The Kremlin has announced that Russia will hugely boost its naval operations in 2015.
But that's an empty promise — or threat, if you will. In fact, the Russian fleet is on the edge of a precipitous decline in ship numbers and combat power, owing to huge industrial shortfalls that have been decades in the making.
"As for missions of Russian naval ships, there will be 50 percent more of them than in 2013," Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, told a TV audience in December.
But Gerasimov's vow belies a bleak future for the Russian navy. Even if the fleet is busier in 2015 than it was in 2013, in coming years it will have fewer and fewer ships to be busy with — and those that remain will be progressively smaller and weaker than rival vessels.
Today the Russian navy possesses around 270 warships including surface combatants, amphibious ships, submarines, and auxiliaries.
On paper, that is. But that count includes many ships that are inactive and in poor material condition plus scores of small patrol vessels with very limited combat capability.
Of the 270 ships, just 125 or so are in a working state. And of those 125, only around 45 are oceangoing surface warships or submarines that are in good shape and deployable.
All the above figures come from Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
By comparison, the U.S. Navy possesses some 290 warships. Pretty much all of them are well-maintained, deployable, oceangoing vessels.
All the same, a force of almost 50 large warships is no insignificant thing, and outguns the fleets of all but the most powerful countries. The problem, according to Gorenburg, is that today's Russian navy is old … and won't last much longer.
"The Russian navy is still primarily a Soviet legacy force," Gorenburg writes. "There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small. In terms of large surface units, the navy only operates what it was able to save during the years when it received virtually no funding."
Many, if not most, of the Soviet-vintage ships will decommission in the next few years as they became too old to sail safely and economically.
Under President Vladimir Putin's regime, the Kremlin has laid plans to rebuild the fleet. But that's easier said than done when the vessels most badly in need of replacement are also the most difficult to build — heavy cruisers, powerful destroyers, and Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's sole aircraft carrier, which is barely seaworthy after nearly three decades in service.
"Russia's shipbuilding industry is not in good shape," Gorenburg explains. He estimates that the industry could build somewhere between half and 70 percent of the vessels Moscow wants by 2020. "The earliest that Russia could build a new aircraft carrier is 2027, while new destroyers are still on drawing board, with the first unlikely to be commissioned for 10 years."
And it doesn't help that Russia has invaded and alienated Ukraine, which built Admiral Kuznetsov and until recently supplied Russian shipyards with many of the heavy components they need to complete new warships.
Moscow tried to inject new hardware and expertise into its rusting shipbuilding industry by acquiring two new Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France — and also licensing the design for possible continued construction of the class in Russian yards.
But Paris suspended the deal last year after Russian troops annexed Ukraine's Crimea region and also infiltrated eastern Ukraine to aid pro-Russian separatists.
Russia's shipyards are still capable of building small corvettes and other uncomplicated coastal patrol vessels. And that's shaping the fleet's operations.
"Whereas the Soviet navy focused on building ships designed to take on carrier groups," Gorenburg concludes, "the new Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home."
So the Russian fleet's 50-percent-more-hectic 2015 could be one of its last busy years for a good long time — at least in any meaningful sense of the word "busy." More and more, Moscow's navy will have to stay home.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Chinese navies continue to grow and modernize. The American fleet is working hard to expand to around 306 large ships by the 2020s. And Washington is already deploying more of its vessels overseas.
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