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Russian Navy Reads the Art of War

Russia Resurgent Topic Week

By Vidya Sagar Reddy

The Russian Federation intends to restore prestige and territory lost with the fall of Soviet Union. The key military objectives associated with this geopolitical thrust are confronting the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over the European continent and denying the United States free access and power projection in the global commons, specifically in the maritime domain. Vladimir Putin personally announced a new Russian maritime doctrine reflecting these objectives. In this process, the Russian Navy is showcasing characteristics reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

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Referring to Sun Tzu is not a new phenomenon for traditionally Western navies. Germany’s emperor Wilhelm II wished he could have read Sun Tzu before World War I and General Douglas MacArthur was known to have referred to his teachings. An analysis of Russia’s way of warfighting in Ukraine, especially across Crimea, revealed the application of Gerasimov Doctrine that advocated targeting an adversary’s weaknesses while avoiding direct confrontations. This is one of the significant principles of asymmetric warfare preached by Sun Tzu.

Sun Tzu’s famous dictum is that all warfare is based on deception. He counselled that one should appear weak when strong and strong when weak. He advised showing presence at places where not expected by the adversary and striking at weak points. Denial and deception were the key tactics employed by Russia when annexing Crimea and gaining the warm water port of Sevastopol permanently. The Russian Navy played phantom games within the territorial waters of Baltic countries and buzzed US warships in the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

By showcasing presence and performing unsafe activities in the maritime zones flanking its territory and other areas of interest, the Russian Navy intends to deter its adversaries from concentrating their resources on its current maritime zones of interest – Europe and the Middle East. For Putin, Ukraine and Syria are the proving grounds for Russia’s re-emergence in the international order. It is imperative to deny other navies from gaining an upper hand in these zones either for military strikes or for reinforcing diplomatic manoeuvring.

However, the negligence on the part of Russian administration towards the navy weakened its strength and technological sophistication to directly confront the navies of the US and NATO. This makes it imperative for the Russian Navy to adopt the asymmetric means of warfighting. Therefore, the Russian Navy is enumerating the art of sea denial by constructing an ‘arc of steel’ between the Arctic and the Mediterranean via the Baltic and Black Seas. This resembles, at least in conceptual terms, China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) strategy in the Western Pacific, which is itself influenced by Sun Tzu’s teachings.

The students of Mahan know that the raison d’être of a navy is to keep open the sea lines of communication and protect the trade passing through them. A strong navy is especially critical for the US, concerned as it is with its relative decline in the global order after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and concentrating on economic rebuilding. By operationalizing a local but strong sea denial construct, the Russian Navy is setting a limit on its competitors’ power projection capabilities.

Lacking unimpeded access to the maritime domain also curtails free movement of trade and affects the economy of the US as well as of its allies and partners in Europe. This is what primarily concerned the US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, as he spoke about the adverse impact of Russian maritime activity on the trade transiting the Mediterranean. In essence, the Russian Navy is practicing a prominent dictum of Sun Tzu – winning without fighting.

Apart from securing trade, the US Navy also performs global power projection for deterring and defeating aggression against American interests. Such a task involves providing sufficient numbers of warships fitted with advanced sensors and weapons. The political administration directs these assets to be deployed in certain areas of responsibility, protecting interests and responding to threats. The Obama administration ordered deployment of sixty percent of US naval assets to the Asia-Pacific for maintaining peace and stability in this region, upon which the US economic build-up is dependent.

A significant portion of these assets are appropriated as a response to China’s naval build-up and its assertive maritime activities. The US Navy is expected to handle any military aggression in this region without serious operational concerns arising in other areas of responsibility. However, it would be hard-pressed to contain the rise of a serious threat in another region with the backdrop of the US’ declining capability to fight and win two major regional contingencies simultaneously.

To relieve this situation, the US Navy and its patrons in the US Congress have vehemently opposed imposition of “sequestration” on the force’s budget, but constraints remain. A fierce battle erupted in Congress regarding funds for new ballistic-missile submarines (the Ohio Replacement Program). The construction of Ford-class carriers and Littoral Combat Ships is advancing but with criticism and budget shortfalls.

On the operational front, the US Marines are contemplating plans to hitchhike on private vessels to reach forward positions. And the US Navy is now operating in the Middle East without a carrier for the first time in recent years while the region is experiencing renewed conflicts. These issues point to the fact that the US Navy is indeed overstretched and short-funded.

This is the weak point Sun Tzu would strike at. Thus the Russian Navy has opened another contested maritime zone. To confront destabilizing Russian naval activity, the chief of the US Sixth Fleet is pressing for deployment of additional warships in his area of responsibility while Admiral Richardson contemplates enhanced presence in Europe.

If carried out, it might require transferring a few platforms intended for the Asia-Pacific before the US shipbuilding activity reaches a level to satisfy the emerging requirements. Attempting to convince the present White House administration of such a transfer would be in vain. Therefore the dilemma persists within the US Navy and the White House which maritime zone should be accorded primary focus.

By aggressively parading the navy and establishing its sea denial construct, Russia is aiming to incapacitate the navies of the US and NATO from performing their fundamental roles of protecting trade, safeguarding global commons and power projection. The Russian naval threat has driven the logic of numbers and maritime strategy of the US Navy to ground, forcing an overhaul. Without the American naval support, the NATO forces would also experience serious constraints. Thus the navy is emerging the spearhead of Russia’s re-emergence and offence against its adversaries by simply referring to Sun Tzu.

Vidya Sagar Reddy is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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The Development of Russian Naval Capabilities after the Cold War

Russia Resurgent Topic Week

By Patrick Truffer

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a weakening of the former Soviet Armed Forces. It was not until after the turn of the millennium that Russia directed its efforts towards qualitative rearmament and simultaneously shifted its focus to strategic systems with the associated lowering of the threshold regarding the use of nuclear weapons.[i] This new focus concentrated on land and air forces, and was necessarily not applied in full to the Russian Federation Navy (RFN), even if an article by Ben Hernandez warned that the RFN would be similarly developed.[ii] This essay poses questions based on these findings: to what extent have the capabilities of the RFN changed since the end of the Cold War? Can a trend towards a weakening of conventional and a strengthening of the strategic components be identified?

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When the Russian armed forces were officially established on 7 May 1992, the RFN was in quantitative terms a navy of rank II (see “Notes: Classification of the capabilities of marine power” further below). The economic problems of Russia, which lasted until the early years of the 21st century, resulted in the maintenance and modernization of the ex-Soviet military systems playing only a subordinate role. Financial spending for the Red Army had previously accounted for at least 15% of GDP, but between 1992 and 1997 expenditure fell to no more than 5%, despite the 50% drop in GDP during the same period. Spending was further reduced to 2.9% in 1998 during the Ruble crisis, increasing only from 1999. The financial resources available to the Russian armed forces until 1999 barely sufficed for operating costs. Important new acquisitions were not possible, as can be seen in the development of the armed forces during the consolidation period which lasted until after 1999, when out-dated, surplus Soviet systems were scrapped.[iii] The consolidation phase was particularly punishing for the RFN which lost four of its original five aircraft carriers within the four year period – only the conventionally powered Admiral Kuznetsov is still operational today.[iv] By the turn of the millennium, the strategic and tactical submarines, minelayers and minesweepers as well as amphibious capabilities had been drastically reduced in number.[v] In addition, Russia withdrew from almost all its foreign bases – Tartus in Syria remained as the last Russian naval base outside of Russian territory.[vi]

The potential of the RFN and its suppliers of defence technology deteriorated not only in terms of quantity but also of quality. At present, only about a quarter of the fleet has ocean-going capacity, and the abandonment of armaments projects as well as a shortage of new vessels since the turn of the millennium have reduced the RFN to a navy of rank III.[vii] The RFN is capable, although with considerable effort, of projecting power at a global level. However, a major operation would only be possible within a limited arena and for a limited period.[viii] The problems the RFN has in maintaining its Mediterranean task force, which consist of between 10 and 12 vessels, indicate that a sustained operation would have less success.[ix]

Financial constraints in the defence industry have led to the unravelling of the production chain and to a loss of know-how, complicated by the fact that former Soviet production sites were often located outside of Russia. Russian aircraft carriers, for example, were built in Mykolaiv in Ukraine.[x] Due to these factors and combined with a lack of investment in new industrial capabilities and technologies, Russia must in part rebuild its industrial military technology from the ground up.[xi] The modernisation of the Russian armaments industry made only slow progress till 2010, due for the most part to inefficient and corrupt state-funded structures. In spite of this, three new strategic nuclear-powered submarines of the Borei-class have successfully been put into service since 2008. Together with a further five, they will replace Russia’s remaining strategic Delta- and Typhoon-class submarines by 2020 and compose the future maritime component of the nuclear triad. The strategic submarines serve as a carrier system for up to 16 of the currently not yet fully operational Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).[xii] The Borei-class is in part Soviet technology because the relevant planning phase began during the Cold War.[xiii] After successful implementation, this will reduce the strategic submarine fleet from the Cold War levels of 55 units (covering six classes) and 832 nuclear-capable ICBMs (five types) to 8-10 Borei-class submarines with altogether 128-160 nuclear-capable ICBMs of a single type armed with one nuclear warhead each. The strategic maritime component of Russia will thereby be quantitatively modest compared to that of the USA which, from 2018 and taking into account the New START agreement, will have 12 Ohio-class submarines, each with 20 Trident D-5 ICBMs, each of which theoretically capable of carrying up to 14 nuclear warheads.[xiv] Regarding the quantity of the carrier systems, Russia is still superior to those of the UK (four Vanguard-class submarines, each with 16 Trident D-5 ICBMs, capable of carrying three nuclear warheads each) and France (four Le Triomphant-class submarines, each with 16 ICBMs equipped with six nuclear warheads per missile).[xv] Despite significant quantitative disarmament, which in turn has reduced pressure on the military budget, Russia has been able to ensure the capabilities of the maritime component of its nuclear triad.

Military Statistics – Russian Armed Forces – Nov 2015 

Optimistic estimates of the development periods for new, possibly nuclear-powered aircraft carriers arrive at 15-20 years.[xvi] This is the most fundamental of several preconditions required for a return to the rank of a Major Global Force Projection navy (if only “partial”). In addition, every deployed aircraft carrier requires further vessels. When the Admiral Kuznetsov passed through the English Channel in January 2014, the Russian carrier battle group consisted of a further five cruisers, destroyers and frigates as escort vessels.[xvii] Thus to an aircraft carrier, enough suitable escorts and the necessary logistics required for sustained operations must be available for deployment. The Russian shipbuilding industry currently seems almost incapable of successfully implementing this mammoth project within the prescribed time, because the problems, massive cost overruns and time delays in the conversion commissioned by the Indian Navy of the Kiev-class aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov into the INS Vikramaditya generate little confidence in the capabilities of Russian shipyards.[xviii]

Despite these changes required, the conventional sector appears to have made progress. For example, modernisation work began in 2007 on the Oscar-class submarines (each with 24 P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles) which are still in operation and for the most part date back to the 1980s. In addition, at the end of 2013 a new tactical, nuclear-powered Yasen-class submarine entered service.[xix] However, this was not a new development; as with the Borei-class, the planning phase dates back to the Soviet era. Construction was delayed by years, partly due to financial restrictions and partly due to the priority given to the Borei-class. Four more Yasen-class submarines are to follow in the medium- to long-term. With Russias diesel-electric powered attack submarines, the Kilo-class fleet has been partly modernised and increased to 20 units. The first submarine in the subsequent Lada-class, whose drive system possibly will be air-independent and significantly quieter, has been operational since 2010 and two more are to follow by 2020.[xx] Two heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser (Kirov-class) from the Soviet era are also being modernised.[xxi] There seems otherwise to be no new development in the field of cruisers. The outlook is more positive with frigates: The multi-role Admiral Gorshkov-class (1 being tested, 3 under construction and a total of 5-6 operational by 2020) and the guided-missile Admiral Grigorovich-class (5 in construction, 6 planned) are new Russian developments.[xxii] The Buyan-class (5 operational, 1 undergoing testing, 5 in construction and 1 planned) and the Steregushchy-class corvette[xxiii] (4 operational, 4 under construction and 18 planned by 2020) are also new Russian developments. Both corvette classes are primarily for the protection of coastal waters and, in the case of the Steregushchy-class with its operational flexibility, the 200-mile economic zone. Two of the successor model, Project 22160, which will have a greater level of self-sufficiency[xxiv], are already in production.[xxv]

The 20 obsolete landing craft which still exist on paper mean that the amphibious capabilities of the RFN are virtually non-existent. In the long term, Russia is planning to bridge this gap with the Ivan Gren-class, but although begun in 2004, the project is not yet fully functional. It was announced in July 2015 that only two of the six ships planned would be completed. In addition, the purchase of two French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships was cancelled by France because of tensions resulting from the annexation of the Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Russia is now planning to create a modern replacement with a project of its own (Avalanche), but as with all major maritime projects in Russia, doubts about its successful implementation pervade.[xxvi]


After the Cold War, the quantitative and qualitative potential of the RFN declined considerably. It is presently in the same league as the UK and the France Navy and could at the most carry out one major operation for a closely defined period in a specific location. This capability gap in global power projection will continue to exist in the long-term. In addition, the amphibious capabilities of the RFN are virtually non-existent, and here no long-term closing of the gap can be detected. The RFN is currently capable of policing the 200-mile economic zone and the coastal waters of the Russian regional space. At the strategic level, maritime component of the Russian nuclear triad with its Burei-class submarines and the Bulava ICBMs is capable of ensuring a presence, even after 2020. The number of simultaneously usable nuclear warheads, low in comparison to that of the USA, UK and France, is not the most significant factor. Despite the existing capability gaps and the efforts to continue to maintain the nuclear triad, the present analysis of the RFN capabilities does not reveal the kind of unilateral shift in focus towards the strategic component which can be detected in Russia’s land and air forces.

Patrick Truffer publishes the Swiss security policy blog offiziere.ch. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Affairs and is completing a Master of Arts program in International Relations at the Freien Universität Berlin.

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[i]               Patrick Truffer, “Strategic rearmament of the Russian armed forces after end of the Cold War”, offiziere.ch, February 01, 2015, part 1: https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=22571, part 2: https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=22958.

[ii]              Ben Hernandez, “Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift?”, Medium, August 14, 2015, https://goo.gl/io5W08.

[iii]             Mike Bowker and Cameron Ross, Russia After the Cold War, 1st edition (New York: Routledge, 2000), 230ff; Patrick Truffer, “Statistics – Russian Armed Forces”, November 2015, https://goo.gl/UwnQqM.

[iv]             This craft class is not defined in Russia as a full-fledged aircraft carrier, but as a heavy-aircraft carrying cruiser. “New Russian ‘Storm’ Supercarrier Design Wows Chinese Media”, Sputnik, July, 11, 2015, http://goo.gl/2ShnAU.

[v]              Truffer, “Statistics – Russian Armed Forces”.

[vi]             Felix F. Seidler, Maritime Herausforderungen der NATO, Analysen zur Sicherheitspolitik, Bd. 8 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2015), 62.

[vii]            Sean MacCormac, “The New Russian Naval Doctrine”, CIMSEC, September 3, 2015, http://goo.gl/ZalkqF.

[viii]           Seidler, Maritime Herausforderungen der NATO, 61.

[ix]             Paul Pryce, “Russia’s Rusting Task Force”, CIMSEC, September 16, 2013, http://goo.gl/bSwPkZ.

[x]              Peter Dunai and Guy Anderson, “Russia commits to building Black Sea naval shipyards”, Jane’s Navy International 118:2 (March 2013): 49.

[xi]             Seidler, Maritime Herausforderungen der NATO, 63.

[xii]            “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 113 (2013): 204.

[xiii]           Construction began in 1996. The test phase planned for 2002 and the planned completion in 2006 were delayed by several years. “Russia”, The Military Balance 108 (2008): 223, “Russia”, The Military Balance 106 (2006): 164.

[xiv]           Under the New START, the number of nuclear warheads for all delivery systems altogether is restricted to 1,550. U.S. Departement of Defense, “Fact Sheet on US Nuclear Force Structure under the New START Treaty”, April 08, 2014.

[xv]            UK Government, “Fact Sheet 10: Trident Value for Money Review”, October 19, 2010; “Chapter Four: Europe”, The Military Balance 115, (2015): 91.

[xvi]           “New Russian ‘Storm’ Supercarrier Design Wows Chinese Media”.

[xvii]          “Russian Carrier Battle Group on its Way to the Mediterranean”, RIA Novosti, January 10, 2014, http://goo.gl/w6cmvN.

[xviii]         “INS Vikramaditya: Indias New Carrier”, Defense Industry Daily, July 16, 2015, http://goo.gl/wAV4Jw; Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans”, Russian Military Reform, January 14, 2015, https://goo.gl/Sq4P62.

[xix]           “Russia Commissions New Attack Submarine”, Sputnik, Dezember 13, 2013, http://goo.gl/WRHK1t.

[xx]            “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 115 (2015): 187, 205.

[xxi]           “Russian Shipyard Sevmash Ordered New Equipment for Overhaul of Kirov Class Cruiser Nakhimov”, Navy Recognition,  January 06, 2015, http://goo.gl/qlwoSd.

[xxii]          Gorenburg, “Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans”; “Baltic Shipyard Starts Work on New Fregatten for Russian Navy”, Sputnik, November 15, 2013, http://goo.gl/lbCGyU.

[xxiii]         The Corvette appears in the “Military Balance” statistics only from 2009, and from 2011 it is classed among the frigates
(accordingly considered in Truffer, “Statistics – Russian Armed Forces”).

[xxiv]         An operational range of 6,000 miles and a continuous operating time of 60 days instead of 3,500 miles and 15 days for the Steregushchy class. John Pike, “Project 22160 Vasily Bykov Patrol Ship”, GlobalSecurity.org, May 02, 2014, http://goo.gl/wo3NH1.

[xxv]          Gorenburg, “Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans”.

[xxvi]         “Russia Reduces Procurement of Ivan Gren Class Landing Ship to Focus on Mistral Analog Lavina”, Navy Recognition, July 10, 2015, http://goo.gl/soGy1k.

Notes: Classification of the capabilities of marine power[i]


Rank Designation Description These include:
I Major Global Force Projection Navy – Complete Can carry out all naval tasks globally, implementing several operations at the same time and establishing military supremacy worldwide. Includes aircraft carrier battle groups, nuclear-powered attack and strategic missile submarines, amphibious assault ships and a corresponding three-digit number of surface warships. USA
II Major Global Force Projection Navy – Partial Can participate globally in several locations simultaneously with sea denial forces of oceanic range, but only with limitations when it comes to creating military superiority distant from the national territory and for an extended period of time. Has limited access to aircraft carriers and/or amphibious assault ships, but remains dependent on on-shore bases for air support. Includes nuclear-powered attack and strategic missile submarines. The main burden is carried by a significant number of surface warships, in three-digit or high double-digit numbers. Currently no State
III Medium Global Force Projection Navy Can project power globally in multiple simultaneous operations, but can only successfully implement one major operation in one location at any specific time. Has few/individual aircraft carriers and/or amphibious assault vessels, nuclear-powered attack and strategic missile submarines and a two-digit number of surface warships capable of geographically limited naval patrols. Russia



Great Britain (almost)



IV Medium Regional Force Projection Navy Can project power on its own shores, but without being able to establish military superiority on a large scale. Compared to Ranks I to III has a smaller number of surface warships, and may have individual small aircraft carriers or amphibious assault vessels; rarely nuclear, usually conventionally powered attack submarines and land-based aircraft to support operations at sea. Germany








V Adjunct Force Projection Navies Can exert military power along their own coastline with surface vessels and possibly conventionally powered submarines. Sweden


VI Offshore Territorial Defence Navies With surface vessels and possibly conventionally powered submarines they have a credible capability to defend their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Chile
VII Inshore Territorial Defence Navies Can defend their coasts with surface vessels. Tunisia


VIII Constabulary Navies Can patrol their coastal waters with weakly armed surface vessels. Bangladesh
IX Token Navies These are navies operated by small states with minimal operational capacity, for example in the form of small patrol boats. Pacific island states

[i]               Classification according to Eric Grove, The Future of Sea Power (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press US, 1990), 236-240. From: Seidler, Maritime Herausforderungen der NATO, 49f, 349-355. I also wish to thank Felix for his additional explanations, suggestions and tips as well as for country examples.


“Baltic Shipyard Starts Work on New Frigate for Russian Navy”. Sputnik, November 15, 2013,  http://goo.gl/lbCGyU.

Bowker, Mike, und Cameron Ross. Russia After the Cold War. 1st edition. New York: Routledge, 2000.

“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”. The Military Balance 113, (2013): 199–244.

“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”. The Military Balance 115, (2015): 159–206.

“Chapter Four: Europe”. The Military Balance 115, (2015): 57–158.

Dunai, Peter, and Guy Anderson. “Russia commits to building Black Sea naval shipyards”. Jane’s Navy International 118:2 (March 2013): 49.

Gorenburg, Dmitry. “Russian naval capabilities and procurement plans”. Russian Military Reform, January 14, 2015, https://goo.gl/Sq4P62.

Grove, Eric. The Future of Sea Power. Annapolis, Md: US Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Hernandez, Ben. “Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift?” Medium, August 14, 2015, https://goo.gl/io5W08.

“INS Vikramaditya: Indias New Carrier”. Defense Industry Daily, July 16, 2015, http://goo.gl/wAV4Jw.

MacCormac, Sean. “The New Russian Naval Doctrine”. CIMSEC, September 03, 2015, http://goo.gl/ZalkqF.

“New Russian ‘Storm’ Supercarrier Design Wows Chinese Media”. Sputnik, July 11, 2015, http://goo.gl/2ShnAU.

Pike, John. “Project 22160 Vasily Bykov Patrol Ship”. GlobalSecurity.org, May 02, 2014, http://goo.gl/wo3NH1.

Pryce, Paul. “Russia’s Rusting Task Force”. CIMSEC, September 16, 2013, http://goo.gl/bSwPkZ.

“Russia”. The Military Balance 106, (2006): 147–64.

“Russia”. The Military Balance 108, (2008): 205–24.

“Russia Commissions New Attack Submarine”. Sputnik, Dezember 30, 2013, http://goo.gl/WRHK1t.

“Russia Reduces Procurement of Ivan Gren Class Landing Ship to Focus on Mistral Analog Lavina”. Navy Recognition, July 10, 2015. http://goo.gl/soGy1k.

“Russian Carrier Battle Group on its Way to the Mediterranean”. RIA Novosti, January 10, 2014, http://goo.gl/w6cmvN.

“Russian Shipyard Sevmash Ordered New Equipment for Overhaul of Kirov Class Cruiser Nakhimov”. Navy Recognition, January 06, 2015, http://goo.gl/qlwoSd.

Seidler, Felix F.. Maritime Herausforderungen der NATO. Analysen zur Sicherheitspolitik. Bd. 8. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2015.

Truffer, Patrick. “Statistics – Russian Armed Forces”, November 2015, https://goo.gl/UwnQqM.

Truffer, Patrick. “Strategic rearmament of the Russian armed forces after end of the Cold War”, February 01, 2015, part 1: https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=22571, part 2: https://www.offiziere.ch/?p=22958

UK Government. “Fact Sheet 10: Trident Value for Money Review”, October 19, 2010.

U.S. Department of Defense. “Fact Sheet on US Nuclear Force Structure under the New START Treaty”, April 08, 2014.

The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition

Russia Resurgent Topic Week

By Michael Kofman

On October 7th, Russia’s Caspian Flotilla launched land attack cruise missiles into Syria, bringing into relief the steady modernization of the Russian Navy (RFN), and its recently added strike capabilities. Dominating the Caspian is not a difficult challenge for the Russian flotilla of Gepard-class frigates and Buyan-M corvettes, but the ability to launch cruise missiles at targets in Europe or the Middle East potentially over two thousand kilometers away is emblematic of the future Russian Navy. Together with the Northern, Pacific, Baltic, and Black Sea Fleets, the RFN is a force in transition. Russia’s surface and submarine force today is quantitatively a fraction of the size of its Soviet ancestor, but it is undergoing revival, investment, and reconfiguration to become a qualitatively different force. Today’s Russian Navy is intended to pursue both traditional missions such as strategic deterrence and status projection, along with sea denial, sea control, and coastal defense.

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Russia’s latest maritime doctrine, released in July, is an incredibly ambitious document with visions of carriers, multirole landing ships, new destroyers, and a host of platforms indicating parity with the U.S. and power projection across blue waters in the maritime domain. However, these dreams, reaching out into 2050, are unlikely to be realized for a slew of reasons, including budget constraints, defense industry capacity, inefficiencies, and technological shortcomings. Russia’s defense budget this year, at 3.3 trillion roubles or 4.2% of GDP, is the largest it has ever been since the Soviet Union, but given prevailing economic conditions, it is unlikely to be seen at these levels for years to come. Financial constraints aside, Russia also lacks a vision for the missions these carriers or amphibious ships would perform. They are political aspirations on paper at best, while much of the actual maritime strategy and thinking on the future of Russian naval power is unlikely to reside in this document.

Instead of unattainable, and unrealistic, dreams of power projection with a large blue water navy, the RFN seems set to become primarily a green water force. Increasingly based around smaller and more advanced ship classes, with capable long range anti-ship and land attack missiles, this fleet will be designed to project conventional deterrence. In practice, Moscow is investing in the achievable, while paying lip service to the unnecessary. Hence, in the coming years, Russia will remain primarily a regional naval power. One area where the maritime doctrine rings true is the concentration of effort and assets facing NATO forces in Europe and along the Arctic, best embodied in modernization of the Northern and Black Sea Fleets.

The desire to establish “non-nuclear deterrence,” voiced in the Military Doctrine released in December 2014, is a more important driver behind Russian thinking. This strategy is based around long range precision weapons, multiple vectors of attack, and the ability to inflict high costs to NATO in select regions such as the Baltic, Black, and Barents Seas. In this respect, Russia’s naval developments should be viewed in conjunction with spending on additional maritime aviation and coastal defenses, such as the Su-30SM and the Bastion-P. However, Russia’s maritime aviation is a small force and organizationally in the hands of its air force. The more important trend in the Russian navy is that a small missile boat, or a frigate, armed with the new line of Kalibr missiles (SS-N-27A and SS-N-30A), can pose a similar threat to a Tu-22M3 bomber at a better stand-off range and have excellent land attack options.

In the Russian submarine force, strategic deterrence remains the paramount mission, particularly with the new Borey-class of SSBNs steadily replacing older Delta IVs and IIIs. Power projection seems mostly a mission for the submarine force, especially given the troubled shipbuilding program. In the coming years, older Soviet platforms will be steadily phased out. However, with delays in production of new multi-role ships, the Russian navy looks increasingly better underwater. The best example is a new squadron of six improved-Kilo diesel submarines being added to the Black Sea Fleet, armed with the same family of land attack and anti-ship missiles. The new Yasen-class multirole submarine, along with modernization projects for older SSNs and SSGNs, will restore some of the Russia’s sea power in the underwater domain.There is a marked increase in Russian submarine activity and patrols, up by fifty percent according to Russian Navy chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov, along with a newfound interest in underwater cable and oceanographic mapping.

Status projection via naval power remains an important national priority, as it arguably has been since the time of Peter the Great. While differences abound in Russian defense circles over the amount of spending on the navy, given the country is primarily a land power, Moscow remains committed to the notion that it cannot be considered a great power without visible hallmarks of naval power. Hence Russia is investing in the modernization and refit of the Kirov-class battlecruisers, at great expense to other priorities, with perhaps 1.7 billion roubles for Admiral Nakhimov and over 2 billion roubles for Peter the Great. The goal is to maintain a unique set of capital ships to conduct flag waving, strategic messaging, and a host of other status projection missions. While the Kirovs may be anachronistic, status projection is held at an even higher premium today because it is tied to the public perception of Vladimir Putin’s personal brand of leadership, which in Moscow is as important as the objective results of foreign policy.

The most prominent mission for the Russian Navy today is supporting the military intervention in Syria, including provision of air defense using the Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva and sustaining the force via sea lines of communication from the Black Sea, dubbed the “Syrian Express.” The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) is in charge of this operation in the Eastern Mediterranean, managing a rotating squadron of roughly ten ships, largely composed of Soviet era landing ships and the BSF anti-submarine warfare group. Originally stood up to support the Syrian regime in 2013, the Mediterranean squadron will become a more permanent fixture according to official statements, independent of the conflict’s trajectory.

The intervention in Syria is a useful study on the state of Russian sea lift and capacity for expeditionary warfare. Russia compensated for the lack of available sea lift, an expensive asset to have lying about for a country that has not done expeditionary warfare since the Afghanistan War, by simply re-designating commercial carriers (ironically purchased from Turkey). The RFN trains provision of mobility and sea lift for ground forces during annual strategic exercises, but even for a relatively close operation such as Syria, clearly lacks the requisite assets.  With limited platforms available for expeditionary warfare, the RFN is focused instead on being able to move forces around the country’s vast regions. This is an especially challenging mission in the Arctic and Pacific, largely uninhabited expanses of terrain where exerting sea control is taxing. Traditional expeditionary warfare is not something the Russian navy is geared for, plans for, or expects to be doing much of in the future.

The RFN will remain strongest facing NATO in the European theater, effecting sea denial and conventional deterrence, with smaller and more modern platforms. While Russian ships may venture out into the North Atlantic, most such forays will be limited to strategic communication, training, or flag waving missions. The submarine force will form an important element in a strategy of nuclear and conventional deterrence, maintaining the ability to strike the U.S. homeland. Around Russia’s periphery, a host of sea patrol ships and cutters for the FSB border guard will work to improve sea control along the coastline. The Arctic is an area of particular anxiety for Moscow, despite little traffic through the Northern Sea Route. Russian leaders envision long term economic competition over Arctic resources. They are seeking to invest in military and rescue infrastructure today in order to establish firm control over access to the region in the future. When it comes to sea control and sea lift the Russian strategy is mindful of cost constraints and structured around surging capacity when needed.

As envisioned today, the Russian Navy is not likely to become a global peer competitor to the U.S. but represent a more potent regional challenge, particularly to NATO allies. NATO will have to deal with a resurgent Russian presence in the Mediterranean and the ability of Russian ships to conduct long range strikes from within the comfort of established A2/AD zones close to their bases of operation. While the net sum of Russia’s naval strategy could be characterized as regional and largely defensive in nature, the practical results are not simply negative from a security standpoint for NATO, but present new challenges for a stretched U.S. Navy. Russia’s shipbuilding program will proceed fitfully at best, but the changes already in progress within the RFN are yielding results that will require adjustment and adaptation on the part of the U.S. and its allies.

Mr. Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kofman holds a M.A. in International Security from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and a B.A. in Political Science from Northeastern University.

Read other contributions to Russia Resurgent Topic Week.

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Russia Resurgent Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Matt McLaughlin

Welcome to Russia Resurgent Week at CIMSEC, where we attempt to shed some light on Russia’s objectives, capabilities and constraints. Russia has occupied the headlines for a variety of reasons in recent weeks, but this is not the place to visit for the latest updates. Rather, this week investigates the broad phenomenon of post-Soviet Russia’s rise. What are its tools? What will it do with them, and where? How do recent events fit into a broader strategic framework?

An impressive stable of international writers has contributed on a variety of Russia-related subjects. Interspersed are some pieces published earlier on CIMSEC that complement the latest work. We hope that by the end of the week Russia will be slightly less of a mystery, if still an enigma.

1 – The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition By Michael Kofman
2 – The New Russian Naval Doctrine By Sean MacCormac
3 – The Development of Russian Naval Capabilities after the Cold War By Patrick Truffer
4 – Shipbuilding Constraints Drive Downsized but Potent Russian Navy By Dmitry Gorenburg
5 – Russian Navy Reads Sun Tzu’s Art of War By Vidya Sagar Reddy
6 – Cutting Through the Fog: Reflexive Control and Russian STRATCOM in Ukraine By Robert C. Rasmussen

7 – Is Russia’s Maritime Strategy Adrift? By Ben Hernandez
8 – Russia in the Arctic: Aggressive or Cooperative? By Laguerre Corentin
9 – Yours, Mine and Moscow’s: Breaking Down Russia’s Latest Arctic Claims By Sally DeBoer
10 – Russian & Soviet Fleets, 25 Years Apart  By Louis Martin-Vezian

Matt McLaughlin is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy.

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