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The Death of Gorshkov’s Navy: The Future of the Russian Surface Fleet

Constraints on Russia’s shipbuilding industry and its finances mean it is increasingly likely that its surface navy will evolve into a green water fleet based around frigates and corvettes.

In the deep: the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, which was sunk in April 2022. Image: George Chernilevsky / Wikimedia Commons

The sinking of the Slava-class cruiser Moskva garnered understandable international attention given its symbolic and tactical significance within the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. The event was also a watershed in another way, however: it marked another waypoint in the disappearance of the fleet of large surface combatants that was Russia’s inheritance from the USSR’s naval build-up overseen by Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. Going forward, Russia is unlikely to replace this fleet, and its navy’s surface fleet will increasingly become a littoral force built around smaller surface combatants which operates close to Russian-held shores.

Despite Russia’s ambitious naval policy and plans to field a new generation of destroyers, its shipbuilding industry has shown few signs that it can deliver on Russian leaders’ aspirations. The weaknesses of Russia’s naval shipbuilding sector have been visible even in the delivery of smaller, less complex vessels, and will be especially acute if Russia does pursue large surface combatants. By 2020, the Russian Navy had received just 33% of the frigates planned under Russia’s State Armament Programme for 2011–2020, and only 20% of the corvettes. This reflects several deficiencies in Russia’s maritime sector. Due to a combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the lack of access to Western technology since 2014, Russian shipbuilders have not adopted practices such as the use of computer-aided design tools and the assembly of hulls from large prefabricated sections – practices that were adopted in the 1980s and 1990s in the West and which made shipbuilding significantly more efficient. Russian shipbuilders still construct vessels from the hull up – substantially increasing both construction times and costs. This is compounded by bloated corporate structures in entities such as Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, leading to inefficient practices such as the use of shipyards to both produce tools and construct vessels (rather than merely the latter task, as in Western countries).

Idiosyncrasies in Russian shipbuilding practices – for example, the use of 8x2m steel sheets for construction – augment costs and delivery times further, causing workload increases of 50–60% relative to those shipbuilders who adhere to international practices. Other weaknesses of the shipbuilding ecosystem include ageing machinery – in 2013 It was estimated that roughly 70% of the equipment at Russian shipyards was obsolete – and ageing facilities. In addition to these longstanding weaknesses, after 2014 Russia lost access to facilities in Ukraine such as those at Mykolaiv which were central to the production of gas turbine engines. Finally, Russia may well be falling behind in its capacity to develop sophisticated components for future vessels. For example, it is generally accepted that newer Chinese radar systems such as the Type 346B AESA and the Type 382 PESA radar outperform Russian analogues – this despite the fact that China was a consumer of Russian technology and utilised Russian systems such as the MR-750 ‘Top Plate’ radar on the frigates and destroyers it built in the 1990s and 2000s.

As financial issues accumulate in the wake of Western sanctions, and as export controls impact technological flows further, refitting older blue water vessels may become increasingly difficult for Russia

To be sure, we should not completely write off Russia’s capabilities. Russia has shown a capacity to make up some lost ground and substitute for unavailable imports – its newer Gorshkov-class frigates utilise a new Poliment AESA radar as well as a sophisticated air defence suite. Russia still appears to be a frontrunner in fielding hypersonic cruise missiles on its vessels, and it has launched a series of domestically built gas turbine engines. However, even where it has been able to adapt, Russia’s limitations are visible. For example, Russia’s domestically produced M90-FR gas turbine engine generates 20MW of power – somewhat shy of the 35MW that would qualify it as a heavy duty gas turbine engine comparable to those on the Chinese Type 055.

Russia’s financial circumstances will further impact its shipbuilding capacity. The Russian State Armament Programme 2027 was passed before the current crisis and, given that spending is generally backloaded in these programmes, a good deal of the allocated finances have not been released to the navy. As Russia faces further financial constraints, it will need to decide both how much of the initially allocated funds can be released to the navy, and how much of those funds will be directed to the production of assets such as attack submarines rather than surface combatants. Cumulatively, these factors suggest that Russia was not postured to build large surface combatants even before the current conflict, and will almost certainly not be able to do so now.

It is unsurprising, then, that the Russian Navy has poured substantial effort into modernising larger surface combatants which it inherited from the USSR. This included vessel classes such as the Slava-class cruiser and the nuclear-powered Kirov-class cruiser. For example, the second vessel in the Kirov class – the Admiral Nakhimov – is undergoing refits that will see its radar upgraded and its VLS cells replaced to launch more modern P-800 missiles. Though more viable than building new large combatants, this approach has its own limitations. Financial limitations and reported (though unspecified) supplier-related issues have added substantial delays to the delivery of the Admiral Nakhimov. Similarly, the Moskva was due to undergo upgrades but did not receive them for want of funding – meaning that the vessel did not receive the updated Podberyozovik target acquisition radar and Fregat M2EM sea skimming target acquisition radar which can be found on its upgraded sister ship, the Marshal Ustinov. It also, notably, did not receive upgrades to its command and control suite and fire control systems that had been identified as being necessary. Instead, the ship was operating an older suite including the MR-800 Voshkod and the MR-710 analogue radar. As financial issues accumulate in the wake of Western sanctions, and as export controls impact technological flows further, refitting older blue water vessels may become increasingly difficult for Russia. Finally, retaining older ships will be complicated by a limited number of facilities that can support repairs and refits of large vessels – exemplified by the loss of the sole dry dock capable of berthing Russia’s remaining aircraft carrier dur ing its repairs in 2018.

The Russian surface fleet is likely to devolve from a balanced fleet comprising both power projection capabilities and a cruise missile-equipped green water force into one based solely around the latter component

It is thus increasingly likely that Russia’s surface force will evolve into a green water fleet based around frigates and corvettes. The larger of these vessels – the Gorshkov-class frigate – can perform some of the tasks which might have been allotted to a destroyer, including limited power projection. The ship is equipped with a modern Poliment AESA radar and launches the 9M96E surface-to-air missile used on the S-400. Its surface-to-surface capabilities include the P-800 Oniks and will likely include the hypersonic Zircon. The major limitation of frigates, however, is that they lack the power generation capacity to operate systems such as long-range air defence radar at full capacity over long periods of time. They cannot, then, provide wide area defence for a task group. Moreover, their ability to remain at sea for long periods is limited without access to shore facilities. In some areas, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, these may be available through ports like Tartus. However, it is unlikely that many actors further afield will extend access to their facilities to Russian vessels.

The Russian surface fleet, then, is likely to devolve from a balanced fleet comprising both power projection capabilities and a cruise missile-equipped green water force into one based solely around the latter component. In this capacity it is still dangerous. Small vessels equipped with long-range precision strike capabilities like the Kalibr cruise missile can do a great deal of damage to targets across Europe from safe bastions close to Russia’s shores. However, this will likely mark the end of any pretensions Russia has of possessing a blue water navy, and will be the final chapter in Gorshkov’s legacy.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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