There is growing concern that another Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Here we look at the naval dimension of the Russian military build-up and the implications for NATO navies.
In the last week of January, the Russian Ministry of defence announced a surge of 140 warships and support vessels, 60 aircraft and a total of 10,000 personnel were participating in simultaneous naval exercises. This level of activity is unprecedented since the Cold War and involves deployments by units from the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea and Pacific Fleets. The activity is designed to signal Russia’s ability to threaten Europe in various ways and to further concentrate amphibious forces in the Black Sea, potentially to strike Ukraine’s southern flank.
Littoral manoeuvre in the Black Sea
In mid-January, the first significant moves were made when Russian landing ships began journeys to the Mediterranean. Two elderly Ropucha-class assault ships, RFS Olenegorskiy Gornyak and RFS Georgiy Pobedonosets together with the modern RFS Pyotr Morgunov sailed from their Northern Fleet base. Three more Ropuchas, RFS Korolev, RFS Minsk, and RFS Kaliningrad sailed from the Baltic and were shadowed on passage through the English Channel by NATO ships including HMS Dragon and HMS Tyne. All six have subsequently passed east through the Strait of Gibraltar and are likely to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. Their ultimate destination is probably Sevastapol where they will increase the amphibious capability of the Black Sea Fleet.
The arrival of these 6 modest sized vessels will raise the number of troops that could be delivered in the first wave of an assault from about two battalion tactical groups (BTG) to three and a half reinforced BTGs (a BTG numbers around 800 troops). Any amphibious assault is risky but they provide commanders with a range of options and will create uncertainty in the mind of the defending Ukrainians, tying down resources that could be used elsewhere. With troops concentrations which total around 100,000 just across the northern border in Belarus and to the east in Russia, Ukraine may soon have to contend with assault ships menacing its coastline.
From a UK perspective, the Russian announcement that they are to stage a live-fire exercise to the 240km to the South West of Ireland between 3rd – 8th February is of the most immediate interest. A group of 5 Russian vessels was observed by a Norwegian Airforce P3C-Orion westbound in the Barents Sea on 22nd January. The group consists of the ASW frigate FRS Vice-Admiral Kulakov, the modern missile frigate FRS Admiral Flota Kastanov and the cruiser FRS Marshal Ustinov together with support tanker Vyazma the tug SB-406. The three warships, likely also accompanied by a least one SSN, will conduct the live firings.
The original plan issued in a notice to Airmen (NOTAM) stated the operation would take place within the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Details of what is planned are naturally not given but will probably include gunnery and missile launches. The location of the exercise is of interest because long-range Russian TU-142 Bear aircraft have been observed making long flights from Russia and circling this area before returning home. There are also undersea transatlantic cables on the seabed in the area. The Bears were likely testing Irish reactions, (or lack of) and the ships that will participate in the exercise lack any capability to interfere with subsea cables.
The EEZ is international waters but that state has the right to exploit mineral and natural resources in the area. The Russians have a lawful right to operate there but there has been considerable concern in Ireland and the Aviation Authority confirmed that it would need to re-route commercial flights. In an unexpected and amusing twist to the tale, Irish fishermen have succeeded in persuading the Russians to relocate to exercise outside the EEZ. Worried that noise from the exercise would affect the migration patterns of blue whiting, tuna and other marine wildlife, the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation swung into action, promising they would send fishing boats to monitor and potentially disrupt the exercise. Subsequently, the Russians demonstrated how considerate they are by agreeing to loose off their missiles slightly further out into the Atlantic.
The situation highlights Ireland’s difficult position as a non-NATO member that spends just 0.29% GDP on defence, by far the lowest of any European nation except Iceland. As a weak ‘neutral’ power it lacks the assets to deter or even detect Russian naval activity off its coastline. The Irish Naval Service fleet consists of nine OPVs, of which they have a crew for six. They are armed only with guns and have no anti-submarine capability. Ireland also has no primary radar to monitor its airspace and is reliant on aircraft transponders and help from the RAF to monitor traffic. Effectively Ireland free rides on UK and NATO for its defence and any expectation of credible assistance from some kind of EU defence construct is a forlorn hope. The incident has sparked further debate in Ireland about increasing defence spending – perhaps another Putin own goal.
The 4,500 tone frigate FRS Admiral Flota Kasatonov (main image above) is equipped with 16 VLS cells for Kalibr Land Attack Cruise Missiles, P-800 Oniks or 3M22 Zircon Anti-ship Missiles, plus 32 cells for the surface to air missiles. The subsonic 3M-54 Kalibr LACM has a 1,650 km range and the Kalibr-M extended range (up to 4,500 km) variant is under development for deployment in the late 2020s. The planned exercise is unlikely to be a cruise missile test but is a reminder that Russia has numerous platforms capable of launching LACM. As discussed in a previous article, the UK mainland has little defence against cruise missiles.
In 2021 the Russian navy conducted a series of test firings of the hypersonic Zircon missile from surface ships and submarines in the Barents Sea. This weapon is claimed to have a ranger greater than 1,000km and flies at speeds up to Mach 9. It is unclear if it has entered operational service yet but testing was supposedly successful. If the Russians can field a reliable hypersonic anti-ship missile, this could significantly change the balance of power at sea. Despite this, no weapon is entirely infallible and the missile is just part of a complex ‘kill chain’ that requires perfecting robust data networks to provide intelligence to hit a moving target at such long range.
RN ships and submarines and other NATO naval assets are likely to be deployed to monitor the exercise closely. The test-firing of a Zircon would be another strong signal by Russia that underlines its superiority over Europeans in missile technology. It is possible the exercise may not take place at all or in another location entirely and just be part of a campaign of distraction by Moscow while potentially more nefarious activities are carried out elsewhere.
A coordinated effort
Besides the live-firing in the Atlantic and moves to the Mediterranean, other Russian fleets are all mounting major exercises. 30 Northern Fleet are vessels are practising sea control in the Barents Sea and Arctic. Major units involved include destroyer RFS Severomorsk, frigate RFS Admiral Flota Gorshkov and landing ship RFS Ivan Gren.
Between 26-31 January, more than 20 ships of the Black Sea Fleet were involved in mine warfare drills – notably mine hunting maybe a precursor to a potential amphibious operation. Frigates RFS Admiral Essen and RFS Ladney with corvettes RFS Grayvoron, Ingushetia, Naberezhnye Chelny, Suzdalets and Yeysk carried out ASW and air defence exercises. 20 ships of the Baltic Fleet are at sea for exercises in the region and corvettes RFS Stoykiy and Soobrazitelny have sailed for what was officially described as a ‘long-range deployment’.
Joining hands with the Chinese
A Russian Pacific Fleet task group including cruiser RFS Varyag and destroyer RFS Admiral Tributs conducted anti-piracy exercise ‘Peaceful Sea-2022’ in the western Arabian Sea with the Chinese PLAN destroyer Urumqi and replenishment ship Taihu. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense commented: “The exercise further enriched the connotation of the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination between China and Russia in the new era”. RFS Varyag and Admiral Tributs are due to pass north through the Suez Canal, further concentrating Russian naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese are backing Putin diplomatically over Ukraine and nothing would suit them better than an invasion that could draw US resources and focus into Europe and away from the Pacific. The imposition of tough economic sanctions against Moscow that would follow an invasion would also likely force the Russians to rely more on the Chinese financial system.
The heavier weight of armament carried by Russian vessels compared with their RN counterparts is often commented upon. Broadly speaking Russian vessels are built with a more defensive mission in mind and trade endurance and crew comfort for more offensive weapons.
Much of the surface fleet such as Marshal Ustinov (1984) still dates from the Soviet era but slowly more modern small-medium size combatants are being delivered. The Ustinov is a good demonstration of how packing every inch of a warship with weaponry can be a mixed blessing. One of 3 handsome Slava-class cruisers built in the 1980s planned to have a major modernisation, Ustinov was out of action for 6 years, eventually emerging in 2016 after refurbishment. However, upgrades for her two sisters Mosvaka and Varyag have been abandoned on cost grounds due to the cost and complexity of the work involved.
In a like-for-like comparison, Russian warships frequently appear to considerably outmatch their Western equivalents but this must be seen in the context of overall inferior numbers compared with the combined weight of NATO navies. In the less obvious, but critical domains of electronic warfare, radar and underwater acoustic technology the Russians are also generally understood to be behind. The Russian navy is also significantly constrained by geography and must pass through relatively confined waters to get into the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, making them more vulnerable to detection, tracking or attack. The surface fleet’s issues with propulsion, a lack of naval auxiliaries and limited endurance is predicated on a strategy of ‘hit first and hit hard’ rather than a sustained war of attrition. The submarine fleet is by far the most potent and dangerous aspect of the Russian navy.
Among other observers there is sometimes a tendency to dismiss the Russian Navy as a heap of rusty wrecks, a view that took root in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism saw a dramatic decline in the once-mighty Soviet forces. This perception is reinforced by the classic image of the carrier Admiral Kusnetsov belching smoke from clapped out engines, the need for tugs to support deployments of any distance and the regular fires and disasters in the shoreside infrastructure. There are certainly problems with the material state of many vessels but Putin has made a determined drive to increase the effectiveness of what is available. Industry has proved incapable of building large surface combatants but an asymmetric strategy of constructing small, but heavily armed warships is a sensible alternate path. New ships may be delivered slowly but Russian missile technology to arm its old and new platforms has overtaken NATO.
The Russian navy has been declining, struggling to replace its numerous Soviet-era ships and submarines. But in the next decade numbers will start to climb again. Whether industrial capacity and funds will fully match its aspirations is still questionable but Swedish analysts say that SSN/SSGN numbers will more than double from 10 to 21 boats by 2029. SSKs will increase from 18 to 38. Total destroyer, frigate and corvette numbers will rise from 61 to 92.
Hold the line
Of the European nations, the UK has taken the most assertive diplomatic lead in resisting further Russian moves against Ukraine. In hard power terms, this has involved supplying some anti-tank weapons and training but will not involve boots on the ground. Even if hawks like Tobias Ellwood had their way, there is little public support for fighting Russia on behalf of non-NATO Ukraine, nor is the Army in any state to resist the Russians. It is at sea the UK can contribute most, potentially sending ships as part of NATO task group on rotation in the Black Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean. HMS Prince of Wales is now the NATO Response Force flagship and will be the command platform for exercise Cold Response off Norway in March with HMS Defender, Albion and RFA Mounts Bay involved. Cold Response and the subsequent BALTOPS exercise are intended to reassure NATO partners on Russia’s borders but the schedule may be re-shaped as events unfold.
Early 2022 finds the RN even more stretched than normal, as ships are aircraft are repaired after the CGS21 deployment that concluded in mid-December. HMS Queen Elizabeth is the UK ‘high readiness’ strike carrier. She is currently in maintenance but technically at 72 hrs notice to deploy. HMS Prince of Wales is completing work up off the South coast but in the case of both carriers, fielding a credible air group would be a stretch right now as the Lightning and Merlin force are regenerating after a 7-month deployment. In time more aircraft will become available with QNLZ deploying at some point, probably with jets and PWLS likely to act as a helicopter carrier in the ASW or amphibious role. It should be remembered that only Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for carrier strike has been declared and it will be 2026 before there are enough F-35s for Full Operating Capability (FOC). Although spread thin, the RN is already responding to Russian activity and it must be interesting times at the Maritime Operations Centre in Northwood.