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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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Only an appreciation of how long Russia has possessed a robust, full-spectrum shipbuilding industry, which in some instances can trace its roots all the way back to Peter the Great, would allow one to understand the depths to which that industry has deteriorated. One of the more famous enterprises, the Rubin submarine design bureau, was founded in 1901 and was responsible for the Project 941 Typhoon-class ballistic missile submarine made famous by the novel and film The Hunt for Red October.

A colleague of mine visited the Rubin design bureau in St. Petersburg a few years ago while on a trip from Moscow and was shocked at what he saw. "There are practically no personnel left in the design bureau's main engineering building still working on submarine designs," he told me. "Most of the offices have been rented out to private companies that are engaged in all manner of commercial businesses that have nothing to do with shipbuilding at all--and it is only the income from renting out this office space that allows Rubin to stay in business. They get nothing from the state budget."

The combination of almost two decades of anaemic government funding for the shipbuilding industry and almost no procurement of new naval vessels has produced a navy that cannot maintain operations much longer and an industry that can no longer rescue it. Buying or cooperatively producing warships with France might stave off the inevitable, but modern western European-built ships in sufficient numbers are likely to have price tag that a Russia in an economic tailspin also cannot cope with.

The NVO report does not pull any punches: "The Russian Navy is on the verge of irreversible collapse. Within ten years there will be in the entire navy less than 50 vessels still capable of operations, which would be a number not even the size of one of our 'lesser fleets' like the Baltic Fleet or the Black Sea Fleet."

The report rates the navy's situation as the worst in almost a century and concludes "this present catastrophe is comparable to what happened in the course of the [post-1917 Bolshevik Revolution] Civil War years when the fleet was left in ruins. If during the oil and gas boom of the 2000s the Russian Navy received practically no funding, now today during a period of difficult [economic] crisis the fleet will--without a doubt--have to die within the next few years. This is not merely a possibility, it is a fact."

Those warships still left in useable condition have seen their level of operations scaled back in order to preserve their service life. This is particularly true in the case of the submarine fleet, which has seen its Cold War high tempo of patrols drop off to almost nothing. Last November's joint naval exercises with the Venezuelan Navy off the coast of South America amounted to a little more than symbolic participation by only four Russian vessels that made the trans-Atlantic crossing.

In 1994, Andrei Kozyrev, then the Russian Foreign Minister under President Boris Yeltsin declared "the Russian Armed Forces will be shaped to take account of the major changes in the world and the country's actual economic potential. This...can be illustrated by the Navy. It will fully retain its role as a factor determining Russia's might as a great power...The decommissioning of obsolete ships will be combined with efforts to equip the Navy with modern hardware. The ships flying the St. Andrew's ensign should embody the most advanced achievements of Russian science and technology."

A decade and a half later is it clear that these objectives failed to be met in a manner worse than the non-fulfillment of any of the Soviet Union's famous pyatiletki, or five-year plans. The Russian fleet, barring some unforeseen miracle, is one that has no future and will eventually die. The only question is which one of the twin-headed Russian leadership, President Dmitri Medvedev or PM Vladimir Putin, will be held responsible.

Reuben F. Johnson is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.