Understanding and responding to the Russian naval threat

Russian naval activity is now at its highest levels since the Cold War. This threat posed to Britain and NATO is often counter-balanced by those who say that the Russian Navy is actually in decline, hampered by budget problems and shipyards struggling to deliver new vessels. With the head of the British Army publicly admitting this week that we are ill-matched to counter the Russian threat on land, it is also instructive to consider what threat they pose at sea.

Head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolev stated that in 2016 their submarine fleet had spent more than 3,000 days at sea and this figure will keep rising for the foreseeable future. Of particular concern to the RN, are submarine penetrations, either close by or within UK territorial waters and attempts to track and record the acoustic signature of Trident submarines.“The Russians are operating all over the Atlantic, they are also operating closer to our shores.” says NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “Russian submarine incursions are stress-testing our military, political and media response… it is a challenge we must take seriously, our values & way of life is being challenged… access to the sea is crucial to our prosperity” (Colonel John Andreas Olsen, NATO representative giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee, 24th Jan 2018).

The Russian Northern Fleet is the most important and its activities are of most interest to the RN, in particular, its submarines. Its order of battle in 2018 is 8 x SSBNs, 17 x SSN / SSGNs, 6 x SSKs and several mysterious nuclear-powered ‘special purpose’ boats. Availability is hard to assess, but assuming 25-30% are deployed, there are probably around 6 Northen Fleet attack boats at large at any given time. 13 submarines have been added to the Russian Navy’s order of battle since 2014. Just a few of them are new construction, most are formerly inactive, but newly upgraded late Soviet-era boats.

The Russian surface fleet is also an odd mix of large and very old Soviet-era vessels and small modern combatants. On paper at least, the capital ships of the Northern fleet comprise 1 aircraft carrier, 1 nuclear-powered battle cruiser, 1 cruiser and 7 large destroyers. All of these vessels were designed in the 1970s and laid down in the 1980s. Some have undergone lengthy modernisations and, despite their age, are powerful combatants. For example The Kirov class Battle Cruisers Pyotr Veliky is already capable of launching 20 P-700  ‘Shipwreck’ supersonic anti-ship missiles. Her sister ship Admiral Nakhimov is completing a very slow refit but should emerge sometime after 2020 capable of launching the potentially far more lethal 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missiles. It is planned the Oscar class ‘carrier-killer’ SSGNs will also be upgraded to fire new generation missiles and are a long-range threat to surface ships that are difficult to counter.

The dilapidated aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ and battlecruiser ‘Pyotr Velikiy’ escorted through the English Channel by HMS St Albans, January 2017. Russian warship transits of the Channel and the North Sea are an obvious parade of Russian power to which the British media often over-reacts, while submarine activity is a much greater problem. These large but ageing vessels offer Putin highly visible status symbols but are an expensive drain on resources that could be spent on modern platforms.

Putin has given priority to nuclear weapons and development of their delivery platforms. Three of the eight planned Borei class SSBNs are operational and the initial problems with their Bulava SLBMs appear to have been overcome. The Russians also retain nuclear-tipped torpedoes and cruise missiles in their naval inventory, although it is unknown if and when they are deployed. It was revealed in 2015 the Russian are developing the Status-6 (NATO reporting name ‘Kanyon’) nuclear-armed UUV which can be launched from a torpedo tube. Having a range of more than 6,000 miles, it is designed to attack ports and coastal areas by creating a tsunami and contaminating the area with radioactive cobalt-60. This an exceptionally dangerous and hard to counter weapon, immune to Western missile defence systems.

The network of undersea cables which carries the majority of internet traffic critical to our economy now offers the Russians another hybrid warfare opportunity to exploit. The Russian navy has at least 9 ‘special purpose submarines’ and several ‘oceanographic research ships’ capable of interference with subsea cables. This kind of activity was carried out by both sides in the Cold War but in the days when data carried by this network was a fraction of what it is today. Russian vessels have been observed operating near to these cables on many occasions and interference operations by their submarines are even more difficult to detect or deter. Only be increased surveillance, which requires more maritime assets, can this activity be prevented.

Yantar is a modern Russian spy ship that has been observed operating near subsea cables. She is equipped with 2 deep-diving mini-submarines and her missions may include cable cutting, cable tapping, recovery of sensitive equipment and other underwater intelligence missions.

Assessing naval strength is not simply a matter of counting numbers of ships and submarines. The quality of the platforms and their capabilities are what is important. Making such assessments is complex and many elements are highly classified, but in general terms, the majority of their fleet is old, but partially or fully modernised. Russians vessels tend to be solidly constructed, more heavily armed than NATO equivalents and benefit from industry skilled and developing anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems. The less obvious quality of personnel training, propulsion systems, sensors, electronics and general situational awareness are probably inferior to NATO in many areas.

The limitations on Russian naval ambition

Publicly the Russian state has announced it intends to design and construct three very large and ambitious warship classes. The 90,000 ton Project 23000E Shtorm aircraft carrier, the 17,550 ton Project 23560 Lider class cruiser and the 24,000 ton Lavina class assault ships. Fortunately for NATO, the Russian economy and shipyard infrastructure is very unlikely to be able to deliver such ships, and must be seen as something of a fantasy fleet.

The Russian navy has a total of 24 major surface combatants but of these, only 3 frigates of the Admiral Gorshkov class were laid down after the end of the Cold War. A few modern Steregushchiy class corvettes and smaller Admiral Grigorovich class frigates have also been built, along with several icebreakers, research ships and intelligence gatherers. Submarine construction is slightly more healthy and in theory, Russia can produce more submarines per year than the US. While the USN initiates a new submarine design every decade or two, Russian submarine designers continuously develop new classes. Recent financial problems have resulted in priority being given to exporting Kilo-class conventional submarines as a generator of foreign currency.

The backbone of the Russian navy is the Akula, Sierra, Victor III and Oscar class attack submarines. All of these, once impressive, platforms are Soviet designs and most have passed their 30th birthday. The only replacement SSNs coming out of Russian yards are the Yassen class, of which just two of the planned eight have been delivered since the first was laid down in 1993. The Yassens are known to be sophisticated and stealthy boats, almost on a par with NATO’s best. Lack of funds, skilled labour and supply chain issues are restricting delivery schedules and there will be a huge gap in capability when the older generation of SSNs reach the end of their useful lives. As the RN fully appreciates, old submarines become costly to maintain and spend increasing time alongside being repaired. In the past, Russia has succumbed to the temptation to send old or defective boats to sea, with an increased risk of accidents.

The best Soviet SSN design – the Victor III. Impressive, stealthy but approaching 30 years old, with few replacements under construction.

Putin’s domestic popularity is increased by his ‘strong man’ actions in Ukraine and Syria but the resulting Western sanctions and the loss of access to important shipyards and factories in Ukraine have severely hampered the efforts of the Russian Navy to modernise. Constrained by internal corruption and sanctions, the Russian economy is stagnant and very dependent on oil exports. There is little hope oil prices will recover as Russia eclipsed by the USA as the world’s largest fossil fuel producer and the world transitions to greater use of renewables. In simple terms, Russia’s infrastructure, economy and declining population cannot sustain its superpower ambitions. This inherent weakness is also a danger to peace and insecurity may propel Putin to further aggression.

In broad terms, the Russian navy is in a long-term decline, quite unable to replace its existing capital ships or nuclear submarines fast enough. Despite these problems, it will remain a powerful threat to NATO at sea, especially during next 10 -15 years.

Faced with the reality that their capital ships may never be replaced or believing such vessels to be inherently vulnerable, the Russians may adopt a pragmatic new asymmetric naval strategy, based on small, heavily armed combatants and conventional submarines with long-range cruise missiles (The conflict in Syria has provided a convenient showcase for this new capability, both as a show of strength and for export sales purposes).

How to respond?

Britain has never traditionally been a land power, even at the peak of the Cold War the British Army of the Rhine (numbering 55,000 troops that could be reinforced by a further 100,000 from Britain in a crisis) together with all the other NATO land forces were overmatched by the Soviets. The scale forces on both sides are very much smaller today but the Russian superiority remains. On paper, NATO may have more soldiers, but regular large-scale battlefield exercises are lacking and many European armies are in a poor state. The Army of the Russian Western Military District is a cohesive force, rapidly modernising, and becoming adept at using cyber, UAVs and unconventional warfare with recent battlefield experience in Syria and Ukraine.

From a UK perspective, given our limited resources it would be sensible to support NATO by playing to our strengths and adopting a maritime-first strategy while assertively encouraging continental Europeans to strengthen their armies. A strong and capable British Army with a significant presence on the continent is desirable but even if the money was available, it is questionable if it could recruit, train and retain at least another 20,000 additional troops needed to reconstitute a credible contribution to a deterrent on mainland Europe. (Not to mention the huge investment needed to modernise its tanks, vehicles and equipment) On the other hand, an uplift of two or three thousand personnel for the RN would be transformational and is a more achievable target.

It is at sea where Britain can do most to further NATO’s cause.

Increased Russian activity in the North Atlantic is behind the announcement that NATO plans to re-establish an Atlantic Command centre. Maritime Command (MARCOM) at Northwood has been strengthened, doubling its personnel numbers to at least 200 while the US Navy plans to revive its Atlantic command facility in Norfolk, Virginia. The nuclear deterrent is the cornerstone of UK protection and the range of naval assets to protect our SSBNs is perilously thin. Rear Admiral Roger Lane-Nott wrote recently, “The Submarine Flotilla is in a difficult place… The Anti-Submarine Warfare capability of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force is at an all-time low”. Keeping the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic remains as strategically important today as it as it has been for more than a century and we must become better equipped for this task. Building and maximising the availability of the 7 Astute class SSNs should be a priority for the RN, second only to the deterrent. Instead of considering cuts we should also be improving our amphibious capability, especially as means of reinforcing NATO’s Northern flank to protect Norway.

The Russians may play down the importance of UK Carrier Strike capability in public and have labelled them mere “missile magnets”. This is inconsistent with their own efforts to keep their ancient aircraft carrier operational and their plan to build new carriers. In reality, the UK Carrier Strike group and its F-35s clearly concern the Russians, any further investment, to both better defend the carrier and enhance its offensive striking power, would be money well spent. Since the UK mainland has virtually no defence against a potential volley of cruise missiles fired from submarines or bombers the best defence is to be able to strike back in kind. Vastly increasing our stocks of Tomahawks to launch from our SSNs, Type 45s destroyers and Type 26 frigates should be a priority.

British politicians with the courage to stand up?

President Trump maybe mostly reviled by Europeans but has appointed a very competent and perceptive Defence Secretary supportive of the NATO cause. James Mattis has authored a new national defence strategy that identifies the threats from China and Russia who “want to create a world in line with their authoritarian model”, as by far the most serious threat to the US and its allies. Terrorism is correctly identified as a far less significant and non-existential threat, despite its prominence in the media. This is every bit as true for Britain, with the increasingly aggressive Russians being the closer immediate concern. The US is beginning to address these threats with a significant rise in defence spending but China and the Pacific region is its biggest challenge. Across Europe, endless defence cuts have at least been slowed, but few countries are planning major increases. Britain is now conducting its own defence review (now named the ‘Modernising Defence Program’) but most expect that, even in the best-case scenario, the MoD may get a small bail-out which will just about maintain the existing hollowed-out force. In reality, the Navy needs a major uplift in funding to match the threats it is now confronted with.

“This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom” (Winston Churchill, October 1938)

Faced with a nuclear-armed power, with a strong, unpredictable leader who will probe for weakness and get away with what he can, British politicians must face up to this inconvenient reality. The Russians are adept at exploiting information, cyber and other non-direct military means to de-stabilise and threaten its opponents. There are plenty in Britain who just want to believe this is “fear-mongering” by vested interests, playing up threats for their own ends and that Russian intentions are benign and of no direct concern. This is a dangerous head-in-the-sand mentality that plays into Putin’s hands and is contrary to the overwhelming evidence of Russian intentions, aggression in Crimea and Ukraine, cyber attacks across Europe, including interference in the US elections and Brexit referendum. To bow to the shrill voices of appeasement who prefer to spout comforting lies instead of the unhappy truth, is to ignore the lessons of history and will encourage further instability and risk the peaceful prosperity that Europe has enjoyed for so long. We must continue to engage and respect Russia but remember that it is strength, not international law or the trappings of soft power that contain them.