Carrier killers for Russian navy – Part I The Strategic Environment

 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. CRT 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 1992and1997. 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 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 produce 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 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 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 Russia’s. 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.

(Defence Review Asia will publish Part II – Russian force structure – in the next edition).



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