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The Fleet That Has To Die

The Russian Navy's "Irreversible Collapse."

12:00 AM, Jul 15, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Last year at the annual 27 July celebrations of Naval Fleet Day, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, boasted that the Russian Navy would add six aircraft carrier battle groups to its complement of warships. Construction of these ships, he said, would begin in 2012 with three of the carriers to be assigned to the Northern Fleet and the other three to the Pacific Fleet.

At the time, Russian government officials were riding high on $150 or higher per-barrel oil prices that they were convinced--like most oil-rich kleptocracies around the world--would last forever. The picture is a bit different today with Russia suffering some of the worst effects of the world economic downturn and world oil prices less than half of what they were 12 months ago.

Whatever oil prices might have been at the time or how high they might have been sustained on the world market, the idea of Russia constructing this number of naval vessels in even the best of economic circumstances is inconceivable. The funds that would have to be expended in order to boost the navy to these levels would break the bank. Plus it would draw all funding away from the other branches of the armed services, which would be unlikely to sit by idly and watch while the navy vacuumed up every kopeck that they needed for fighter aircraft, tanks, new communications systems, air defense batteries, etc.

The reality now is that not only is the idea of Russia building and operating aircraft carrier battle groups an impossible dream, but just building enough new ships to replace those that are worn-out after decades of use is also not feasible. A recent analysis by the authoritative Moscow-based weekly, the Independent Military Review (NVO), entitled "BMF RF (Naval Military Fleet of the Russian Federation) on Foreign Warships" states that the Russian Navy is currently in a situation of irreversible collapse.

The analysis piece states the chief cause is the state of the Russian shipbuilding industry, which is incapable "of producing warships in either the quantity or at the level of quality that the navy customer requires" for the future. According to those interviewed, the Russian Navy's leadership "understands that this is a hopeless situation and are looking for a way out by considering the purchase of naval vessels from abroad."

The issue of how Russia would be able to keep its navy afloat was raised during the International Military Naval Exposition (MVMS) in the last week of June in St. Petersburg, Russia. The same Admiral Vysotsky who had declared such grandiose plans the year before was a bit more down to earth and honest about the navy's present dire situation.

"Our position is how to significantly improve the condition of our fleet without destroying the economic activity in the country," he said. "I also consider the idea of spending billions to repair and upgrade our old ships to be meaningless because they have only 10 years of service life remaining. We need new ships to be constructed that--it is estimated--would be need to be in service for a minimum of 40-50 years."

Many in the audience were aware of the conditions inside of Russia's shipbuilding industry and its inability to build naval vessels in any meaningful numbers, so Vysotsky was then asked if this meant that the Russian Navy would consider purchasing naval vessels from abroad. His response: "I will tell you plainly that we do not exclude that possibility."

Russian industry sources report that navy officials held talks with both Direction des Constructions Navales Services (DCNS), who were exhibiting at the Russian naval expo for the first time, and Thales--the two major shipbuilding industrial enterprises in France. Not coincidentally, DCNS developed and built France's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, and the Thales Porte-Avions 2 is the basic design for both a new-generation of carriers for the French Navy and the UK/BMT configuration of the future British Queen Elizabeth class carriers for the Royal Navy.

Since Russian industry cannot build either the type or number of warships that the country needs, Vysotsky and his staff are considering cooperative agreements with France that would involve the joint production of a variant of the Mistral and Tonnerre BPC (bâtiment de projection et de commandement) amphibious assault ships. Also on the table is a French-Russian project to design and build a series of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers for both navies. It was also reported that the Russian Navy is interesting in procuring some models of submarines from Germany.