface ships with air power. They're primarily useful for underdogs who cannot do so.

      mine laying - unimportant with no surface ships and air power able to lay mines easily
      surprise - whom if not surface ships?
      hunting other submarines - irrelevant, as the other subs have negligible purpose
      nuclear strikes - unnecessary because air power and land-based missiles can do the same
      special forces insertion - greatly overused justificaiton for subs. There are only few Operaiton Biting-like opportunities, and clandestine agents can substitute for commandos
      covert bomb damage assessment - marginal utility and relevant only along the coast
      quietly tracking surface ships - none there due to air power


      To attack SSBN is the zenith of military stupidity and primitiveness. Any € spent on this is wasted. You SHALL NOT threaten the opposing power's ability to retaliate to a first strike. This would destabilise and could provoke a hostile first strike.
      No SSBNs should be engaged or even only tracked during a war or crisis or even only peacetime. The more immune their second strike ability is, the safer you are.

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    6. The vast majority of cargo travels by sea and would continue to do so even if aircraft employ nuclear propulsion. Submarines can stealthily track merchant ships in peacetime and then destroy them in wartime (or direct airpower to do so, which would be ideal so as not to give away the sub's position). It would especially make sense to track oil tankers, coal bulk carriers, and LNG ships since all industrial nations except for Canada, Australia, and Russia import energy.

      Aircraft can indeed lay mines, but not as stealthily as submarines--and certainly not in peacetime.

      Nuclear strikes from submarines do not at all become obsolete. An SSBN (or a cruise missile carrying submarine) may be able to approach very close to an enemy's coast to successfully launch a decapitating first strike. Unless the enemy is next door land-based missiles and aircraft can't do that.

      Special forces insertion might be an overrused justification, but it's a justification none the less.

      I also thought of another submarine mission--cable cutting. Submarines could be used to cut submarine data and electricity cables. The United Kingdom for instance is a net importer of electricity via submarine cables, so a hostile power could use submarines to drive the UK into an electricity shortage. Cutting data cables would interfere with communications and if done by surprise prior to hostilities breaking out could crash the City of London and cause a financial crisis.

      You are of course right about threatening an opposing power's ability to retaliate, but that won't stop states from doing so. The United States after all foolishly withdrew from the ABM Treaty.

      And if one power can gain a massive advantage over another one, in theory a first strike makes some sense. Strategic Air Command kept trying to convince Eisenhower to nuke the USSR before the Soviets could catch up to American nuclear capabilities, and the Soviet Union quietly approached the United States to see if America would oppose a Soviet move to nuke and invade China to destroy China's nuclear arsenal and remove Mao (the USA did indeed oppose this).

      One can't assume that other powers will necessarily behave rationally or peacefully. Certainly my country doesn't behave rationally in foreign or military policy (or domestic policy, but that's another topic).

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    7. No, substantial nuclear first strikes never make sense.

      Submarines are a poor choice for tracking surface ships other than maybe CVs. A tanker costs approx. a tenth of a SSN/SSBN and cruises at 17 kts, too fast for a SSI/SSK.

      Cable-cutting requires no more than a single naval mine kill drone - that can even be done from a sailing yacht.

      Peacetime minelaying can be done cheaply with auxiliary surface warships (hundreds of mines) instead of much more expensive submarines (dozens of mines in place of torpedoes and missiles), and self-deploying mines can be deployed from 50 nm distance.

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  3. You are being ridiculous now.

    Look, you are a great military strategist, but your (admirable) bias toward bias is blinding you to the utility of a successful preemptive nuclear strike.

    If a power successfully conducts a preemptive nuclear strike against another, that totally defeats the rival power for at least a generation if not forever.

    A nuclear powered submarine can travel at 17 knots indefinitely, and supposedly the latest nuclear submarines have silent transit speeds in excess of 17 knots. While you are correct that tankers are obviously cheaper than submarines, tankers are not combat vessels. Submarines, properly deployed, could destroy a large fraction of tankers in the opening weeks of war.

    Your points on mines are good, but there remains the issue of minelaying in wartime. Submarines can do this stealthily in a way aircraft cannot. Also, do we have historical records of peacetime minelaying by camouflaged auxiliary ships?

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    1. Genocide is not an option. That card wasn't played during the Cold War when really something was at stake, it won't be drawn in the foreseeable future. Besides, with arsenals as large as the Russian one no first strike will eliminate the second strike capability.
      Show me a nation leader who orders a nuclear first strike on Russia and I show you one who gets stopped if not killed by his own men in time.

      Even if a SSN sinks 20 ships with its munitions, it would still not justify its purchase costs and operating expenses. A reload during wartime is most unlikely becuase bases would be mined & bombed, and replenishment ships are few and easily sunk.

      There was an incident in 1984 when supposedly a Libyan freighter (Ghat) dropped mines just south of the Suez Canal. In both World Wars defensive minefields were laid quickly, and even during WW2 (1941 I think) a German armed merchantman laid a minefield in Australian waters.

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    2. "Genocide is not an option."

      Maybe not for you or me, but for a lot of people on this planet and on all imaginable levels of hierarchy, it definitely is.

      "Show me a nation leader who orders a nuclear first strike on Russia and I show you one who gets stopped if not killed by his own men in time."

      Now this is ridiculous - that's the EXPLICIT job of strategic commands of all nuclear powers. They get psychologically and politically screened and continuously supervised to do exactly that.

      I don't like it either, but if e.g. POTUS gives the order, the button gets pushed, 100%, as long as an unbroken chain of command and authority exists.

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    3. Idiots considering genocide as option doesn't mean I need to do so as well.

      There were rumorus that during both Brezhnev's and Yeltsin's (both alcoholics) time in command of the Soviet/Russian nuke arsenal the responsible generals took precautions to ensure that no nuclear attack orders could be relayed without their own consent.

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    4. "Idiots considering genocide as option doesn't mean I need to do so as well."

      Of course, I fully agree.

      "There were rumorus that during both Brezhnev's and Yeltsin's (both alcoholics) time in command of the Soviet/Russian nuke arsenal the responsible generals took precautions to ensure that no nuclear attack orders could be relayed without their own consent."

      Gottseidank!

      An (hopefully) interesting anecdote, during the 2000s I met, by pure chance, an old US military guy who, after having taken mutual confidence, identified himself as a former USSTRATCOM member.

      As old "Cold Warriors" we shared a few beers and stories in the airport lounge of Leipzig (I admit he was the more fascinating one, as I myself had only been a lowly Mot-Schütze).

      Anyway, he told me something quite interesting; he told me that, during the 70/80s, USSTRATCOM was suffused by a strong Christian atmosphere, that virtually all of the officers were devout, hardcore-millenarian Christians who saw and understood themselves as a kind of "apocalyptic elite" who would, in the end, be the harbingers of the 2nd coming of Christ, "against Satanic communism".

      Communal prayers during the day, even sanctifications and blessings of the missiles themselves. According to him, identifying as agnostic or atheist in STRATCOM was COMPLETELY out of the question and would have led, either officially or unofficially, to immediate dismissal.

      I'm not sure if everything was true, or even if I understood everything correctly, but it was a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of some of the people who had the power to annihilate most of civilization by the push of a button.

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