Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift?

By Ben Hernandez

This article originally appeared on The Strategy Bridge. You can read it in its original format here. This article originally featured on CIMSEC on Aug. 20, 2015, and has been updated for inclusion into the Russia Resurgent Topic Week

The Russian defense industry has always had a flair for the dramatic. The Soviet military-industrial complex carried so much sway in the Politiburo that at times, it operated with little oversight from the General Secretary.1 It produced wonder weapons and prestige platforms with little regard for their cost and strategic value.

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.

Read other contributions to Russia Resurgent Topic Week.

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

5 Concern Agat — Russia Leader-Class Nuclear Guided Missile Destroyer Concept, 16 August 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORVVK6OCr74

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

3 thoughts on “Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift?”

  1. Really fantastic projections — maybe more by the author than the Russians. What are their “power projections” aimed at? Who are they going to shoot up from at sea? ISIS? Kidding. Right now, all they’re doing is sustaining the Peter the Great, which last time it cruised had to take along its own tow-truck, and the Admiral Nakimov, which I saw in Severmorsk back in November 1991, and which has only moved since to be towed to Severodvinsk, where it has sat ever since — 24 years of desuetude. Ships in water rust away. Power plants never exercised leak like crazy when reactivated. I think there’s some projection of American dreams here, not Russian. Go talk to Tom Fedysyzn there at the Naval War College for a realistic perspective.

    1. This is honestly the question that tugged at me to write this in the first place: what on earth could they possibly do with these things when their CGNs proved to be huge drains on their budget that rarely conducted out-of-area deployments?

      In the intervening months, I’ve come to think that there are two waves to this bout of shipbuilding: a first wave consisting of fairly small but potent surface combatants and a revitalized nuclear submarine force followed by a lot of hot air: promises of CVNs and CGNs to contribute to Putin’s macho military revival image. I’m pondering whether the Kremlin has any real intention of ever realizing this vision, and I’m leaning toward no: my reading of the new Russian maritime strategy document (which arrived less than a week after I sent this in) is that the difference between the first and second waves of shipbuilding is so stark that it must be nothing more than domestic propaganda.

  2. Why not build the Lidder class super destroyers? They will tame the reckless projection of carrier battle groups around the world, besides having S500 missiles they would be ABM floating platforms. The Kirov cruisers were deployed at an unfortunate time in USSR’s history, consequently they got neglected and deteriorated. I see no problems with remodernized Kirovs and Lider destroyers being deadly platforms employing hypersonic missiles and superior cruise missiles that can engage carrier battle groups from 1300 miles distance, while carrier air power projection is a mere 400-600 miles. Their S-500 would have very little difficulty with the Tomahak. The math is simple, the carrier battle group has a reach of 600 miles, the Lider armament that includes Kalibr missile can engage the carrier at twice that distance.

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