By Ashley O’Keefe
If you’ve turned on the news recently, you probably noticed that Russia has been dominating it. From their intervention in Syria, to the increasing range and scope of their naval deployments, and the release last year of their new Maritime Strategy, Russia – and the Russian Navy – have turned our focus back to our Cold War foe. In this episode of Sea Control, we explore the Russian Navy’s modernization plans and recent newsworthy stories with U.S. Naval War College Professor (and retired Navy Captain) Tom Fedyszyn.
Read on below or listen to the audio below. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
AO: Hello, and welcome to the Center for International Maritime Security’s Sea Control podcast. I’m Ashley O’Keefe, the CIMSEC Secretary, and I’m here today with Dr. Tom Fedyszyn, of the U.S. Naval War College. He’s been a member of the faculty here since 2000, and he serves as the senior advisor to the College’s Russian Maritime Studies Institute. He received a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University in Political Science while he was on active duty. His 31-year naval career included military assignments as the U.S. Naval Attaché to Russia, and two tours at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He commanded the USS Normandy and the USS William V. Pratt, and deployed to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Norwegian Seas. He was a principal contributor to both the Lehman-era 1980s maritime strategy, and NATO’s strategic concept following the Cold War. He’s a nationally recognized expert and publishes regularly on maritime strategy, NATO strategy, and the Russian Navy, which is our topic today.
Let’s start off with a very basic question: why is it that we should still be interested in the Russian Navy? I thought that we were interested in China’s rise these days.
TF: Most people in the U.S. Navy seem to care more about China’s navy than the Russian navy. I can attest to that because I’ve been a Russian navy guy for a long time, and I was the rough equivalent of the Maytag repair man for about twenty years. My phone never rang! I’m sure my China counterpart’s phone was ringing regularly.
But the world has changed. Let’s quickly take it to a couple of years ago, when you’re looking around the world, and see Russia, which for about 20 years had been that big former enemy who looked like it was going to be the next big cooperator – a nation aligned with and becoming more and more like the West. And then we were shocked in 2014 when all of a sudden Russia annexes the Crimea, starts a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, and gets everyone’s attention. And so that same country that was cooperating with everyone back in 1998, even 2005, is now listed in NATO documents, for example, as some combination of adversary and aggressor. So, all of those military forces that they had that looked like they were going to do nothing but exercises with us now are potentially aggressive forces that we, especially those in the intel world, need to look at a lot harder.
AO: So where does the Russian Navy operate today? Are they in the same places that they used to be? Are they really a meaningful threat?
TF: Those old enough in the audience remember the old Soviet Navy. For 15-20 years, they were effectively our equivalent, less carrier battle groups. In other words, they outnumbered us in terms of submarines, they were equivalent to us in major surface combatants, and every theater we operated in, they did too. Then they had a 20-year period where they went to sleep, were in a coma. So that’s why we didn’t hear about the Russian Navy for a long time. I’ll make the case that starting around 2008, the Russian Navy began to get money, they began to get smart, they began to get joint, and they began to operate again. So today, pretty much anywhere, you can find ships of the Russian Navy. In some parts of the world, you can see a militarily significant force, and others just in ones and twos. But noting that 15 years ago they were nowhere, there were none in the Atlantic, there were none in the Mediterranean…whereas today they’re almost everywhere. However, they’re not necessarily a military force to be reckoned with at the high level.
AO: Admiral Sir Philip Jones (the British First Sea Lord) said a few days ago that they were seeing the highest level of Russian submarine activity in 25 years. That’s a sentiment we’ve heard not just from the Brits, but also from the NATO commander last year. If that’s true, what is so significant about that fact?
TF: Going back to that turnaround, it was sometime around the year 2000. Speaking only from unclassified sources, from what’s been in the open press, I’ll summarize for you. Between 2001-2003, our best guess is that there were virtually no Russian submarines in the Atlantic. Realizing, of course, that was going to be where a good portion of WWIII was to have been fought, for them to have no submarines in the Atlantic is a very low standard against which to compare the First Sea Lord’s number. But what we’ve been seeing is almost every year since 2008, there’s been an increase in submarine activity of between 5-15 percent. So right now, we’re getting roughly 1,500 at-sea days for Russian submarines all around the world, but an increasingly higher percentage in the Atlantic. So, again, we did start from around zero, but we’re looking at meaningful numbers again. Certainly not the level that we saw during the Cold War, but the trend is very clearly upward.
AO: Specifically when we hear about submarines, we often hear about the “GIUK gap.” For a generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War, we don’t know what that means. Can you tell me its significance, and do we care about it today?
TF: We lived and died by the GIUK gap back during the Lehman days. This is the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.” Just look at a map of the North Atlantic and you can see that it’s the rough equivalent of a choke point for any Russian submarine to get out into the Atlantic – it’s got to run that gauntlet. We did set up a veritable gauntlet there. We had all kinds of sonar and SOSUS activities, we had our own submarines up there, and we had probably the biggest maritime patrol aircraft base in the world up in Iceland, with P-3s flying everywhere. The likelihood that some of our forces would find you, if you were a Russian submarine running that gauntlet, was very, very good. This is essentially what we’re up against now. We had about 20 years of nobody trying to run that gap, and now they’re running that gap again and we’re seeing – or hearing them – again.
AO: Another thing that we didn’t used to hear about was Russian aircraft carriers. We thought the Admiral Kuznetsov was going into an extended maintenance period, and instead, she shows up off the coast of Syria. How did she perform, and what did we learn from that deployment?
TF: First, let me make a little editorial about Russian aircraft carriers. Russians have been talking about building aircraft carriers for a long, long time. It has effectively been talk. What we’ve seen, loosely, is that the Russians’ ability to build very large ships is not very good. With the possible exception of submarines, their performance in building large things that float has been at the “D”/ “D-” level. And of course aircraft carriers are part of that category.
So, when you get what we might call a “sea control” admiral in charge of the Russian Navy, invariably, he will talk about building aircraft carriers. I don’t think there’s been a time when there wasn’t someone in the Russian Navy talking about building aircraft carriers. But what they deliver – well, for their operations right now, they delivered one ski-jump carrier with a very limited air wing.
Do understand that it’s a very high-prestige ship in their navy. It’s unique, and it does give a special capability to their navy that no other ship brings. So, Russian people are very proud of it. Much as in American politics, domestic politics matters to them, too. And the fact of the matter is that the Russian press, which used to be reasonably free when I lived there 20 years ago, is no longer free. It’s very much controlled by the government, and it’s a propaganda tool. What you have now is an opportunity for the government to put a spin on aircraft carrier deployments, which obviously make them look good, and that’s what we saw.
Two stories: when Kuznetsov deployed to the Syrian coast, if you had only read the Russian press, you’d be convinced it was the most successful deployment in the world. Note, of course, that the air wing was only about half of what it might have been, and only a quarter of what we would consider a real air wing.
So, if you read the British press, all you’d see is a ship belching black smoke (and on some days, it even looked like white smoke, for all you surface warfare officers, not good). You’d also have seen the four British destroyers that were tailing it and having it in their sights the whole way.
So, was it successful? To the Russian people, absolutely, A+. To the western world, not so much. The air wing that they took was miniscule. Second, they don’t have much opportunity to exercise their air wing. While I’m not an aviator, I know that this is very difficult. So, I wasn’t at all surprised when within their first week they lost two airplanes due to an inability to operate a flight deck and an air wing properly. So when you only take over 20-25 airplanes, and lose two in the first week, we shouldn’t be surprised that effectively the entire air wing went ashore. That probably wasn’t anywhere in the Russian press, but it certainly was in the western sources. So, did Russia end up with more airplanes in their Syrian operation? Yes. Did the Russian aircraft carrier carry them down there? Yes. Was it a successful aircraft carrier operation? I would say no.
AO: Given that lens, my next question may seem a little silly, but what about the Shtorm 23000E, the next generation aircraft carrier? Defense News was reporting about it earlier this month, citing possible Indian Navy interest. Does this seem likely to be built? Will they keep trying?
TF: The Russian economy is built on exporting minerals (mostly oil and gas). Below that, it’s arms exports. They export almost as much as we do! But they have such a small economy that their arms sales really matter. So, when you look at Russian military capability, sometimes that’s just a small part of why they deploy. A larger part of why they deploy is to show off what type of technology they have and to try to sell it. You mentioned the Indian Navy. When I was in Moscow, there were more Indian officers there than from any other nation. U.S. was second. Why? Because the Russians, by the default of politics, ended up selling India its navy. Still today, about 70 percent of the Indian Navy is Russian. I’ve spoken to lots of Indian Navy officers about this. The sense is that they don’t like the Russian ships, they don’t work too well, they’re suboptimal, but they can afford them. The U.S. has this double-whammy where we’re not that good at selling high technology, and when we sell it, it costs a lot of money. And the Indian budget makes them buy Russian – and they continue to buy Russian. So, should the Russians be able to continue to build the Shtorm, India would be the most likely nation that would buy it.
But remember, of course, Russia just sold and delivered to them the Vikramaditiya, a ski-jump carrier which was 4 years overdue, 300 percent over budget, and every Indian naval officer I’ve spoken to has said, “Well, it’s not a good ship, but we needed an aircraft carrier and we could afford it, so we got what we got.” If this Shtorm really does turn out to be good, the Indians may well want it, but the Indians are also in the process of building their own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would be their first choice, and if they can build it (they’re not very good at building ships either, unfortunately), they’ll stick with their domestic product.
Now, will the Russians actually build it? I would be very pessimistic. When they talk about Shtorm, they talk about building between 3 and 6. That’s how definitive they are – they can be off by a factor of two. It seems that they’re leaning in the direction of nuclear power, but sometimes you can read press articles that suggest maybe not. So they’re so unsure of where this is going, and their track record of having a yard that can build a 65,000 ton ship…it’s unlikely. In fact, if they ever get around to it, they’ll probably have to build it in two sections and then weld it together. I’m no shipbuilder, but I know this can’t be easy.
AO: Let’s switch gears and talk about their new Maritime Doctrine, which was released in 2015. What’s changed since the last version?
TF: Their last one was in 2001, and I’m nerdy about this but I read these documents. It’s important because you need to know what changes there are from one document from the next. If you read American naval strategy, you’ll note that there are significant differences between the one that just came out on the street and the one in 2007 – those differences will affect how we operate and what ships we build. Same for the Russians. In 2001, they wrote what they called a Maritime Doctrine, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a Navy admiral present at the drafting. It was like the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Tourism, and the Secretary of Energy sat down and, at the last minute, invited an admiral in to come in and write a couple of words. It clearly was a maritime doctrine, not a naval doctrine.
In 2015, the new maritime doctrine was signed by President Putin in a formal scene built for television, aboard a brand-new frigate, named for Admiral Gorshkov, as you’ll recall, the founder of the great Soviet Navy, in Kaliningrad harbor. The only other people there were the admiral who ran Kaliningrad harbor, the chief of the navy, the chief of Russian defense, and Russia’s national security advisor. The Secretaries of commerce, tourism, etc. weren’t invited because this new document is significantly different. The tone is just wildly different. You will read phrases like, “The Russian Navy’s mission is to ensure non-Russian naval ships are not allowed to operate freely in the Arctic.” Things like, “NATO is the principal threat to Russia therefore the Russian navy must deploy to the Atlantic because the NATO Navy must be engaged before it gets to Russian shores” and “The Russian Navy will have a permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean.”
Remember, for a lot of years, there were virtually no Russian ships. When I deployed William V. Pratt there in 1989, we watched the 5th Eskadra leave the Med. We were fully expecting that we would be doing the usual tricks with our Soviet counterparts, cat and mouse games with their submarines, etc. They all left! And so the admiral called in all the skippers and said, “We have nothing to do. Any ideas?” I said, “15 port visits?” And he had nothing better, so we were able to have a loveboat cruise. But obviously the world has changed. The Russians are back in the Med. They’ve got a flotilla there, between 7-10 big serious warships, and the reason that they’re there, according to their maritime doctrine, is because of the NATO threat. You read “NATO threat” all over this document. When you read it in the Pacific, it’s clear that they are all about establishing better relations with the Chinese and Indian navies. And so they call a spade a spade. They’re not afraid to talk about which fleets are growing.
And by the way, every fleet is growing according to this document. You wouldn’t think it, but the Black Sea fleet, which was supposed to go away, now because of Ukraine and Crimea is now getting bolstered more than almost any other fleet. They’re talking about expanding each of their fleets – qualitatively and quantitatively. Finally, there’s a huge chapter on shipbuilding this time. They have a huge shipbuilding organization, and it is tasked with building navy ships in response to the demands of the navy – the missions that the navy intends to do. So, in tone and in tenor and in content analysis, the words in the 2015 document are significantly different. The picture of Putin and chief of defense sitting there in the wardroom of the frigate Gorshkov, I think is worth 10,000 words by itself.
AO: Let’s pick apart this modernization plan. There’s a strategy, then there’s a modernization plan inside of that strategy. Let’s talk about the surface navy, first. How do they expect to evolve and modernize?
TF: They’ve got a plan, and I’ll give you another editorial, too. Whatever they say, decrease it by about 50 percent. They lie, cheat, and steal when they talk about how many ships they intend to operate this year. When I look back on what they say and what they actually do, they get about half. Once again, it’s one of these “how tall are the Russians?” questions. During the Cold War, the debate always used to be, “are they 8 feet tall? 10 feet tall?” We ended up saying maybe 5’6.” Today, we’re having that debate again. No one is saying that they’re 10 feet tall. We’ll get to that later. But, for about 20 years, they were about 0 feet tall. They built virtually nothing. The ships that they had – which was the second-biggest navy in the world back in 1989 – they pulled the plug on it. The ships were just tied at the pier, they began to rot. Though quantitatively it was still huge, qualitatively it was a mess. I can attest to that because I was at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-90s and probably a lot of the reports that I wrote on the Russian Navy at the time, when they were read in Washington, were laughed at. They were so horrifically bad. Now when you talk about modernization, they went from nothing to the point where they’re building a few ships now. The few ships that they did build were aimed at arms exports. So yes, they sold submarines to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, the Chinese Navy; they kept very little. Just ones and two of everything they built.
That started to change around 2008. They continued to build ships, but increasingly to build it for themselves. In the year 2000, it wasn’t uncommon when they started to build, say, a frigate, to take 14 years from the time they laid the keel to the time that they delivered it. Laughable, yes. But that was the way life was back then. Understand, of course, Russia. Russia is a small economy. They lost the Cold war because their economy couldn’t keep up with our economy. We outspent them to death. They’re very aware of that. But what we had was that if we forced them to build a lot of ships, they would run out of money fast. They knew that, therefore they didn’t build a lot of ships. Starting around 2005-2007, economists can help us here, but the economy started to go up. I don’t mean to say this with scorn, but to a great extent, Russia is a large Nigeria. They’re dependent on the price of oil. And if the price of oil goes up, their wallets are very thick. Price of oil goes down, they’re threadbare. Price of oil went up – it was over $100/barrel, and they had more money than they knew what to do with. They had a brand-new secretary of defense back in 2008, Serdyukov. Maybe we don’t know him in the west, but in Russia, they really appreciate what this guy did. He demanded that a lot of money be spent on all the services, and the navy got more than their fair share – 40 percent – of this building budget.
He did that, one, and two, he also kicked a lot of butt and took a lot of names with respect to the operational readiness of the fleet. He saw, full well, that the Russian Navy couldn’t operate with the Russian air force, or the Russian Army. Remember that, back in the 70s and 80s in the U.S.? That’s what they started to grow out of. Under Serdyukov, he understood that they had a conscription-based military, many sailors were almost illiterate, and they, of course, were not the type of sailors that you and I would like on our ships. He started a policy that said, “if it goes to sea, and certainly if it’s new construction…no conscripts.” Conscripts were left to be mess cooks at navy bases. And the real sailors, the contract sailors, went to ships. Remember before I told you ships didn’t go to sea too much in 2000-2002. But they started to go to sea more, without the conscript sailors, and so you got a qualitatively improved force. And at the same time, you were building ships that weren’t just for arms export. They were for your navy. I’m bragging here – get over this – but it used to take them 14 years to build a frigate and now they can build one in five or six. OK, that’s not very fast, but they’re getting better at it. They’ve consolidated their shipbuilding, and they’re building a couple of ships per year. They announce they’re putting out eight warships a year. I’ve yet to see a year where eight ships came out. But, three and four, yes. And of course, they’re not big ships, they’re smaller, they might even be enhanced patrol boats, but at least they are putting out ships. But there are meaningfully, a few classes of ships and submarines that they’re putting out that do appear to be successes.
AO: So speaking of submarines, perhaps you can give a brief overview of today’s submarines, especially how they stack up against U.S. submarines. Are they as good as they once were?
TF: The answer is yes, remembering of course that they were never as good as our submarines. But they got close, and they’re getting close again. Two general areas. First of all, boomers, SSBNs. We have the luxury of having a blue water sea control navy. They don’t. We can talk about that later. But first and foremost, their navy is there for strategic deterrence. So when they get a dollar, they spend it on strategic deterrence, first. Their most successful building program is what they call their Borei class – the 955 class SSBN. They’ve got three in the water already and five more coming, and most western analysts look at it as a successful building program. The bigger problem that they have is with the solid-fuel missile that they’re trying to mate to it, the Bulava. That’s had a very checkered past, in which at times virtually every shot was a failure. Now they’re getting about a 50 percent success rate. They’re happy with that. They’re mating the Bulava to the SSBN, and they claim they’re ready to operate. Their deployments have been short. They tend to be in the old Bastion areas that we got used to looking at during the Cold War. But the point is that their SSBNs are going to sea again with an SLBM. And even though they did have a few other Delta IIIs, Delta IVs, Typhoons, these were unreliable, it was rare for them to deploy. The Russians were proud to say that if necessary they could fire a ballistic salvo from pier side. That’s true. But I’m not sure that’s anything to brag about. So yes, they did have a submarine force with ballistic missiles. But now they’ll have a force, with more to follow, that I expect will be delivered on time. So now they’ll have a force of about eight SSBNs that can deploy and shoot missiles from sea.
Now, SSNs, they’ve got a very impressive new submarine. It’s large, has got a lot of new weapons systems, and is reputedly very quiet. At least in the unclass world, it looks to be close to, but not quite, an LA and Virginia class. It’s got a lot of things, but the problem is that it’s so sophisticated by Russian standards that they’re having a hard time following it with what they claim to be seven more of the Severomorsk class warships. I think it’ll happen, but it’ll happen very slowly, and it’ll be almost like custom-made cars. They’ll happen, but it won’t be like an assembly line. It’s a little too difficult for them to put them on an assembly line yet. But they will be very good, once they do come out, and they’re now talking about a follow-on class of SSN with hypersonic cruise missiles and more sophisticated gadgetry. But if I can summarize, their submarine building is way better than their big surface ship building program. That’s where they’ve concentrated, where they’ve put their talent, their money, where they’ve had most of their successes, and that was true back during the Cold War much as it is today.
AO: Continuing our scope through “things the Russians might build…” missiles. What does it mean that Russian corvettes were able to successfully launch missiles out of the Caspian Sea last year?
TF: Well first of all, cynics say, ‘boy won’t a lot of people want to buy that missile?’ We’re sure that the Russians are wanting to sell it, and they’ll probably sell it a lot cheaper than the U.S. will. But the Russians couldn’t get over how great this was because they were able to shoot this Kalibr-class missile from two different directions, from two different, small platforms. The Buyan patrol boat, which is a 1000 ton patrol boat, can carry 8 of these missiles, with a range of 1500 miles, which is a lot, and, depending on what you read, only three of them were misfires. 23 out of 26 hit something, presumably a target. You know, when we were shooting our first cruise missiles 25 years ago, we had a worse failure rate than that. And they not only shot from Buyans in the Caspian flotilla, but then they also shot from diesel submarines, the brand-new improved Kilo-class submarines, which are delivering to the Black Sea fleet. They shot a series of them from the Med. So they had cruise missiles coming from both directions, from unsophisticated small-ish ships. Very sophisticated weapon, and the world took note of that.
AO: Changing gears a bit, let’s go a bit bigger picture and talk about maritime power. Is it fair to call Russia a maritime nation? Most people would call it a land power. How does that figure into Russia’s national security posture?
TF: That’s right. It’s mostly a land power. But it’s a land power that knows how to use maritime power in selective and judicious ways. I’m going to inject a bit of personality into this too. I think Vladimir Putin prides himself on his navy. I think he identifies with his navy. The navy is sleek, it looks cool, it packs a quick punch. He is a judo master after all. He has used his navy in a number of ways – Syria is the classic example – not only does he have a force off of the Syrian coast, but he is protecting the logistics with his flotilla. 99 percent of all the Russian logistics that goes to Syria comes from the Black Sea, through their port in Tartus. It’s defended by his naval forces, they’ve delivered air power also, and there’s air defense that they’ve set up there. What he has is an opportunity to play a weak hand and to play it forcefully. To a great extent, he played his navy in the 2013 red line on Syria chemical weapons – that’s when he deployed his force. And he was quick to point out that he had a naval force in the Med, when we really did not. His naval force would watch and ensure that the Syrian chemical weapons were delivered to the right place for destruction. It’s a small hand, but he plays it and isn’t afraid to over play it.
He sends his ships, when we were discussing reestablishing relations with Cuba – he sent a cruiser into Havana harbor, and it was sitting there while our diplomats were discussing relations with the Cubans. So, he does a lot with a little. And he’s more than happy to identify with his navy. There’s really no navy celebration that he doesn’t put on his navy hat. With the exception of going barechested, he is most likely seen in Google wearing navy hats. He just seems to like his navy. And he’s been funding his navy very well for quite some time.
So, I’m not going to go so far as to say that it’s a maritime nation, because it’s not a sea control navy. He has admirals that have been telling him to build a sea control navy. But our 6th fleet commander did take a look at what he would be up against, and he was not afraid to admit that while it isn’t a sea control navy, it’s not just an A2AD navy, either. It can do more than bloody our nose if we decide to get into a fight with them in the Black Sea, in the Baltic, and certainly in the Arctic. It can do a number of things that can hurt us. They just don’t have the sailors, the seamanship, the tradition, the Admiral Gorshkov, to go after us again in the middle of the Atlantic or the middle of the Pacific. But near their shores, they’re extremely potent.
AO: Is there anything else you think our listeners need to know, that you think we’ve missed, to wrap up our discussion?
TF: Sleep well at night. If it were a fair fight, our navy still can so wildly outperform their navy that they would never seek a fight like that. As you see Russian doctrine talking about things like hybrid warfare – they’re always interested in an unfair fight. So, they may very well want to take their hybrid warfare, their little green men equivalent, to sea, and they may be interested in provoking us in other ways that we have yet to predict, and we should be ready for that. This would not be existential. But it could certainly hurt us, and it could hurt our pride, and it could certainly surprise us. So I would say let’s be ready for that.
But on the positive side (assuming you look at Russia as an adversary or as an aggressor), their military, much as the Soviet leaders, is dependent on their economy. Their economy has performed very poorly over the past couple of years. Partly price of oil, partly western sanctions, but the bottom line is they’ve had a negative GDP for a couple of years. What’s happened under Mr. Putin is that his budgets have had to shrink in every area. If you were a provincial governor, your budget shrunk by 50 percent last year. If you were a pensioner, your pension was cut 50 percent last year. If you were the chief of navy, your budget wasn’t cut, and you were about the only guy whose budget wasn’t cut. If their economy continues its bad performance, I would argue that the chief of navy is going to get his budget cut next year. All of the grand plans for the new aircraft carriers, destroyers, will be put on hold, and it will be again, sometime in the future. Don’t expect to see it in the near term.
AO: Professor, this has been a super interesting Sea Control podcast, and I want to thank you for joining us. We really appreciate your time, insights, and hope to talk to you again soon.
TF: Ashley, thank you very much. Time did fly and I had a great time.
Ashley O’Keefe is the CIMSEC Secretary for 2016-2017. Her views and those of Professor Fedyszyn are theirs alone and do not represent the stance of any U.S. government department or agency.