Is the Russian Navy about to collapse? In a recent article on War is Boring, David Axe made this argument largely based on data from my recent articles on the Russian shipbuilding program and the Russian Navy’s priorities. While the information I provided is sound, Axe’s overall interpretation is not.
The Russian Navy is investing in a time-phased recapitalization of its navy over the next 20 years. Submarines are the first phase, already well under way, followed by smaller surface combatants, then increased amphibious capabilities. The navy is letting recapitalization of cruisers and destroyers slip into the next decade. As such, the availability of large combat ships will decrease in the near term but begin to increase in the medium to long term.
The Russian Navy has historically had four main missions: 1) strategic deterrence, 2) coastal defense, 3) protection of sea lanes of communication, and 4) out-of-area deployment. Under Admiral Gorshkov’s leadership in the late Soviet period, it consistently built up the deployment mission while retaining the primacy of the others. During the immediate post-Soviet period, the Russian Navy largely collapsed. The vast majority of its combat ships were rendered inoperable and a large number were scrapped. In addition, lack of financing meant that the remaining operable ships and submarines rarely deployed in the period from 1994 to 2005.
When the Russian government resumed significant financing of naval procurement in recent years, naval planners understood that they could not rebuild the entire capacity of the Navy at the same time. The strategic deterrence mission remained primary, and the development and construction of new types of nuclear submarines (both ballistic missile and attack submarines) and submarine launched ballistic missiles proceeded with great speed once funding was increased (though the introduction of new Borei class ballistic missile submarines was delayed by problems with the Bulava missile).
As for the conventional naval force, the Russian Navy has decided (quite rationally) to focus on rebuilding its coastal defense mission first and foremost. It is building a fair number of highly capable smaller ships in the current rearmament program (i.e. through 2020) that will allow it to fully carry out this mission. The corollary of this choice is that building capabilities for the blue water/expeditionary mission has taken a back seat for now. This means that over the next five to ten years, the ability of the Russian Navy to deploy on long range missions will decline somewhat, as the remaining Soviet-era large ships age and become less reliable (with some perhaps being retired). But this is a short-term problem for them. In the medium to long term, the Russian Navy is going to rebuild that capability, with new destroyers currently being designed and expected to start entering the fleet around 2025. It is also planning to build new amphibious ships to increase that capability, also by the middle of the next decade. And there’s a current ongoing debate about building new aircraft carriers, though the first would not be ready until 2030 at the absolute earliest.
So rather than facing imminent collapse, the Russian Navy is going to continue to grow, but primarily with smaller ships coming in the short term, and larger ships entering the fleet no earlier than eight to ten years from now. What’s more, the new small ships will be well-armed, carrying the latest Oniks anti-ship missiles and Kalibr multi-purpose missiles, both of which can both be fired through universal vertical launch systems.
The Russian Navy’s primary mission has always been strategic deterrence and it will continue to have highly capable nuclear subs (both missile and attack subs) with new classes now entering service. The secondary mission will be coastal defense, very different from the US Navy’s focus on out-of-area deployment. But it will be highly capable in performing that mission, with small ships (corvettes and frigates) carrying advanced attack and defensive missiles.
While the Russian Navy has by no means given up on the out-of-area deployment mission, this is going to be a longer-term proposition, with construction of larger class ships (destroyers, aircraft carriers) dependent on the availability of financing in the long term. Furthermore, given their current capacities Russian shipyards are unlikely to be able to carry out the entire shipbuilding plan in the expected timelines. Even if the financing is available, the Russian Navy will not be able to deploy significant battle groups outside its immediate neighborhood for at least the next 10 years. In the short term, it will continue to deploy ships out-of-area, but mostly one or two at a time, not in a manner that would threaten the US Navy. And if the Russian Navy’s shipbuilding program is implemented in full, the Russian Navy could well be back as a full-fledged oceangoing force by the end of the next decade.