Last month (October 21), Russian naval yards launched the Aldar Tsydenzhapov (Vzglyad, October 21), a project 20380 corvette that is part of the new generation of ships intended to replace the aging Soviet vessels on which Moscow still relies, perhaps best symbolized by the failures surrounding Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (see EDM, November 1, 2018). The Moscow media has since been filled with stories about the Tsydenzhapov, praising it as a breakthrough development with “no analogues” in Western navies. But that upbeat coverage has largely ignored three serious problems with this ship in particular, and the Russian navy more generally—problems that should lead everyone to take the Moscow media coverage less seriously.
First, far more than almost any other form of military equipment, capital ships have a long lead time. This is especially true in Russia, where the period from approval of plans to the navy’s full acceptance of a ship for regular service may be longer than a decade. Consequently, the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) is not receiving new vessels as rapidly as it is losing older ones—and given current production schedules and financial stringencies, it is not likely to replenish those dwindling stocks anytime soon. Two years ago, the Ministry of Defense said the navy would have 35 new vessels over the next two years; but in that time it has only received 25, according to military analyst Aleksandr Golts (Ekho Moskvy, September 27, 2019). Indeed, the military spending cutbacks President Vladimir Putin recently announced may hit the VMF even harder than the more prominent Ground Forces (Army) if, as seems likely, past practice holds (Topwar.ru, October 17, 2018; Lenta.ru, July 16, 2017; Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 22, 2019).
Second, not only is Russia not receiving the new ships Moscow has announced, but many of them, like many Russian weapons systems in general, are being accepted without being thoroughly tested. That problem has been highlighted in Syria, Golts notes, where many Russian weapons systems failed and had to be scrapped entirely or sent back for serious modification, as was most prominently the case with the ill-fated Admiral Kuznetsov (Ekho Moskvy, September 27).
Third, and perhaps most seriously, the new ships coming from the yards suffer serious shortcomings. These arise, in part, from problems in the Russian naval yards themselves, which lack personnel and equipment needed to produce modern vessels as quickly as the Kremlin wants, thus compelling the shipbuilding facilities to take hazardous shortcuts. An additional set of issues arises from the fact that many of the most important systems intended for these new vessels are subject to the Western sanctions regime, passed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. That has been the case with all Russian naval ships launched over the last five years and is especially true of the Tsydenzhapov, according to Kyiv-based military analyst Aleksandr Kovalenko (Sprotyv.info, November 8).
Among the Tsydenzhapov’s key systems that are not fully functional, the Ukrainian expert writes, is the hydro-acoustic complex Zarya-2, which lacks components from DSP Block and Analog Devices—US firms that cannot sell them to Russia because of sanctions. In the rush to meet Putin’s stated objectives for the VMF’s expansion, Russian yards and Russian naval commanders are producing and accepting vessels incapable of doing their jobs. These new ships look impressive sitting on the water, but they lack the electronic gear required for modern warfare, rendering them largely useless in any combat situation (Sprotyv.info, November 8).
According to Kovalenko, this situation “not only speaks about the extremely low culture of production and technical potential of [Russia], which has proven incapable of developing substitutes for imported components in a timely and qualitative way, but also about the horrific irresponsibility of the [Russian navy’s] acceptance commissions, which are closing their eyes to such glaring flaws” in order to be able to claim that they now have the ships needed to carry out the president’s orders.
Russian analysts add that the problems with the development of a new fleet are not limited to Western sanctions. Writing in Armeiskii Vestnik this month, Ilya Legat says that many of those hurdles, in fact, reflect Moscow’s earlier plans to rely on purchasing weapons systems and entire ships from the West—like the French amphibious helicopter-carrier assault ship Mistral (see EDM, December 9, 2009, January 7, 2010, March 9, 2010)—rather than producing them indigenously. Others, however, lie entirely within the Russian defense establishment itself. He argues that the Soviet past provides little guidance for the construction of the new generation of ships that modern naval warfare requires; and Russian planners have done little besides continuing what their Soviet predecessors did, thus putting Russia ever further behind the curve. Those problems have, in turn, been exacerbated by the rapid decay of Soviet-era ships and the failure to develop Russian naval yards to the point that they could both repair existing ships as well as build new vessels. As a result, Legat says, Moscow’s boasts about the ships it will be bringing on line over the next seven or eight years must be treated with extreme skepticism (Armeiskii Vestnik, November 9).
At least for the next decade, then, the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet is likely to be far less capable of supporting Putin’s war aims than his boastful words suggest (see EDM, August 2, 2018 and April 25, 2019). The Russian navy can still carry out many missions, as events in the Sea of Azov show (see EDM, February 22, 2018, June 11, 2018, June 28, 2018, November 6, 2018), but it does not have—and is unlikely to have anytime soon—the blue-water capabilities that the Soviet fleet at least aspired to.