by Le Dahu for The Saker Blog


In the previous article “Part 1: Russian Navy frigates”, the downsizing of combat ships over the last 30 years is as a result of a huge leap forward in technology & design. Essentially, the modern Russian naval capability is to have an effective missile launch ‘standoff capability’ of around 600-1000kms, bolstered by an overlapping series of coastal early warning & integrated defensive systems, air-land and sea.


The Russian navy only started to deploy a limited number of ships on goodwill visits to the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean back in 2008 & 2009.  Then this was followed by participation in the US-led international anti-piracy task force in the Horn of Africa, protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Recently the trend is to send out one or a couple of Soviet-era medium sized ships out on long-distance ‘flag-waving’ deployments, whereas the modern fleet of frigates & corvettes increasingly play a more central combat focused role, many having a role in the Syrian campaign or forming the backbone for naval defence perimeter against NATO posturing.

With its lengthy coastline, numerous shallow bays, seas and estuaries, mostly accessed via maritime chokepoints, Russia is hardly a blue-sea oceanic maritime power, but does profit from having the ability to use a wide range of ships, near to the coast as well as on inland waterways. Suffice to say that 7million km2 of territorial seas alone, needs adequate protection by appropriate means. The Russian ‘State Weapons Program’ envisaged back in 2012 the following number of corvettes & frigates in service with the Russian Navy by 2020:(Sakaguchi 2014)[Y Sakaguchi, NIDS Journal of Defense and Security, 15, Dec. 2014]

15    Frigates such as Projects 22350 (x6), 11356M(x6) & 11661K, and also include frigates under development;

35    Corvettes such as Projects 20380 (x12) & 20385 (x16), & also include corvettes under development;

What we see from the State Weapons Program is that corvettes construction programs account for double that of frigates. Part of the Maritime Strategy doctrine,(first set out in 2001, updated in 2010 & 2014), highlighted the vital need for strengthening of naval capabilities & operational presence, in revitalising the practically moribund post-Soviet navy Fleets.

In essence, the main elements of Russian naval seapower rests on:

  1. Combat strike power and anti-ship combat capabilities,(territorial defence against attacks from the sea).
  2. Effective deployment of maritime strategic nuclear forces.
  3. Safeguarding of merchant shipping sea lanes & protection of marine resources.
  4. Protection of Russian national interests – regionally & globally, (in peace-time).

The naval component of the Russian military doctrine’s spirit is based on having a mixed element of mostly surface ships intended for green-water operations, (some of which capable of brown-water operations), with a few blue-water capable ships.

Protection of marine resources: Russia has recently developed significant offshore oil & gas infrastructure, which is located both in territorial waters and in the Exclusive Economic Zone, (EEZ).  It is not therefore surprising that this is an important feature in the Maritime Doctrine.  As such, appropriate naval resources are needed to secure these assets.

Although naval ship construction had been slowly progressing by 2012, an announcement was made by President Putin to have 51 ships within a decade, (Carnegie Feb 2012). This came at a time when the largest Russian Navy flotilla in decades had just been deployed off Syria.

A significant challenge is the ongoing modernisation of Russian defence capabilities, while at the same time moving ahead with the backlog of defence orders.  There are serious obstacles to be overcome with inefficient production costs & equipment, as well as problems with burdensome Soviet-era management cultures & cost overruns in some state monopolies. Another hurdle is the need to modernise the production base & make it more efficient, over time with continued production of a type of equipment or ship. (The Motorship Dec 2013)

Additionally, the lack of sustained R&D in the naval defence sector, also handicapped meaningful progress in naval construction for a long time.  Again, a legacy inherited from the Soviet-era suspension of many naval construction & projects.

One issue that can’t be overlooked is the fact that the 2014 Western sanctions slapped on Russia, particularly on defence-related equipment, did have a adverse impact, since they the supply of components and equipment was halted, significantly, German & Ukrainian marine engines for Russian Navy ships under construction.

A number of frigates and corvettes already laid down in shipyards a while back, are running significantly behind schedule. This is not to say that there is no good news, as it will completely remove Russian defence procurements reliance on European defence suppliers.  The sanctions provoked serious impetus into giving import substitutions R&D a vital boost, and eventually kick starting domestic production of various equipment & fittings, (TASS April 2017). Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin said: “We have never done this before. They [the Ukrainian side] thought that they had driven us into a corner and that we would be unable to finish the construction of frigates. But we have done this.”

Despite having considerable engineering expertise in the nuclear powerplants & steam turbines fields, Russian-made marine diesel & gas turbines were low in priority. Hence, a stop-gap measure has been the importation of Chinese marine engines, to continue with the delivery of some new warships.

This is an astonishing situation, that shows the reality on the ground is nothing quite like the ‘resurgent’, ‘revanchist’ or ‘aggressive’ Russia, that Western elite like to brandish in the media, because it shows how a significant part of the Russian defence sector had been hamstrung practically in a single action, and that no prior contingency planning or even weighty research had been put into place.


From the shipyard blocks to action at sea

The use of small, shallow-water corvettes in real-life combat missile strikes setting was a significantly historical event and also rattled the US & NATO top brass too. (The National Interest 7 April 2017). Of course, the US has a longstanding history of using much larger destroyers and submarines for Tomahawk launches, the Arleigh Burke class, being the mainstay of the US Fleet, (with around 59 currently in service), with a displacement of 6900 tons – the caveat being the much larger number of missiles carried onboard.

Ship Dates Number
Buyan-M class x 3, 1 Gepard class (Caspian Sea Flotilla) 07.10.15 26
Buyan-M class x 3, 1 Gepard class  (Caspian Sea Flotilla) 20.11.15 18
Rostov-on-Don  – Submarine (Black Sea Fleet) 08.12.15 4
Buyan-M class x 2 (Black Sea Fleet) 19.08.16 3
Admiral Grigorovich (Black Sea Fleet) 15.11.16 4
Krasnodar – Submarine, Admiral Essen

Black Sea Fleet

30.05.17 4 in total
Admiral Essen, Admiral Grigorovich

Black Sea Fleet

23.06.17 6
Krasnodar – Submarine 23.06.17 6 in total
Admiral Essen 05.09.17 6
Kolpino, Velikiy Novgorod – submarine 14.09.17 7
Velikiy Novgorod 22.09.17 3
Kolpino, Velikiy Novgorod – submarine 05.10.17 10
Velikiy Novgorod 31.10.17 3
Kolpino 03.11.17 6

Table 1: Naval Kalibr missile launches during the Syrian campaign

Information derived from: Navy Korabel

Kalibr launches – Breakdown by type of ship:

8 x Buyan-Class, 2 x Guepard class, 5 x Admiral Grigorovich class,10 x submarines – Kilo

The numbers of Kalibrs launched show a consistent ‘proportional lethality’, just enough to do the job in a measured manner, when the need arises. All of which was carried out  from within the Russian defence perimeter.  As opposed to the 70+ Tomahawks launched into  just 1 location, for forward-deployed US ships, in order to make a grandstand play for the world’s media & politicians.

As can be seen in the table, the largest proportion of Kalibr launches was carried out by improved-Kilo class submarines. [More so in 2017 due their ability to be unseen most of the time, hence giving NATO ASW a run for their money of late].

Indeed, the Mediterranean Sea has become a proving ground for the new generation of Russian submariners. The debut of modern-era Russian submarine combat operations took place on 9 December 2015, with Kalibr missiles launched from the “Rostov-on-Don” improved Kilo Class. The submarine variant, has probably played more of a role and had (excuse the pun), a bigger impact on the battlefield. Simply because submarines not only play ‘cat & mouse” with surface ships, but also have a huge element of surprise and tie up considerable amounts of ASW assets in the process, (Business Insider Oct 2017). This could be potentially seen in the correlation between Kalibr launches in the eastern Mediterranean and the US Navy’s visible response in sending over P-8 Poseidon flights over the area. (Defence News March 2017).

Widely distributed firepower across a range of ships and submarines ensures spreading out risks and minimising big potential combat losses, is called “distributed lethality“. Unlike a high profile target, such as an aircraft carrier, (*1), which entails a lot of protection, huge costs and also a lot of focus directed by an opponent,(The Saker 09 Nov 2017), the deployment of a corvette or small frigate is a lot less onerous. About half of Russian Navy warships are likely to be armed with Kalibr cruise missiles by late 2020.

(*1) just need to look at the incredible amount of resources/efforts expended by the Argentine air power, trying to sink one of the Royal Navy’s carriers during the South Atlantic conflict in 1982.

A long lethal reach can thus reached by Russia, with a multitude of ships and submarines, reinforcing the Naval A2/AD zone over a significant distance, across every coastal frontier. This alone possibly reduces some NATO planners to tears.

The Buyan-M class corvettes

It seems that the US & NATO ignored the Russian Navy’s small warships’ capabilities up to 7th October 2015, where several ships of the Caspian Sea Flotilla launched a volley of Kalibrs towards Syria, (Sputnik October 2015). The lethal combination of high-precision long-range missiles, combined with ships of small displacements, might have made some Western naval experts uneasy. The devil in the detail is when NATO was deeply unhappy when two Project 21631, Buyan-M class corvettes, (‘Zeleny Dol’ & ‘Serpukhov’), moved from the Black Sea to the Baltic last year. (Reuters 26 October 2016). Interestingly, they too participated in the Syrian campaign briefly before their deployment to the Baltic. This gave the Baltic Sea Fleet a huge boost, since it previously didn’t have a single Kalibr-carrying surface ship. This certainly shifted the focus of attention by NATO for a brief moment, with short-lived MSM arm-flapping as well.

There are 5 Buyan-M warships in service with the Baltic, Black Sea Fleets (for a short while) and Caspian Sea Flotilla. One more,‘Vyshniy Volochek’ is anticipated to go into service with either the Black Sea Fleet or the Baltic Fleet within the year. (Sputnik 20 Oct 2017).

Buyan-M specifications:

Length: 75 m      Full: 949 tons,    Kalibr: 8 cells VLS, cost: US$ 140m (aprox)

Basically, 7 Buyan class ships can roughly match the size of a

Arleigh Burke class, with a total of 56 Kalibrs, a good example of ‘distributed lethality’. [Note: Cost of latest Arleigh Burke class is said to be US$1.843 billion per ship. + An estimated repair bill for the USS Fitzgerald is estimated to be $500-million alone].

The Zelenodolsk Shipyard is continuing to build the Buyan-M class ships. Several are on the blocks and 3 are on order. Yet again, a prime example of a potent force multiplier, based on a relatively cheap small ship.

A unique feature is that since this class is built on the Volga river, they have a shallow draft, which means they can potentially also move around the numerous inland waterways. Imagine, a ship under a 1000 tons with a missile-carrying strike range close to an US Arleigh Burke class destroyer of just under 7000 tons, moving on a river somewhere in Western Russia.

Steregushchy class corvettes


Length: 104.5 m, Full displacement: 2,200 tons,

Cost: US$120-150m (est. for Tigr export ordered by the Algerian Navy),

Video on Steregushchy class technical specifications.

In NATO parlance, this class would be classified as a frigate, the Russian Navy however, classify Project 20380 as a corvette. 5 are in service, 4 with the Baltic Sea Fleet and 1 currently with the Pacific Sea Fleet. Most of the future builds are intended for the Pacific Sea Fleet.  Although considered as a green-water ship, it has shown to be be capable in a out-of-area role. Two of this class of warships recently left the Baltic, went through the  Mediterranean, (Sputnik Oct 2017) & this week potentially heading down the Red Sea towards the Indian Ocean. Previously they have made forays into the North Atlantic as well, under NATO’s watchful eye of course.

The Steregushchy class is what is considered as multi-tasking stealth corvette, though it seems to be predominantly tasked for escort and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations, but it is a all-rounder for shore-support & air defence operations. The main weaknesses in this class is the limited 15-day endurance and no Kalibrs VLS onboard for the Project 20380 series, but it does have 12 × Redut VLS cells, the Kh-35 subsonic anti-ship missile with a 260km range.

As cited earlier in the article,16 of these were supposed to be in shipyards but only 1 other is nearing completion.  The growing pains being experienced by the naval defence sector is certainly serious, concerning this warship class, notably due to the fact is a totally new design concept, (over 21 patented inventions), but there has been a fair bit of engineering ‘gremlins’ along the way.

Interestingly, both of this corvette and the Buyan-M feature in the world’s top 10 stealth corvettes by Naval

Project 2038.5 and 2038.6 corvettes


2038.5 – displacement: 2,500 t                      length:103m

2038.6 – displacement: 3,400 t                      length: 109 m

Derived from the  Steregushchiy class, they are larger stealth warships. The notable difference is that it will have a 1 × 8 UKSK Kalibr capability. The Project 2038.5, ‘Gremyashchy’ (New Inform 26 Oct 2017) is 65% completed.

Additionally, Project 2038.6, ‘Derzky’ was laid down in 2016. (Port News Oct 2016). The ‘Derzky’ is similar in size to the US Navy LCS class. Equally, it is intended to have a modular compartment at the stern, with interchangeable equipment depending on the mission role.  This includes 8-Kalibr missile capacity, possibly as ISO-containerised modules, known as Transport-Launch Containers (TLCs).

Both these corvettes are intended to carry out multi-tasking naval operations with a longer range & endurance, (close to home & out-of-area), tasked with protecting the Economic Exclusive Zone.

Karakurt –  Guided missile class corvettes


Displacement: 800t                          Length: 67m

Soon coming on line is the 1st Project 22800, Karakurt corvette ‘Uragan’, which is being currently outfitted at the Pella shipyard. Others are under construction in Morye & Zelenodolsk yards. 5 others are currently under construction, with a total of 18 expected to go into service by 2022. (TASS May 2016).

This is another littoral naval ship, (green-water operations), designed for anti-surface and anti-air warfare and intended for the Black Sea & Northern Sea Fleets. Yet, again, the navy will have state-of-the-art small, versatile warships with a 8-missile UKSK Kalibr VLS as part of the onboard armament.

It will be interesting to see how this class compares with the US Navy’s LCS frigate in terms of operational capability, yet again the contrast in displacement size is striking. Another Russian warship capable of packing a punch well above its size.

Lastly, despite the misgivings expressed earlier about the state of affairs in Russian naval shipbuilding, the Karakurt program shows that the pace of construction is improving steadily.

Project 22160 patrol, ‘Bykov’ ship series


Standard displacement: 1,550t                     Length: 94m(?)         Endurance: 60 days

The lead ship of this class, ‘Vasily Bykov’, was launched and will be shortly fitted out in Kerch. Construction of other Project 22160 ships, ’Pavel Derhavin’ & ‘Sergey Kotov’ are underway at the Zalyv shipyard in Kerch, Crimea.  The first was started in 2014 and another 2 are also being built at the moment for service with the Black Sea Fleet. The last one is expected to be delivered in 2020.

They are expected to carry out patrolling, monitoring and protection in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), (green and potential brown-water operations). It will have ASW, air defence, shore support, anti-ship capabilities, with a flight deck. (Sputnik April 2016). The stealth design ships will have an extensive range of equipment and missiles for its intended multi-role, mostly stowed below deck space.  Additionally, it is going to have “modular integrated bridge system which will allow the ships to be re-equipped for different tasks at short notice” according to one official.

As a result of the successful Buyan-M missile strikes during the Syrian campaign, it is stated that Project 22160 ships will have Shtil-1 Air Defense system &  8-Kalibr missile capacity, (both land & anti-shipping Kalibr variants?), onboard in TLC format. Yet photos of the riverine delivery of ‘Vasily Bykov’ do not give any indication that this will actually be the case.

Given the upgraded profile and outlined revised weapons suite carried on this class of ships, I regard them as blue-water capable corvettes rather than being designated as a patrol vessel.  At first glance, the original version is rather a large patrol boat, with missions profiles that considerably overlap with that of the FSB’s Federal Border Guard Service.   But, considering the ongoing anti-piracy role of the Russian Navy off the Horn of Africa, you get a glimpse of the likely role of these ships, both at home and far from base. Up to now, the Russian Navy did not have a dedicated ship to carry out these duties, but used much larger ships, largely unsuited for this specialist role, such as the ‘Pyotr Veliky’, deployments including the Horn of Africa in 2009 and the Syrian OPCW mission in 2014 (TASS Feb 2014).

These ships can also provide maritime support similarly to what took place during the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the navy made do with  ships such as the cruiser ‘Moskva’ and the ASW Krivak class as part of the security measures.

It is also interesting to see how the State Weapons Program is actually being implemented, by bringing in other shipyards from the cold so to speak, such the ‘Zalyv’ yard in Kerch, maybe to spread the overall workload and probably also assess the ongoing operational effectiveness of the naval procurement program.

Gepard-class  light frigates (Project 1166.1)

Length; 102.2m         Full Displacement: 1930t       Endurance: 15 days

Originally designed for the export market, this is another all-rounder warship type, designated as fast attack ship but including escort and patrol tasks. The first,’ Tatarstan’, entered into service in 2002, with the sister ship, ‘Dagestan’ entering into service in 2011, into the Caspian Sea Flotilla, both after very long periods in the shipyard. These are the oldest class of the ‘modern’ Russian warship series.  The ‘Dagestan’ has 8 × Kalibr VLS, (multi-purpose), missiles onboard and was one of the first to fire them in anger in 2015. It is not know whether there will be any more built for the Russian Navy, despite several built & further ordered for the Vietnamese Navy.

When these new ‘patrol’ ships, light frigates & corvettes come fully into service, will mean the Russian Navy will able to redistribute mission-tasking orders widely and evenly, to the most suited ship, rather than using wholly unsuited ships, as well as potentially giving a window of opportunity for older ships to be refitted, without compromising overall fleet combat readiness & effectiveness.

In the long-run, it is likely to be more cost-effective as well, for crews and equipment due to the automatisation & also harmonisation of onboard systems. Professional crews will form the backbone of these ships. It is reported that an estimated 10% of the onboard naval crews are conscripts, (TV Zvezda Nov 2017). In fact, Admiral Korolev, head of the navy, recently said that the phasing in out of conscripts on ships is an objective necessity because of the high-tech nature of the modern navy.

It cannot be emphasised enough that these types of corvette types is what the US Navy had probably wanted when it commissioned the Littoral Combat Ship, (LCS) & ‘Freedom’, programs, (as discussed in Part 1), which turned out to be an eye-watering expensive ‘turkey’ (n. a failure; a sham) instead.

Paradoxically, the LCS program came about at a time in the 90s, where the US was smugly confident that it needed a different type of warship in its fleet, by including ships that could dominate in green-water operations, both at home & far flung places, to be able to ‘dominate’ shallow water seas & areas. Now the tables have turned, because most countries have missiles & ships designed to keep such encroachers well away from their coastlines, (what I call the buffer zone).

The combat proven Buyan-M has showed clearly the difference in capability & attitude between the US LCS with a displacement of 4,000t, 4 times as big as a Buyan-M, but with much weaker firepower too. (Checkpoint Asia Nov 2017).

Development period SWP-2020 goal Status – 2017
Frigates 12 4
Gorshkov-class (Project 22350) 2006 -2015 6 (3)
Grigorovich-class (Project 11356R) 2010-2015 6 2 (2)
Corvettes 35
Gremiashchiy-class+  (Project 2038.5 + .6) 2011 – present 16 1 +(1)


Steregushchiy-class (Project 20380) 2001- 2007 12 5 (1)
Small missile + guard ships
• Buyan-class (Project 21630) 2004- 2006 0 3
• Buyan-M-class (Project 21631) 2008-2012 8-10 5 (5)
• Gepard-class (Project 1166.1/K) 1991-2002 1 1
Project 22800, Karakurt 2012? – present (7)
Project 22160, ‘Bykov’ -class 2012? – present (6)

Table 2: Overview of in service + current building program (x) of Russian Navy corvettes, frigates & small missile ships.

Future corvette designs

A new generation of green-water trimaran warship concept is being developed,  based on the successful Buyan-M hull profile, by the Zelenodolsk Design Bureau” (ZPKB) and is currently at the model testing stage.  If the design is accepted, this would mean a naval platform with twice the missile capacity that of a Buyan-M. (Navy Recognition Jul 2015) Although it also a shallow-water hull profile, it is also likely to be sturdy & stable enough for blue-water operations.

Nimble, modern corvettes, nestled under cover of linked coastal surveillance radar and air defence units and near to base, will provide the Russian Navy with an formidable potent capability. These Russian warships, especially those with a modular armament onboard, have the advantage of being at the sharp end of a wide, multifaceted defence parameter.

Other naval ships

There is more to come as this article has just covered so far the ‘traditional’ warships, the corvettes and frigates. Russia has placed vital importance on not just flexibility in size, but versatility in choosing a range of platforms. So much so, that a limited ‘distributed lethality’ has just widened exponentially, and more importantly, broadened the vital defence perimeter in the Arctic. [This will be covered in PART 3]

The Saker article (May 2016) outlines some of the Kalibr’s versatility, in particular the use of ISO type containers, (TLCs), as modular missile launchers.  This weapon package has not been fully exploited as a stand-alone unit by the Russian Navy, although it has been mooted as an option for some types of corvettes.

In other words, any ship that could theoretically carry ISO-type containers could have the capability to carry these. Take one possible  example: an Armament Support Ship, Project 20360M, the ‘Gennady Dmitriev’,(Sputnik May 2017) was laid down earlier this year. It will be ice-strengthened, have two cargo holds, a platform for containerised cargo, a crane (lifting capacity of 20 tons) and a helipad. Ice-class hull. It is quite feasible that containerised cargo could actually be Kalibr missile TLC modules.

The US Navy had similar plans, called “Affordable Weapon System”,

using low cost “off the shelf” containerised cruise missile launchers. (Wikipedia) Similarly, the US Navy had originally envisaged its LCS program of ships, to be able to to based on this idea, however it did not work out as well as expected.

The Russian navy is re-asserting its regional naval footprint mostly through its core of corvettes & frigates. Its likely that this represents a transient period, prior to a possible construction phase of bigger ship types. The navy is getting sophisticated in developing a wider range of multi-mission naval platforms & armaments, but not in the numbers hoped for, (TASS Jan 2016). Its expansion is being held back by a decayed & flawed post-Soviet shipbuilding infrastructure, financial constraints.

The woeful situation with the shipbuilding sector needs to be gradually ironed out, and such improvements will become measurable with the construction of smaller vessels being the first necessary stage. It might even be seen as a blessing in disguise, because while there was principally a construction freeze up to 2012, the fact that Russia subsequently was able to develop a suite of high-precision weapons, the upshot of this was the development of relatively cheap, suitable & effective naval platforms.

The premise is sometimes made by Western naval commentators is that the global reach of Russian Navy is weak and will not improve, precisely because of just building of small corvettes. This ‘Western logic’ misses the point that Russia seeks to be a growing regional naval power, with concentrated credible combat power. Sumsky & Kanaev (2015) [Sumsky, V. & Kanaev, E, (2015) Russia’s Place in a Polycentric Naval Setup, Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India, 11:2, 9-15 ] states that “The development of a blue-water water, (excluding strategic nuclear submarines) is not a priority during the ongoing decade”.

More importantly, as clearly defined in its 2015 Military Doctrine, Russia does not need or wish to have a world-wide surge-ready naval component. Nor does Russia want a plethora of ships on a permanent forward-presence that can restrict sea-control in some far-off place.  But it does have the capability to occasionally deploy the necessary units for some limited duration blue-water operations.

Le Dahu

Freelance maritime writer & researcher


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