29 December 2015

Russia's Navy Not As Awesome As Naval Intelligence Suggests

An unclassified December 18, 2015 report summarizing the state of the Russian Navy prepared by the United States Office of Naval Intelligence presents a somewhat surprising and unrealistically positive assessment of the capabilities of the Russian Navy. (Thanks to a helpful reader for locating it, which is includes a nice easily accessible summary of the different kinds of submarines and ships in Russian naval service.)

The Russian Navy is probably the most formidable blue sea naval adversary that the U.S. has in the world.  But, the report doesn't even hint at the most important thing that more independent naval analysts have to say about it, which is that the Russian Navy is hollow.  To recap the relevant part of a post at this blog from August of this year discussing that issue:
The loss of access to suppliers in the Ukraine due to Russia's seizure of some of its territory, an inability to obtain replacement suppliers in the West for the same reasons, and a weak economy in Russia, as well as the fact that Russia is trying to support all of the Soviet Navy with a smaller population and economy than the Soviet Union had, has taken a huge toll on the Russian Navy. The bottom line:
On paper the Russian Navy currently has 270 combat ships (including amphibious and combat support vessels). But only about half of these are in any shape to go to sea. The rest are too old, and usually too poorly maintained for too many years, to leave port. Russian shipyards are terrible at building or repairing ships and efforts to remedy this have so far failed. Thus only about 15 percent of Russian naval vessels are major surface warships or submarines. In comparison the U.S. Navy has 290 warships and about 85 percent can go to sea (the others are being upgraded or repaired.)
As a result, the U.S. blue sea naval superiority is actually considerable greater than one would naively expect.Moreover, any realistic assessment of naval force has to consider not just each individual country's naval resources, but those of its likely allies in any particular conflict.
The United States has a lot of BFFs who also have modern, well maintained, powerful naval forces. None of them are even near peers to the U.S. Navy which is far and away the most impressive navy in the world.  But, the navies of countries like the U.K., France, Italy and Japan aren't milquetoast either.

Russia has a few BFFs with navies, and more countries who might be unreliable allies like Syria, Iran, China or North Korea.  But, just as its naval is less impressive than the U.S. Navy, its allies navies are less impressive than the navies of U.S. allies in almost every potential theater of naval warfare.

The fact that Russia has nuclear weapons may mean that it will never make sense for anyone to engage in full fledged conventional naval warfare with Russia.  But, when push comes to shove, the only respect in which Russia is truly a near peer of the U.S. in naval capabilities is in its President's rather reckless willingness to use the military resources at his disposal.

Why would the Office of Naval Intelligence unrealistically puff up Russian naval capabilities?

Well, to ask the question is very nearly to have your answer.  The unmatched U.S. Naval budget needs to be justified, and a report that reveals that our nearest peer force is much less impressive than it seems on the service won't help the naval fight the biggest real war that it has fought in the past two generations that have seen very few actual naval military conflicts - the budget wars that rage in Congress.

From an institutional perspective, Naval Intelligence can never go wrong by overestimating its enemy.  It is is right, it gets the funding it needs to combat the threat.  If it is wrong, it will win any conflict that comes up handily.  A win-win for the navy, even if this means a loss for American taxpayers.

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