The Russian Navy Recalibrates its Oceanic Ambitions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 200

In early October, the Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Vladimir Popovkin announced the decision to take two heavy nuclear-powered missile cruisers (TAKR) out of conservation and restore them to the active fleet. This decision coming just one year after the Petr Velikii (Peter the Great), the fourth ship of its class and the only one then in service, set out on a long-range cruise that took it from Severomorsk, the home port of the Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean, Caribbean, South Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans. On this voyage, which lasted from September 22, 2008, to March 10, 2009, the Petr Velikii exercised naval presence –taking part in naval maneuvers with friendly powers (Venezuela and India), making port calls and even engaging in antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia. The arrival of the Petr Velikii at the port of La Guaira, Venezuela, in late November coincided with the state visit by President Dmitry Medvedev shortly afterwards (Interfax, October 2).

This voyage announced the reappearance of Russian naval power on a global scale. Commissioned in 1996 in time for the 300th anniversary of the Russian Navy, Petr Velikii had a sad fate over the next few years. In August 2000, she took part in the naval exercise of the Northern Fleet that led to the explosion and sinking of the nuclear missile-attack submarine Kursk. In March 2004, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov the then Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) of the Russian Navy, declared her unseaworthy because of engineering problems. The ship went into dry-dock for repairs and rejoined the Northern Fleet in August 2004. In 2008-2009, she became the symbol of Russia’s naval presence. She and her sister ships are the largest, nuclear-powered non-carrier surface warships in the world and are often classified by the archaic term “battle cruisers.”

The navy judged the cruise to be such a success that the defense ministry unveiled plans to modernize and re-commission two other vessels from this class: Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Nakhimov. The fourth ship in this class, Admiral Ushakov (originally the Kirov, which was the first built in the 1970’s at the Baltic shipyards in Leningrad) has remained at Severodvinsk since 1999 undergoing modernization and may also rejoin the fleet. Deputy Minister Popovkin spoke of deploying the re-commissioned heavy, nuclear-powered, missile cruisers to the east and west to protect Russian maritime commerce.

Andrei Kokoshin, the former First Deputy Minister of Defense, sees a different potential in these ships once they have been modernized. In an interview with Sergei Viktorov for Krasnaya Zvezda, Kokoshin called the measure “necessary, timely, and extremely important.” He made specific reference to the long-range cruise of the Petr Velikii in demonstrating the military capability and political-military influence of such ships in various regions of the globe (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 3). When originally built, the TAKRs were intended to be the flagships for Russian task forces conducting anti-carrier operations during the Cold War. In the 1990’s Kokoshin supported the funding for the completion of the Petr Velikii under very difficult financial and material conditions. The project kept intact key components of the naval ship building capacity in the St. Petersburg area at a time when the Ukrainian shipyards were in decline and those linked to the Northern and Pacific Fleets were overburdened with the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Preserving this not only maintained the Baltic ship-building base, but it also provided expertise in terms of skilled workers, naval engineers, and architects for the revival of the shipyards of the Northern Fleet.

Under the new financial conditions, Kokoshin now envisions the modernized TAKR’s as “strike cruisers” with super-structures of new materials, modern anti-ship missiles, and “Aegis-quality” anti-aircraft and missile defense systems as well as incorporating the latest Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) and electronic warfare capabilities. Assigned to the Northern and Pacific Fleets, these vessels will be key elements in the restoration of the strategic bastion concept in the Arctic and Sea of Okhotsk, where the Russian navy can protect its nuclear deterrent forces operating on Russian SSBN’s. Similarly, these vessels and their support ships represent “a free naval force to protect Russian national interests in the world’s oceans. Kokoshin particularly highlighted the need for two such large surface combatants in the Asia-Pacific region, where they could contribute to an enhanced political-psychological atmosphere in the Russian Far East and permit a greater naval presence in that region and in the Indian Ocean (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 3).

However, the original TAKR’s were intended to be flagships and command and control platforms for carrier battle groups. And currently, Russia has only one carrier –Admiral Kuznetsov– which operates with the Northern Fleet. Last year, the C-in-C of the Russian Navy Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky outlined a plan to create six such carrier battle groups; three with the Northern Fleet and three with the Pacific Fleet (Interfax, July 27, 2008).

Nonetheless, no shipyards have started the construction of such ships. The Russians are, however, moving forward with the long-delayed conversion of the former Kiev-class heavy aircraft-carrying ship Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian Navy as the INS Vikramaditya. The Vikramaditya will be a radically different ship from the original Kiev class, with her forward armaments removed and replaced by a ski-jump bow, and arresting gear on the rear of its angled deck; which will allow it to conduct short-take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) operations. Modernization measures will include new European designed electronic systems and enhanced habitability for the crew. This work is being done at Severodvinsk, which will permit this shipyard to develop the necessary industrial base to support future carrier construction. Last month, test pilots conducted carrier operations off the Admiral Kuznetsov, practicing take-offs and landings with the MiG-29K/KUB, which were ordered by the Indian defense ministry for the Vikramaditya. Commenting on the successful tests, Mikhail Pogosian the CEO of the MiG Corporation said that the Russian defense ministry would find the aircraft attractive because of its advanced avionics, including the Zuk-ME phase-array radar (Izvestiya, October 1).

These developments, taken together, suggest that Russia’s commitment to an oceanic navy built around the Northern and Pacific Fleets is real, and it is making progress along non-traditional lines.