by LeDahu


After a brief interlude due to professional reasons, please find below the first part of an article on the Russian Navy, on the latest generation of frigates and the technological advances that has enabled Russian sea power to be noticed globally.

This is article is partly in response to the original article, “New, Blue-Water Frigates to Become Main Surface Vessels of the Russian Navy”,  back in the summer, written by an Ukrainian naval officer for the Jamestown Foundation and widely circulated on social media. To save the readers too much trouble, the Russian naval capabilities are mostly presented in a negative light, and yet at the same time over exaggerates the Russian Navy’s overall ambitions.  [NB Typical Western commentator framing of Russian military].

The author devotes a chunk of the article on the woes of operating the “Admiral Kuznetsov” aircraft carrier. The author also slants his article towards a perception of Russia’s naval ambitions being blunted by financial woes. (Russia Insider 15 May 2017). What the Jamestown author does show is the fact that the Russian Navy is concentrating its efforts on frigates type ships rather than carriers or Mistral type Amphibious Helicopter ships. Given the need of reconciling divergent interests, 1. Geopolitical necessities, 2. financial restrictions and 3. actual/projected naval operational capabilities, all of which requires careful consideration when designing a surface warship.

What does it mean in real terms, what is a frigate anyway? And how does modern technology blur this definition beyond the traditional concepts of the last 50 years. Going back to basics:

  1. Definition & role of frigate is:

a warship with a mixed armament, generally lighter than a destroyer (in the US navy, heavier) and of a kind originally introduced for convoy escort work.”  And post-war: “also adopted an antiaircraft role.”

In other words, a multi-tasking warship, between approximately 3000-7000 tonnes, with various types of missiles, guns, air defence systems/radars & ASW sensors, designed to either operate autonomously, or as part of a task group, with also the ability to escort merchant ships.  A complex naval platform, with multilayered and overlapping systems onboard.

Thus, by their very nature, frigates tend to be the mainstay combat ship of most navies. China has 24 Type 054A frigates in service for example,(with 46 overall), compared to 35 destroyers, whereas India has 11 frigates & 11 destroyers. The number & use of frigates does vary from navy to navy, depending on its naval doctrine. The designation of ‘frigate’ to ships can be misleading, take for instance, at the moment, the US Navy also has only 1 frigate in commission, the “USS Constitution”.

The US Navy retired its Oliver Hazard Perry frigate class and its intended replacement is the Littoral Combat Ship, (LCS), (8 currently in service) which for a long time riddled with technical glitches & ‘issues’.(Wikipedia 2017). Not quite a frigate but a glorified expensive oversized patrol boat, judging by the comments made in various US reports. (Bloomberg May 2013) (DefenceWorld Net April 2013)

A little bit about shipping and technology in general for context. At a time when shipyards are building bigger and bigger, with container ships of 21,000+ TEU, this shows well how important parts of merchant shipping is increasing vastly in size and rapidly too.  Now compare this to the military, where downsizing and automating systems is becoming increasingly the norm and extremely vital for improving combat effectiveness.

The space once filled by battleships, followed by large missile cruisers taking the limelight, is now filled primarily by frigates. Big gun ships became obsolete with improved air power & long-range coastal defences. Not quite the same story with large missile cruisers, as this is largely based on impressive changes in missile technology as well as electronics, computing, engineering miniaturisation & nanotechnology.

Another aspect to consider is flexibility, in other words multi-tasking roles. The US Navy initially took the route of using modular units, (using ISO containers), for its LCS class ships, the idea of being able to change the mission roles of a ship in matter of weeks. This trailblazing concept has hit a few snags along the way, and as a result it has been reconsidered. (US Navy April 2017). Yet they certainly don’t have the same firepower as a  much smaller Russian navy Buyan-M class corvette! [More on that in Part 2].

This nevertheless shows the huge innovative & ambitious design concept that continued expansion of high-tech technology has offered in the naval field in a few decades.  Add in, the increased use of unmanned vehicles in a combat role is also a significant step forward. Interestingly, the US Navy is now reconfiguring the LCS into a frigate class. [NB The keywords to retain are flexibility and multi-tasking.]

A comprehensive technical rundown of the top 10 modern frigates from around the world is covered in this article. (Defencyclopedia  2 Jan 2016). Surprisingly the number one spot is a Russian frigate that has not yet entered service.

Background- Russian navy

Back in April 2017, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, said that in the near future the main combat ships of the Navy frigates will be like “Admiral Gorshkov”. He stated that: “Such multi-purpose frigates, equipped with long-range precision weapons, should become the Navy’s main combat ships in the near future,” (TASS 21 April 2017).He continued by adding “Their commissioning for service will help ensure the smooth renewal of the fleets’ surface forces and raise their combat potential by 30%”.

Several days later, President Putin stated in a defence meeting that “by 2020, the share of modern weapons and equipment both in the Army and Navy should rise to 70%.” ( 25 April 2017). At the end of 2016, it stood at 47%.

Taking a strictly conservative outlook, yes, the Russian navy has downsized considerably, it is a shadow of what was the Soviet Navy and hadn’t had the opportunity to modernise itself effectively until fairly recently.  President Putin termed it this week as : …”navy reboot program…” (TASS 16 May 2017)

The underpinning defence doctrine is largely based on the perception of making Russia secure, as part of “Eurasia” as an entity. Broadly similar to what China is doing. In other words, ensuring a robust defensive posture of what is regarded as being on “home turf”.  When there is news that construction of a an aircraft carrier is being touted in Russia, it is because some defence contractors are trying to position themselves for future potential bids.  Yet, the shipyards are busy with mostly submarine or small combatant ship building.

The Russian & Chinese military doctrines are poles apart with that of the US, with its aggressively militarized global ‘exceptionalism’ doctrine, with its 10+ “carriers which are the centerpiece of America’s naval fleet.” (The National Interest 15 May 2017) They are substantially different in approach, methodology and expectations.

The main focus of attention of the Russian Navy is on green-water operations, defending its coastline, close to home first and foremost. Even the US Navy saw the large destroyers would not be effective in shallow waters, hence the introduction of the LCS. However, Russia took out one element out of the US navy convoluted thought process, and went straight for a versatile frigate class warship, ideal for a green water environment, but also having the capability to carry out long-range blue-water missions as necessary. Quite a challenging portfolio for naval designers.

The Jamestown author, however does not mention the obvious fact that there has been a gaping ‘hole’ in the combat capabilities of the Russian navy for several decades.  That hole needed to be filled by a dedicated frigate class warship, comparable to the range of sophisticated NATO frigates. The last time there was a frigate class was with the Soviet-era Burevestnik Class frigates (Project 1135).

What does Russia have on the table that makes a shift towards a ‘frigate-centric’ navy purposeful?

Basically, Russia had almost a clean slate when designing its new frigates, taking into consideration, the capabilities of its ‘competitors’ but also its domestic defence needs & power projection. But having a clean slate also means encountering problems along the way. The US Navy  too has experienced that quite clearly & persistently with its LCS program. However, undertaking such a design also meant halting & reversing significant long-term decline in Russian naval research and development. Despite having limited access to Western naval shipbuilders know-how, (mostly through the Mistral class contract), Russian naval constructors still lag behind their Western & Asian counterparts.

Which Russian Navy fleets will get the modern frigates first designed back in 1997 and 2003  respectively ? One, the  Admiral Essen”,  has its permanent home port as part of the Black Sea Fleet, joining the “Admiral Grigorovich”, (TASS 5 May 2017).”By the end of the year the Black Sea fleet will receive two new frigates”.

  1. The ‘Grigorovich class’ (Project 11356Р/М), it is a multi-purpose frigate: Role: AD- ASW- Escort. Full displacement: 4,035 tons. Length:124.8m and 60,900 shp

The successor to the Burevestnik class, based on a proven design originating in the proven Indian Talwar class, the “Admiral Grigorovich” class is an alternative to the “Admiral Gorshkov” class. This particular class were constructed as a stop-gap measure, largely due to the ongoing problems with construction of the “Admiral Gorshkov”.  Not as powerful, but still with a good overall capability as a frigate.

The “Admiral Grigorovich” itself has already gained some ‘notoriety’, judging by the hype of the MSM articles written about it so far. This now famous frigate initially earned its reputation for taking part in Syrian operations back in 2015, with a series of Kalibr launches against terrorists targets. US naval expert, J. Harley remarked that the Russian Navy was a key factor in the Syrian campaign, something that was inconceivable 15 years previously. [Harley, Jeffrey A. “Meeting operational needs. President’s forum.” Naval War College Review, Winter 2017, p. 7+. Academic OneFile]

Not taking MSM articles at face value, but the latest missile technology suite presented onboard a frigate such as the “Admiral Essen”, has twice the main weapon capacity of a Sovremmeny class destroyer with 8 Moskits. Another  example of the technological leap would be the Soviet Kynda class cruiser with the SSN3 missile unit onboard.  It was so bulky that reloads were limited to 16 missiles in total capacity. Now compare its size and capacity with that of the “Admiral Grigorovich” class.

Interestingly, the Black Sea Fleet is earmarked to have all 4 of this class.  So the Northern Sea and Pacific Sea Fleets aren’t expected to have this warship class at all. The last 2 of this class are earmarked to be sold to India, as announced by the USC shipyard in August 2017.

  1. ‘Admiral Gorshkov-class’ frigates- (Project 22350): Role: AD-ASW- escort.

A Project 22350 frigate has a displacement of 4,550 tons, with a length of 135m. The capacity of its diesel-gas-turbine power plant is 65,000 hp.

As exemplified in this video:

Project 22350 ‘Admiral Gorshkov’ frigate was earmarked to be a jewel in the Russian Navy’s combat inventory. Beset by a long-running series of technical problems since the start, it is intended as the successor to the ‘Krivak’ class.

Although it was originally planned to have 6 built by 2020, (Lenta 5 May 16), only two more Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates are expected to be commissioned into the Russian Navy by 2020. (TASS 5 March 2017) and with another 2 anticipated by 2025. (RIA 16 May 2017)

This is largely due to the non-availability of appropriate marine turbines. However, the start of a domestically-produced serial production of such turbines planned for next year, should help to clear up the hold-up in construction programs at a later date (RIA Novosti Dec 2016). This is so significant that President Putin opened a production line for marine gas turbines at the Saturn, (NPO),company earlier in the year.

“Admiral Makarov”,(on sea missile trials) is also in its final stages of operational acceptance, as of late April, as shown on Russian TV (April 2017).  The Northern Sea Fleet is the intended recipient for all of these frigates.

“Admiral Makarov” photo gallery

Video of trials in Russian

Video of trials “Shtil-1” on “Admiral Makarov”

Significantly, the head of Naval Shipbuilding, Vladimir Trapeznikov, said that “after the Navy receives four project 22350 frigates, the project will be upgraded.” (RIA 16 May 2017). Notice ‘upgrade’, not new blue-sky new off-the-wall design, well meant design concept similar to what the US Navy envisaged with the LCS program but instead ended up in a mess. [Which is probably why the Russian Navy ‘Lider-Class’ has not gone ahead as originally scheduled].

Limitations in physical numbers of frigates have been offset by a versatile missile technology, which allows a small ship to have a formidable missile capability. Probably what Defence Minister Shoigu’s quote of raising combat potential by 30% was referring to.

Missiles are the post WW2 naval game changers, take for example: the destruction of the ‘Eilat’ and the sinking of HMS ‘Sheffield’.  Both changed the naval dimension of conflict and subsequently redefined the types & roles of warships, in response to the missile threat.

At the heart of the Russian navy modernisation program is the Kalibr cruise missile, first in service in 2012. It is a tremendous potent force multiplier for the Russian military overall and makes the Russian Navy significantly more powerful & with greater range, proportionally to its overall tonnage.

A self-contained, compact, multi-purpose frigate is extremely useful for general high-end naval missions. This is what we are seeing (as a microcosm) in Syria of late, more so that there the “Admiral Essen” & “Admiral Grigorovich” have been together as part of the Mediterranean Squadron. (TASS 5 May 2017)

The predominantly use of frigates and corvettes, (which I will cover in Part II) are sufficient to give Russia an effective security/defence buffer zone, with the added benefit of a long-range strike capacity. As testified in this US navy document “The new technologically advanced Russian Navy, increasingly armed with the Kalibr family of weapons, will be able to more capably defend the maritime approaches to the Russian Federation and exert significant influence in adjacent seas”.

[NB: Yeah – those ‘adjacent areas’ so coveted by NATO as sole property, is being slowly contested by Russian sea power.]

 Quickly outlining the types of Kalibrs in naval use on warships:

Anti-ship variant Land-attack Variant Anti-ship variant Land-attack Variant
 3M54T 3M14T 3M54K 3M14K
Thrust Vectoring boosters Thrust Vectoring boosters _ _
440-660km range 1.500-2.500km range 440-660km range 1.500-2.500km range

The Kalibr is designated the SS-N-27 Sizzler by NATO and LACM has NATO designation of SS-N-30A. The Russian cruise missile counterpart to the well-known U.S Navy Tomahawk, made its world combat debut on 7 October 2015, launched from Mediterranean and Caspian Sea based Buyan-class corvettes.

The ship-based Kalibr cruise missile is deployed from a VLS (Vertical Launch System: a ‘cell’, part of the UKSK module), based on 2x 4-missile tubular configuration. The advantage of this, is that missiles can clear the hull of the ship before igniting. Thus a ship can launch a series of high-precision strikes on shore targets from a distance of thousands of kilometers. Another variant is the 3C-14 box missile launcher unit, (more rectangular at deck level).

Russia continues to use Kalibrs against terrorist infrastructures in Syria, in which both the ‘Admiral Essen” and “Admiral Grigorovich” have played a significant role so far and likely to continue to do so for the time being. The use of ship-borne missile strikes during the Syrian campaign is a classic example of what is cited as being “liquid warfare”, liquid warfare being “a way of war that shuns the direct control of territory, focusing instead on the destruction of enemy forces and/or infrastructure.”[Mutschler, Max M. “Liquid warfare as a challenge to international order.”]

In other words, something that had been the exclusive domain of the US and NATO, has also been harnessed by Russia.

The small numbers of current & planned Russian Navy frigates have been largely offset by the combat proven versatile Kalibr missile and other advanced electronic technology.  It was probably hoped that the Russian Navy in the next decade would have shifted towards a ‘frigate- centric’ navy, but this in fact hasn’t happened, due to the small numbers and limitations on power plants, shipbuilding and design parameters.  Yet at the same time, focus has also been geared towards a ‘corvette-centric’ navy, which will be covered more in Part 2.


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