The past few years have seen a resurgence of this mindset. Russia has embarked on a massive recapitalization project, seeking to replace aging Soviet-era platforms that were often built to lax production standards. Their military-industrial complex takes great pride in trumpeting its achievements and ambitious projects through Russian language media and state-owned foreign language outlets, such as RT.com. While it is important to listen to what an adversary is saying, it is also important to see what is behind the bluster. In fact, many of Russia’s wonder weapon projects are far too grand to come to fruition — and may even signal a revival of the same discord within the Russian defense industry that plagued the Soviet Union; a discord that acted as a key forcing-function in the destabilizing Cold War arms race that brought the world to the brink of ruin.
Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.
Consider the notional future Russian Federation Navy (RFN). Their fleet, once outnumbering the U.S. Navy 3.5:1, now spends most of its time in port. 2 Russia’s major shipyards are now going full tilt, building frigates and nuclear powered — and armed — submarines. Evidently, the RFN has even grander designs: a squadron of what would effectively be nuclear powered battlecruisers.
Dubbed the Lider class, these warships would feature the nuclear power and armament capacity of the massive Soviet-era Kirov battlecruisers. For reference, the 28,000 ton Kirov class has thrice the displacement of and carries roughly twice the armament of its nominal U.S. Navy counterpart, the AEGIS cruiser. Cutting a distinctive silhouette, the Lider would easily outgun the largest ships in the US or Chinese arsenals. Their nuclear power plants would allow them to sortie worldwide, limited only by food and ammunition supplies — the finest naval power projection to be found outside of aircraft carriers.
Given the grandiose design of the ship, it is worth examining whether the Russian military intends for it to ever exist at all or if it is nothing but a propaganda piece. Recently, the Russians have announced truly fantastic projects, such as a fleet of supersonic stealth transport aircraft capable of covertly inserting an armored division overseas.3 Open sources show that the RFN has desired a next-generation, medium to large surface combatant for years, and that more reasonable proposals gained traction before losing out to the current design.4 Additionally, a video about the Lider focuses on the wide array of Russian corporations contributing to its construction rather than the ship’s actual capabilities. Moreover, it was produced by an industry-focused media concern rather than the expected propaganda outlets, such as RT.5
Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity.
Russian officials announced they will build twelve of these battlecruisers.6Realistically, most observers should expect to see one or two. A ship’s size tends to drive the cost of constructing it, and there’s a catch to building ships with the massive weapons capacity and power plant of the old Soviet battlewagons: they’re probably going to be about the same size. Some sources suggest they’ve even been designed by the same firm responsible for the Kirovs.7 This implies the Lider will be a budget breaker like its predecessor.
Russian designs on this Lider class represent a gulf between strategic direction and capabilities. Building these battlecruisers will almost certainly devour the vast majority of Russia’s shipbuilding budget and capacity. If the RFN succeeds in acquiring them, it will find itself with a handful of massive power projection tools unsuited to any of the conflicts it is most likely to fight.
One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection.
The Russians are setting themselves up for a major discontinuity between ends and means. A recent statement by the CEO of Russia’s state owned shipbuilding conglomerate reveals that his view that future submarine construction should focus on defending ballistic missile submarines, a mission that would take place relatively near to Russian territorial waters.8The acquisition of the Lider battlecruisers — plus recently announced plans to acquire a nuclear powered supercarrier — may suggest the forces that drive the development of the surface fleet are not in synch with the forces driving the submarine fleet. One side is building towards a strategically defensive Cold War-era doctrine, the other toward an essentially all new doctrine based on power projection. Neither of these tracks would be of much value should Russia attempt to invade one of the Baltic states, a prospect that recently gained some overt support in the Russian government.9
The Russian military is at a conventional disadvantage against NATO. As oil money begins to dry up and sanctions take their bite, the Russians do not appear to be adjusting their acquisition efforts to compensate. On one hand, they appear to be gravely concerned about the security of their nuclear deterrent. The Strategic Rocket Forces, fearing US missile defense efforts, have invested heavily in new ICBMs. Similarly, the submarine force is building new ballistic missile submarines and advanced new missiles to go with them. On the other hand, the Russians are also attempting to achieve some kind of conventional parity with NATO by producing new stealth fighters, tanks, and apparently battlecruisers. A budget is by definition zero-sum, and as Russia’s economy slowly recovers from its free-fall, the money to build all their desired means simply will not exist. This could leave Russia with an arsenal of top-of-the-line nuclear weapons while intensifying its conventional disadvantage against NATO.
Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism.
So, what is there to worry about here? Why not celebrate as the Russians procure themselves into the hole, spending exorbitant sums to acquire prestige platforms that do not contribute to their strategy? Because Russia may well attempt to achieve its ends through whatever means are available. The weaker and less focused its conventional forces are, the more likely it is to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons to win a conflict with NATO. Painted into a corner by their belligerence and poor acquisition decisions, Russia may become dangerously prone to acting upon its “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine.
Russia’s plans to build nuclear-powered battlecruisers is emblematic of a dangerously non-coherent national military strategy which haphazardly fuses Cold War paranoia with modern revanchism. It seeks to achieve ends (building a “buffer zone” of pro-Russian states by force while protecting its nuclear deterrent) through dangerous ways (“hybrid” and conventional warfighting, with the option to “escalate to de-escalate”) without the means to fully execute those ways. The end result could be disastrous for all involved.
Ben Hernandez is one of the hundreds of students under instruction at Naval Station Newport, R.I. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
1 Hoffman, David, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, New York, N.Y., 2010)
2 Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey, Soviet Naval Strategy and Programs through the 1990s, NIE 11–15–82/D. (CIA Historical Review Program, approved for release 31 January 1995)
3 RT.com, Future Russian Army Could Deploy Anywhere In the World — In 7 hours, 19 March 2015, accessed 17 July 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/242097-pak-ta-russian-army/
4 GlobalSecurity.org, New Construction Destroyer, accessed 17 July 2015,http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/ddg-newcon.htm
6 Sputnik News, The Destroyer “Leader” and the Future of the Russian Navy, 16 March 2015, http://in.sputniknews.com/russia/20150316/1013781801.html
7 Hassan, Abbass, World Defense Review, Russian Navy approves the proposed future destroyer, 14 February 2013, accessed 17 July 2015.
8 Keck, Zachary, Russia’s New Nuclear Submarines to Target U.S. Aircraft Carriers, 6 July 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-building-aircraft-carrier-killer-nuclear-submarines-13266
9 Laurinavicius, Marius, Russia’s Dangerous Campaign in the Baltics, 16 July 2015, http://www.cepa.org/content/russias-dangerous-campaign-baltics
Is There a Class of Armored Cruisers in the U.S. Navy’s Future?
Sketch by Jan Musil. Hand drawn on quarter-inch graph paper. Each square equals twenty by twenty feet.
This article, the fourth of the series, presents a suggestion on how to incorporate the new railgun technology into the fleet in an efficient and effective manner. Railguns, when used as a complement to the various UAVs, UUVs and Fire Scouts discussed earlier will provide the fleet with a potent AAW weapon.
Interestingly enough, the most important piece of information concerning the new railgun is a number. A single round of ammunition costs $10,000. Eighteen inches of railroad tie shaped steel (which costs less than $200) fitted with the wonders of modern microelectronics provides a startling contrast with the $1M+ cost of the missiles the Navy currently uses against incoming aircraft and missiles. A contrast that is even more in the Navy’s favor since any future opponent will be spending comparable sums for their attack missiles and substantially more for hypersonic cruise missiles.
There are no explosives purchased with the $10,000. This means hundreds of rounds of railroad ties and microelectronics can be safely stored in a ship’s magazine. This is a substantial advantage compared to the VLS missiles in current use by navies around the globe, most of which require specialized loading facilities to reload their missile tubes. In contrast, a railgun-equipped ship can take a much larger ammunition load to sea with it, and reload the magazine at sea if necessary.
The next relevant parameter of the new railgun is its range. At 65 miles this is far less than many long-range missiles, though still quite useful against incoming aircraft and missiles. Note that with an ISR drone or Hawkeye providing over-the-horizon targeting information, a surface ship equipped with a railgun can shoot down incoming aircraft such as the Russian Bear (Tu-95) reconnaissance aircraft before the intruder can lock in on the firing ship. The same is true for any attacking aircraft carrying long-range strike missiles.
This highlights the importance to both sides of providing accurate targeting information first. It also means, strategically, at its heart the railgun in the 21st century maritime environment is a defensive weapon: well positioned to provide defensive fire against incoming attacks, but with an offensive punch limited to sixty-five miles.
That said, with the ability to fire every five seconds the railgun can be very effective, particularly when utilized in quantity when escorting carrier strike groups or when placed between a hostile shore and an ARG.
So far we have noted the positive distinguishing capabilities of the railgun but there are three significant difficulties that come with fielding the weapon. Foremost is the enormous amount of electrical power discharged by the gun when firing. This means any ship equipped with a railgun needs substantial electric power generating capabilities, something certainly beyond the abilities of the DDGs and CCGs currently in the fleet.
Secondly, using these vast amounts of electricity means a large capacitor needs to be located on the deck below the railgun. Large does mean large in this application. No little white pieces of ceramic plugged into a circuit board will do here. The necessary equipment is physically massive and in need of protection from the elements. They will be taking up a substantial amount of space just below the main deck where the railgun has to be mounted, probably one per gun.
The third problem is that all the energy dissipated in launching a round generates heat. Lots and lots of it. Most, but not all, of the energy used to launch the eighteen inches of steel will be recovered back into the ships capacitor, but enough will be lost that the launching rails flexing as the railgun is fired simply must be exposed to the elements so the heat will dissipate in the air. No sailors or flammables nearby please.
The inevitable follow up conclusion means a railgun equipped ship is going to be impossible to hide from opponent’s infrared sensors. Regardless of how stealthy versus radar the ship is, all of that heat is going to stand out like the sun itself to incoming aircraft and missiles equipped with infrared targeting systems, which means it is almost a certainty the firing ship is going to get hit if subjected to a seriously prosecuted attack.
This ship is not going to be able to hide in a cloud of chaff, it will be heading into the incoming missile strike, placing its full broadside in a position to fire and it will be considered a high priority target.
Unlike almost all naval ships built across the globe since the end of WW2, this class needs to be built with the assumption that incoming missiles will hit it, the plural is intentional, and be able to survive the multiple collections of missile slag and burning fuel and the occasional warhead detonation. Just as we built the 44 gun class of frigates back in the 1780s to be thick hulled in order to survive the gunnery practices of the time, armored up the ironclads of the Civil War and multiple classes of ships intended for the main battle line of the last half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century, we need to built this class to ‘take a licking and keep on ticking’.
Topside armor should cover most of the ship, but the prime purpose of this armor will be to shed missile slag, i.e. what is left of the incoming missile after being intercepted and its fuel. The impact of the metal missile parts is not the prime danger to be protected against here. It is the fuel, and the accompanying fires after impact that is the true danger. So the topside armor needs to keep the slag and fuel on the outside of the ship, hopefully allowing gravity to carry much of the burning fuel to the gunnels and overboard; in the process vastly easing the firefighting teams job in putting out any fires that have started.
Additional armor, probably using a combination of layered materials and empty space, is appropriate for selected topside compartments that need to be protected against a successful missile warhead detonation. Whether it is sailors or equipment that is being protected, only some compartments will need beefed up exterior armor.
After that the CARN (cruiser gun armor, nuclear powered) will need to adapt the principles of the ‘armored citadel’ concepts developed a century ago for battleships to the needs of securing the two, possibly three, nuclear reactors aboard and their associated pumps and other equipment. Whether this is best done with one internal armor layer or two will keep the engineers debating for quite a while as the CARN is designed.
So what should the new 25k+ ton armored cruiser have aboard? Nuclear propulsion is an unavoidable necessity given the enormous amounts of power each railgun requires; every five seconds when engaged. Since the primary use of the CARN will be to accompany the fleet’s carriers to provide defensive AAW capabilities, this is actually an advantage for both strategic and tactical reasons. Depending on the amount of power twelve railguns firing broadsides will require, two or three of the standardized nuclear plants being installed in the new carriers should work just fine.
Lots of armor and nuclear power are unavoidable. The following basic list of desired equipment should provide the reader with a good idea of what the CARN should go to sea with.
12 railguns mounted in six dual mounts. In the attached sketch A and B mounts are placed forward of the bridge while C, D, E and F mounts are located starting roughly amidships and extend back to the helicopter deck. Dual mounts are suggested since the large size of the capacitors that need to be located directly below each railgun will in practice utilize the full 120 feet of beam provided. Obviously if the capacitors are even larger than this, then single mounts will have to be employed. Let’s hope not as doubling up makes for a much more efficient ship class.
36 VLS tubes capable of a varying load out of ASW, SM-2, SM-6 and long-range strike missiles as the mission at hand calls for.
4 CIWS with one located in the bow, a pair port and starboard amidships and one aft, just behind F mount.
12 rolling missile launchers for close in defense. It will be no secret the CARN is in the task force so a substantial number of the incoming missiles will be using infrared targeting, either in place of, or as a supplement to radar. So adding half dozen rolling missile packs to port and another half a dozen to starboard will provide plenty of localized missile defenses for both the CARN and the task force as whole.
2 ISR drones if VTOL capable. None if VTOL capability is not available
2 Seahawk helicopters
This suggested list very deliberately reduces the VLS and ASW capabilities aboard to a bare minimum. Good ship design concentrates on the primary mission the class needs to accomplish. In the case of the CARN that is absolutely, positively AAW.
In the next article we will examine how adding UAVs, UUVs, Fire Scouts, buoys and railguns in quantity to the fleet can substantially enhance the Navy’s ability to survive in the increasingly hostile A2AD world of the 21st Century.
Jan Musil is a Vietnam era Navy veteran, disenchanted ex-corporate middle manager and long time entrepreneur currently working as an author of science fiction novels. He is also a long-standing student of navies in general, post-1930 ship construction thinking, design hopes versus actual results and fleet composition debates of the twentieth century.
Submitted for your consideration (pretend this is a Rod Serling sounding voice). Imagine that the United States diplomatic corps starting doing the sort of thing all of these less-than-cooperative states like China, Russia, Iran, and Daesh (the Islamic State) have been doing. Imagine calling things by a name that suits our purposes, even if it is different than what is on a map. I propose we quit calling the body of water that is surrounded on most of its many sides by Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Borneo, and Malaysia by another name other the South China Sea. This was the name was given to it by Europeans, the Chinese simply calling it the “south sea” for most of their own history. I propose instead we call it the Indochina Sea. Period.
Why? Simple—it seems the People’s Republic of China has decided to appeal to a sort of lowest common denominator approach in their neo-maritime imperialist venture. They have claimed much of the Indochina Sea according to a policy known as the “nine-dash line”—basically using the rationale that it has “our” name on it so it is ours. What is more fascinating is how effective the Chinese have been in selling their rationale to different audiences, many of them poorly informed about the history and geography of this vital region. In short, the first purpose in such a re-naming is to try to educate a bit, but educate to suit the purposes of the United States government as it continues in its job of trying to maintain the current international maritime order, which has worked quite well since the UN was created almost 70 years ago—the Cold War notwithstanding.
There is plenty of precedent for the United States (and frankly its many allies) to do this. In fact, we did it back in 1990. That was the year that Saddam Hussein invaded and conquered the independent sovereign nation of Kuwait. Some of you know it as Gulf War I, although historians like the humble author consider it Gulf War II, since the Iran-Iraq War was really the first of the modern Gulf Wars. It involved the United States in its closing phases when we conducted operations Earnest Will and Praying Mantis in order to protect Gulf shipping. But which Gulf? You mean the Persian Gulf? Well…that was a bit of a problem. Our Arab allies in 1990 such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria (yes folks, Syria), found Americans’ use of the term “Persian Gulf” offensive because none of them liked Iran (a.k.a. Persia) and—presto chango—it became the Arabian Gulf in all formal diplomatic and military channels ever since. Seriously, check it out on the internet if you dare. Of course changing South China Sea to Indochina Sea would probably irritate the Chinese as much as it might make our Southeast Asian partners happy, but I am sure the Iranians were none too pleased either when we renamed “their” body of water. The point is, there is precedence and two can play this game.
“Oh those Americans, they are so obnoxious,” one might think when hearing this proposal. If however one wants an example of the forbearance and moderation of Americans one need only look in their own back yard, where sits the Gulf of Mexico. They could have renamed it the Gulf the United States or Florida, but no, they (we) did not. Maybe the fact that Mexico has not claimed all of the Gulf of Mexico to some five-dash line or something helps explain why it gets to keep its name for the geography books and in diplomatic and military language.
Names mean things – China certainly sees it that way, so should we. Why continue to give her a stick, albeit a rhetorical stick, that she can hit us, her neighbors, and the international community with? We can and should start simple—at least inside our government and the Department of Defense (DoD). The essence of information-politics (as opposed to information warfare) as well as strategic communications is to begin to fight back in the war of words in a meaningful, often incremental way. As long as we are at it, we might label this initiative information diplomacy and, just for giggles, have it come out of the Department of State rather than big, bad DoD. Sometimes doing something silly can show someone else just how silly they are acting. A lesson for China perhaps?
John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Professor of Military History and has served on the faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College since July 2000, retiring from the naval service in 2004. He earned a Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University in 2007. He is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, an a Military History of Japan (2014). He was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011 for “The U.S. Navy General Board and Naval Arms Limitation: 1922-1937.” He is also an adjunct professor for the Naval War College Fleet Seminar Program and with the Military History Masters Program at Norwich University. A former naval aviator (flying in both EP-3 and ES-3 aircraft), he has completed numerous cruises aboard four different aircraft carriers. He flew reconnaissance and combat missions during the last decade of the Cold War, the First Gulf War (Desert Storm), Iraq and the Persian Gulf (Southern Watch), and the Balkans (Deliberate Force over Bosnia). His most recent book, also published by Praeger, is entitled Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns.