Russian Pacific Fleet’s resurgence sets off alarm bells in Washington
After losing its powerful aircraft carriers and nearly all major surface combat vessels during the disastrous dive of the post-Soviet era, the Russian Pacific Fleet is making a strong comeback with new ships, naval bases and infrastructure.
Having yielded considerable space to both the U.S. Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Pacific, Moscow now wants to reclaim some of it.
The Pacific Fleet is slowly but steadily gaining critical mass. The pride of the fleet are two Borei-class submarines – the Alexander Nevsky and the Vladimir Monomakh – which are counted among the deadliest submarines in the world.
An improved version of the Borei will be capable of launching between 72 and 200 hypersonic, independently maneuverable warheads on the sidewinding Bulava missile. In theory, a single Borei volley could render any country in the world unfit for human life.
After beefing up the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, the Russian Defense Ministry’s main resources are now being invested in the modernization of submarine bases in the Far East, in the city of Vilyuchinsk in the Kamchatka Region.
The Vladimir Monomakh is now permanently based at the Rybachiy Nuclear Submarine Base in Viliuchinsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Rybachiy – which is home to the majority of Russia’s submarine fleet in the Pacific – could end up harboring a total of four Borei subs.
Predictably, the Russian resurgence has set off alarm bells in the Pentagon. The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry B. Harris, testified before the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee last year: “Though focused on Europe and the Middle East, Russia is engaged politically and militarily in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Russian activity is assertive, but not confrontational. Ships and submarines of the Russian Pacific Fleet and long range aircraft routinely demonstrate Russia’s message that it is a Pacific power.”
Harris added: “Russian ballistic missile and attack submarines remain especially active in the region. The arrival in late 2015 of Russia’s newest class of nuclear ballistic missile submarine (Dolgorukiy SSBN) in the Far East is part of a modernization program for the Russian Pacific Fleet and signals the seriousness with which Moscow views this region.”
Military hype, however, needs to be viewed in the backdrop of Washington’s insatiable hunger for newer weapons. Pentagon generals are known to pump up any Russian military activity as an opportunity to wring more funds from their civilian government.
The U.S. pivot to Asia has brought huge numbers of sailors, ships and aircraft to the region. The U.S. Pacific Fleet comprises 200 ships, 2000 aircraft and 250,000 Navy and Marine personnel. The Russian Pacific Fleet may be growing but it could take decades – if at all – before it reaches such numbers.
The reality is that Russian naval build-up is mainly focused on bastion defense rather than strategic warfare. A bastion in naval strategy is a heavily defended area of water in which friendly naval forces can operate safely. Typically, that area will be partially enclosed by friendly shoreline, defended by naval mines, monitored by sensors, and heavily patrolled by surface, submarine and air forces.
On Jan. 31, the Russian Navy announced that the Pacific Fleet would induct a state-of the-art-warship armed with the latest missile launch technology and a stealth radar system. The warship, a Steregushchy-class corvette, is scheduled to join the fleet in the first half of 2017.
The 343-feet vessel, named Sovershenny (Unbeatable), is currently undergoing sea trials. It will be armed with the newest guided missile launchers that have the abilities to strike ships on the water as well as submarines, aircrafts and shore-based targets.
What is interesting is the Russian Navy’s declaration that the Sovershenny is designed to defend its eastern coasts. This indicates the focus of the Pacific Fleet is currently bastion defense rather than blue water power projection.
Even in the domain of sub-surface warfare, the focus seems to be on beefing up defenses close to Russia’s eastern coastline. According to Igor Kasatonov, former deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy and former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Russian shipyards will build six Varshavyanka diesel-electric submarines for the Pacific Fleet. These submarines are equipped with the new Kaliber-PL missiles, which can strike targets 2500 km away.
The reason for opting for bastion defense rather than extended blue water operations is that unlike the 800-ship Soviet Pacific Fleet– that legendary Admiral Sergei Gorshkov built for offensive ocean warfare – the current fleet lacks the muscle to take on its numerically larger rival, the U.S. Navy. Even China’s PLAN – though technologically backward – makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality.
While major strategic weapons are trickling in, plans to go for a major upgrade are likely to remain on the drawing board because of budget cuts. The Russian military budget is only $66 billion versus China’s $215 billion. In 2016, Russia cut its defense budget for the first time since the 1990s, indicating that low oil prices were impacting its economy.
In this backdrop of budgetary constraints, the Russian Pacific Fleet is looking at strategic deterrence. This involves attacking the U.S. Navy several hundred kilometers from Russian shores and targeting the American mainland with ballistic missile submarines protected in Russian bastions like Kamchatka. For the moment, taking the battle into American waters – a capability that Admiral Gorshkov had achieved by the 1970s – will remain in cold storage.
Russia will therefore rely on ballistic missile submarines such as the Boreis – and in future the super silent Yasen – to get the job done. Major surface warships such as missile cruisers and destroyers will be few and far between and the chances of the Pacific Fleet getting an aircraft carrier are slim.
Key advantage: Naval aviation
In contrast to the western navies, Russia has several classes of strategic naval aviation – complementing both the surface and subsurface elements. The Pacific Fleet can rely on the twinjet Tu-95M Backfire – a supersonic bomber based in Vladivostok.
This aircraft carries a very sophisticated air-to-surface anti-ship cruise missile with an effective range of approximately 555 km. With refueling capabilities, it can fly up to 4600 km out into the Atlantic or Pacific. As well as an array of surface to air missiles, the coastline is protected by MiG-31 jet fighters – just four of them linking their powerful Zaslon radar can cover a 1000-km front.
So, even with fewer surface ships today, the Pacific Fleet remains a potent force that can take down a larger foe.
Chasing a legacy
To be sure, despite its shortcomings in strategic surface vessels, the Pacific Fleet isn’t confined to a littoral role. In keeping with its impressive legacy, its warships left Vladivostok for a long voyage in October 2016.
They have visited Indonesia, where they participated in the International arms show Indodefense-2016, Thailand’s Sattahip port, and in mid-December, the group stopped in India, where together with Indian warships they practiced an encounter battle in the Bay of Bengal in the Indra Navy-2016 joint drills.
On the way back home, the Pacific Fleet flotilla paid a goodwill visit to Manila, and in early January was received in South Korea’s Busan.
The Russian Pacific Fleet may no longer subscribe to a doctrine of sea dominance, but advances in technology could one day allow Moscow to do more with less.
According to Donald D. Chipman of the U.S. Navy Reserve: “Russia has the world’s longest maritime frontier, and the Russian people have always loved the sea. It is Soviet manifest destiny, argued Gorshkov, that the nation should go to sea.”
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst, with a special interest in defence and military history. He is on the advisory board of Modern Diplomacy, a Europe-based foreign affairs portal. He tweets at @byrakeshsimha. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RBTH.