At a recent meeting of the defense ministry collegium, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, noted that new multi-purpose frigates, similar to the Admiral Gorshkov–class, equipped by high-precision long-range weapons, should become the main combat ships of the Russian Navy (Mil.ru, Flot.com, April 21; see EDM, May 4).
It bears noting that in the last few years, Russia has dramatically boosted its nuclear submarine activity in the North Atlantic, and increased the frequency of flybys by strategic aviation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members’ maritime borders. Traditionally, Moscow has paid rather more attention to its submarine and strategic aviation fleets than to the development of Russia’s surface naval forces. Over the past decade, the country has been actively building blue-water nuclear ballistic missile submarines, as an element of Russia’s nuclear triad, as well as multi-purpose submarines armed with cruise and anti-ship missiles. But, at the same time, its blue-water surface ship fleet experienced a dramatic decline. Only one of the eight Soviet-built Kirov-class battlecruisers can be put out to sea now (RIA Novosti, November 16, 2016). The Russian aircraft-carrying cruiser, Admiral Kuznetsov, needs repairs after its recent campaign in Syria (VPK-news.ru, April 26). Three Russian Slava-class missile cruisers have limited capabilities, according to modern naval standards. Moreover, the Russian Navy urgently needs to replace its Sovremenny-class destroyers and Udaloy-class frigates because their service life is ending (Vz.ru, April 21).
The geopolitical ambitions of modern Russia on the one hand, and the limited financing and shipbuilding capacities on the other, are forcing the Russian leadership to look for alternative options to achieve balanced naval asset developments. Under influence from these factors, Moscow has decided to abandon the construction of previously advertised nuclear destroyers (Army-news.ru, September 6, 2016) and aircraft carriers (Rg.ru, June 23, 2016). Instead, it is betting on the multi-purpose Admiral Gorshkov–class blue-water frigates. This decision was facilitated by several key aspects. Though these ships are smaller, they have a longer range and can accept the installation of new weapons. Moreover, frigates cost less to build, compared with destroyers and cruisers. Last month’s successful Tomahawk cruise missile strike by United States naval vessels in the Mediterranean against Syrian military targets in response to a chemical weapons attack could have influenced this decision as well. Moscow authorities believe that multi-purpose frigates will allow the Russian surface forces to increase their capabilities by up to 30 percent. Such outcomes are expected to be achieved through the deployment of several new, modern naval weapons: Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of up to 1,500 kilometers, Onyx anti-ship missiles (500 km range) and the Polyment-Redut missile defense system (range of up to 100–120 km) (see EDM, May 1).
Nonetheless, not everything appears to be going smoothly with the production of the new Russian frigates. The Admiral Gorshkov has been in construction for more than a decade. This ship is expected to conduct sea trials and be commissioned later this year. But Russia was supposed to build ten such ships by 2020 (Vz.ru, April 21); those plans were recently clarified by Defense Minister Shoigu, who admitted that only one other multi-purpose frigate can be expected before the end of 2020 (Tvzvezda.ru, March 7). Their number is planned to be increased by up to six in 2025 (Lenta.ru, May 5, 2016).
The Admiral Gorshkov–class of ships has some restrictions in seaworthiness and range of navigation, which of course will affect the areas of deployment and those vessels’ dependence on logistical support. Certain equipment being built for these frigates is also succumbing to problems—primarily the Polyment-Redut missile defense system (Topwar.ru, January 30). Before 2014, Ukrainian turbines were purchased to be installed onboard the Admiral Gorshkov frigate. But after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, Kyiv prohibited further deliveries of Ukrainian-built turbines to the Russian Navy. Russia plans to launch the serial production of such turbines in 2017, but this will require appropriate technological solutions and industrial capacities that may not be fully available (Lenta.ru, May 5, 2016; Defence-ua.com, January 13, 2017).
Realizing that the mass construction of new frigates will not take place in the near future due to financial and other problems, the Navy leadership has decided to extend the service life of some of its older blue-water-capable ships by intensifying their repairs and modernization. The Marshal Ustinov, a Slava-class cruiser, completed its five-year repairs in 2016 (Vesti.ru, December 26, 2016). The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft-carrying cruiser and two Kirov-class battlecruisers will also be undergoing repairs and modernization, including the installation of 80 universal vertical launchers for strike, anti-submarine as well as and air- and missile-defense missiles (VPK-news.ru, April 26, Svpressa.ru, September 1, 2016). This seems to confirm the Russian logic of adopting “all-inclusive” naval platforms for simultaneous warfare in the sea, land and air domains.
Undoubtedly, the appearance of two multi-purpose Admiral Gorshkov–class frigates as well as several modernized older ships until 2020 can increase Russia’s naval capabilities and the ability to successfully fulfill blue-water tasks. In 2016, Russia also commissioned two somewhat less capable Krivak V–class frigates. Originally designed for India, but ultimately purchased by the Russian Navy because of the ongoing difficulties with the construction of the Admiral Gorshkov–class ships, the Krivak V–class frigates should also be counted as part of Russia’s blue-water fleet. These vessels are planned to add to the Russian buildup in the Eastern Mediterranean (TASS, June 6, 2016). As such, Russia can be expected to possess 7–8 newly equipped blue-water ships in 2020, and double that number by 2025.
According to expert assessments, based on the above-cited developing capabilities, Russia may be creating surface-ship operational groups for short-term, blue-water missions. Therefore, the periodic use of new frigates and modernized old ships, primarily in the North Atlantic and the Eastern Mediterranean, should be expected in the coming years. The main tasks for these assets could be missile strikes both “from sea to land” and “from sea to sea,” mobile anti-missile bubbles, as well as the creation of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) zones. The surface ships’ interactions with underwater naval forces and aviation within small–medium intensity conflicts should also be considered seriously. However, this composition of ships is not enough to deploy balanced naval groups far from the Russian coast on an ongoing basis—which would be important for sea control. Nevertheless, former Supreme Allied Commanders Europe US General (ret.) Philip Breedlove and US Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis believe Russian naval activities near NATO’s borders require adequate assessment and response from the Alliance (Defensenews.com, March 5).