By Nat South for the Saker Blog
This article focusses on the new build programming and commissioning of ships and boats in 2021 and 2020. It provides an insight into the significantly less visible part of the Russian Navy and its ongoing modernisation programme.
Russian support vessels are the backbone of any of the Fleets and the Caspian Flotilla, since they underpin the combat ships and submarine operations and allow them to deploy farther and more often. In 2020, there were 445 seagoing and harbour vessels in service, (Krasnaya Zvezda 2020). There are a huge variety of types, ages and activities, ranging for day-to-day harbour operations, carrying out specialist tasks to support naval ships in far flung places home and abroad.
All too often, they are the unsung workhorses for the fleet, nevertheless, they play a vital role in maintaining and enhancing combat readiness and capabilities. This is certainly the case in point is the provision of logistical support for the forward-deployment squadron based out of Tartus, Syria. The support ships are often rotated from the different Fleets.
In other words, the Russian Navy is effectively limited by the ability to deploy the necessary auxiliary support ships . The important factor to retain is the need to maintain a high degree of mobility, both in deployments and with maintenance. To give a sense of this perspective on this, in 2020, auxiliary ships supported other vessels and tasks on 211 occasions when deployed overseas. This is the reason why the main focus of this article is on the sea-going auxiliary ships.
Image 1: Screenshot of AIS position of the Vsevolod Bobrov in the Mediterranean. VesselFinder
Another factor to consider is the construction and development of vessels suited to Arctic operations, a particularly important aspect since this region is getting more attention militarily and economically.
The current composition of the auxiliary ships is a mix of largely Soviet-era specialist vessels and some very new, (mostly multi-functional), vessels. An example of this stark contrast is with the submarine rescue (salvage) ships, consisting of Soviet-era ships for the Black, Baltic and Northern Fleets, (such as the ‘Mikhail Rudnitsky’) with the one modern ship, the ‘Igor Belousov’ with the Pacific Fleet.
This situation is a legacy of the total decay in infrastructure experienced in Russia in the 1990s and a stagnation in naval building programmes until the 2010’s. Not only was the combat fleet aging but also the auxiliaries. It goes without saying, the total absence of functioning repair bases at home meant that the ships generally did not venture far and wide. This aspect wasn’t largely remedied until the 2010’s. Now the increasing focus is on improved mobility at sea as improvements in coastal facilities and infrastructure.
As it currently stands, the auxiliary ships are the only ones in which women serve onboard, in various capacities from catering, communication, hydrographers to navigators.
The construction of the auxiliary vessels follows the general trend regarding both the ‘Universal’, (promotion of standardisation), and modular concepts. These concepts are slowly gaining acceptance by navies worldwide and various modular systems have been tested out by the Northern Fleet last year and this shows in the arrangements design for the latest series of support ships.
Not only can containers be designed to take weaponry and missiles, but also have been designed to carry aerial and underwater drones, medical facilities, RHIBS and hydrographic equipment. Modular systems and facilities can be quickly transported and installed. This infrastructure will be geared into both the latest generation of Project 20386 corvettes and Project 22160 patrol ships.
Importantly, the elderly Soviet-era specialist vessels will gradually be replaced by multi-functional vessels, largely based on 4 categories of standardised designs specifications: multi-purpose tanker, general-purpose transport, logistic support vessel and mooring vessel. A total of 27 seagoing support vessels have been built in the period from 2012-2020.
It is believed that better interoperability is obtained by implementing the requirements for a ‘universal’ design for certain auxiliary vessels. It may eventually reduce both production and maintenance costs in the medium to long term.
The ‘Vice-Admiral Paromov’, a Project 03182 multi-purpose tanker was commissioned into service for the Black Sea Fleet in June 2021.
This ship is part of the latest generation of ships with multi-functionality designed into it, somewhat different to the last Soviet tankers built in the late 70’s still in service. It can provide liquid (fuel, fresh water) bulk and dry stores, (including containerised) replenishment, as well as participate in pollution-control measures and in emergencies, take part in rescue, firefighting, and salvage operations. Additionally, it also it is equipped to remove garbage and waste products.
This is the lead ship of a total of 4 under construction, two are being built in Vladivostok for the Pacific fleet). Built with a helipad, this enables the ship to deploy a Ka-27 and reconnaissance drones as needed.
Tankers are always deployed due to the necessity of having power plants adapted to take on domestic diesel oil.
Support and Logistics
The ‘Vsevolod Bobrov’ is the 2nd of its series, with a number of improvements and upgrades on the first ship, the ‘Elbrus‘. The Project 23120 ship was commissioned into service for the Black Sea Fleet in August 2021.
Ignoramuses may wish to label it as another type of support vessel resembling the much-derided Russian naval ocean-going tug. Yet, this type of multi-purpose ship is appropriately configured with the necessary deck layout and low freeboard, (along with a heavy capacity crane aft), to enable it to carry out a range of tasks in an expeditious manner. This may include transferring stores, diving (as it has a decompression chamber) and rescue missions, hydrographic surveying as well as towing other vessels. Not bad for a so-called glorified tug.
The first of its class, the ‘Gennady Dmitriyev’, was launched in June 2021. It is designed to store and transport ammunition for submarines and surface ships. That would include the Zircon missile and likely the Poseidon torpedo. Additionally, as the Russian Navy is trialling modular systems for their warships, using ISO containers, the ‘Gennady Dmitriyev’ will able to transport and cross deck containers, (its potential payload includes up to 40 shipping containers apparently).
[link https://tass.com/defense/1300373 ]
The ‘Yevpaty Kolovrat’ icebreaker, (project 21180M), built by Almaz Shipyard is expected to join the Navy in 2022. This follows on the successful operation of the ‘Ilya Muromets’ icebreaker commissioned in 2017, the larger version on which the design of the Yevpaty Kolovrat’ was based on.
[link https://tass.com/defense/1220769 ]
These particular ships will be key assets for the Russian Navy to operate in challenging and remote areas, without necessarily needing the use of the civilian fleet of icebreakers.
Another factor to consider is the creation and development of vessels suited to Arctic operations. Significantly, all the above vessels are ice-classed since the Russian Navy is actively developed its capacity to not only be able operate along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) but also in harsh winter conditions elsewhere.
This aspect particularly important since the Arctic region is getting more attention in recent years. Thus, an essential need to have a variety of support ships designed to operate in certain ice conditions, as the statement given back in 2020 shows:
“The Russian Navy considers its provision with ships, icebreakers and support vessels as a priority task, considering Russia’s active development of the Arctic, efforts to provide for the normal operation of the Northern Sea Route and Arctic hydrographic surveys.” TASS November 2020
Every new ship and vessel will expand the capabilities of each Fleet and Flotilla, especially the support and replenishment ships supporting routine and overseas military missions. The newest ships have already proven their worth, as was the case of the ‘Akademik Pashin‘ that went to the Gulf of Guinea this year and the ‘Vice-Admiral Paromov‘ that is currently deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean. The ‘Akademik Pashin‘ was the first oceangoing naval tanker to be built for the Navy in 37 years.
Self-sufficiency and self-reliance were already important operational aspects for the Soviet Navy of the 80s and it is equally valid these days as well. In fact, this aspect is more valuable these days as the number of places that the Russian Navy can resupply in aren’t even on the same scale as that of the U.S. or Royal Navies.
Lastly, the commissioning of auxiliaries in the last couple of years clearly indicates the progression from Soviet-era quantity to one based on quality and versatility. Similarly, this approach is embedded in the naval procurement philosophy, including that of combat ships, (especially the minor combatant classes). Hence, the trend towards the operation of multipurpose vessels to optimise the use of them and fulfil most of the Russian Navy requirements for support and logistics. Added into this design factor, is some leeway for potentially upgrading and modernising at some future date so as to extend the operational life of these vessels.
Next part: Russian Navy auxiliary vessels — research and hydrography.