05 May 2022

The Russian Naval Fleet Reviewed In Light Of The Ukraine War

The United States, China and Russia have the largest navies in the world.  The large United States and Russian navies, however, are spread across the globe, so fewer naval resources are available in any one theater.

Russia's Naval Resources In The Ukraine War

The Russian Navy has a fleet described below the fold in detail (via Wikipedia with some minor additional sources and significant annotations) although for reasons explained below, only its Black Sea fleet and Russia's twelve nuclear ballistic missile submarines are really relevant in the Ukraine war.

After its flag ship was sunk, the Black Sea fleet became a frigate navy. All of the ships remaining in the Black Sea fleet are similar in size to, or smaller than, the U.S. Navy's Littoral Combat Ships, but are frequently more heavily armed (in part, because they aren't optimized for many months long, extreme sea conditions Blue Sea naval missions half way around the world). 

The Black Sea fleet has 3 frigates and 14 corvettes capable of firing guided missiles at land targets and 7 diesel-electric submarines in addition, which can also launch cruise missiles. But, all or most of the land attack missiles on these 24 vessels (which have relatively small numbers of missiles each) may have already been used already in the Ukraine war, and not resupplied.

The Black Sea fleet has another 2 frigates and 6 corvettes that are only effective against maritime opponents (as well as a variety of sub-corvette sized naval boats and logistics craft which also lack the capability to attack land targets with guided missiles). 

The Black Sea fleet has ample surface to air missile (SAM) capabilities, which is present on all 32 of its frigate, corvette, and submarine class vessels, and possibly on some of its smaller boats as well, although these SAM resources are not all "state of the art", with many limited in range and sophistication against advance opposing aircraft with guided missiles and "smart bombs".

The Black Sea also has ample anti-submarine warfare (ASW), exclusively anti-ship missile, naval gun, and mine warfare resources. While these resources afford Russia considerable control over ship traffic in the Black Sea, these are basically useless to the Russian military in the Ukraine war, because Russia is not facing an adversary with submarines or surface combatants in the Black Sea (Ukraine intentionally sunk the only frigate in its navy at the very beginning of the Russian invasion so it could not be captured) and almost all of the current active conflict is far enough inland to be out of the range of its fleet's naval guns (none of which are particularly large).

The Caspian Flotilla has 13 frigates, corvettes and artillery ships, six of which can launch guided missiles, but these ships are too far from Ukraine (not less than 750 km to hot spots in far Southeastern Ukraine) to put any of the active conflict within range of its missiles, and the total number of guided missiles it has available is modest. 

Similarly, ships in Russia's Baltic and Northern and Pacific fleets aren't close enough to Ukraine to provide a useful source of guided missiles that can reach Ukraine from any place they could be deployed in the face of opposition from Ukraine's allies, within a reasonable period of time, relative to alternatives like launching cruise missiles from batteries on the ground or from aircraft that are physically closer to the active conflict.

Maritime Control Of The Black Sea And Beyond

If Ukraine's allies in NATO intervened directly, they could use long range anti-ship missiles, and bombs missiles and torpedoes delivered by aircraft, to wipe out all of the surface warships in the Russian Black Sea fleet and Caspian Flotilla in a day or two at most, and perhaps as quickly as a matter of hours with enough time for advanced planning and a multi-lateral coordination of resources. 

For example, an Air Force exercise held on April 28, 2022, demonstrated that a single F-15E dropping a single "smart bomb" from a reasonably high altitude, at a range officially acknowledged to be at least 28 km, on a "fire and forget" basis and then rapidly departing from the adversary, can hit a naval ship with near perfect accuracy and sink it. 

A raid like this would be very challenging for Russian forces in the region to counter with the air defenses and air-to-air combat resources available to them. The roughly 12-24 surface to air missiles on each of the Black Sea fleet's six most capable remaining frigates and corvettes can hit targets up to 25,000 meters in altitude and have a range of up to 42 km with an estimated 70%-93% probability of destroying a targeted aircraft per missile, which would put an F-15E dropping such a missile at the outer reaches of its capabilities, and these anti-aircraft missiles also have a real potential to intercept an incoming anti-ship missile at a range of up to 20 km. 

But, the surface to air missiles of its nineteen less capable corvettes and of all seven of its submarines (see also here and here and here and here) while adequate to defend these ships and submarines from nearby helicopters or armed drones, have a range of only 30 km or less (in many cases, less than 10 km), and are too slow and unsophisticated to catch up to and hit a supersonic jet fighter that is beyond or at the fringes of its range, or in incoming tactical missile. Similarly, Russia's available man portable air defense missiles (MANPADS) have an effective range of only 6.5 km and could not counter the F-15E or the bomb it was delivering effectively.

As another option, a significant share of the Black Sea is within the range of long range anti-ship cruise missiles that could be launched by U.S. ships or ships of its Ukraine's European allies, from the Mediterranean sea. 

For example, one of the anti-ship missiles available to U.S. warships has a range of 370 km, which could reach almost anywhere in the Black Sea that is moderately to the west of Odessa, Ukraine, or moderately to the west of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea, from the Aegean sea, a place where U.S. warships have unimpeded access.

Anti-ship cruise missiles could also be deployed from long range maritime patrol aircraft, like the U.S. Navy P-8 that assisted in the targeting of the Russia's Black Sea Fleet's flag ship, the Moskva, for Ukrainian forces with a ground force launched anti-ship missile to sink this ship. And, U.S. stealth bombers and radar minimized fighter aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 could also launch missiles at Black Sea Fleet ships with relative impunity, despite Russian air defenses and the existence of Russian fighter aircraft defending this airspace, due to their radar evading capabilities.

The tactics used to sink the Moskva could also be repeated to sink other surface ships in Russia's fleet with ground launched anti-ship cruise missiles.

But, it would take Ukraine acting alone much longer as its fighter aircraft resources and land based anti-ship missile resources are much more limited than those of its Western allies (for a mission that is currently a low priority relative to other parts of the conflict for the Ukrainian military).

Dispatching the seven Russian diesel-electric attack submarines in the Black Sea, however, would be much more difficult and could easily take three to nine weeks with a full complement of naval maritime patrol aircraft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters from Russia's allies. Neutralizing the Russian Navy's Black Sea submarines is a mission that is probably beyond what Ukraine is capable of acting alone for the foreseeable future. And, until every single Russian submarine was neutralized, Russia would still effectively control maritime travel in the Black Sea. As a practical matter, it might be necessary to wait until those submarines need to refuel and resupply and disable them at port, rather than trying to strike them in the open sea.

Russia's de facto maritime control of the Black Sea effectively prevents other nations from injecting naval ships into the conflict. 

But nations supporting Ukraine have naval and air resources in the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea that effectively prevent Russia from shifting ships from its Northern Fleet or Baltic Fleet to the Black Sea fleet.

More generally, in any future naval conflict with Russia, it is worth observing that a much larger proportion of the Russian Navy is made up of corvettes and smaller ships, all but a handful of which have less capable SAM systems insufficient to repel strikes from an opposition's jet fighters or long range bombers, than is the case in the U.S. Navy which has only a small number of ships smaller than frigates, and in many of the navies of Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. And, while Russia has an operational battlecruiser, three smaller cruisers, and a number of fairly capable guided missile destroyers and frigates, Russia's naval resources are spread over a global territory unrivaled by any country other than the United States, so it has only a few highly capable and operational surface warships in any given theater of conflict at any given time.

In general, the primary issue conventional warfare targeting Russian warships, in which both sides have something close to their current military capabilities, is not whether the U.S. and its allies have sufficient military resources to swiftly sink all of those ships in a matter of hours to a few days, but whether the U.S. and its allies are willing to risk nuclear retaliation from Russia if Russia decided that this response is justified. 

In some respects, the U.S. and/or its allies contemplating such a strike on Russian naval forces are faced with a decision with similar stakes to those made by Japanese military commanders to raid Pearl Harbor in World War II. In the short run, this decision was vindicated at a tactical level by Japan's stunning success in this battle. But the impact of the decision strategically on Japan's ability to meet its objectives in the larger war made this decision, ultimately, an unprecedented blunder. 

The Role Of Russia's Nuclear Arsenal 

Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarines, from a practical perspective, give Russia the ability to destroy entire central cities in Europe and the U.S., and pretty much anywhere else that Russia wishes, with a single missile deployed with very little time to attempt any missile defense, that is effectively impossible to disable completely with anti-submarine warfare and missile defense systems before a strategic nuclear attack can be carried out. This threat is omnipresent and can't be effectively countered with any currently proven and deployed technology. 

Until missile defense technological progresses to the point that it is nearly perfect, the threat of nuclear war will be the paramount concern in any military conflict with Russia.

So, Russia's adversaries have a strong incentive not to conduct any counterattack on Russia or take other action that appears to it to pose an existential threat to Russia. Russia's threat to respond to such attacks from NATO or other Ukrainian allies has been the main factor limiting this countries to arms transfers to Ukraine and economic and diplomatic sanctions, rather than joining in conventional warfare with Ukraine against Russia.

There is also great ambiguity over when, if ever, Russia would have its ground and air forces in Ukraine deploy tactical nuclear weapons (much more powerful with very few missiles or bombs than a very large volume of conventional high explosive or thermobaric weapons, but far more confined in effect than nuclear ballistic missiles (H-bombs) and in many cases smaller even than the A-bombs dropped twice on Japan at the end of World War II. Likewise, there is ambiguity over what sort of Western responsive Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons would trigger.

Without Russia's threat to use nuclear weapons, Ukraine's allies including most of Western Europe and the United State and Canada, would have joined the fight weeks ago with their own air forces and specialized troops (at least) and would have defeated Russia in conventional warfare already.

Black Sea Fleet

The Black Sea Fleet's flag ship, the Moskva, (12,500 tons) was sunk on the 14th of April 2022 during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The [Black Sea] Fleet consists of the following units:

25 frigate/corvette class surface combatants

7 attack submarines

The Black Sea Fleet also includes patrol and coastal protection vessels, amphibious ships, and support vessels. Two patrol vessels were sunk in May 2022 in the Ukraine War by Ukrainian forces.

Caspian Flotilla

The Caspian Flotilla consists of:

9 frigate/corvette class surface combatants

The Caspian Flotilla also includes 4 small artillery ships (78 ton Shmel-class patrol boats with 3" naval guns and 1" anti-aircraft guns, capable of riverine operations built from 1967-1974), patrol and mine warfare ships as well as landing craft.

Northern Fleet

The Russian Northern Fleet . . . is the main fleet of the Russian Navy and currently comprises:

1 aircraft carrier (out of service)

The sole (out of service) Russian aircraft carriers is the only aircraft carrier in the world other than Russia's in the Northern fleet that allows something other than vertical landing are the U.S. super carriers, and one each in China, India and France. It has also substantial surface combatant armaments.

6 large surface combatants

10 frigate/corvette class surface combatants

12 missile submarines

15 attack submarines

7 special operations submarines

The Northern Fleet also includes patrol ships, mine countermeasures vessels, light amphibious ships and support and logistic ships.

Baltic Fleet

The Baltic Fleet . . . consists of the following units:

27 frigate/corvette class surface combatants

1 attack submarine

The Baltic Fleet also includes patrol vessels, minehunters, amphibious ships and support vessels.

Pacific Fleet

The Pacific Fleet . . .  consists of the following units:

5 large surface combatants

23-25 corvettes

10 missile submarines
  • Dolgorukiy-class submarine (3, one in Northern Fleet operational area as of December 2021 but assigned to the Pacific Fleet) (24,000 tons) (nuclear ballistic missile)
  • Delta III-class submarine (1)  (10,000 tons) (nuclear ballistic missile)
  • Yasen-class submarine (1 in Northern Fleet operational area as of December 2021, not yet in Pacific; 2nd vessel destined for the Pacific on mooring trials in Northern Fleet operational area as of February 2022) (13,800 tons) (cruise missile)
  • Oscar-class submarine (5) (16,500 tons) (cruise missile)

13-14 attack submarines

The Pacific Fleet also includes patrol ships, mine warfare ships, amphibious ships, and support vessels. There are also naval aviation and coastal troops and naval infantry components.


Dave Barnes said...

You forgot the Kommuna.

andrew said...

Yeah. I don't think that little footnote will tip the balance. ;)

Dave Barnes said...

You can remove the Admiral Makarov from the Black Sea frigate list.

andrew said...

Indeed. Won't update. But will link the story from today to confirm.

"Russia’s Admiral Makarov warship has been hit by Ukrainian missiles and burst into flames, according to Ukrainian officials. The frigate would be Russia’s latest high-profile naval loss in a troubled campaign, coming after reports that US intelligence helped Ukraine locate and sink the Russian warship Moskva weeks ago."


andrew said...

Pretty bad for a Navy, in a ground war, in which the other side doesn't even have a navy (having sunk its own frigate to prevent it from being taken by the Russians).

andrew said...

The frigate hit was near Snake Island about as far west on the the Ukrainian coastline and as far from areas of Russian control, while being as close to areas of Ukrainian control, as it is possible for a Black Sea ship to get. It could even have been hit there from an anti-ship missile in the Aegean Sea.


andrew said...

Lesson learned: Surface combatants near shore are highly vulnerable to anti-ship missiles.

Also, the frigate hit was commissioned in 2017 (post-Crimea invasion) pretty much contemplating this very conflict and with all of the latest tech but past the "punch list" period after an initial commissioning to get it working properly.

andrew said...

And, yet another ship sunk near Snake Island. https://www.aol.com/news/ukraine-says-damaged-russian-ship-051236703-100535165.html