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.
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.