Russia’s Shipbuilding Program: Postponed Blue-Water Ambitions
Russia’s shipbuilding program for 2011–2020, under which the country plans to build over 100 new warships (Military Paritet, February 7, 2012), is reportedly causing “a very bad feeling” among some Russian naval experts (Topwar.ru, August 10, 2016). They describe the current status of the Russian Navy as a “ceremonial fleet” and have suggested that one third of the shipbuilding program has resulted in little more than a “donut hole” (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 22, 2017; March 3, 2018). The ongoing production difficulties appear linked to insufficient naval shipbuilding capacity and a problematic manufacturing process.
The country’s largest shipbuilding complex is the more-than-300-hectare Sevmash Production Association, located in Severodvinsk, which features 100,000 square meters’ worth of covered slipways (Flotprom.ru, accessed April 17). The yard has already transferred to the navy four early-model Borei-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (Regnum, March 18). Additionally, 11 fourth-generation improved nuclear submarines—the pride of the Russian nuclear fleet—are currently under construction (five Borei-A-class and six Yasen-M-class subs). However, only two are expected to be commissioned before the end of 2020. Sevmash is presently undergoing reconstruction to modernize its obsolete facilities and address chronic personnel shortages as well as labor discipline violations (Izvestia, March 20, 2018; Flotprom.ru, November 18, 2015).
Four more shipbuilding complexes are based in St. Petersburg. The most capable is arguably the Admiralty Shipyards, which has already built six improved Kilo-class conventional submarines between 2010 and 2016; two more are planned to be commissioned by 2020. A couple modestly capable Lada-class diesel-electric submarines have been under construction since 2005, and both are planned to be commissioned by 2020 (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 21, 2018). The shipyard is also building an Ivan Papanin–class Arctic-zone patrol ship, but it will not be ready earlier than 2023–2024, because of ongoing financing problems (RIA Novosti, March 21). The enterprise’s profits in 2017 decreased by 40 percent compared to 2016 due to modernization efforts.
Another St. Petersburg naval shipyard, the Severnaya Verf, is continuing to fulfill defense contracts for two multi-purpose ocean-going Admiral Gorshkov–class frigates. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has determined that these frigates will form the backbone of Russia’s blue-water fleet (see EDM, May 12, 2017). But twelve years after construction began on the original Admiral Gorshkov (which lends its name to the ship class), this frigate has yet to be commissioned because of the absence of a domestic-made analog to the gas turbines Russia used to purchase from Ukraine. Additionally the Polyment-Redut air-defense complex, designed to be outfitted on the vessel, continues to exhibit technical problems (RIA Novosti, February 27). The Severnaya Verf shipyard is also building five Steregushchiy-class missile corvettes; in total, six to eight such ships are supposed to enter service by 2020.
The other two major shipbuilding facilities on the Neva River, in St. Petersburg, are the Sredne-Nevsky Shipyard and the JSC Leningrad Shipyard Pella. The first specializes in producing Georgie Kurbatov–class minesweepers. The initial of these has already been handed over to the Navy, while the second was laid down in 2017 and is planned to be commissioned before the end of 2020 (Snsz.ru, accessed April 18). The shipyard has been working on slip reconstruction since 2016. The Leningrad Shipyard Pella builds 23-ton Raptor-class fast boats. According to the defense order, twelve such boats have already been commissioned (RIA Novosti, October 10, 2017), and two more are planned to be built in 2018 (Topwar.ru, December 13, 2017). The shipyard has also signed a contract to build four Karakurt-class small missile ships, but apparently they will not be ready before the end of 2020 (TASS, November 24, 2017).
OJSC “Zelenodolsky Plant named after A. M. Gorky” (located in Tatarstan Republic) builds small Buyan-M-class missile ships and Nikolay Sypyagin–class patrol ships. Five Buyan-Ms have already been built, and six more are currently under construction (Zdship.ru, February 23), including two or three that will likely be transferred to the navy by 2020. Six patrol ships, destined for the Black Sea Fleet, are in the process of being built; a couple are scheduled to be commissioned by 2020 (Topwar.ru, March 27). Five small Karakurt-class missile ships are also supposed to be constructed by this shipyard, and at least a pair may be commissioned before the end of 2020 (Lenta, June 29, 2017).
Two more shipyards, Amur Shipyard (Komsomolsk-on-Amur) and Baltic Shipyard “Yantar” (Kaliningrad), appear to be less overburdened by orders. The Amur Shipyard has nine docks inside closed heated slipways, but the facility needs modernization. Only three Steregushchiy-class missile corvette hulls were laid there, and the building process met with serious lags (Izvestia, February 2, 2018). Three Karakurt-class missile ships are also under construction in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, but problems with financing and engine procurement call into question whether these ships will be ready by 2020 (Flotprom.ru, February 6). The Yantar Shipyard has been building a large amphibious Ivan Gren–class vessel since 2004. This ship has yet to be commissioned due to ongoing issues with the shipbuilding process and financing (TASS, April 4). In 2011, the Yantar also began construction of six Krivak V–class frigates. Three have already been commissioned, but construction of the next three was frozen because of Ukrainian gas turbine sanctions. Reportedly, at least of two of the incomplete frigates will be sold to India (Interfax, February 28).
Moscow is also trying to build new naval vessels at shipyards in illegally annexed Crimea. Three Karakurt-class corvettes have already been laid down in the More shipyard (TASS, December 19, 2017). Several of these vessels are planned to be built at the Zaliv shipyard as well. But likely, those corvettes will not be commissioned before the end of 2020.
Russia’s naval construction program continues to suffer from multiple problems, including the shortage or obsolesce of Russian shipbuilding facilities, financial and management problems, as well as technological flaws and lack of access to foreign components—notably Ukrainian-made engines. As a result, a serious gap exists between planned and expected warships. Up to 2020, Russia is likely to operate 5 out of 20 new nuclear submarines, 9 of 20 frigates, 4 of 14 small missile ships, 16–18 out of 41 corvettes and patrol ships, 1 of 6 amphibious ships, 2 minesweepers, and 14 out of 14 fast boats. Such limited numbers of new ocean-going vessels, problems with modernizing older ships (Vz.ru, February 26, 2018), along with reductions to military expenditures (Wek.ru, March 27) may compel Moscow to postpone its blue-water ambitions. Nonetheless, several hundred more long-range cruise and anti-ship missiles deployed to its forthcoming small naval platforms will still likely increase security threats to littoral countries within Russia’s neighborhood.
Ihor Kabanenko is a retired admiral with the Ukrainian Navy. From 1983 to 1990, he served in the Soviet Navy in various positions up to Commander of the ship and Chief of Staff of Missile Ships Division. Since 1993, he served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He was appointed to the positions of Chief of Operations and Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Navy, the Military Representative of Ukraine to NATO, Chief of Operations of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the First Deputy Chief of Defence. He retired in 2013, with the rank of Admiral.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.