Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Russian Navy Is Coming Back

In case you missed it in the news (and you likely did, because it probably wasn't there), a Russian naval task force is cruising north through the English Channel, returning from a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean to the Russian Northern Fleet based out of the Barents Sea.

The Admiral Kuznetsov escorted by HMS Dragon in the southern approaches of the English Channel

The flagship of the task force is the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (formally the Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov), accompanied by the battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy (trans. Peter the Great), amphibious landing ship Minsk (the latest of the name), three supply ships – Sergei Osipov, Kama, and Dubna – and an ocean-going tug Altay.

Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) with HMS Dragon in background

The Kuznetsov is the star of the Russian Navy as its single remaining aircraft carrier (though the Russians classify it as a 'heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser'), and started as a Soviet project that was to include a planned five carriers.  Its only sister ship to begin construction, the Riga (later Varyag) was left uncompleted with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  (The Chinese acquired the Varyag hulk with the purported purpose to convert it to a floating hotel, but once it came into their possession, it was then converted and upgraded to the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.)  The Kuznetsov-class carriers were to be follow-ons to the Kiev-class, of which four were built and completed practically just in time to be decommissioned.

[I mention the Kiev-class carriers partially to recollect a fulfilling moment of my career.  My last overseas assignment was a short period assigned to the ROK Marines of South Korea in the mid-1990s, which occasioned me to travel to Chinhae, headquarters of the ROK Navy.  I was escorted to a remote part of the base along a winding coast with several near-offshore islands, when we turned a corner to see looming before me the floating anchored hulk of the Minsk – then the second Kiev-class carrier and former Soviet Pacific Fleet flagship – listing slightly to starboard, its formerly glorious stern emblem of red, white and gold covered with a green patina of verdigris, acquired by the Koreans as scrap.  Completely unexpected, it was a stunning sight, and reminded me at that moment of the Charlton Heston character in Planet of the Apes stumbling upon the remnants of the Statue of Liberty.  I had studied those ships in their glory days (to make a long complicated story short), and here before me was a stark example that we had won the Cold War.  In retrospect and with an eye to the near future, I should update that to the idea that we had won that phase of the Cold War.]

The Kuznetsov is named after the commander of the Soviet Navy of World War II, and started life as the Riga (yes, the names are switched around to different ships in often confusing abandon), the Leonid Brezhnev, and the Tbilisi.  Likewise, the Peter the Great was originally the Yuri Andropov.  The slow burn of the Soviet collapse necessitated a revolving door program of name changes as former leaders became discredited and great Soviet cities became foreign.  There was time to adjust though: while the Russians were staggering back to their feet, ships such as these were laid up for some ten years or so before completion in modern reconfiguration.

Note that all of the now-Russian aircraft carriers were built in Nikolayev Shipyards in Crimea, along with a number of other major combatants, which gives you another hint about the significance of the once and yet again Russian Crimea.

The Pyotr Velikiy is a Kirov-class cruiser and currently one of a kind as well, and constitutes the largest surface combatant ship in the world.  The Russians plan to have three other such mothballed ships re-commissioned and returned to service by 2020.

The latest Minsk in this task group is a Polish-built Ropucha-class amphibious landing ship capable of carrying various configurations of tanks (10 MBTs in one plan) or APCs and up to 340 Russian Marines.

Su-33 Flankers embarked aboard Admiral Kuznetsov

One of the missions of our own US Navy is naval diplomacy, or 'showing the flag', and it is one that the Russians are back to adopting.  These two capital ships are impressive, though the Kuznetsov doesn't come close to a Nimitz-class (or the new Gerald Ford-class) CV.  The air complement of the Kuznetsov consists of some 17 or so Kamov Ka-27 ASW helicopters, four Sukhoi Su-25UTG Frogfoot trainers with a limited ground-attack capability, and 14 Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker (also known as Su-27K) interceptors (with plans to be replaced by the MiG-29 Fulcrum).

The nuclear-powered Pyotr Velikiy has a large complement of anti-ship, -submarine, and -air missiles that are vertically launched.

One might suspect (though I no longer have any way of even speculating) that one or two submarines are in loose company, much like our carrier battle groups are likewise 'associated' with attack submarines, but the Russians may still be trying to work out the complicated coordination of such support.

While this task force looks pretty nifty, it is really quite vulnerable as a combined task force per se.  An American carrier battle group (CVBG) will have several cruisers and destroyers in company (and an unmentioned submarine or two) embarking up to some 80 or so aircraft, ensuring dominance of the air, surface, and sub-surface around it out to a considerable distance.  The Russians are far behind in comparative quality of carrier aircraft, not helped by the severe slump during the recovery from the Soviet disintegration.  The Su-33 Flanker is supposed to fill an air superiority mission, mentioned some time before as an equivalent to the now-obsolete F-14 Tomcat, and the prospective Mig-29 Fulcrum would be equivalent to our F/A-18 Hornet, which we have already substantially upgraded to a Super Hornet.  The Russians are short on numbers and quality, but they are making steady progress.

One must also take into account that the Russians, like the Soviets before them, do not see their missions as we do ours.  This is a subject for another, longer and more detailed article, but the Soviets envisioned using their navy as a protective force for their ballistic-missile submarines, further protected under the Arctic polar ice cap, and to support a thrust of the Red Army into western Europe with the Warsaw Pact.  I can attest better than practically anybody that the US Navy of the 1980s surely did not appreciate the distinction and was ready to fight a war at sea that the Soviets weren't going to play.  I hope that today's Navy has a better appreciation.

Approach of a Tupolev Tu-95 Bear H, as photographed by escorting RAF fighters

But notice that this transit, well publicized in the UK and other publications in Europe, is taking place at the same time as the build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border (which remain in force despite Putin's assurances of a stand-down), a large-scale nuclear strike exercise and launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and approaches of Russian Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber/reconnaissance aircraft to British airspace (a common occurrence during the Soviet Union but dormant for some fifteen years until revived by Putin a few years ago).  Putin is clearly flexing his muscle for an increasingly divided Europe (with Putin doing his best to divide it still further) that cannot muster the political will to stand up to his threats, undercut by an even weaker stance by the Americans under Obama, who simply cannot pass up an opportunity to proclaim that any option involving the military is clearly off the table.  The intimidation advantage is decidedly to the Russians.

To say that Putin is telegraphing his punch would be to speculate that he will actually follow through with a punch, but he is definitely telegraphing.  Done adroitly, he won't have to worry about delivering the blow.

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