by Andrei Martyanov for the Saker blog

“Tomorrow war breaks out; an autonomous torpedo boat—two officers, a dozen men—meets one of these liners carrying a cargo richer than that of the richest galleons of Spain and a crew and passengers of many hundreds. . . . The torpedo boat will follow from afar, invisible, the liner it has met; and, once night has fallen, perfectly silently and tranquilly it will send into the abyss liner, cargo, crew, passengers; and, his soul not only at rest but fully satisfied, the captain of the torpedo boat will continue his cruise.” That vision was captured in 1870s by French Admiral Aube—one of the fathers of what became known as Jeune Ecole (Young School), a French naval doctrine born out of desperation and financial austerity in the wake of Franko-Prussian War. The only answer, it seemed then, to a France’s need to stay in the competition with the naval superpower of the day, British Empire, was to utilize new tools of naval war—shells and torpedoes. Swarms of small, and affordable, torpedo and cannon boats, Aube’s thinking went, would attack adversary’s merchant ships and combatants in coordinated attack and sink them. The concept, inevitably, utterly failed and had a profound negative effect on French naval development, effectively arresting a building of the large battleships. Jeune Ecole also influenced Russians, who also slowed their entrance into the age of large armored battleships, dedicating much of their attention to experimentation with new, sometimes dubious, naval concepts. The new technology was simply not adequate. In May of 1905 Russian Navy would sustain a catastrophic defeat in the Battle of Tsushima—the event which would continue to color Russian and Soviet naval thinking for almost a century. But nothing, not even Tsushima debacle, would compare to an unprecedented naval catastrophe which befell Soviet Navy in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In fact, history has no record of a nation simply refusing from inheriting a world class advanced navy, the second largest and capable navy in the world, and allowing it to rot and wither away. Two fundamental ideas, apart from a chaos which post-Soviet Russia has become in 1990s, were responsible for the virtual death of the Soviet Navy:

1. The West in general and its leader, the United States, were not viewed as enemies anymore, Russia was to be incorporated into this Western World Order and as such she didn’t need armed forces in general, and navy in particular, which had global reach and were capable to fight and defeat NATO;

2. As anything “Soviet”, the Soviet Navy was deemed as backward, not technologically advanced and it lacked what the US Navy had—many nuclear aircraft carriers. In fact, carrier-centrism of the US Navy was looked at both with admiration and envy.

Needless to say, those, utterly false, ideas originated on the “intellectual” top of Russian so called liberal reformers who found themselves in power in early 1990s. They originated in the company of people most of whom far from having any serious military and academic background never served a day in the uniform and their claim to “expertise” was in raw political power and revulsion towards anything that was achieved during Soviet times. Most of those people were humanities “educated” ideologues, such as one of the main brains behind a destruction of Russian economy in 1990s, Yegor Gaidar, economist by trade, or, for that matter, Boris Yeltsin himself—a power hungry cynical opportunist-apparatchik utterly unqualified for any serious military-political task. Many in “free”, a euphemism for anti-Russian, Russian media cheered on a destruction of any remaining vestiges of Soviet system. The Navy was Soviet and as such it was supposed to be dismantled. By 1999 this task was largely accomplished and the Soviet, now Russian, Navy, or, rather, what was left of it, was effectively reduced to a hollow force barely capable to deploy a single nuclear ballistic missile submarine on patrol. Many modern ships and submarines were scrapped or sold abroad for a fraction of their real cost. Often they were sold with secret communications, navigation and weapons’ control systems intact. In 1999 NATO unleashed its aggression against Yugoslavia, Russia not only was left on the sidelines as a passive observer of a military atrocity committed against independent nation on a completely false premises, but eventually Russia was both coerced and bought into betraying Serbia. It was then that the depth of Russia’s fall was exposed to such a degree that the change was inevitable. Those days the phrase “if Russia still had 5th OPESK, there would have been no attack on Serbia” was floating around many Russian military and political forums. Many were lamenting a destruction of the famed Firth Operational Squadron (5th OPESK), also known as Mediterranean Squadron—a massive Soviet naval force which was more than capable of preventing any attack on Serbia. Not only this force was gone in 1999, but once mighty Black Sea Fleet was reduced to a nothing more than a total of a brigade of heterogeneous, mostly obsolete, forces, but its main naval base of Sevastopol was not in Russia proper anymore. No better were things with the Pacific Fleet, which was reduced to several submarines and surface combatants barely capable of making it to sea. Baltic Fleet was rusting in its bases and even premier Soviet/Russian Northern Fleet, despite having Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and having the brand new nuclear battlecruiser Peter the Great in its order of battle, was a pale shadow of what used to be Soviet Northern Fleet. Humiliation in Yugoslavia was compounded with the Kursk tragedy, which completely illuminated criminal consequences of Russian “reforms” and “reformers” destroying Russia’s military. NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 completely overturned two major “liberal” assumptions about Russian military. Not only the combined West, especially the United States, never stopped the Cold War against Russia, now emboldened by Russia’s real and perceived weakness and gross overestimation of own capabilities, it showed its real face and intentions. Moreover, suddenly this, supposedly, backward and not carrier-centric Soviet Navy was needed as never before, but it was nowhere to be found bar some remnants of it which have been preserved by sheer miracle and efforts of people who believed that destructive reformist bacchanalia in Russia at some point must be stopped. What many liberal reformers didn’t know, of course, was the fact that Soviet Navy far from being backward, by early 1980s was undergoing a massive transformation started in 1970s by its legendary Commander Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. There were number of technologies and concepts in which Soviet Navy led the world, including many things which the United States Navy could offer. Yes, the Soviet Navy was global in sense that it could conduct operations in what is defined as ocean or remote sea zones—far from its bases. Unlike its US counterpart, however, Soviet Navy was never a Sea Control force. Sea Control, also known as roughly equivalent to Favorable Operational Regime in Russia, being the ability to conduct any uninterrupted maritime activity from naval operations to commercial shipping, meaning keeping Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) open. US Navy was designed as such from the onset with the United States as a nation conceived as the “World’s Island” in Admiral Zumwalt’s definition. US Navy also, after the WW II, slowly but surely, while trying to preserve the disappearing mission for its carriers, which bathed themselves in glory during War in the Pacific, started to evolve into the Power Projection tool of the American Empire, which emerged unscarred and prospered dramatically during and after WW II. USSR, which bore the brunt of WW II, didn’t have a luxury of such a prosperity, nor, realistically, had it intentions to project power anywhere around the globe. The main task for the Soviet Navy was to eventually provide maritime security of the flanks of Soviet Armies fighting in Europe against NATO, and to interdict NATO’s SLOC in the Atlantic, thus cutting supplies to Western European Theater of Operations. That meant fighting in Mediterranean, Baltic and in what has become known as GIUK gap. But the most important task was not to allow any power projection by NATO navies against Soviet territory first and foremost—this mission is known in the West as Sea Denial, later supplemented with now popular A2/AD—Anti-Access/Access-Denial concepts. While the US Navy’s posture remained aggressive and offensive since WW II, Soviet Navy’s posture remained defensive. By the year 2000 Russia simply had no real forces to even fight its A2/AD battles, not to speak of Sea Denial battles in remote sea zones, let alone any ocean—any such attempt would have been easily suppressed by the US Navy and if not for nuclear deterrent, Russian Navy was not a contender. Yet, Soviet Navy left after itself a massive scientific, technological and tactical-operational heritage. Since its inception, Russian Navy was never in a good position being geographically split into 4 Fleets and 1 Flotilla—an arrangement which complicates things enormously, yet there is no alternative, such as digging Panama Canal, in case of the US Navy, capable of fast inter-theater maneuver with its forces. Such pressures do create a very different view on naval matters and after Kursk disaster it became clear that A2/AD must become the primary task for Russian Navy in the nearest perspective. Some effective and affordable solutions were needed. Some lessons from Jeune Ecole also could be drawn, since unlike in 1870s in 2000s proper technologies have truly arrived.

Jeune École Mk.2?

It was 21 October 1967, when a three-missile salvo from a Soviet built 62-ton, Egyptian Komar-class missile boat sunk the INS Eilat with a new weapon, the P-15 Termit-class antishipping cruise missile (ASCM). Naval warfare changed dramatically. In fact, the revolution Jeune École sought to launch a century before happened because the technology arrived. The Soviet Navy immediately recognized both the advantages and shortcomings of this new technology, and saw its enormous promise. This was not the case with the U.S. Navy, which didn’t consider any cruise missile to be important enough to supplement, let alone substitute, U.S. carrier aviation. Later, Elmo Zumwalt would recite in his memoirs a message he received (at the time he was serving as the head of the Division of Systems Analysis) through the Chief Naval Officer’s aide system that the new Harpoon cruise missile should not have a range of more than 50 miles. The Soviet Navy, not burdened by the politics of internal “trade unions,” had no problems with the range and, wanted both range and speeds of its ASCMs to be as great as possible. A new Russian Navy announced its arrival on 7 October 2015 with a salvo of 26 Kalibr (3M14) cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea at Islamic State targets in Syria. Out of the four ships which launched missiles, three of the project 21631 Buyan-class missile corvettes barely displaced 900 tons and would not be considered a serious combatant by any large navy. Yet, there they were small, inexpensive, and designed mostly for boats with a strategic reach of 2500 kilometers for their land attack weapons and ability to strike any surface target 600 kilometers away. The Soviet Navy always placed a great emphasis on its Mosquito missile fleet. So much so, that deploying those small ships to the Mediterranean became a permanent feature in operations of what was the Soviet Fifth Operational Squadron in 1970s and 80s. But only with the maturing of missile and targeting technologies, which was demonstrated in Syria to a devastating effect, both from ships and submarines, the Jeune École promise envisioned by Admiral Aube has been fulfilled. The operations of Russian Navy’s Buyan-class missile ships made an impression globally, so much so that Milan Vego, a long-time authority on small combat craft and professor of joint military operations at the U.S. Naval War College, noted that many navalists overlook the capabilities of smaller craft. “We have been somehow dismissive about the increasing combat power of small combatants,” he said. “The US Navy and other navies, blue water navies, really have to pay more attention to what is going on. These smaller ships are less than 1,000 tons. It is very dangerous to be dismissive, especially in smaller straits where they can do a lot of damage.” The Soviet and Russian Navy has never been dismissive of smaller ships. In fact, today these ships play an important role in a multipronged approach to Russia’s A2/AD force structure, including the ability for inter-theater maneuvers with such ships, using Russia’s river waterways. Construction plans for both the Buyan-class and the brand new Karakurt (project 22800) small-missile ships are impressive. Karakurts, unlike their Buyan-class predecessors, despite smaller displacement are much better sea keeping platforms, which also feature a more respectable organic air defense capability represented by a navalized version of the Pantzir air defense complex. Construction of 18 of these ships is planned. Together with a dozen operational or under construction Buyans, such a force gives the Russian Navy both operational flexibility and distributed lethality in her littoral and near sea zone. When operational, these small ships will give the Russian Navy around 240 missiles, both land attack and antishipping, in a theoretical “first salvo” across several theaters. When integrated into Russia’s A2/AD force with its air defense and air force components and combined with other naval assets, these small combatants will become a game-changer. They also are a perfect indicator of Russia’s limited naval ambitions, which are primarily defensive. Considering a transitional period for Russia’s shipbuilding industry from foreign (Ukraine, Germany) power plant suppliers to domestic ones and the inevitable delay in commissioning larger combatants such as the Frigates of project 11356, the role of Russia’s Mosquito fleet grows even larger in defense of Russia’s interests in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Obviously, Russia of 2017 cannot be compared to Russia of 2000 or even of the year 2008. It is a different country today; not only Russia is steadily, despite all undeniable problems, becomes an economic and technological powerhouse, she leads the military world in some crucial very hi-end technologies. This leadership was laid in Soviet years. But nowhere Russia’s leadership is manifested more than in antishipping missiles. Modern Russian antishipping missiles’ arsenal is simply unrivaled in the word–all of it is high super-sonic. Last week this arsenal became hyper-sonic with 3M22 Zircon missile becoming operational. This Mach=8 capable weapon rewrites naval tactics completely because no current or nearest future defense systems are capable to intercept it. Paradoxically, it is here that Russian Navy faces its main challenge. The challenge is not in the fact that Russian Navy has to become at some point of time a Blue Water force—some contours of this force are already recognizable today—from advanced nuclear and non-nuclear missile-carrying submarines to large surface combatants, such as Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. The issue for the Russian Navy is what to do with the ships Russians dedicated so much effort in making obsolete—large aircraft carriers? It is a conundrum.

Russia’s Naval Paradoxes

The Russian Navy doesn’t have a classic CATOBAR aircraft carrier not just because of economic reasons, despite popular western opinion. Russia is capable, even under economic sanctions, to pursue such a goal. The construction of the Zvezda shipyard in Russia’s Far East which, when complete, will be able to build ships up to 350,000 tons of displacement and a length of up to 360 meters, is a clear indication that, despite some issues with Russia’s shipbuilding industry, the development of Russian aircraft carriers is impeded by more than money. The Zvezda shipyard will be more than capable of building large CATOBAR carriers. But will it? While the recent document titled “Fundamentals of Russia’s State Naval Policy Through 2030” openly states Russia’s serious maritime ambitions, the document emphasizes the use of high precision and hypersonic weapons and is ambiguous on the fate of carriers, stating that there are plans for the “creation of aircraft carrying complex” in the future. On 18 July, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov revealed that discussion on the development and production of a brand new Yakovlev STOVL (based on the ideas of the Yak-141) aircraft is in full swing and it must enter serial production in 2025. For the Russian large carrier “trade union” and global navalists the news was devastating. Yet, this announcement by Borisov indicated clearly Russia’s ever intensive doctrinal debate and struggle with the carrier issue because it was the Soviet/Russian Navy that developed and today deploys an array of ASCMs designed precisely to make large, expensive carriers obsolete. The Russian Navy knows the capabilities of its missiles. It also understands that the U.S. Navy, as well as other serious navies, inevitably will break the hypersonic barrier, as well as develop a genuine distributed lethality, and this will rewrite the rules of naval warfare. Already, the U.S. Navy deploys some long-range subsonic missiles, such as the LRASM, whose salvo is extremely difficult to defend against. With long-range hypersonic technology, in a hypothetical Russian case, something as expensive as the proposed Storm-class carrier in battle is simSTOVL aircraftply providing for a fat, expensive, and prestigious target. In real combat, even damage to the decks of carriers makes them nothing more than a huge pile of metal incapable to launch or land fixed-wing aircraft. Russia’s very limited power projection needs can be met by other means, especially against the background of the mediocre performance of the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier in Syria.

Some of the problems of cost and deck survivability of CATOBAR carriers are mitigated somewhat in STOVL carriers. In the end, the Soviet/Russian Navy has substantial experience operating these type of carriers. The appearance of the Yak-141 (NATO “Freestyle”) STOVL aircraft in the late 1980s heralded a new set of capabilities for aircraft of this type, with it being a genuine supersonic jet with a respectable range and combat load. Only the collapse of the Soviet Union and an extreme economic crisis stopped the Yak-141 program. Considering Russia’s internationally recognized experience with combat aircraft it is only reasonable to assume that the new STOVL aircraft, if it ever goes into production, will be an impressive machine. If launched into production this aircraft very likely will account for the not always commendable experiences of the U.S. Navy’s F-35B program. Moreover, it opens the road for numerous, multipurpose carriers able to meet tactical and operational tasks required by the Russian Navy. But will Russian Navy take this path? In the end, apart from serious tactical and operational considerations there is a serious aesthetic (visual) appeal of large carriers as an embodiment of the national power. To be sure, the Russian Navy was looking attentively at the US Navy’s LHA-6 (USS America) as one of the possible avenues to pursue with its own carrier program. With America-class ships costing around $3.4 billion, financial comparisons, especially adjusted for Russia’s economic realities, are not in favor of the proposed CVNski, let alone U.S. CVNs whose costs reach upward of $13 billion. Operation costs are also immense. Borisov’s announcement indicates serious rethinking of carriers’ role in the Russian Navy. Old Russian truism states that everything new is well-forgotten old. We may yet see a return, this time on a completely new technological level, to a not so forgotten concept of STOVL carriers, which will vary both in displacement and in capability and which will be more suited for, due to their much lower costs compared to CVNs and deck survivability, for operations in increasingly deadly, long-range super and hypersonic missile-dominated oceans.

Throughout its history, the Russian Navy had to operate under unfavorable geopolitical, economic, and combat conditions. These pressures often led to unorthodox solutions, from the bizarre looking round Popovka coastal battleship to an operational adaptation of Jeune Ecole’ to the new technological realities of ASCMs and to leading the way with drastic expanding of the capabilities’ envelope for STOVL aircraft with the revolutionary Yak-141. A “continuous series of matches between newfangled and old-fashioned military techniques,” in Toynbee’s words, is a never-ending story of technical, tactical, and strategic innovation. One of these matches is between the antishipping missile and the large aircraft carrier. This match finally reached a decisive point when the only role left for large carriers will be that of projecting power against weak opponents. But even this role, considering the proliferation of missile technologies may prove to be a bridge too far in the nearest future. Reducing the cost of carriers to levels which offer a compromise between combat performance and acceptable risks for operations becomes increasingly not just a well-meaning wish, but an imperative. Can STOVL carriers offer a viable alternative? In terms of costs they can. In the end, only these type of carriers and STOVL aircraft can show their real modern combat record against a relatively competent adversary during the Falklands War. Due to their significantly lower costs, such carriers may provide what really counts in combat—numbers. In the end, even massive Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class STOVL carriers’ costs is estimated to be around $8 billion—not bad for two ships capable of carrying together 80 combat aircraft. What the Russian Navy can do for $8 billion remains to be seen, but judging by the costs of Russian-made hardware since the mid-2000s, Russia probably will be able to eventually deploy more than two STOVL carriers. Emergence of relatively inexpensive and numerous STOVL carriers and possibly of the STOVL aircraft with characteristics rivaling those of being used from CVNs, coupled with further proliferation of the long-range hypersonic weapon, may write a final chapter for this drama in Soviet/Russian Navy. What, however, is clear already is the fact that even today Russian Navy, for all its industry and force structure issues, reached a technological and operational plateau which is a truly great foundation for not only defending Russia’s own shores and littoral—that is already has been achieved—but eventually returning Russian Navy into ocean as a true guarantor of stability and real peace in the face of crumbling Pax Americana, whose collapse may yet unleash a string of small and large wars. This kind of Peace and Stability Power Projection is what the world is in dire need for. Dramatically contrasting cases of Libya and Syria are a stark reminder of the changing geopolitical and technological paradigm.

Andrei Martyanov has extensive knowledge of naval issues, and has been published in US Naval Institute Proceedings. Using the handle “SmoothieX12,” he has written over 130,000 words of comments at The Unz Review, overwhelmingly on Russian and military matters.

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