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Importing aircraft carriers: the only prospect?

Text: Independent Military Review, Rear Admiral (retired) Yury Kirillov
Photo: navy.su
Present-day Russian Navy needs substantial optimization.

Petr Veliky – the only Russian nuclear-powered missile cruiser and one the few really battleworthy ships in Russian Navy
Public interest to the national navy becomes obvious after numerous loud statements of Russian leaders. The Navy's near past is in the limelight – at least because Russian Navy is still armed with Soviet-built ships and weapons; the present is in focus as well, since it is natural starting point for any evolutionary process; the future is in the full glare, too – that's what we hope for!

Besides, it becomes increasingly apparent even at the admass level that the Navy is the most versatile tool of foreign policy. So if there's no navy (or it is unacceptably weakened, which is the same), powerful foreign policy is out of the question either.

Although true worthiness of navies can be only proved by a war (combat actions against a strong opponent), fleets are permanently compared and analyzed, pretty much promoting progress of their development. We can't go without comparison either, especially as we are going to estimate real state of Russian Navy and determine its place amid foreign fleets. That's the lead question of our work.

Ranking of navies

It should be noted that ranking of world navies had been quite clear issue before, but happened to be pretty confused then. First, because of discovery of nuclear weapon, then – nuclear submarines, next – electronic warfare and automated control systems. But the main thing is there are no great powers without adequate navies.

As is known, the US has the most powerful fleet – a supernavy which is alone stronger then all others put together. Not long ago, our navy was almost the same in power, but now the situation is radically different.

Russia still has maritime nuclear force, nuclear-powered submarines, deck-based and coast-based aviation. But alongside with that Russian Navy is much degraded and even sensibly yields to some "rising" neighbors. Speaking of other navies, they have lots of difficulties as well. In particular, traditionally great sea powers Great Britain and France having quite balanced navies with nuclear subs, strategic missiles, aircraft carriers, and hi-tech surface ships, however yield to some other fleets both in numbers and sometimes in combat capabilities.

Other fleets worldwide are usually divided into navies of developed countries (which normally have own advanced shipbuilding industry capable to create hi-tech arms and equipment) and import-armed navies. The general trend of recent years is ambitions to acquire only the most hi-tech hardware for national fleets. Going beyond deck-based helicopters, all navies display intentions to acquire various aircraft-carrying ships – landing docks, helicopter carriers, and even light aircraft carriers.

It would be natural to put navies operating nuclear-powered submarines on the top of our rating.

Nuclear subs give special mobility to any fleet. They are strategically consisted and autonomous not only in littoral local conflicts but in expeditionary actions all across the globe wherever air support is either geographically limited or simply impracticable. Fleets without such components and capabilities cannot compete with navies operating nuclear subs, no matter how combat-worthy and integrated into coalition forces they are. Availability of naval nuclear strategic forces extends a special privilege cardinally determining a country's status in general and raising it to the select cohort.

Thus, in this headnote we have outlined the group of our "competitors" in comparative analysis and defined basic criterions.

True place of Russian Navy amid world leading fleets

As long as we tried to rank present-day navies in the introduction, it would be appropriate to go on and determine real state of Russian Navy at the same time trying to find its place among world navies.

Only 15-20 years ago our Navy bound to compete with American superfleet could only top the list of others like Britain's Royal Navy and French Navy. We will compare them in our further arguments (see Table 1).

Consciously sidetracking, we should notice by the way that our Navy had not occupied such high position throughout the whole its history.

So, the fleets mentioned above had almost all strategic components – maritime strategic nuclear force (SSBNs, SSNs, naval aviation); amphibious force for full-fledged force projection strategy; and general purpose forces – above all, escort ships of main classes.

British and French navies are typically well-balanced and up-to-date fleets, although pretty compact. They have managed to keep such structure through the whole post-war period. Until recently, French Navy had two multipurpose aircraft carriers with advanced antiship missile-carrying aircraft. Royal Navy has always had two or three light aircraft carriers as well; their smaller size was explained by the basic type of aircraft in their air wings – Sea Harrier VTOL. (Falkland crisis proved survivability and quite high combat qualities of those airplanes).

Unique mobility and relative operational independence of nuclear-powered submarines was also demonstrated during that conflict. Recall that Royal Navy is the only fleet having the unique experience of naval warfare in the post-war period. Main French naval weapon – antiship missiles Exocet – was also tested during that conflict by French deck-based aircrafts Super Etendard.

Realizing the pricelessness of that experience, however, one has to accept that lessons of the Falkland crisis have not been digested by world navies.

Before referring to Russian Navy, especially in the context of notorious events, it seems reasonable to settle upon special and significant assertions. Here come some of them:

a) apart from "historical destiny" to compete with US Navy, our fleet had to be stronger than sometimes unfriendly neighbors at every potential theater of naval operations;

b) with all its might, our Navy was undoubtedly a specific fleet – primarily submarine-type, because almost without deck-based aviation and air support in high seas it was hardly capable to use the whole power against classically well-balanced enemy; such situation left no other way out but to rely on submarines;

c) however, Soviet Navy's branches were quite well-balanced – commonly known advantages of nuclear subs were effectively supplemented by attack capabilities of various powerful missiles designed to cope with aircraft carriers, landing ships, missile cruisers, and sometimes the entire divisions of special-purpose ships. Massed missile-carrying aviation and cruisers (within the reach of fighter umbrella) were ready to support our nuclear subs;

d) moreover, Soviet Navy even had a monopoly on antiship missiles for a quite long time; when the USSR was no longer a monopolist in this area, its missiles and heavy torpedoes remained the most powerful antiship arms worldwide;

e) distinctive and fatal feature of Russian Navy topical throughout one and half century is the necessity to keep strong both in the west and the east; that implies the need for double force, so double efforts and expenses;

f) with all that in mind, being the number-two fleet in 60–90's (after the US Navy), as of balance, however, our Navy yielded even to British and French ones.

However, nobody flirted with an idea to disoblige or underestimate Soviet Navy at that time. Again, recall the notorious Falkland crisis when scattered and much less powerful Argentinean (French) antiship missiles inflicted heavy damages to advanced British ships operating in optimal defense orders and, take note, armed with the most up-to-date antiaircraft systems, radars, electronic warfare means, and deck-based fighters with the most advanced air-to-air missiles.

Contrary to popular belief about advantages of NATO's light subsonic antiship missiles with their high-explosive killing effect, our attack missiles have undoubtedly larger capabilities with combined high-explosive, cumulative, and kinetic killing effect. Indeed, imagine what would happen to a ship under attack of a bunch of 6-ton supersonic "shells"; effects of burning propellants are also significant. Recall the tragedy happened to small missile ship Musson accidentally damaged by only practical (non-combat) and much less powerful missile.

It is also pertinent to note that nearly every second Soviet nuclear submarine and every fifth diesel one were missile-carrying. Soviet 650-mm heavy torpedoes are still the world's most powerful, fastest, and long-range ones.

Even having in mind all known drawbacks of the Soviet Navy, its power could evoke nothing by natural respect and instinctive fear. Thus, neither French nor British navies had not a thought to counter Soviet Navy alone. According to NATO's strategic plans, they were supposed to be involved not otherwise but in joint combat orders with US ships and, obviously, not in the first echelon…

Current state

As is known, Russian Navy faces hard times. Even comparing to British and French fleets which undergo serious financial hardships in recent years, current state of our Navy is obviously worse.

The point is that our European partners have found the possibility to preserve and even improve their naval status in spite of everything.

Getting rid of obsolete carriers, the French acquired nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle with quite combat-proved Super Etendard and modernized Rafale (totally, up to 36-40 aircrafts). But the main thing – they included early warning planes into the air wing (lessons of the Falkland crisis).

Assault landing ship Mistral can be rightfully considered the most successful project among similar ships (at least, on cost-effectiveness factor). Modernization of nuclear component and general-purpose force goes on effectively as well, and submarine fleet is not an exception. In particular, France is one of the most active exporters of up-to-date diesel submarines. It is noteworthy that distinctive feature of French Navy – in contrast to British one – is its considerable technological independence from the US. France managed to arrange European integration instead, which is especially apparent in relations with Italy, Germany etc. French military plans to acquire another aircraft carrier – non-nuclear but larger one.

Rationality of this program lies in borrowing of ready British project and hull standardization of perspective British Queen Elizabeth class ships. From Europe's viewpoint, those are gigantic vessels. Despite different arms (the French mainly count on their own aircrafts while the British adopted American modifications of F-35B), diverse main propulsion plants, and even different top deck architecture, almost all sections of those ships are versatile and will match both British and French variants. This obviously cheapens the project. In total, each navy plans to have two new carriers in interests of national security.

The Royal Navy has been maintaining its prestige by Sea Harrier VTOL aircrafts for a long time. They took part at least in two or three local conflicts and have won recognition in a number of countries endeavoring to have deck-based aviation without out-of-line expenses (Italy, Spain, India, Thailand). Modifications of this aircraft are actively used by Marine Corps including the US one.

What's wrong with the Navy?

Once again, it would be unlikely efficient and correct to compare present-day Russian Navy even with British and French fleets as of technical condition and personnel qualification. Our navy's state can be precisely and objectively described as "Alas, its better days have passed". Only looming prospects and intentions restrain from final stiffening of this opinion. When minimal number of strategic submarines (projects 667 BDRM and 941) is being maintained in satisfactory condition, general-purpose force leaves much to be desired. Due to expiration of inter-repair periods, not yet old nuclear-powered and diesel subs of 3rd generation happened to be either restrictedly combat ready or not ready at all. Wherever repair has been done, it was certainly late (even from the viewpoint of minimal operable forces), and unfortunately does not imply radical modernization natural for such conditions. Speaking of surface ships, they shared the same fate. Thus and so, the bunch of Russian attack ships like Petr Veliky and Admiral Kuznetsov permanently displayed to the world are normally "voyaging" without required security forces or with insufficient escorts.

As to our flattop, it hardly resembled an aircraft carrier even in palmy days. This class of surface ships has severe operational and tactical standards. Our large landing ships have become the most "sailable" – perhaps, because of absolute primitiveness of design. However, the world has moved to assault landing ships and landing docks. Take note, yet we're not talking about qualification level of personnel which has to prepare and control forces in such conditions, being the most vulnerable in the context of the Navy's current state.

It is much more interesting to take a look at the future of Russian Navy, at least within the limits of current backlogs and declared plans of Russia's politico-military establishment.

Plans, intentions, prospects

Against the background of developments happened to Russian Navy in the recent two decades, modernization plans look impressive and exhilarating. To say the least, renovation of maritime strategic nuclear component goes on quite tangibly. Trials of new-generation SSBN Yury Dolgoruky are in good progress. Reportedly, at least two similar subs are on their way. So, completion of five or six submarines of this project within the current decade raises no doubts. However, one should realize that if new subs are not commissioned into Pacific Fleet, the Far East strategic nuclear force represented with old subs can even disappear. Construction of 10-12 new-generation subs (to reinforce both directions worthily) in current conditions and tight schedule is unlikely possible.

Deployment of new-generation SSNs looks less pompous, so goes on less strenuously. Nonetheless, building and delivery of three or four new subs is quite real in the nearest decade. And all of them can stay in the west (Northern Fleet) as there is no such urgent need for them in Pacific Fleet. Of course, providing that at least 50 per cent of 3rd generation SSNs stationed there would be repaired and upgraded. Obviously, same figures of recovery are real for Northern Fleet as well.

The situation with non-nuclear submarines is more complicated; in our geostrategic conditions, number of diesel subs should exceed the nuclear ones. The stake placed on St. Petersburg class with crucially new propulsion plant seems to lose. Meanwhile, other design bureaus had initiative projects of submarines powered by "airless plants". Anyway, implementation of submarine deployment program in the current decade is questionable.

But some other trends in Navy development seem interesting and perspective.

There have been lots of blunders made around import of French landing ship Mistral. Considering the sorry present-day state of military industry and defense order system, this variant looks like successful step rather than the next miss in naval arms strategy. Speaking of other types of surface ships, corvette Stereguschiy was launched three years ago.

However, rawness of shipborne arms hinders wide construction program of these ships.

Of course, this needs higher energy, attention and certainty of Navy command, especially as we are bound to build pretty large batches – first, with due regard to worn-out state and obsolescence of in-service ships, and second, proceeding from declared plans to build aircraft carriers and import (construct) series of assault landing ships. It seems like now we're going to build ships specially designed for objectively needed task forces.

Judging by statements of Russian leaders, we are going to have at least four 65,000-ton aircraft carriers within the current decade. However, there are some doubts in feasibility of such plans – again, because of submarginal state of defense industry and an order system having no idea what to order first.

In particular, it is death-boring to repeat that "the whole enlightened world" has not bought ships and subs without automated combat control systems for at least 15-20 recent years. Therefore, battle management and commander's activities seem senseless without intellectual support of the whole computational resource of a ship which can be rapidly focused on the most urgent tactical element.

Relevancy of conversion to up-to-date element base and immediate practical application of net-centric systems – at least on the basis of already designed and available state-of-the-art weapons – is absolutely obvious. Apparently, for everyone except decision-makers.

However, let us assume that the from-above view is better and fill in another comparative table with clean conscience. So, perspective state of world navies in the current decade (Table 2).

Despite tight austerity, the UK and France demonstrate serious intentions to modernize national navies. We have talked about aircraft carriers above.

Mentioned countries have pretty advanced strategic nuclear forces. As of today, they can be regarded the most up-to-date components of national defense. Of course, nuclear-powered attack submarines hold a special place in this structure. Nonetheless, both Great Britain and France work strenuously to find worthy substitution for existent SSN classes. Completing sea trials of the lead submarine, designers of British Astute a bit outrun their French counterpart and make no secret of claims to compete with the newest American Virginia. Meanwhile, the French with their Barracuda are about to make all advantages of 8-year delay. They build new Type 45 and Forbin class destroyers and frigates.

Sure, there is an array of different conditions shaping the quality of new navy – technology, structure, views on combat use, personnel training (especially crewmen and pilots), level of force interaction and so on. Keeping in mind our "weeding" amid the Navy's commanding officers, awkward structural transformations, weird experiments with military education (even under color of reformation), this matter arouses great concerns. The issue is so important that naturally stands out of similar problems in other branches and is worthy of separate consideration. What if we would have to "import" required naval personnel along with up-to-date ships and technology?

In lieu of epilogue

Not being too exacting and suspicious, almost all items of navy construction program are feasible. At least, formally. The only doubts are around aircraft carriers and non-nuclear submarines.

Indeed, Russia does have a certain experience in designing and building of aircraft-carrying ships (totally, there were seven of them built plus unrealized projects). But this experience is related to flowering times of almighty Soviet defense industry and never resulted in evidently combat-worthy aircraft carrier.

Strangely enough, but having no ready project of 65,000-ton carrier in hand (note that hard-working, prudent and competent Englishmen spent 10 years for that) and being aware of our existent defense order system, the only way to achieve result for fixed money and in fixed terms is to import a ship altered for Russian-made aircraft and arms. Then, our designers would have plenty of work to adapt the project for our aircraft, arms, and probably propulsion and hardware.

Personally, I'm ready to face a storm of objections at least from two sides. Not yet cooled down after battles for the name of Russian shipbuilding "desecrated by Mistral", zealots of national industry may even accuse me of treason. All right, put one basic demand to the "competitors" – 3 years to build first 2 ships, 150 air sorties per day, and operational intensity 72%. On the other hand, one can oppose – France and, especially, Great Britain will never go into such deal. Just because "eurocarrier" is not Mistral (although there have been so much cries and hysterics on the both sides of barricades), that is strategic weapon. However, everything depends on how to run this deal. For one, do not forget that the West is gripped by enormous financial problems – they are even about to construct one aircraft carrier and use it on a share basis. This has not examples in history. So, our order might become a solution for almost all their problems – Russia's large-series shipbuilding order substantially cheapens the project and, therefore, cuts the Gordian knot of Europe's naval arms modernization.

And, here is the final argument for the opponents. Russian-build aircraft carriers would be knowingly much worse than the "Eurocarrier" plus titanic cost and time overrun plus a blow on prestige of Russia, its fleet and industry. Literally, that would be a knockout not to be even compared to the "damage" seems to emerge after ship import project.

Thus and so, applying the most strenuous efforts and making optimal decisions in Navy construction program realization, Russia can really enter the top three fleets rating (yielding only to US Navy) by the end of the current decade with the view to consolidate on the leading positions.

It would be an illusion to believe that all problems of current Russian Navy are related to shipbuilding. They are only an addition to those problems accumulated in Soviet times, i.e. substantial defects of Navy structure, drawbacks of strategic and tactical management, disadvantages of combat training, basing infrastructure, ship-repairing and maintaining of combat readiness, gaps in personnel training system and naval education. And obviously, officer pay increase cannot solve all problems alone.

Table 1. Comparative structure of world leading navies in late 80's and early 90's

USSR/ Russia USA UK France Japan
Manpower /thous./ 520/460 530 69,5 65,3 60
SSBN 58(30) 33 4 4(6) -
SSN 113 (71 including 26 SSGNs) 107 7-9 5 -
SSK 114/285 (70/) -/140 10/29 13/24 17/17
Aircraft carriers 5(3) -16 3 2 -
Cruisers 33(17) 37 - 1 -
Destroyers and frigates (escort ships) 221/295(181) 155/208 48/51 36/39 61/61
Combat aircrafts, in total 870 (656) 1410 77 150 200

* Only force deployed at the west is shown in brackets of the column "USSR/Russia". Pacific Fleet assets are not put for the purpose of fair comparison;

** Landing ships are not considered in the table.

Table 2. Estimated strength of Russian, French, and British navies at the end of the current decade

SSBN SSN SSK Aircraft carriers Landing ships Surface ships (attack/escort)
Russia 2+3 (4)* 4+6* 7– 9 2 (2)+1** 2(2) 4/14
UK 4 7– 9 - 1-2 5+ "Ocean" -/20-22 (6/14-16)
France 4 1-2+4 (5) - 2 2-4 -/24-28 (4-6/20-22))

* 2 new and 3(4) maintained operable Project 667BDRM (941) SSBNs;

* 4 new and 6 maintained operable Project 971 (945A, 949A) SSNs passed interim (complete) overhaul and upgrade;

** 2 new aircraft carriers in the west (Northern Fleet) plus Admiral Kuznetsov; other 2 carriers will join Pacific Fleet. Same with Mistral class landing ships.