Russia's Massive Naval Problem

Russia's Massive Naval Problem

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First tanks and now submarines?!  Putin sure can’t seem to keep hold   of his weapons. With Russia’s only aircraft  carrier catching fire not once, not twice,   but three times since 2018 and his guided  missile cruiser the Moskva sinking in 2022,   Russia’s Navy - widely considered one of the  most powerful in the world - has seen better   days. And now Russia’s submarine power  is under serious threat. Here’s why.   It’s no secret that things haven’t been going  well for Russia. From crushing sanctions to  

staggering military casualties, Putin’s invasion  of Ukraine has backfired in a host of unexpected   ways. It has also highlighted profound  weaknesses in Russia’s military capabilities,   exposing them as aging, corrupt, and poorly led.  Nowhere is this more true than at sea.   Despite statements by former Russian president  Dmitry Medvedev back in 2009 that “without a Navy,   Russia does not have a future as a state”, the  country’s surface fleet remains embarrassingly   inept. Former US Navy Admiral James G.  Foggo recently noted that it has been  

allowed to “atrophy”, due to factors like poor  maintenance, low funding, and corruption.   This trend has been on full display during  recent years, with the Russian Navy suffering   a number of embarrassing high-profile mishaps.  Its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov   —nicknamed the ‘unluckiest ship in the world’—  has caught fire at least three times since 2018.   Earlier this year, Ukrainian intelligence assessed  that the ship is in “critical condition” and “not   capable of moving under its own power.” That’s  not to mention the sinking of Russia’s Black   Sea flagship, the Moskva, in April 2022. But now there’s an even bigger problem for Putin,  

one deep below the waves. For all the issues  with its surface fleet, Russia’s current fleet   of 58 submarines have long been considered  among the most powerful in the world. This   includes 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missile  subs, 17 nuclear-powered attack subs, and 9   nuclear-powered cruise missile subs, with several  more on the way next year. While they haven’t been   a factor in Ukraine, they are still considered  a “critical threat” by the US military. However,   their power may not last forever. Recent  reports suggest that Russia’s submarine  

capabilities are being seriously harmed by the  backlash to its invasion, especially through the   crippling effect of Western sanctions. So what does this mean for the future of the   Russian military? And just how serious of a blow  could it be to Putin’s war machine?   To understand just how critical  Putin’s submarine problem could be,   we first need to take a quick look at some  Russian naval history, which, funnily enough,   is permeated with continuing and humiliating  losses of fleets. But wait, there’s a plot   twist and it occurs just after World War II… Russia has had military power at sea in one form   or another since 1696, when Peter the Great first  established the Imperial Russian Navy. Impressed   by his visits to Western Europe, Peter realized  that Russia could never be a true great power   while remaining landlocked. By 1710, he had over  58 ships in the fleet, and despite some defeats,   by Peter’s death in 1725, Russia was the dominant  sea power in the Baltic. During the reign of  

Catherine the Great, the empire’s ambitions at sea  had grown, establishing a new Black Sea Fleet and   annexing Crimea for the first time in 1783. By the  time of her death in 1796, Russia possessed the   world’s second largest navy after Britain. This  period was the height of Russia’s imperial naval   power. As naval historian Robert A. Theobald once  put it, “To my mind, the death of Catherine marks  

the high-water mark in Russian naval history.  From this date to the end of the Imperial Navy,   it was on a treadmill working hard, but getting  nowhere.” This became obvious during the Crimean   War of 1853-1856, where Russia suffered a stinging  defeat to the combined forces of the Ottomans,   France, and Britain. The shortcomings of the  Imperial Navy were even more obvious by the time   of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. But it gets worse.   In response to Russian expansionism in the far  east, the newly industrialized Japanese military   gave Russian Tsar Nicholas II a humiliating  defeat at sea. The war marked Japan’s emergence  

as a great power, and contributed heavily to the  first Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the   second Revolution in 1917, what remained of  the old Imperial Navy came under control of   the Soviet Union. And while Lenin and Stalin  both aimed to rebuild a powerful Soviet Navy,   it remained largely inept throughout both World  Wars and into the early 1950s. As Theobald   described it in his well-known 1953 presentation  at the US Naval War College: “This is the history   of a Navy which has lost more complete fleets than  any other Navy in the world. It is the history of   a Navy which has never been more than second rate;  that has never been decisive in world history; and   that has never developed a depth of tradition to  compare with those of the Western Navies.”  

But this would change drastically only a few years  after his assessment, mainly due to one factor:   modern submarines. While Russia had some early submarines   before World War II, the first modern Soviet  ballistic missile submarines were completed in   the late 1950s. These early Soviet models were  diesel-electric, and based on designs pioneered   by the Germans, similarly to the United States.  However, by 1960, the Soviet Navy had launched its   first nuclear-powered attack submarines, giving  the USSR below-surface capabilities greater than   perhaps any country except the US. Soon after, the  Soviets also developed nuclear SSGN class subs,  

running on nuclear power but designed to  launch limited ballistic missile strikes   against American aircraft carriers and other  naval deployments. Over the next three decades,   the Soviet Navy continued to build and maintain  a large fleet of submarines, relying on them   heavily to challenge America's greater military  strength during the Cold War. Because the true   names of Soviet subs were rarely known abroad,  most are still referred to by NATO code names,   such as the Alfa-class nuclear subs. These use  liquid-metal cooled reactor propulsion systems and   titanium hulls, enabling them to move extremely  fast, over 43 knots (80 km/hr) at an operational   depth of 2,000 feet (600 m). Also important to  Soviet deterrence and power projection were the   Typhoon-class subs. The largest submarines ever  built, Typhoons are over 563 feet (172 m) long,  

have a beam of 81 feet (25 m), and can carry up  to 20 Sturgeon nuclear capable ballistic missiles.   These were just a few of the many varieties of  subs developed by the Soviet Navy. And the Soviets   also continued heavily building diesel-electric  models as well, such as the Kilo-class attack subs   and others. The fleet was never able to make the  switch to fully-nuclear powered, largely due to   budgetary and technological constraints. However,  by its peak in 1980, the USSR’s submarine force   had 480 boats, including 71 fast attack and 94  cruise and ballistic missile submarines.  

Even following the fall of the Soviet Union in  1991, this submarine fleet remained a major part   of Russia’s naval power. Dmitry Gorenburg of the  Center for Naval Analyses has noted that during   the post-Cold War period, Putin has focused  on developing new submarine capabilities,   while Russia has essentially lost the ability to  construct new, advanced surface vessels. The most   advanced of these submarine developments are the  Yasen and updated Yasen-M class SSGNs. Developed   in the 1990s and early 2000s, RAND Corporation  researcher Edward Geist has described these as   "the crown jewel of the contemporary Russian Navy  and perhaps the pinnacle of present-day Russian   military technology." And according to Admiral  Foggo, one major advantage of the Yasen-class   vessels is that they are “very quiet, which is  the most important thing in submarine warfare."   They can also carry both Tsirkon hypersonic and  long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. Yet these  

deadly subs also come with a hefty price tag:  the Severodvinsk, the first Yasen-class model,   reportedly cost over $1.6 billion. While  this is still much cheaper than than the US’s   most advanced subs, it is a very high price tag  considering Russia’s far smaller economy.   In the past few years, Putin’s government  has also claimed that even more nuclear   subs are in the works, including what  Russian state media claimed to be a new   "division" of submarines carrying nuclear-capable  "super-torpedoes'' in the coming years.  

Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and  maritime security at the International Institute   for Strategic Studies, has argued that investments  in submarines up to this point are one of the only   things which has allowed Russia to maintain its  status “among the leading powers.” While its fleet   is still far smaller than during the Soviet era,  Childs points out that it remains “very capable,   and along with some of the older submarines  would still pose a threat to NATO both at   sea and against land-based targets." But even before the war in Ukraine, there   were some doubts about the true effectiveness of  Russia’s impressive seeming subs. While they are   doubtless in better shape than its surface fleet,  they have never been truly tested in combat.   So how are Putin’s submarine fleets fairing  in the Russo-Ukraine conflict?   On land, the reckless nature of Russian military  doctrine has been on full display in the invasion   of Ukraine. But despite the enormous losses by  Russia’s ground forces, its Navy has so far played  

a very limited role in the conflict. This includes  its submarines, which have remained mostly as   a nuclear deterrent and threat. The exception to  this is Russia’s Black Sea fleet, where submarines   off the coast of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk have  been used to fire Kalibr missiles into Ukraine.  

None of these subs have so far been damaged or  destroyed, and there are still concerns that   they could be used to counter NATO activity and  control trade routes in the Black Sea.   But the consequences of Putin’s invasion  have created a different kind of problem   for the Russian Navy and its submarines. The crushing regime of Western sanctions imposed   on Russia has begun to erode the country’s  ability to resupply and maintain its military   industry. And in December of 2022, the US  State Department added even more sanctions   directly targeting Russia’s naval power. These  have already begun to work, cutting Russia off   from the technology required in modern subs.  As Admiral Foggo told Newsweek in an interview:   "I think they've been severely crippled by  these economic sanctions,” and "by their own   foolishness in the war in Ukraine." In particular,  the maintenance of existing subs and development  

of new ones will become increasingly difficult,  since "when they don't have the raw materials,   they can't sustain the industrial base, they don't  have the manpower—because that manpower is going   into fighting the war [in Ukraine].” Military  losses and brain drain make it likely that Russia   will lose its ability to compete with Western  countries in submarine development, especially   when it comes to their ability to project power.  Graeme P. Herd, of the George C. Marshall European   Center for Security Studies argues that “The  protracted nature of the conflict and the coming   Ukrainian counteroffensive undercuts Russian  military credibility." The repeated military   failures in Ukraine have created growing pressure  for Russia to project an image of strength through   its submarines. In turn, this has incentivized  the Russian Navy to take “greater risks” by  

using submarines which are not sea-worthy and  fast-tracking new weapons systems without proper   testing. Herd added that "Submarines are the  most expensive ticket item in Russia's military   budget and have no obvious utility in this war—so  Russia compensates and projects power through   acceptance of greater risk.” As a consequence,  Russia’s submarines “will suffer indirect and   long-term damage the longer the war lasts." Similarly, Herd and other experts have pointed out   that the sanctions illustrate just how much of  Russia’s military industrial complex was, and   remains reliant on critical Western technology.  Without the advanced components for submarines   manufactured in the US, UK, France, Germany, and  elsewhere, Russian development will be seriously   stunted in the years to come. And there are almost  no alternatives to the technology which sanctions  

have cut Russia off from: parts from China and  Iran, for example, are not advanced enough to   meet Moscow’s requirements. While experts remain  divided on just how dependent Russia’s nuclear   submarines are on Western tech, it is pretty  clear that at least some of imported components   are necessary to build new vessels. These are  mostly thought to be technologically-advanced   electronic components for guidance, communication  and missile deployment. Russian defense journalist   Alexander Timokhin wrote in January that “The  sanctions imposed on Russia after the ‘Special   Military Operation’ left a sharp imprint on  the country’s technological capabilities… The   production of radar complexes, communication  systems, guided missiles, sonar equipment, and   other similar systems has proved to be difficult.”  As a consequence, these restrictions could make   it nearly impossible to build Yasen and Yasen-M  class subs and other highly capable boats. Childs,  

from the International Institute for Strategic  Studies, points out that this trajectory is   already visible, as “While the newest Russian  submarines are very capable, Russia's inefficient   shipbuilding industry has struggled to deliver  them on time and in significant numbers."   Like other experts, he agrees that Russia’s  construction shortfalls will accelerate in the   coming months and years, since "This could well  be exacerbated by the increased demands on other   sectors of the defense industry as a result of  the war, as well as from the impact of sanctions   on certain key components." So what do these deficiencies mean for   Putin’s ambitions and the future  of the Russian military?   Well, experts have outlined two main possible  scenarios for the future of Russia’s submarine   fleet. One possibility is that as military  resource constraints continue to grow, it  

will lead to prioritization of the elements which  have been most impacted— especially ground forces.   As of May 2023, Russia has lost nearly 200,000  soldiers, a truly staggering figure for a modern   military. In turn, as one analyst put it: "That  will inevitably lead to cuts, or limits at least,   in shipbuilding in the future." The other  possibility is that Russia will be forced to   funnel more investment into submarines, due  to their relative importance and strategic   value. This will mean less and less resources  for replenishing ground troops and equipment,  

which are both cheaper and more expendable.  But even if Putin opts for the second scenario,   any money spent now is likely to have a delayed  impact. Past investments in submarine development   and maintenance will carry the Russian  fleet for at least a few years to come,   but within five to ten years, it could be a  very different picture. Just based on the size   and current capabilities of Russian submarines,  it will likely remain one of the world’s most   powerful fleets for the next decade— but after  that things are far more uncertain. Any modern   submarine which breaks down in the years  could become essentially useless, reduced   to just so much expensive scrap metal. However Putin attempts to manage his growing  

economic constraints, the main role of Russian  submarines will probably remain as a nuclear   deterrent. And there are also some indications  that Putin has already realized just how spread   thin his resources really are. In March, Russia’s  Pacific Fleet underwent a series of military   drills which were described as a “surprise  inspection” of more than a dozen submarines—   potentially signaling a lack of faith by the  Kremlin in the readiness or maintenance of the   fleet. Readouts from the Kremlin show that Putin  recently told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that   while Russia’s “priorities” remain the war  in Ukraine, "still, the objective to develop   the navy, including in the Pacific theater of  operations, remains relevant." Adding that "It   is clear that some of the fleet's assets can be  used in conflicts elsewhere." This indicates both  

that Putin does not believe submarines can make  much of a difference in Ukraine, and that they   remain most useful as a nuclear deterrent. As  Russia’s submarines begin to break down in the   coming years, with no easy way to maintain them  or build new state of the art models, the country   will also become less able to project power  in this way. This will almost certainly happen   regardless of which where the Kremlin prioritizes  resources, especially since casualties in Ukraine   show no sign of slowing down. As losses climb higher and higher,  

and as sanctions continue their squeeze, it may  also provoke Putin into even more aggressive   and reckless strategies. In fact, there  is evidence that this is already taking   place. In the past few months, Russia has deployed  submarines in increasingly threatening positions.   As Michael Peterson, the director of the Russia  Maritime Studies Institute, told Newsweek: "We   have indications that nuclear-powered submarines  have been deploying off the coast of the United   States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere  along Europe periphery, in ways that mirror   Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold  War." Such aggressive posturing is likely tied to   Putin’s growing issues, in an attempt to project  a facade of Russia as a true global power, despite   an economy less than half the size of California.  This weakness is also reflected in overly  

optimistic predictions for its military industrial  complex. A recent analysis by the Institute for   the Study of War (ISW) concluded —similarly to  other experts— that “Russian officials continue   to claim that Russian defense manufacturers are  increasing production amidst ongoing indications   that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB)  is unable to meet Russia’s long-term economic   and military goals.” There have been rosy  claims by officials like Alexey Rakhmanov,   head of the Russian United Shipbuilding Company,  that submarine production time will soon be cut   by 8 to 13 months. But there is little evidence  to support this. And in another sign of growing   weakness, Putin signed a decree on February  27th, reducing previous plans to construct at   least three nuclear reactor-equipped Lider class  icebreakers by 2035 down to just a single vessel.   Again, this likely reflects the fact that the  need to replenish stocks of conventional ground   weaponry lost in Ukraine, “will likely consume  the majority of Russia‘s DIB and limit Russia’s   ability to produce systems aimed at longer-term  strategic goals.” This includes both nuclear   icebreakers and submarines, indicating that  Russia’s resources are spread much thinner   than Putin would like the world to believe. So to sum up: despite claims by the Kremlin, there  

are strong signs that Russia’s disastrous strategy  in Ukraine has backfired even more than we know.   The squeeze of Western sanctions now threatens  to render even the deadly Russian submarine   fleet obsolete. The longer the war goes on, and  the more isolated Russia becomes, the harder it   will be to obtain the advanced components needed  for these vessels. This will continue to erode the   country’s industrial base, possibly crippling  all long-term defense production. And because   Russian losses in Ukraine are so heavy,  Putin also faces a crisis of credibility,   and growing pressure to project a facade of power.  This has already led to reckless, aggressive  

posturing by Russian subs, and a willingness  to use vessels which are not even sea-worthy,   a problem which seems likely to increase. Because  the Russian Navy has historically been so reliant   on them to project power, there is little question  that the stagnation of its submarine fleet will be   a serious blow in the coming years. But what do you think? Will sanctions   and battlefield losses eventually doom  Russia’s submarine fleet? Or can Putin   find a way around these issues and keep Russia  as a great power? Let us know what you think   in the comment section below, and don’t forget to  subscribe for more military content and analysis.

2023-05-25 07:49

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