The Russian Navy is Back

The Russian Navy (Russian: Военно-морской Флот Российской Федерации (ВМФ России), lit. Military-Maritime Fleet of the Russian Federation) is the naval arm of the Russian Armed Forces. The present Russian Navy was formed in January 1992, succeeding the Navy of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which had itself succeeded the Soviet Navy following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The regular Russian Navy was established by Peter the Great (Peter I) in October 1696. Ascribed to Peter I is the oft quoted statement: “A ruler that has but an army has one hand, but he who has a navy has both.” The symbols of the Russian Navy, the St. Andrew’s ensign (seen to the right), and most of its traditions were established personally by Peter I.

Neither Jane’s Fighting Ships nor the International Institute for Strategic Studies list any standard ship prefixes for the vessels of the Russian Navy. For official U.S. Navy photographs, they are sometimes referred to as “RFS”—”Russian Federation Ship”. However, the Russian Navy itself does not use this convention.

The Russian Navy possesses the vast majority of the former Soviet naval forces, and currently comprises the Northern Fleet, the Russian Pacific Fleet, the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Russian Baltic Fleet, the Russian Caspian Flotilla, Naval Aviation, and the Coastal Troops (consisting of the naval infantry and the Coastal Missile and Artillery Troops).

A rearmament program approved in 2007 placed the development of the navy on an equal footing with the strategic nuclear forces for the first time in Soviet and Russian history. This program, covering the period until 2015, expected to see the replacement of 45 percent of the inventory of the Russian Navy. Out of 4.9 trillion rubles ($192.16 billion) allocated for military rearmament, 25 percent will go into building new ships. “We are already building practically as many ships as we did in Soviet times,” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a visit to Severodvinsk in July 2007, “The problem now is not lack of money, but how to optimize production so that the navy can get new ships three, not five, years after laying them down.”

The Russian Navy suffered severely since the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to insufficient maintenance, lack of funding and subsequent effects on the training of personnel and timely replacement of equipment. Another setback is attributed to Russia’s domestic shipbuilding industry which is reported to have been in decline as to their capabilities of constructing contemporary hardware efficiently. Some analysts even say that because of this Russia’s naval capabilities have been facing a slow but certain “irreversible collapse”. Some analysts say that the recent rise in gas and oil prices has enabled a sort of renaissance of the Russian Navy due to increased available funds, which may allow Russia to begin “developing the capacity to modernize”. In August 2014, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russian naval capabilities would be bolstered with new weapons and equipment within the next six years in response to NATO deployments in eastern Europe and recent developments in Ukraine.

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The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a severe decline in the Russian Navy. Defense expenditures were severely reduced. Many ships were scrapped or laid up as accommodation ships at naval bases, and the building program was essentially stopped. Sergey Gorshkov’s buildup during the Soviet period had emphasised ships over support facilities, but Gorshkov had also retained ships in service beyond their effective lifetimes, so a reduction had been inevitable in any event. The situation was exacerbated by the impractical range of vessel types which the Soviet military-industrial complex, with the support of the leadership, had forced on the navy—taking modifications into account, the Soviet Navy in the mid-1980s had nearly 250 different classes of ship. The Kiev class aircraft carrying cruisers and many other ships were prematurely retired, and the incomplete second Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier Varyag was eventually sold to the People’s Republic of China by Ukraine. Funds were only allocated for the completion of ships ordered prior to the collapse of the USSR, as well as for refits and repairs on fleet ships taken out of service since. However, the construction times for these ships tended to stretch out extensively: in 2003 it was reported that the Akula-class submarine Nerpa had been under construction for fifteen years. Storage of decommissioned nuclear submarines in ports near Murmansk became a significant issue, with the Bellona Foundation reporting details of lowered readiness. Naval support bases outside Russia, such as Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, were gradually closed, with the exception of the modest technical support base in Tartus, Syria to support ships deployed to the Mediterranean. Naval Aviation declined as well from its height as Soviet Naval Aviation, dropping from an estimated 60,000 personnel with some 1,100 combat aircraft in 1992 to 35,000 personnel with around 270 combat aircraft in 2006. In 2002, out of 584 naval aviation crews only 156 were combat ready, and 77 ready for night flying. Average annual flying time was 21.7 hours, compared to 24 hours in 1999.

Training and readiness also suffered severely. In 1995, only two missile submarines at a time were being maintained on station, from the Northern and Pacific Fleets. The decline culminated in the loss of the Oscar II-class Kursk submarine during the Northern Fleet summer exercise that was intended to back up the publication of a new naval doctrine. The exercise was to have culminated with the deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov task group to the Mediterranean.

Map of Northern Fleet Bases.

As of February 2008, the Russian Navy had 44 nuclear submarines with 24 operational; 19 diesel-electric submarines, 16 operational; and 56 first and second rank surface combatants, 37 operational. Despite this improvement, the November 2008 accident on board the Akula-class submarine attack boat Nerpa during sea trials before lease to India represented a concern for the future.

In 2009, Admiral Popov (Ret.), former commander of the Russian Northern Fleet, said that the Russian Navy would greatly decline in combat capabilities by 2015 if the current rate of new ship construction remained unchanged, due to the retirement of ocean-going ships.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin announced a plan to build 51 modern ships and 24 submarines by 2020. Of the 24 submarines, 16 will be nuclear-powered. On 10 January 2013, the Russian Navy finally accepted its first new Borei class SSBN (Yury Dolgorukiy) for service. A second Borei (Aleksandr Nevskiy) was undergoing sea trials and entered service on 21 December 2013. A third Borei class boat (Vladimir Monomakh) was launched and began trials in early 2013, and was commissioned in late 2014.

Structure after 2008–2011 reforms

As a result of the 2008 Russian military reforms, the units of the Russian Naval Aviation were reorganized into 13 new Naval Air Bases. Each new naval air base consists of an HQ, support units and one or more aviation groups/wings (the former air bases). In a second stage, the air bases were merged into territorially integrated structures. Only the 279th Regiment retained its status. The planned transfer of Naval Aviation assets (Su-24, Su-27, Tu-22M3, MiG-31) to the Air Force has been delayed due to their importance to the service, but was finally implemented by the end of 2011.

As of 2012, the only fixed wing strike and fighter aircraft of Russian Naval Aviation are the Su-33 fighters and Su-25UTG attack aircraft of the 279th Regiment (forming the Admiral Kuznetsov’s carrier air wing), plus the Su-24 bombers based in the Crimea. This sole bomber unit remained part of Naval Aviation as an exception to satisfy treaty requirements governing Russian forces deployments on Ukrainian territory (these must be part of the Black Sea Fleet). Buying brand new multirole Sukhoi Su-30SM for the Black Sea Fleet to replace Su-24 was in the planning stages and it has been completed as of December 2016. Naval aviation also retains the anti-submarine aircraft of the forces (the Tu-142 and the Il-38) and the helicopter arm.

Given the new data from 2015-16 from Russian sources regarding the 100th Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment’s disbandment in 1993, Air Force’s Monthly’s listing of both the 100th and 279th Regiments at the Severomorsk-3 NAB has been altered by removal of the 100 KIAP.

Russian Naval Ensign.
Russian Naval Jack.
Russian Navy Sleeve Insignia.

Future and modernisation

Russia’s military budget expanded from 1998 until 2015, but economic problems including a sharp decline in the oil price mean it will be cut in 2016. Higher expenditure led to an increase in numbers of ships under construction, initially focusing on submarines, such as the conventional Petersburg (Lada) class and nuclear Severodvinsk (Yasen) class. Some older vessels have been refitted as well. Jane’s Fighting Ships commented in 2004 that the construction programme was too focused on Cold War scenarios, given the submarine emphasis. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, share of modern armament in the Navy has reached more than 50% in 2014. A report from December 2016 estimated the figure at 47%.

The Steregushchiy class corvettes, the lead ship of which was laid down on 21 December 2001, is the first new surface construction since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the new Admiral Sergei Gorshkov class frigates marks the first attempt of the Navy to return to the construction of large blue water capable vessels. The Russian Navy plans to procure two new classes of destroyer, the general-purpose Project 21956 in the 2010s and the Leader-class anti-air destroyer in the 2020s. The latter will likely carry the S-500 anti-ballistic missile system.

On 28 April 2010, the Ukrainian parliament ratified an agreement to extend Russia’s lease of Crimean base facilities to 2042 with an option for five more years, through 2047. Subsequent to the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, this agreement has been officially invalidated by the Russian Federation State Duma. The Russian Navy has also revealed that the Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will receive 30 new ships by 2020 and will become self-sufficient with its own infrastructure in the Crimean peninsula. The fleet will be updated with new warships, submarines, and auxiliary vessels within the next six years. The new ships being built for the Black Sea Fleet include six Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates and six Varshavyanka-class (Improved Kilo-class) diesel-electric submarines.

On 27 December 2015, state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation declared that by 2019 the company would have the technical ability to build aircraft and helicopter carriers, which came as some surprise to analysts as previously the company had stated carrier-building would not take place until 2025 at the earliest. Russia’s only existing carrier, the Soviet era Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service at least until 2030.

In a May 2017 ten year defence review the development of a new aircraft carrier and nuclear powered destroyers was cancelled in favour of concentrating modernisation efforts on the nuclear triad. Development of a sixth generation SSBN was announced even though the fifth generation Borei class are still under construction as was a fleet of sub-frigate sized surface combatants.

Akula-class submarine.

 

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