The Anti-Navy Navy

The inauspicious performance of Admiral Kuznetsov begs questions about the prospects for a new Russian carrier.

Belching black smoke, Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov reached the Med and began ops against Syrian targets about a month ago.

admiral-kuznetsov-photo-ria-novosti

Admiral Kuznetsov (photo: RIA Novosti)

But after losing two fighters to arresting gear problems in less than a month, Kuznetsov’s air wing could be ashore at Khmeimim airfield for quite a while.

Even without the accidents, this might have been inevitable since its fighters can’t carry much fuel or ordnance and still ski jump off the carrier’s deck.

Nevertheless, on December 1, Military-Industrial Commission member Vladimir Pospelov told Interfaks-AVN that aircraft carriers have a place in future naval development planning:

“In the programs we are formulating for the future, ships of this class are present. The tasks and missions the Russian Navy is performing, I’m sure, in the future will be performed by ships of this class.”

As head of the VPK’s shipbuilding council, Pospelov emphasized that “several variants [of carriers] are always being reviewed.”  He didn’t place special importance on the proyekt 23000 Shtorm model, and he intimated that no decision for nuclear propulsion has been reached.

proyekt-23000-shtorm

Proyekt 23000 Shtorm

More significantly, Pospelov stated that:

“. . . the decisions taken on the final variant will be optimal both in the effectiveness of accomplishing combat missions, and, of course, in the effectiveness and cost of the work.”

“And, of course, the possibilities of the economy are being weighed since naval aircraft-carrying systems are a very expensive pleasure. Particularly accounting for the fact that part of their missions can be resolved by other effective naval means.”

Interfaks-AVN interjected that what Pospelov has in mind are the Russian Navy’s new missile ships.  The news agency likely means small missile ships like Serpukhov and Zelenyy Dol that fired Kalibr cruise missiles at Syrian targets in August.

small-missile-ship-serpukhov

Small Missile Ship Serpukhov

Regarding those “other effective naval means,” Pospelov concluded that:

“A sharp increase in the effectiveness of shipborne systems, the development of radioelectronic weapons, the effectiveness of missile systems, and the reduction of their dimensions is going on.  And in the completion of missions, their effectiveness is always increasing from the point of view of accuracy, range, and targeting.”

Still, in a final nod to carriers, he said:

“It goes without saying that development in the direction of an aircraft carrier is also principally important.  On the whole not just for the Russian Navy, but for our country as a naval power.”

But Interfaks-AVN closed by reminding readers of Deputy Defense Minister Borisov’s statement that a new carrier might be built after 2025.

The Navy can’t be pleased by any of this.  

Not only has Kuznetsov been an embarrassment when it’s supposed to demonstrate Russia’s world-class naval power.  But now Pospelov — an influential bureaucrat — has hinted publicly that Moscow should consider whether investing in its “mosquito fleet” is a better bet than a high-cost, high-risk strategy of designing, developing, and building a new aircraft carrier for the twenty-first century.

A carrier won’t be in the next arms program, but rather, possibly, the one after next. With less defense funding likely in the outyears, delay in an expensive weapons system like this is almost the same thing as death.

The Navy, some in Moscow, and perhaps even President Vladimir Putin himself might really like the idea of building (or rebuilding) a major surface fleet to make Russia’s presence known on the world’s oceans.  But things aren’t going well in Russia’s shipyards.  If the Navy has to wait fifteen or twenty years to replace Kuznetsov, where will it be when that first, and perhaps only, new carrier arrives? Much, much further behind than today in its experience of operating a carrier battle group, let alone several of them.  

In short, the U.S. Navy is unique in the world.  Russia isn’t going to compete with its strengths and will have to think about meeting them asymmetrically.

This is why the idea of building numerous small combatants with lethal missiles to defeat or deny access to hostile forces in the closed seas surrounding the Russian Federation is appealing.  It would allow Moscow to leverage its ground, air, and air defense forces against naval threats in a combined arms approach.  

If China is doing it with its much larger economy, why not Russia?

With a future carrier put off to a distant time, perhaps Moscow has decided de facto for an anti-navy navy.  As stated above, delay is about the same as death.

Iskander’s Reach

Earlier this month, the Russian Ground Troops took  delivery of their ninth brigade set of Iskander-M missiles (NATO designation SS-26 / Stone).  The new brigade will deploy east of Yekaterinburg at Yelanskiy in Russia’s Central MD.

Iskander-M TELs Delivered at Kapustin Yar (photo KBM).JPG

Iskander-M TELs

Each brigade set has 51 vehicles — 12 TELs, 12 reload vehicles, 11 command vehicles, 14 personnel support vehicles, one data preparation vehicle, and one service and repair vehicle.  So a brigade can load out 48 Iskander-M missiles.  Additional reloads may come out of the brigade’s missile storage facility.

A brigade has three battalions, each with two batteries of two launchers.

The first Iskander-M missiles deployed with the 630th Independent Missile Battalion between 2005 and 2007.  They were operationally tested with this unit which falls under the 60th Combat Employment Training Center for Missile Troops and Artillery of the Ground Troops at Kapustin Yar.

After some piecemeal deployments, Moscow got serious about Iskander-M production, investing in production capability at Votkinsk and its suppliers, and signing a contract to equip ten brigades before the end of 2017.  The MOD’s 2013 “Action Plan” through 2020 indicated that Iskander-M would be the only new weapon system to replace its predecessor completely during that time frame.

iskander-m-deployments

Iskander-M Deployments

The MOD may plan to go above ten brigades of Iskander-M given that the Ground Troops’ structure is expanding at the army level.  The existing 152nd Missile Brigade at Chernyakhovsk in Kaliningrad (part of Baltic Fleet forces) and the 448th Missile Brigade at Kursk (20th CAA) also remain to be upgraded to Iskander-M.

iskander-m-brigades-in-western-russia

Iskander-M Brigades in Western Russia

Even without leaving garrison, Iskander-M missiles in Western Russia can reach southern Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, northern Belarus, southeastern Ukraine, Crimea, northeastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan with their 500-km range. Iskander-M in Kaliningrad allows coverage of targets in southern Sweden, Poland, northwestern Ukraine, and most of Belarus.  Add a brigade at Kursk and Russian missiles cover most of Ukraine including Kyiv.

iskander-m-brigades-in-eastern-russia

Iskander-M Brigades in Eastern Russia

Iskander-M missiles in Russia’s Far East can reach targets in China’s new Northern Theater Command north of Beijing.

But the real reach of Iskander-M depends on the missile loaded on its launcher…is it the 9M723 ballistic missile with reported 500-km range or is it the 9M728 cruise missile also with reported (but more difficult to believe) 500-km range.  The latter has come to be known as Iskander-K. 

This missile is also known as the R-500 and it may be part of the Kalibr family.  If true, it may have 2,000-km or greater range — breaking the INF Treaty’s prohibition on ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500- and 5,500-km.

Iskander-K is likely already present in the first four or five brigades armed with Iskander-M.

It’s a game-changer.  Fired from near Luga, this missile covers all of Western Europe, perhaps falling shy of Paris.  In the Far East, one from Birobidzhan covers all of northern China and easily reaches Beijing.

No Rest for the Weary

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (TAKR 063) will be more of a fixture in the Mediterranean than anyone outside the Russian MOD and Navy Main Staff supposed.

admiral-kuznetsov-photo-ria-novosti

Admiral Kuznetsov (photo: RIA Novosti)

The ship will not enter Zvezdochka shipyard for a “repair with modernization” until 2018, according to RIA Novosti.  The news agency cited state-owned conglomerate OSK’s vice-president for naval shipbuilding.

Until yesterday, it was widely assumed that Kuznetsov would operate in the Mediterranean until spring 2017 at the latest, then return to Northern Fleet waters to begin a much-needed upkeep and upgrade period.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military have decided instead to have Kuznetsov as part of their Syrian operations for at least one extra year.  The ship will likely return to its homeport at some point in mid-2017 for crew leave, swapping out fighters, and minor repairs.  At least, the Russian Navy hopes only minor repairs will be needed.

Then the cycle will start again…Kuznetsov will deploy to the Med in the fall, and return home in the first half of 2018 when an overhaul might begin.  Once that starts though, the carrier won’t be available for two years minimum, and probably much longer. Hence, the reluctance to begin the process when the MOD wants additional firepower on Syrian targets.

But Russia’s Syrian intervention is really just as much (possibly more) about the opportunity to test its men and weapons in live combat as it is about propping up its friend Assad, fighting “terrorists,” or making itself a Middle East power broker and superpower again. 

More on the “New” Divisions

On October 21, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia’s three “new” divisions in the Western and Southern MDs will be the 3rd, 144th, and 150th Motorized Rifle Divisions.  The 3rd will be part of the 20th CAA and the 150th will be subordinate to a new army in the Southern MD.  The situation of the 144th isn’t as clear.  Some reports indicate it will come under the 1st TA, others say the 20th CAA.

In any event, recent press reports have forced the MOD to show the process of building troop facilities at Boguchar is under control.

Housing and other facilities for the 3rd and 150th MRDs will be completely ready by May 2017, according to Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov.  RIA Novosti reported on his recent inspection of Boguchar.  A civilian wearing two-star rank, Ivanov is responsible for military housing and base-related construction.

As noted previously, the 9th IMRB recently relocated to Boguchar from near Nizhegorod. Its transition to the west hasn’t been easy.  The 9th will become the 3rd MRD. It was the 3rd MRD between 1997 and 2008 before it was reduced to brigade status.

deputy-defense-minister-ivanov-in-boguchar-photo-mil-ru

Deputy Defense Minister Ivanov in Boguchar (photo: Mil.ru)

The MOD’s website provided a more detailed account of Ivanov’s visit to Boguchar.  It reported that, having seen the situation for himself, he demanded that the builders deliver three 5-story housing blocks for military families by spring 2017.  He continued:

“According to the contract, the construction of seven 250-apartment buildings by the end of 2017 is stipulated.  Now the readiness of the first three of them is 50%, the rest even less.  It’s essential to follow the work schedule strictly and complete the construction of these three buildings in the spring of next year.”

For their part, the builders assured that they would, and that they would finish kindergartens and sports complexes too.

Mil.ru’s version of Ivanov’s remarks is far less categorical than RIA’s simple assertion that everything will be ready next spring.

construction-at-boguchar-photo-mil-ru

Construction at Boguchar (photo: Mil.ru)

Neither RIA nor Mil.ru had as much news on the 150th Motorized Rifle Division. The former said it will be garrisoned in Millerovo, Kuzminskiy, and Kadamovskiy.  The latter reported its 5,000 troops would inhabit four unspecified garrison towns.

Defense Procurement in Decline?

Is the Russian MOD’s procurement declining?  It’s difficult to say, but a quick survey seems to show it hasn’t, at least not yet or by much.

buk-m3

Buk-M3

Although Russian procurement data is far from independent and probably far from complete, what Moscow claims was procured for the military is still useful. Below find a side-by-side comparison of what the MOD says it bought in the third quarter of 2015 and in the third quarter of this year.

The reporting comes from Krasnaya zvezda for 2015 and 2016, and from TASS and Bmpd.

3rd-quarter-comparison

Year-on-year in the third quarter, procurement of aircraft and helicopters appeared down.  Purchases of air-delivered ordnance were higher in 2015 because the MOD needed to replenish stocks of missiles, rockets, and bombs expended in Syria.  Deliveries of ICBMs and ships were lower in the quarter just completed.  But the navy received substantial numbers of new cruise missile systems.

The MOD reported that 62 percent of the state defense order (GOZ) was complete in the third quarter.  It also said the armed forces’ inventory of weapons and equipment is now 48 percent modern.

This week Sergey Chemezov, head of government-owned defense industrial conglomerate Rostekh and friend of Putin, echoed the president’s recent warning to firms to plan for a time without large military orders.  Chemezov said Rostekh believes GOZ procurement will peak in two years and be no more than 50 percent of its total output by 2025.

Charge of the “Superlight” Brigade

Izvestiya reports that Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu is organizing some “superlight” army brigades.  It’s an interesting turn given that his widely discredited predecessor Anatoliy Serdyukov also looked at forming light motorized rifle brigades based on wheeled vehicles. Perhaps the latter’s mistake was that the vehicles weren’t necessarily Russian-made.

Shoygu’s “superlight” brigades will use the UAZ Patriot — either the SUV or Pickup variant.  The SUV is referred to as a jeep at times.  An earlier model — the Hunter — actually resembles a jeep.

uaz-patriot

UAZ Patriot

uaz-pickup

UAZ Pickup

uaz-hunter

UAZ Hunter

The intent, reportedly based on Syrian combat experience, is for these “superlight” motorized rifle brigades to slip around or through heavier enemy forces to conduct raids at distances of several hundred kilometers.

According to Izvestiya, the UAZ Patriot or Pickup is supposed to carry up to seven soldiers (a highly dubious proposition), their weapons and gear, as well as additional fuel, supplies, and ammo.  It will be armed with either a 30-mm AGS-30 automatic grenade launcher or Kornet or Konkurs ATGMs, as well as a 12.7-mm Kord machine gun.  The brigade’s mortar batteries are supposed to have 82-mm 2B14 Podnos mortars mounted on the UAZ vehicles.

An MOD official familiar with the developments told Izvestiya the formation of the “superlight” brigades has begun, and they will appear “soon” in the Southern and Central MDs.  They will have less personnel and equipment than traditional MRBs, but will be more mobile and maneuverable.  The “superlight” brigades will also have one battalion in BTR-82s as well as artillery and MRL battalions.

Izvestiya got a comment from Vladislav Shurygin:

“These battalions are being developed from the experience of combat actions in Syria.  In a day, the typical motorized rifle battalion equipped with armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles can complete a march of not more than 100 km. But an MRB in the UAZ Patriot can go several hundred kilometers in a day.  Moreover, acting in small groups, motorized rifle platoons and companies in pickups can slip through enemy forces and deliver quick strikes.  But these battalions are only effective in desert, steppe, and semidesert terrain.  In forests and forest-steppe, automobile-mounted infantry loses out to infantry in BMPs and BTRs in combat capability.”

Izvestiya notes that, in 2009, Serdyukov put the 56th Independent Air-Assault Brigade in the UAZ Hunter, but the experiment was quickly abandoned.  The MOD official says they were needed and worked well in the Volgograd steppe, but it was difficult to fit personnel and equipment in the Hunter.  Soldiers, he said, sat cheek to cheek in very cramped conditions.  That brigade returned to its venerable GAZ-66 trucks.

The same problem is likely with the UAZ Patriot and Pickup.  They look like four-seaters.

This sounds like a sweet little deal for UAZ.  It is part of the larger Sollers automobile manufacturing group, itself owned by Russian steel conglomerate Severstal.

It’s odd there’s no photo of an UAZ Patriot or Pickup military prototype when the first “superlight” brigades are reportedly almost ready to appear.

And there is also potential competition.  The Military-Industrial Company (VPK) has its Tigr light armored vehicle with a 30-mm gun or Kornet or Konkurs ATGM launchers mounted.  The Tigr, however, is a larger, heavier, and much more expensive vehicle.

GAZ might make something comparable to the Patriot or Pickup.  GAZ already makes the BTR-82.  Like VPK, GAZ is owned ultimately by Oleg Deripaska.

“New” Divisions in the West

Interfaks-AVN recently summarized the impending force structure changes in Russia’s Ground Troops.

According to Interfaks-AVN, the resurrected 90th Tank Division in the Central MD (Chelyabinsk Oblast) will be ready for the start of the new training year on 1 December.

News of the division surfaced in January.  It’s not exactly “new” given that the 7th Tank Brigade at Chebarkul will be its base.

The division is in the heart of the Urals, an important military-industrial region. It has a large training range as well.  Kazakhstan’s not far off to the south.

chebarkul

Chebarkul

Officially, the division is the 90th Guards Tank Vitebsk-Novgorod Twice Red Banner Division.  It traces back to the Red Army’s 90th Guards Rifle Division formed in 1943.

TASS already reported the division is more than 70 percent manned and equipped.  To form up fully, the 90th needs at least another regiment’s worth of T-72 tanks, perhaps a motorized rifle regiment, artillery and air defense units, an array of supporting units, as well as equipment drawn from Central MD storage bases.

Interfaks-AVN reminds readers Ground Troops CINC General-Colonel Oleg Salyukov announced in January that Moscow intends to put up three “new” divisions in the west (in addition to the tank division in the Central MD).

Voronezh (Boguchar) and Smolensk (Yelnya) are possible locations for “new” western divisions.

The redeployment of the 20th CAA from Nizhegorod (Mulino) to Voronezh (Boguchar) began in 2015.  The 9th IMRB has transferred to Boguchar, and may be struggling to adjust to its new base.  It has, however, the advantage of being an extant maneuver brigade, albeit with some artillery, missile, and support units still located east of Moscow.

The 1st Independent Tank Brigade is also supposed to be based in Boguchar.  It’s the remnant of the former 10th Tank Division, which was downgraded to a regiment and then a storage base by the late 2000s.  It’s a stretch to call it an existing formation.

Another motorized rifle brigade might make its home in Yelnya.

As Interfaks-AVN notes, two of these three brigades might become divisions.

Interfaks-AVN didn’t address the Kommersant report from June describing the transfer of two IMRBs to Russia’s western border.   Citing local media coverage, the paper described how the 23rd and 28th IMRBs departed their Central MD garrisons for Bryansk (Klintsy) and Belgorod (Valuyki) Oblasts respectively. They are also candidates to become divisions.

new-divisions-in-the-west

“New” Divisions in the West

The 1st Tank Army in Moscow (Bakovka) Oblast was resurrected to be an army-level headquarters for existing formations that pretty much amount to an army. They include the 2nd MRD, 4th TD, 27th IMRB, and 6th Tank Brigade.  There’s conjecture the latter could grow into a tank division to establish the 1st TA’s credentials as an army.

garrison-at-kadamovskiy

Garrison at Kadamovskiy

The Southern MD definitely gets one of the three “new” divisions — the 150th Motorized Rifle Idritsa-Berlin Order of Kutuzov II Degree Division.  The MOD website frequently covers progress on the infrastructure of this formation.

Moreover, as Interfaks-AVN noted, the Chief of the General Staff just announced the 150th will be part of a new combined arms army.  But there aren’t good existing candidates to fill out a new army short of denuding the 49th CAA.

The foregoing leaves us a general sense of what’s happening on Russia’s western frontiers, but not specifics.

Nevertheless, let’s draw preliminary conclusions. 

First and foremost, the changes in ground force structure — transferring existing formations or raising entirely new ones — are massive undertakings at a time of budget stringency and while the rearmament program mostly continues.

Potential divisions — the 9th, 23rd, and 28th IMRBs — are manned and equipped, but probably lack adequate facilities.  Also, it’s unclear exactly which units (air defense, artillery, EW, recon, logistics, etc.) they left behind in Mulino, Samara, and Yekaterinburg.

Less likely candidates for division — the 1st TB and Yelnya — lack facilities, troops, and armaments.  Reconditioning equipment from long-term storage isn’t a trivial task.

Fleshing out the structure described above is a big enough job, but the Russian “pivot to the west” also entails finishing the 150th MRD and the CAA to which it will belong, and possibly adding another TD to the 1st TA.

Returning to where this began, the Russian Army still has to fill out its 90th TD in the Central MD at the same time.

The General Staff, Ground Troops’ Main Command, and Western MD should have more than a few sleepless nights thinking about how to make all this work.  But it’s job security.