Dr. Tom Fedyszyn on the State of the Russian Navy
[By Ashley O’Keefe]
From the intervention in Syria to the increasing range and scope of their naval deployments, Russia – and the Russian Navy – have turned our focus back to our Cold War foe. In this episode of Sea Control, we explore the Russian Navy’s modernization plans and recent newsworthy stories with U.S. Naval War College professor (and retired Navy captain) Tom Fedyszyn.
AO: Let’s start off with a very basic question: why is it that we should still be interested in the Russian Navy? I thought that we were interested in China’s rise these days.
TF: Most people in the U.S. Navy seem to care more about China’s navy than the Russian navy. I can attest to that because I’ve been a Russian navy guy for a long time, and I was the rough equivalent of the Maytag repair man for about twenty years. My phone never rang! I’m sure my China counterpart’s phone was ringing regularly.
But the world has changed. Let’s quickly take it to a couple of years ago, when you’re looking around the world, and see Russia, which for about 20 years had been that big former enemy who looked like it was going to be the next big cooperator – a nation aligned with and becoming more and more like the West. And then we were shocked in 2014 when all of a sudden Russia annexes the Crimea, starts a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine, and gets everyone’s attention. And so that same country that was cooperating with everyone back in 1998, even 2005, is now listed in NATO documents, for example, as some combination of adversary and aggressor. So, all of those military forces that they had that looked like they were going to do nothing but exercises with us now are potentially aggressive forces that we, especially those in the intel world, need to look at a lot harder.
AO: So where does the Russian Navy operate today? Are they in the same places that they used to be? Are they really a meaningful threat?
TF: Those old enough in the audience remember the old Soviet Navy. For 15-20 years, they were effectively our equivalent, less carrier battle groups. In other words, they outnumbered us in terms of submarines, they were equivalent to us in major surface combatants, and every theater we operated in, they did too. Then they had a 20-year period where they went to sleep, were in a coma. So that’s why we didn’t hear about the Russian Navy for a long time. I’ll make the case that starting around 2008, the Russian Navy began to get money, they began to get smart, they began to get joint, and they began to operate again. So today, pretty much anywhere, you can find ships of the Russian Navy. In some parts of the world, you can see a militarily significant force, and others just in ones and twos. But noting that 15 years ago they were nowhere, there were none in the Atlantic, there were none in the Mediterranean…whereas today they’re almost everywhere. However, they’re not necessarily a military force to be reckoned with at the high level.
AO: Admiral Sir Philip Jones (the British First Sea Lord) said a few days ago that they were seeing the highest level of Russian submarine activity in 25 years. That’s a sentiment we’ve heard not just from the Brits, but also from the NATO commander last year. If that’s true, what is so significant about that fact?
TF: Going back to that turnaround, it was sometime around the year 2000. Speaking only from unclassified sources, from what’s been in the open press, I’ll summarize for you. Between 2001-2003, our best guess is that there were virtually no Russian submarines in the Atlantic. Realizing, of course, that was going to be where a good portion of WWIII was to have been fought, for them to have no submarines in the Atlantic is a very low standard against which to compare the First Sea Lord’s number. But what we’ve been seeing is almost every year since 2008, there’s been an increase in submarine activity of between 5-15 percent. So right now, we’re getting roughly 1,500 at-sea days for Russian submarines all around the world, but an increasingly higher percentage in the Atlantic. So, again, we did start from around zero, but we’re looking at meaningful numbers again. Certainly not the level that we saw during the Cold War, but the trend is very clearly upward.
AO: Specifically when we hear about submarines, we often hear about the “GIUK gap.” For a generation that didn’t grow up during the Cold War, we don’t know what that means. Can you tell me its significance, and do we care about it today?
TF: We lived and died by the GIUK gap back during the Lehman days. This is the “Greenland-Iceland-UK gap.” Just look at a map of the North Atlantic and you can see that it’s the rough equivalent of a choke point for any Russian submarine to get out into the Atlantic – it’s got to run that gauntlet. We did set up a veritable gauntlet there. We had all kinds of sonar and SOSUS activities, we had our own submarines up there, and we had probably the biggest maritime patrol aircraft base in the world up in Iceland, with P-3s flying everywhere. The likelihood that some of our forces would find you, if you were a Russian submarine running that gauntlet, was very, very good. This is essentially what we’re up against now. We had about 20 years of nobody trying to run that gap, and now they’re running that gap again and we’re seeing – or hearing them – again.
AO: Another thing that we didn’t used to hear about was Russian aircraft carriers. We thought the Admiral Kuznetsov was going into an extended maintenance period, and instead, she shows up off the coast of Syria. How did she perform, and what did we learn from that deployment?
TF: First, let me make a little editorial about Russian aircraft carriers. Russians have been talking about building aircraft carriers for a long, long time. It has effectively been talk. What we’ve seen, loosely, is that the Russians’ ability to build very large ships is not very good. With the possible exception of submarines, their performance in building large things that float has been at the “D”/ “D-” level. And of course aircraft carriers are part of that category.
So, when you get what we might call a “sea control” admiral in charge of the Russian Navy, invariably, he will talk about building aircraft carriers. I don’t think there’s been a time when there wasn’t someone in the Russian Navy talking about building aircraft carriers. But what they deliver – well, for their operations right now, they delivered one ski-jump carrier with a very limited air wing.
Do understand that it’s a very high-prestige ship in their navy. It’s unique, and it does give a special capability to their navy that no other ship brings. So, Russian people are very proud of it. Much as in American politics, domestic politics matters to them, too. And the fact of the matter is that the Russian press, which used to be reasonably free when I lived there 20 years ago, is no longer free. It’s very much controlled by the government, and it’s a propaganda tool. What you have now is an opportunity for the government to put a spin on aircraft carrier deployments, which obviously make them look good, and that’s what we saw.
AO: Given that lens, my next question may seem a little silly, but what about the Shtorm 23000E, the next generation aircraft carrier? Defense News was reporting about it earlier this month, citing possible Indian Navy interest. Does this seem likely to be built? Will they keep trying?
TF: The Russian economy is built on exporting minerals (mostly oil and gas). Below that, it’s arms exports. They export almost as much as we do! But they have such a small economy that their arms sales really matter. So, when you look at Russian military capability, sometimes that’s just a small part of why they deploy. A larger part of why they deploy is to show off what type of technology they have and to try to sell it. You mentioned the Indian Navy. When I was in Moscow, there were more Indian officers there than from any other nation. U.S. was second. Why? Because the Russians, by the default of politics, ended up selling India its navy. Still today, about 70 percent of the Indian Navy is Russian.
I’ve spoken to lots of Indian Navy officers about this. The sense is that they don’t like the Russian ships, they don’t work too well, they’re suboptimal, but they can afford them. The U.S. has this double-whammy where we’re not that good at selling high technology, and when we sell it, it costs a lot of money. And the Indian budget makes them buy Russian – and they continue to buy Russian. So, should the Russians be able to continue to build the Shtorm, India would be the most likely nation that would buy it.
But remember, of course, Russia just sold and delivered to them the Vikramaditiya, a ski-jump carrier which was 4 years overdue, 300 percent over budget, and every Indian naval officer I’ve spoken to has said, “Well, it’s not a good ship, but we needed an aircraft carrier and we could afford it, so we got what we got.” If this Shtorm really does turn out to be good, the Indians may well want it, but the Indians are also in the process of building their own nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which would be their first choice, and if they can build it (they’re not very good at building ships either, unfortunately), they’ll stick with their domestic product.
Now, will the Russians actually build it? I would be very pessimistic. When they talk about Shtorm, they talk about building between 3 and 6. That’s how definitive they are – they can be off by a factor of two. It seems that they’re leaning in the direction of nuclear power, but sometimes you can read press articles that suggest maybe not. So they’re so unsure of where this is going, and their track record of having a yard that can build a 65,000 ton ship… it’s unlikely. In fact, if they ever get around to it, they’ll probably have to build it in two sections and then weld it together. I’m no shipbuilder, but I know this can’t be easy.
AO: Let’s switch gears and talk about their new Maritime Doctrine, which was released in 2015. What’s changed since the last version?
TF: Their last one was in 2001, and I’m nerdy about this but I read these documents. It’s important because you need to know what changes there are from one document from the next. If you read American naval strategy, you’ll note that there are significant differences between the one that just came out on the street and the one in 2007 – those differences will affect how we operate and what ships we build. Same for the Russians. In 2001, they wrote what they called a Maritime Doctrine, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a Navy admiral present at the drafting. It was like the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of Tourism, and the Secretary of Energy sat down and, at the last minute, invited an admiral in to come in and write a couple of words. It clearly was a maritime doctrine, not a naval doctrine.
In 2015, the new maritime doctrine was signed by President Putin in a formal scene built for television, aboard a brand-new frigate, named for Admiral Gorshkov, as you’ll recall, the founder of the great Soviet Navy, in Kaliningrad harbor. The only other people there were the admiral who ran Kaliningrad harbor, the chief of the navy, the chief of Russian defense, and Russia’s national security advisor. The Secretaries of commerce, tourism, etc. weren’t invited because this new document is significantly different. The tone is just wildly different. You will read phrases like, “The Russian Navy’s mission is to ensure non-Russian naval ships are not allowed to operate freely in the Arctic.” Things like, “NATO is the principal threat to Russia therefore the Russian navy must deploy to the Atlantic because the NATO Navy must be engaged before it gets to Russian shores” and “The Russian Navy will have a permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean.”
Remember, for a lot of years, there were virtually no Russian ships. When I deployed William V. Pratt there in 1989, we watched the 5th Eskadra leave the Med. We were fully expecting that we would be doing the usual tricks with our Soviet counterparts, cat and mouse games with their submarines, etc. They all left! And so the admiral called in all the skippers and said, “We have nothing to do. Any ideas?” I said, “15 port visits?” And he had nothing better, so we were able to have a loveboat cruise. But obviously the world has changed. The Russians are back in the Med. They’ve got a flotilla there, between 7-10 big serious warships, and the reason that they’re there, according to their maritime doctrine, is because of the NATO threat. You read “NATO threat” all over this document. When you read it in the Pacific, it’s clear that they are all about establishing better relations with the Chinese and Indian navies. And so they call a spade a spade. They’re not afraid to talk about which fleets are growing.
And by the way, every fleet is growing according to this document. You wouldn’t think it, but the Black Sea fleet, which was supposed to go away, now because of Ukraine and Crimea is now getting bolstered more than almost any other fleet. They’re talking about expanding each of their fleets – qualitatively and quantitatively. Finally, there’s a huge chapter on shipbuilding this time. They have a huge shipbuilding organization, and it is tasked with building navy ships in response to the demands of the navy – the missions that the navy intends to do. So, in tone and in tenor and in content analysis, the words in the 2015 document are significantly different. The picture of Putin and chief of defense sitting there in the wardroom of the frigate Gorshkov, I think is worth 10,000 words by itself.
AO: Let’s pick apart this modernization plan. There’s a strategy, then there’s a modernization plan inside of that strategy. Let’s talk about the surface navy, first. How do they expect to evolve and modernize?
TF: They’ve got a plan, and I’ll give you another editorial, too. Whatever they say, decrease it by about 50 percent. They lie, cheat, and steal when they talk about how many ships they intend to operate this year. When I look back on what they say and what they actually do, they get about half. Once again, it’s one of these “how tall are the Russians?” questions. During the Cold War, the debate always used to be, “are they 8 feet tall? 10 feet tall?” We ended up saying maybe 5’6.” Today, we’re having that debate again. No one is saying that they’re 10 feet tall. We’ll get to that later. But, for about 20 years, they were about 0 feet tall. They built virtually nothing. The ships that they had – which was the second-biggest navy in the world back in 1989 – they pulled the plug on it. The ships were just tied at the pier, they began to rot. Though quantitatively it was still huge, qualitatively it was a mess. The few ships that they did build were aimed at arms exports. So yes, they sold submarines to Indonesia, Vietnam, India, the Chinese Navy; they kept very little. Just ones and twos of everything they built.
That started to change around 2008. They continued to build ships, but increasingly to build it for themselves. In the year 2000, it wasn’t uncommon when they started to build, say, a frigate, to take 14 years from the time they laid the keel to the time that they delivered it. Laughable, yes. But that was the way life was back then. Understand, of course, Russia. Russia is a small economy. They lost the Cold war because their economy couldn’t keep up with our economy. We outspent them to death. They’re very aware of that. But what we had was that if we forced them to build a lot of ships, they would run out of money fast. They knew that, therefore they didn’t build a lot of ships.
Starting around 2005-2007, economists can help us here, but the economy started to go up. I don’t mean to say this with scorn, but to a great extent, Russia is a large Nigeria. They’re dependent on the price of oil. And if the price of oil goes up, their wallets are very thick. Price of oil goes down, they’re threadbare. Price of oil went up – it was over $100/barrel, and they had more money than they knew what to do with. They had a brand-new secretary of defense back in 2008, Serdyukov. Maybe we don’t know him in the west, but in Russia,...