Questions Plague Russia’s Naval Modernization

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Admiral Gorshkov Ship (Source:

With the March 18 presidential elections fast approaching, the Russian media has been increasingly saturated with stories showcasing the purportedly unmitigated success of Russia’s military modernization. Although there is little doubt about the widely expected re-election of President Vladimir Putin, his defense team appears to exaggerate certain aspects of the levels of progress in modernizing the conventional Armed Forces (see EDM, January 9). In keeping with Moscow’s claim to great power status, and consistent with the image of a successful foreign intervention created by its operations in Syria, the Navy has been at the forefront of these claims. This is not to deny genuine modernization across the forces structure, or specifically within the Navy, but the actual level of its success is certainly open to question (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 22, 2017).

In late January, the defense ministry detailed some of its latest procurement successes for the military. Of course, these figures include not only procurement but upgrades and repairs to existing systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 9, 2018; December 22, 2017). The figures concerned the fourth quarter of 2017. And in terms of naval modernization, they noted the acquisition of the long delayed Admiral Makarov frigate for the Black Sea Fleet, laid down at the Yantar shipyard in Kaliningrad in February 2012 and commissioned on December 25, 2017. Additionally, 2017 was noteworthy for the acquisition of the corvette Sovershennyy, which is not yet equipped with weapons (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 19). The defense ministry report also highlighted that the Navy had acquired two more coastal defense systems, Bal and Bastion, as well as “16 ships and support vessels,” in addition to 8 radar stations and 326 anti-submarine missiles. Such reports, however, also include acquisitions of ships not yet fully combat ready; and they glaze over ongoing issues, such as the Project 11711 Ivan Gren–class landing ship—already under construction for 13 years (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, February 9).

Naval aviation has also been boosted by the procurement of Ka-27M helicopters. To date, 20 of these modernized anti-submarine helicopters have entered service with naval aviation; the first batch reached the Baltic Fleet in January, and more were sent to the Northern and Pacific Fleets; by 2020, the number of naval aviation Ka-27Ms is scheduled to reach 50 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 7). In 2018, the Russian Navy is expected to receive the Project 20385 corvette Gremyaschiy. Project 20385 corvettes are designed to detect and destroy enemy submarines and surface vessels; they are equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles and the Redut anti-aircraft system and have special hangers for the Ka-27M (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 5).

The modernization of the cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Petr Velikiy continues, and there is much reporting concerning the futuristic systems these platforms will receive. This will apparently include the S-500 anti-aircraft system, Kalibr cruise missiles and the advanced supersonic Zircon cruise missile, described as a “killer of aircraft carriers.” The Zirkon, still in development, will employ the universal launchers used for the Kalibr and Oniks missiles (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 15). The commander of the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), Admiral Vladimir Korolyov, during a working visit on January 18, referred to the further development of coastal infrastructure at the BSF deployment points, in addition to improving combat training. A similar theme is reflected in statements from the Navy’s senior leadership applying to the other fleets and flotilla (RIA Novosti, January 18).

One of the issues with tracking the extent of Russia’s naval modernization is that not all the “ships” referred to by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu or the chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, are combatant vessels; this is emblematic of the tendency by the Russian top brass to exaggerate the overall success of the program. In December 2017, addressing the defense ministry collegium on the progress of Navy modernization, Gerasimov offered the following impressive achievements since 2012: “more than 150 ships and vessels, including 60 warships, among them 15 that carry Kalibr missiles.” Russian military specialists fail to see where Gerasimov’s figure of “60 warships” comes from. In a critical article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Aleksandr Mozgovoy reflected on naval procurement since 2012 and reached the total of 24. The author also suggested the figure of 60 is inflated even if other, smaller platforms are included, such as Grachonok-class anti-sabotage boats or Raptor patrol boats. The author concluded, “concerning the general picture, for the past ten years, in the period from 2007 to 2017, the overwhelming majority of units delivered to the fleet are base afloat assets: small raiding and diving boats, floating cranes and floating targets. According to accepted international classification, they are not even referred to as auxiliaries, but as service craft. Of course, the fleet cannot get along without them, but they do not bear any relation to combatants” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 22, 2017).

Mozgovoy highlighted the continued plight of the so-called Dolgostroy record holders: the Project 23500 frigates, the Project 22350 frigate Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union Gorshkov, and the Project 11711 large assault ship (BDK) Ivan Gren. He noted the length of time involved in attempting to complete these acquisitions and also referred to weaknesses in the existing corvettes, “Our new corvettes have sailed without working SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] for many years already. But they belong to the ships of the near maritime zone, which, in the event of air threats, could possibly, at least theoretically, be covered by the aircraft of land-based aviation. The frigate Gorshkov has to serve in distant maritime and ocean zones. There, you cannot call for an interceptor to repulse an attack by strike aircraft and cruise missiles” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 22, 2017).

Mozgovoy’s article is an important reminder that Russian military leadership claims often cannot be taken at face value. The elusive search for “60 warships” procured over the past five years is a case in point. Russia’s Navy struggles with meeting the demands of modernization targets precisely because there are limits to what the defense industry is capable of delivering. The promotion of naval interests within the modernization program to 2020 and the new State Armaments Program to 2027 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) has to compete with the other services. Mozgovoy is convinced that the Navy is not doing as well in meeting its GPV goals as the top brass claim.