Russia’s naval development is heavily tied to the continued introduction of high-precision strike capabilities offered by the maritime variants of the Kalibr or Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile systems. These are mentioned ever more frequently in reports on the plans to modernize the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), and their implementation is used to emphasize the progress in automating the VMF’s command-and-control systems (see EDM, June 10). However, despite these ambitious plans for naval modernization, the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has hindered efforts to build new platforms this year for the VMF and exacerbated concerns about a possible imbalance in favor of corvettes (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
According to the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation, Aleksei Rakhmanov, the modernized Project 22350 frigates Admiral Yumashev and Admiral Spiridonov can each carry up to 24 launch tubes for cruise missiles, while the earlier version of this ship class had only 16 launchers. Project 22350 vessels are multipurpose frigates for the far-sea zone, designed to conduct combat operations against surface ships and submarines using air-attack weapons (Izvestia, July 19). They are designed to carry Kalibr-NK and Onyx cruise missiles. The second serial ship, the Admiral Golovko, was launched in May 2020. The lead vessel of the project, the Admiral Gorshkov, entered the Northern Fleet in July 2018. In addition, the Admiral Kasatonov will enter service in July 2021, following its completion of sea testing on June 6. The shipbuilder Severnaya Verf (based in St. Petersburg) is also constructing the Admiral Isakov frigate and modernizing the Admiral Amelko and Admiral Chichagov (Izvestia, July 20).
On July 22, Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer reported on the return to port by the frigate Admiral Grigorovich (Project 11356; commissioned in 2016) after spending four months at sea, including the completion of various tasks in the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean. The commander of the Grigorovich, Captain 3rd Rank Konstantin Aksenov, noted the highlights of the tour of duty: “We fulfilled the tasks of ensuring the safety of maritime economic activities, as well as the safety of navigation in the eastern Mediterranean, and monitored aircraft carrier and multipurpose strike groups of the naval forces of foreign states” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 22).
“The entire crew remembers the Ocean Shield drills [annual naval exercise begun in 2018; involving dozens of warships in 2019 in the Baltic Sea],” Aksenov continued, adding, “Our frigate operated in conjunction with the [sister ship] frigate Admiral Essen; and the naval strike group was led by the commander of the surface ships division, Rear Admiral Oleg Krivorog. We also conducted a test-tactical exercise in the eastern Mediterranean.” Moreover, the report notes the testing and use of the automated command-and-control system, which, undoubtedly, featured as an integral testing component of the frigate’s deployment at sea (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, July 22).
Nevertheless, an earlier analysis in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer by Aleksandr Timokhin of the progress made by Russian shipbuilding indicates the extent to which the global COVID-19 pandemic is slowing the modernization of the VMF. Russia’s defense ministry had scheduled the laying down of new warships for April 28. These included two Project 22350 frigates, two Project 885M Yasen-M nuclear submarines as well as additional warships and auxiliary ships for the navy. These plans have now been placed on hold due to the impact of the disease outbreak (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
According to Timokhin, the defense ministry had also planned to order up to ten new corvettes to be built at the Amur shipyard. However, these reports remain unconfirmed. The author asserts, “This suggests that the renewal of the anti-submarine forces of the fleet is again postponed indefinitely. And this is in the conditions of a sharp, continuous increase in political tension in the world, [and] the growth of the power of the submarine among almost all the likely enemies of our country.” Timokhin adds, “For Russia, with its reliance on submarines as the main strike units of the navy, with its strategic nuclear forces and threats at sea, the presence of anti-submarine forces is a matter of life and death. If the country is still capable of creating such ships, then it must be done… Better yet, anti-submarine defense [should be] ensured in all fleets” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
Equally, despite the current orders for new corvettes, the author complains that the rush to build this class of warship armed with advanced hypersonic cruise missiles is no replacement for larger vessels. Timokhin argues that the country’s economic situation will not allow the construction of large anti-submarine warfare ships for missions in the near-sea zones, leaving inexpensive corvettes as the only realistic option (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26). Timokhin also underscores the importance of the anti-submarine warfare capability in the future development of the VMF, stressing that the “presence of effective anti-submarine forces, we repeat, is vital for Russia. But so far, there are no signs that near-sea zone ships, capable of effectively fighting submarines, will be laid down in the near future in the required number. Procurement directorates of the Ministry of Defense must take into account that neglect of anti-submarine defense issues in the future may result in the loss of the combat stability of our strategic [i.e., nuclear-armed] submarines, which, in turn, will call into question the security of the Russian Federation” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 26).
Timokhin’s observations are significant not only for drawing attention to the pandemic’s impact of slowing the modernization of the VMF and all the uncertainty this brings to planning and procurement. His analysis also highlights the underlying need to boost and preserve the VMF’s anti-submarine warfare capability. Meanwhile, the defense ministry’s appetite for corvettes is set to continue as a less expensive platform for maritime hypersonic cruise missiles, allowing Moscow to showcase its resurgent strength at sea.