Nuclear Subs Starving the Fleet (Part I)

Kazan in the launching dock in 2017

Kazan in the launching dock in 2017

What follows is a translation of Maksim Klimov’s October 22 article in VPK. He writes frequently on naval issues.

“What Do You Ask of an ‘Ash’: Nuclear Submarines Keep the Fleet on Starvation Rations”

“On 25 September the lead nuclear-powered submarine of project 885M ‘Kazan’ went to sea for factory underway trials. This event didn’t go unnoticed in foreign media or ours. Taking into account the fact that the lion’s share of resources allocated to the Navy go to the nuclear submarine fleet, there’s sense in sorting out the real effectiveness of the expenditures.”

“The ‘Borey’ —  ‘Bulava’ program is the megaproject of recent history. A lot of copy about its utility has been ripped up. According to the facts we have, six years after completing state testing of the lead boat and three years after transferring the first series vessel to the Pacific Fleet not a single firing of a ‘Bulava’ SLBM from the Pacific Ocean from ‘Aleksandr Nevskiy’ or ‘Vladimir Monomakh’ has taken place. According to media information, the lead SSBN ‘Yuriy Dolgorukiy’ doesn’t carry a combat load and, evidently, is being used as a floating stand for developing and tweaking ‘Bulava’.”

“Deterrence Deterred”

“We have to bow here to TsKB ‘Rubin’ General Director Sergey Kovalev for preserving the SSBN grouping of projects 667BDRM and BDR, which are today actually carrying out strategic nuclear deterrence missions.”

“In the current state of affairs questions arise as to the utility for Russia of having a naval component of SYaS [trans. Strategic Nuclear Forces]. The problem is all means of the ‘triad’ have their shortcomings and virtues, and the reliability of deterrence is guaranteed by covering the minuses of one with the pluses of the others. In the scope of all deterrence systems it’s sufficient for us to have just one, guaranteed untrackable SSBN. But this, undoubtedly, requires a certain number of them in the fleet’s composition. Because the foundation of strategic deterrence is not range of flight or the quantity of warheads on missiles, but inevitability of a retaliatory strike, the basis of which is the combat stability of naval SYaS.”

“There is an analogous problem with non-nuclear means of deterrence, cruise missiles and their carriers.”

“Taking into account the failure of modernization of third-generation boats a bet has been placed on the grouping of new project 885(M) nuclear subs. It would seem logical since the missile salvo of project 885 exceeds the American ‘Virginias’ and even the Western media is crying about a ‘new Russian threat’. The problem is only that there aren’t enough missiles on project 885 boats for effective deterrence, and the carrier itself is too expensive and low-volume. If we call a spade a spade, creating an effective system of non-nuclear deterrence on the basis of project 885M nuclear subs is far beyond the bounds of the state’s economic capabilities. Moreover, we still have to go to the volley point. This is precisely where the main problems begin.”

“Won’t Hold Up in Battle”

“Traditionally they say quietness is the main quality of a submarine. What does this actually mean? The foreign comparative graphic [trans. link added] of the reduction of noise in USSR (RF) and U.S. submarines is well-known. Comparing this graphic with data on the noise of subs of the first-fourth generations it’s obvious that the given levels for our fourth-generation lag U.S. Navy multipurpose nuclear submarines by not less than 10 decibels.”

“Project 885 ‘Yasen’ is the only modern multipurpose submarine which retains the propeller screw, all remaining ones have gone to water pumpjets. The reason is requirements for significant increases in low-noise speed, up to 20 knots. But as research shows, at the same noise level, the speed of ‘Severodvinsk’ and ‘Kazan’ is, obviously, much lower than that of the American ‘Virginia’ and ‘Seawolf’ [trans. SSN-774 and SSN-21 classes respectively]. And this is an extremely serious tactical flaw, the consequences of which are not fully understood by us.”

“Meanwhile now our ‘partners’ [trans. the U.S.] are developing new ways of detecting submarines. Submarine officers in Severomorsk laid down the flight track of an American ‘Orion’ reconnaissance aircraft on a map of the disposition of our nuclear submarines in the course of exercises. And all ten turning points of its route precisely followed the disposition of our submarines. In fact it didn’t even search, but went to the exact point. The ‘Orion’ went precisely to our nuclear submarine without any tacking, dropped a buoy and went to the next one.”

“The scope of threats from enemy aircraft aren’t recognized by us because domestic anti-submarine aviation is catastrophically behind the foreign level. The concept of even the newest Russian airborne search-targeting systems are from the 1970s. ‘Novella’ (‘Leninets’), as was officially announced, guarantees ‘an increase in the effectiveness of the Il-38 by four times.’ The problem is the Il-38’s capability against low-noise submarines was close to zero.”

“Evading Testing”

“Even in 2010 Rear-Admiral Anatoliy Lutskiy  wrote that it was proposed to equip ‘Yasen’ and ‘Borey’ submarines with torpedo defense systems which had technical tasks for development put together back in the 1980s. Moreover, the results of research into the effectiveness of these means against modern torpedoes attest to the entirely low probability that an evading submarine could escape destruction.”

“Since then two generations of torpedo weapons have been replaced, and there’s obviously no need to talk today about the possibility of effectively employing drifting systems of the ‘Vist’ type or the extremely expensive ‘Udar’ for anti-torpedo defense. The situation has only one solution — conducting objective testing together with new torpedo types. However, the consequences for the pair of them are obviously devastating, so simply no one will allow the testing.”

“What Is To Be Done”

“We aren’t simply investing huge amounts of money in combat systems of dubious effectiveness, but also tearing them away from education, science, and rearmament of the ground forces where there is still a difficult situation with combat equipment. In the Navy betting on submarines keeps surface ship construction on a starvation diet. It has led to the stagnation of naval aviation.”

“During development of proposals for ‘Basic Directions for Development of VVST [trans. Armaments, Military and Special Equipment] to 2030’ the author raised the question of conducting proactive R&D into weapons and countermeasures for fifth-generation submarines. This is acutely important since there are a number of fundamental points regarding the appearance of a weapon which directly influence the construction of submarines. To do it ‘the old way’ is to lay down a growing lag in our submarine fleet.”

“To resolve the critical problems of the Navy’s submarine forces it’s essential firstly to conduct special testing and research exercises. Until they are completed the construction of nuclear-powered subs could be significantly reduced for the redistribution of limited financial resources to higher priority and more critical directions of defense organizational development — surface ships and aviation.”

There’s a lot to think about here. Watch for Part II.

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Admiral Nakhimov Slipping

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Admiral Nakhimov at Sevmash

It’s been so widely reported it doesn’t bear much. But the sinking of SRZ-82’s PD-50 at Roslyakovo when Admiral Kuznetsov floated out seems incredible. Though it’s entirely believable given the problems afflicting Russia’s naval shipbuilding sector. In fact, it’s emblematic.

PD-50 in better days

PD-50 in better days

This has to be the “final straw” sending OSK chief Rakhmanov into retirement. Not that a new boss will be sufficient to turn this situation around.

But on to Admiral Nakhimov . . . the slipping has begun.

The TASS story from August 22 was effectively ignored in English media. That day the news agency reported the Russian Navy will not receive its renovated CGN Admiral Nakhimov until 2022.

TASS quoted Sevmash General Director Mikhail Budnichenko:

“According to the contract with OSK, the heavy nuclear-powered missile cruiser Admiral Nakhimov must be delivered to the fleet in 2022, but there are some questions with financing. I hope, and am even sure, that they will be resolved soon.”

He is more sanguine than most perhaps.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1988, Admiral Nakhimov was commissioned into the Soviet Navy — the third of four Kirov-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers. The Russian Navy sent it to the Sevmash dock for repairs in 1999 where it languished for 14 years.

Finally, in mid-2013, the MOD gave Sevmash a contract for Nakhimov’s repair and modernization. It was supposed to return to the fleet in 2018. But work on the ship didn’t commence until October 2014. About this time it was expected to rejoin the navy by 2020.

Last year, Sevmash was saying not later than 2021. Early this year, it said 2021-2022.

In August, OSK chief Rakhmanov said customer changes to the plan for Nakhimov’s modernization will take longer to complete.

Now at fully four years into its reconstruction, Admiral Nakhimov has a ways to go. In 2017, spaces were cleared for new missile (Kalibr, Tsirkon) and air defense (Poliment-Redut) systems. But no installation work had begun. Integrating these weapons into new C2 systems won’t be easy although Nakhimov may benefit some from the sore experience of outfitting proyekt 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov.

The repair and modernization of Petr Velikiy will obviously be put off until Nakhimov is done. Interestingly, Sevmash’s Budnichenko said the former will be renovated either at Sevmash-affiliate Zvezdochka or Baltic Shipyard, but not Sevmash itself.

All the foregoing is mainly about keeping stock. The return of Nakhimov in 2018 has now become 2022. We’ll see how it actually ends up.

Sleight of Hand

The Russian MOD is performing some financial sleight of hand on military pay. Having announced indexation of military pay and pensions over several years beginning in early 2018, the MOD has now adjusted the schedule so that any rational Russian officer or NCO has to question the MOD’s real intentions.

The MOD increased pay and pensions by 4 percent on January 1, 2018 and promised similar raises in 2019 and 2020. Russian military personnel likely anticipated 4 percent on January 1, 2019.

However, on October 22, Deputy Defense Minister Tatyana Shevtsova told Krasnaya zvezda the MOD will now raise pay and pensions on October 1, 2019, October 1, 2020, and October 1, 2021 by 4.3, 3.8, and 4.0 percent respectively.

Шевцова Татьяна Викторовна

Survivor Shevtsova will reach 9 years in the MOD next May

So instead of 12 months, it becomes 22 months between raises. Then presumably they will become annual (and the military even gets a bonus year in 2021). But likely no one is holding his breath for that.

Ms. Shevtsova didn’t have as much joy for the MOD’s roughly 900,000 civilian workers. She said certain categories of civilians in military-scientific institutions are making 95,000 or 84,000-86,000 rubles per month. The pay schedule for the lowest-earning MOD civilians has been increased four times during the past three years, she said. But it must be so insignificant that she didn’t deign to illustrate with examples of how pay for those workers has been raised.

Northern Fleet civilians ask for respectable wages

Recall, until January 1, no indexation for inflation had been provided since the Russian military salary structure was revamped and increased in 2012. Cumulative inflation in the interval has amounted to 50 percent. While tame right now, annual inflation for 2018 is still running at 2.5 percent which eats some of this year’s pay increase.

Parlous State of VTA (Revisited)

A reader’s query for more on VTA elicited this response from yours truly. It goes beyond transport aircraft and might be worth sharing.

The An-124 was devised at a time when Moscow wanted to compete with Washington throughout the Third World. The Il-76 was more generally useful. Built to service the VDV but good for lots of uses. Just limited in what it could carry. Falichev had surprisingly little to say about the Il-76MD-90A or Il-76MDM — programs that may be struggling. As if there weren’t way too much on the plate already, VTA also has to think about a new medium transport possibly the Il-114 or Il-214 (Il-276). And lots of Il-112V to replace An-12s and An-26s.

With all the attention on S-400s, Kinzhals, and 100-megaton nuclear torpedoes, it’s easy to overlook basics of military power that can be used — things like transport aircraft. Fact is Russia having trouble coming up with the money and industrial capability to produce nuclear subs, new tanks, the Su-57, transports, etc. At least on any reasonable timetable. Hence all the media focus on wonder weapons to deter the U.S. Today’s Kremlin may very well find itself headed for the same dead end as in the 1980s — unable to find the resources for full-spectrum superpower arms racing.

This isn’t to say Russia can’t be a smart effective competitor. It definitely can, witness Syria and Ukraine. But as it continues the greater the danger its reach will exceed its grasp. Have you seen the transport ships it has used on the “Syrian express?” It’s nothing short of miraculous that an An-124 or Il-76 hasn’t crashed. But one will.

But there has to be some net assessment here — we ain’t in no great shape ourselves.

Nevertheless, Russia defense industry seems to have hit a wall in many respects. How many times can you modify the same old anti-tank gun from 1984? Each mod is only marginally more effective in combat. But it supports an illusion of progress.

Saying the Russians can’t do everything isn’t sexy but it is a necessary tonic. They can do plenty but there isn’t much focus on their problems and limitations because they themselves don’t speak about them (at least out loud and to us).

Parlous State of VTA

Oleg Falichev wrote recently for Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer on the parlous state of Russia’s VTA — Military-Transport Aviation. The one-time Krasnaya zvezda correspondent laid out a less-than-convincing “infomercial” supporting renewed production of the Soviet-era An-124 heavy transport by Ilyushin.

An Endangered Species the An-124

Endangered species?

That said, Falichev made points worthy of attention. Still some of his numbers are irreconcilable. But the thrust of his report is significant and grim for the VTA.

The current condition of the VTA inventory isn’t up to its missions, according to Falichev. Those missions include transferring troops between theaters, delivering large-diameter equipment, medical evacuation, other logistical support, and, most importantly, carrying the VDV to the battlefield.

VTA workhorses — the An-124 and Il-76 — are in dire need of replacement and/or modernization. The issue, Falichev says, is what needs to be done to keep them flying.

The majority of Russian transport aircraft were made in Soviet times or the 1990s, and the service life of most is expiring. Falichev reports that Moscow has only four An-124, 46 Il-76, and one An-22 heavy transports in a combat ready state. He says Russia has 26 An-124, but only four in a serviceable, flyable condition.

Other sources report a nominal (not necessarily operational) inventory of nine An-124, 89 Il-76, and five An-22 aircraft.

In NVO recently, Aleksandr Khramchikhin concluded VTA has about 15 An-124 and An-22 and about 90 Il-76 transports along with some 160 medium transports (mainly An-12 and An-26).

DIA’s recent Russian Military Power pub said virtually nothing about VTA as a power projection resource (probably wise), but it wrote that Russia has “122 heavy transports” which pushes the outer limit of reality.

The USAF has 45 C-5, 222 C-17, and probably 350 C-130 transports in various configurations.

Khramchikhin puts this in context:

“The enormous size of American transport aviation is explained by the global missions standing before the U.S. Armed Forces, especially since all these missions have to be carried out beyond North America. We have no such scope although, as events in Syria show, it fully well may appear sooner or later. But the scale of our own country in conjunction with the configuration of Russian territory (strongly stretched in a latitudinal direction in distinction from the almost square U.S.) and the difficulty of accessing most of it requires a very large VTA. We can have 6-7 thousand km between point A and point B inside our own country and point B can be in such a place where literally ‘it’s only possible to go by plane.’ So 250 transport planes (of which the larger half are medium and light) is little for us since the majority of them (all An-12 and An-22, a signficant part of Il-76 and An-26) have gotten very outdated. In addition, our VTA is very strangely deployed on the country’s territory — in gigantic Siberia and the Far East, which are almost entirely inaccessible regions, there is only the 257th Transport Regiment with 12 aged An-12 and 5 An-26 medium planes located in the very extreme south-east ‘corner’ of this super-region! The largest VDV in the world also require a much larger quantity of more modern transport aircraft.”

But back to Falichev . . . .

Falichev concludes that even optimal production of the Il-76MD-90A (Il-476) won’t replace the existing Il-76 inventory in the new future. There is, he claims, a replacement for the An-124 contained in GPV 2018-2027. Nevertheless, there remains a “real risk of a sharp decline” in the numbers of Russian VTA aircraft. And in combat readiness also. Syria and other contingencies, he continues, demonstrate the is high demand for the capabilities of a transport like the An-124.

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

News photo purportedly showing offload of S-300P TEL from An-124 in Syria

With due respect to Messrs. Falichev and Khramchikhin, Moscow might live without new VTA aircraft. It’s not able to acquire everything to modernize its armed forces. Trade-offs are inevitable. VTA might be one. Russia’s rail network provides good internal lines-of-communication. Russia is more likely to fight regional conflicts along its periphery than far-flung wars. That its military could operate without new VTA is a debatable proposition, but one that should be, and likely is being, debated in Moscow.

Supposedly the PAK TA will be able to transport Russia’s new generation armor — Armata, Kurganets-25, etc. It might be ready for series production in 2027 in an optimistic scenario. In a realistic one, there are lots of obstacles.

Former Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar, now Deputy PM and arms tsar, Yuriy Borisov has not only rained on renewed An-124 production, but also said R&D for PAK TA wont even begin until 2025. Its PD-35 engines won’t be ready before 2027. He has said modernized An-124s could fly until almost 2040.

So Falichev and others are left largely in the same place — modernizing the existing inventory of transports.

Here are some of his more squirrelly figures. He says the VTA maintains the fitness of the inventory at 56 percent — more than 131 of 200 aircraft are serviceable, 41 percent of Il-76s, 36 percent of An-124s, 17 percent of An-22s. None of these numbers track with the foregoing. Suffice it to say that readiness, serviceability, and OOB figures are notoriously spongy. It’s hard to say who’s counting and what they’re counting.

Falichev writes that Russian transports are simply being overworked. In 2016, the Il-76 force reached its annual flight hours target of about 24,000 in June and went on to get 150 percent of the goal for the year. This tracks with lots of past reports indicating that VTA pilots have no problem getting their flight hours.

VTA isn’t getting nearly enough maintenance money in the state defense order. In 2016, it paid for only 9 percent of the necessary parts and components. Less than that was actually received, according to Falichev. That amount was reduced in 2017 when there were plans to refurbish only nine transports.

The production and repair of D-30KP-2 engines for Il-76s is insufficient. Falichev says the annual requirement is 120 of them. He claims there’s a plan to acquire more than 500 of them by 2024.

Falichev claims Russia’s An-124s get only two percent of the financing needed to service them. Their D-18T engines are a problem since they’re now a foreign product (Motor Sich in Ukraine). And AO UZGA in Yekaterinburg hasn’t mastered their repair. Perhaps because they aren’t getting paid to do it? Obviously an import-substitute is needed here.

So he sums it up:

“As we see, the problems are serious enough that they can’t be solved with a wave of the hand. It’s no wonder in Rus they say: the peasant doesn’t cross himself until it thunders.”

In other words, Moscow may have put off action on VTA until it’s too late.

To remedy VTA’s woes, Falichev calls for GOZ financing sufficient to maintain transport aircraft, their engines, and components at an acceptable level. He advocates funding to repair 12 D-18T, 8 NK-12MA (for An-22), and 112 D-30KP-2 engines. He says the quality of Il-76 maintenance at Novgorod’s AO 123 ARZ needs to improve. His entire “to-do” list is longer.

Falichev concludes:

“These are only the most essential measures. The state needs a long-term, systematic aviation development program, not just for military but also civilian aviation. Without it, Russia will stop calling itself an aviation power and will continue flying in ‘Boeings’ and ‘Airbuses.'”

And this is really the crux. Moscow doesn’t seem to have a priority on fixing VTA, but it won’t give up on it either because that would imply giving up on its larger aviation industry to some degree.

Su-34s Practice Anti-Ship Strikes

Yesterday RIA Novosti ran the headline “Pacific Fleet Fighters Launch Newest Kh-35U Anti-Ship Missiles.” Сiting a Russian MOD press-release, the news agency said they were Su-34 fighter-bombers.

It’s curious because Russia’s neglected Pacific Fleet air component doesn’t have Su-34s. The closest are 26 belonging to the VKS based in Khurba, Khabarovsk territory (277th Bomber Regiment).

The Su-34 has been produced in good numbers now, but it’s still a system from the 1990s . . . a major update of the 1970s-vintage Su-24.

The Russian Navy has only a regiment of MiG-31 interceptors at Yelizovo outside Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. But it also operates assorted land-based ASW aircraft, transports, and helos.

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Khurba’s a long way from the open ocean

The unknown number of Su-34s apparently fired eight missiles, and all struck derelict vessels imitating enemy ships.

The Kh-35U — or AS-20 / Kayak air-launched variant — has a 260-km range, and has been in Russia’s inventory since the early 2000s. As the MOD reminds, it can be fired from a number of combat aircraft, Tu-142 ASW aircraft, helos, or land-based Bal launchers (SSC-6 / Sennight).

The “U” might be for improved (usovershennyy) or multirole (universalnyy), but it’s still not really the latest thing as RIA Novosti said.

Neither RIA Novosti nor the MOD indicated where the practice strikes occurred, which is interesting.

Add the combat radius of the Su-34 to the missile’s range and the Russians don’t get much protection for ships out of Vladivostok or for the Kuriles.

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Not much reach

Almost any exercise is good for a military, but it’s hard to see the point in this one unless Russian Naval Aviation gets its own Su-34s. Or the VKS bases them closer to the sea.

Just an example of the deconstruction required when the press (Russian or American) hyperventilates about the rising Russian military threat.

Will Rosneft Boost Russian Naval Construction?

Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft is turning Shipbuilding Complex (SSK) Zvezda into the country’s first large tonnage shipyard. TASS recently published a backgrounder that detailed what’s been happening there.

Located in Bolshoy Kamen near Vladivostok, SSK Zvezda is supposed to produce the ships and equipment Rosneft needs to explore and exploit offshore oil and gas. However, it also has potential to boost Russia’s naval ship and submarine construction and repair in the Far East.

Rosneft took over Zvezda in late 2015 in consortium with government holding company Rosneftegaz and Gazprombank. The effort to expand its civilian shipbuilding capacity began in 2009 as a partnership between state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) and South Korea’s Daewoo. The latter quit the project in 2012.

Having displaced OSK, Rosneft became principal holder of Far East Plant (DVZ) Zvezda and some small affiliated shipyards. DVZ Zvezda is the only Russian shipyard in the Far East capable of repairing and modernizing nuclear-powered submarines and ships up to 13,500 tons displacement. It began modernizing two project 949A Oscar II-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines in 2013.

Zvezda complex in Bolshoy Kamen

Zvezda complex in Bolshoy Kamen

This image shows the naval shipyard at top with its grayish roof, launch basin in front, and a submarine in drydock alongside if you look carefully. The SSK Zvezda facility is pretty much everything else — the reddish roof of the monstrous production building and the whitish buildingway with its yellow cranes visible.

SSK Zvezda will produce a range of medium and large tonnage vessels, up to 350,000-tons displacement, and other sea-going equipment to support offshore hydrocarbon development in the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. It includes LNG carriers, tankers, drilling platforms, and transport, supply, and seismic survey ships.

The shipyard currently has one 1,200-ton gantry crane made in China, two 320-ton gantry cranes, and four 100-ton tower cranes on its open buildingway. In July, the shipyard took delivery of a 40,000-ton transport-transfer dock built by the Qingdao Beihai Shipbuilding Heavy Industry Company. Rosneft expects SSK Zvezda’s development to cost $2.4 billion.

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It reportedly will begin construction of medium-sized ships in 2019 with a workforce of 1,500 employees. By 2024, it expects to have a large-ship drydock and full-cycle fabrication facilities in operation with 7,500 workers. The shipyard’s order book already includes ten 80,000- to 120,000-ton tankers, ten shuttle tankers, and supply vessels. Leveraging DVZ Zvezda’s nuclear expertise, SSK Zvezda will also build three Lider-class nuclear-powered icebreakers, according to a September 14 announcement by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov.

President Vladimir Putin visited the shipyard on September 10 to lay the keel of a tanker. In 2017, he inaugurated the buildingway and transfer dock for medium-sized ships and participated in the keel-laying for four multipurpose ice-class supply ships. The Russian president personally commissioned a module production building in 2016.

The development of SSK Zvezda may increase Russia’s capabilities for naval ship and submarine construction and repair in the Far East. DVZ Zvezda has struggled for years without modernization funding. However, it may be able to leverage the flow of Rosneft investment and Chinese shipbuilding technology, equipment, and experience into SSK Zvezda to improve its own production capabilities. A steady stream of large civilian projects next door may increase of quantity and quality of personnel available to DVZ Zvezda, and moderate the boom or bust cycle of shipbuilding that makes it difficult for Russian workers to stay in the Far East.