“Any ruler that has ground troops has one hand, but one that also has a navy has both”.
Peter the Great
Alphen, Netherlands. 20 October. What is the state of the Russian Navy? Many years ago at Oxford I wrote a paper entitled, “The Development of the Soviet Navy as a Blue Water Fleet with the 1956 Appointment of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov”. Snappy title, eh? As I write a ‘blue water’ power-projection Russian fleet is sailing towards the English Channel having been escorted in turn by a Type-23 Royal Navy frigate HMS Richmond, and two Type-45 destroyers HMS Duncan and HMS Daring. At the core of the eight-ship Russian task group is Moscow’s one aircraft-carrier the 1980s built, 43,000 ton (standard load) Kuznetsov. Ironically, the Kuznetsov has just steamed a few nautical miles from where Britain is fitting out and completing the new 72,500 ton aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
The Russian task group certainly looks impressive. It left Severomorsk Harbour on Saturday to sail round the North Cape into the Norwegian Sea. The Kuznetsov is supported by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Petr Veliky, and the anti-submarine cruiser Severomorsk, together with five other units. Two further Russian ships are at this moment off the French coast heading north seemingly to rendezvous with the task group.
Some distance off Severomorsk the carrier’s air wing arrived and included Mig-29/KUB, Su-27 and Su-35 fighters and fighter-bombers, together with Ka-52K helicopters. From the exercising that began in the Norwegian Sea and continued south past the Orkneys it appears the group is preparing to undertake air strikes against Syria (most likely Aleppo) from the sea when the group arrives in the eastern Mediterranean.
This year the Russian Navy celebrated its 320th birthday. Whilst much younger than the Royal Navy, the Russian Navy remains one of the world’s most celebrated. From its founding by Peter the Great for much of its history the Russian Navy, if not a blue water fleet – a force capable of operating globally – could still project Russian might far and wide. After the disastrous loss of the 1905 Battle of Tsushima to the British-aided Japanese, and the subsequent 1917 overthrow of the Tsar, the Soviet Navy for a time became little more than a coastal protection force. That limited role ended with Gorshkov. In the 1960s and 1970s the Soviet Union constructed a powerful global reach force of cruisers, destroyers and nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines, culminating in the enormous Typhoon-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines.
The Soviet strategy was pretty much the same as today. The strategy had four elements: to create protected bastions or spaces from which Soviet ‘boomers’ could launch ballistic missiles in relative safety; to protect the approaches to the Soviet Union; to provide an outer-layer for a multi-layered defence; and to harry and stretch Western navies through the aggressive deployment of fast nuclear hunter-killer submarines, particularly Western ‘boomers’ and surface forces.
For much of the 1990s the Russian Navy fell into a terrible state of disrepair, eventually resulting in the tragic loss of the new nuclear attack submarine Kursk in 2000. The loss was due to a highly-dangerous experiment into the use of a form of torpedo propellant that the Royal Navy had also tried and abandoned in the 1950s. With the 2000 arrival in power of President Putin the Russian Navy has been steadily reclaiming its strength. Now armed with the new Iskandr family of missiles the Russian Navy is fast developing again the capability to exert power, influence and effect far beyond Russia’s borders.
Admiral Viktor Chirkov said recently, “The Russian Navy is being equipped with the newest weapons, including long-range strike weapons, and has big nuclear power. Naval forces today are capable of operating for a long time and with high combat readiness in operationally important areas of the global ocean”. It is true that the Russian Navy can deploy an impressive array. However, and even though President Putin has prioritised naval construction to an extent, Russia’s difficult fiscal situation means that the Navy has far fewer platforms than in the past, and they are required to do far more tasks by Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. Equally, the ships the Russian Navy does possess have seen a step-change over the last decade in a whole suite of capabilities from weapons, to sensors, to enhanced command, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
It is in the design and construction of submarines where the Russian are making particularly impressive progress. Since 2010 the sixty strong Russian submarine fleet has been augmented by the commissioning of 8 new Borei-class nuclear-powered, ballistic/long-range nuclear cruise missile submarines, 10 Graney-class nuclear hunter-killer submarines and 20 super-quiet diesel-electric submarines of the Varshavyanka class. By way of comparison the Royal Navy’s seven Astute-class nuclear-attack submarines have been under construction since 2001 and only three have yet been commissioned.
That said, for all the impressive appearance of the Kuznetsov group the Russian Navy of today is a work-in-progress and still enjoys nothing like the strategic reach or operational flexibility of the United States Navy. It is also open to question whether the Russian Navy will continue to receive the necessary investments needed to meet its impressive post-2010 build programme. Moreover, Russia lacks key shipbuilding capabilities which has limited the expansion of the Navy. The loss of the two French-built Mistral-class assault ships has also reduced the maritime-amphibious capacity of the Russian Navy significantly.
However, Moscow remains utterly committed to developing a twenty-first century navy that can properly fulfil its three core missions of deter, defend and demonstrate Russian power. The West must therefore grip the strategic challenge implicit in today’s Russian Navy because it is first and foremost a weapon being honed for possible use against the West.