A sea change in Russian Navy deployments

This short analysis outlines a recent small but subtle “sea change” in Russian naval deployments that took place recently.

Firstly, the list below outlines an abridged overview of the current elements underpinning Russian naval policies to date:

·  The backbone of the Russian Navy lies in its multipronged capacity to field a range of ships, to support its littoral defence and also deploy primarily in the near sea zone.  

·  A noticeable shift towards “distributed lethality”, with smaller but more versatile combat ships, with smaller corvettes and patrol boats as part of the mix as well as destroyers and the vitally important submarine fleet. 

·  Continued development and deployment of (shipborne) long-range stand-off missiles, coupled with the advances in Russian missile technology.

·  Ensuring a wide distribution of firepower and spreading out the risks to minimise big potential combat losses. [1] 

These are some of the current and anticipated elements that are relevant to this article, (I’m not covering the submarine fleet aspect).  Generally speaking, recent Russian naval developments can cover both power projection and sea control as well as sea denial capabilities closer to home.

A 2019 RAND report mentions that “the Black Sea has historically been the gateway to the most vulnerable part of Russia.” [2] Unsurprisingly, given the rise in ongoing geopolitical tensions, the sharp uptick in NATO activities over several years in the Black Sea region, the bulk of naval modernisation is centred on the Black Sea Fleet. Likewise, the Black Sea Fleet provide the main part of the renewed Eastern Mediterranean Russian naval presence.

With the gradual increase in commissioning into service of the newest generation of naval ships, the Russian navy will invariably exercise more, extend its activities in order to train and maintain the skills at the heart of the latest technological developments. 

In tandem, Russian geopolitical leverage will be exercised and strengthened regionally, (from the Barents, Black Seas to the North West Pacific).  Similarly, the status quo regarding post 2015 power projection capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant will be maintained.  As mentioned in the article “Towards a ‘corvette-centric’ Russian navy”, [1] and in “Rocking the boat – Sudan”, [3] brief periods of power projection into the Indian Ocean will gradually evolve alongside the capability building of the Russian Navy.

The broadening of activities connected to the slow-paced ongoing modernisation programme of the Russian Navy is an obvious situation, yet this perspective remains conspicuously absent from the majority of the reports that are [and will] be relayed by MSM articles in NATO member states.   By its very nature, a number of Russian Navy deployments each year are newly constructed ships that transit to their Black Sea homeports.

Overall, there is a broader deliberate narrative to reshape certain aspects of Russian military activities by presenting information in a pernicious way.  What’s more, the MSM and experts unfailingly resort to using a combination of default buzzwords to promote a negative image of Russian naval activities, some examples include “hybrid threat”, “malign behaviour”, “provocation from Russia” and “hostile activities”, to name but a few. [More on this particular aspect in an upcoming article].

In short, this results in “news items” being packaged in a totally artificial and misguiding way to shape popular opinion.  MSM articles of certain Russian naval activities are often slingshoted in batches, habitually with hysterical clickbait type headlines, thus rendering routine naval activities and innocuous transits, into something more belligerent.  

Back in 2017, [1] I mentioned that once the new patrol ships, light frigates & corvettes came into service, this would enable the Russian Navy to redistribute mission-tasking orders widely and more evenly, which some Western ‘Atlantists” contrivedly bundle as being part of an “hybrid threat”.  I also added that potentially, the new ships would give a window of opportunity for older ships to be refitted, without compromising overall fleet combat readiness & effectiveness.  As it currently stands, naval shipbuilding is slowly gathering pace, mostly small quantities of small missile ships, corvettes and even fewer frigates. 

Indeed, the growing use of smaller-sized warships dovetails into the rolling plans for modernising some of the Soviet-era stock of larger ships to maintain a partial blue-water capability, (Marshal Ustinov, Project 1144.2 guided-missile cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, or the Udaloy class Marshal Shaposhnikov…).  In this way, the Russian Navy is managing to maximize and diversify their combat capability.

Yet, this situation is barely acknowledged by a whole assortment of Western pundits and typical MSM ignoramuses, as they are inclined to using ‘old’ disparaging clichés because the Russian Navy ‘still’ uses old Soviet era ships.

I stated back in February 2020,[4], that the remaining current Cold War era destroyers and frigate that visited the Indian Ocean region will gradually fade away, to be replaced by a smaller fleet of modern frigates & corvettes.  Well, that scenario has in fact happened, much sooner than I had anticipated. Additionally, I need to add large patrol ships into the equation as well as corvettes and frigates.  Why is this of interest? The arrival of the smaller classes of warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Sea Flotilla, has meant an increase in naval combat power, despite a limited range of action, (compared to the blue-water ships).

  • Project 22800 missile corvettes, 
  • *Project 21631 missile corvettes. 
  • *and project 22160 small missile ships
  • (*as well as the Project 11661K light frigate).

* All have operated outside Russia’s contiguous maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Several of the Russian ships and submarines forward deployed to the Mediterranean carried out strikes against militants in Syria using Kalibr cruise missiles.

Something of particular interest took place recently, something that marks a milestone for the Russian Navy.  Several Russian naval ships took part in exercises in the Arabian Sea this month:

a.  “AMAN 2021” – (Pakistani-led multinational exercise) [5].

b.  "Marine Security Belt”, (binational exercise with Iran). [6].

Participating in these exercises were the:

 Admiral Grigorovich (a)

(Project 11356Р/М class frigate commissioned in 2016).

  Dmitry Rogachev (a),

(22160-class large patrol ship class commissioned in 2019)

 Stoiky (b),

(Project 20380 class corvette commissioned in 2014).

The ‘Stoiky’ was accompanied by an oiler ‘Kola’ and a tug, ‘Yakov Grebelsky’. The Admiral Grigorovich was in company with the Dmitry Rogachev. In the meantime, the ‘Admiral Kasatonov’, was sailing around the Mediterranean, calling into Algeria, Greece and Egypt. 

Details of type and class aside, what do you notice about these warships?  ‘newbies’, all commissioned since 2014.  That itself might not be amazing breaking news, but certainly, has slightly changed how things stand and shows that the Russian is reasserting a wider but momentary naval footprint with a new generation of warships. 

What happened in the Arabian Sea symbolically opens a new chapter which is contrary to the negative comments made by ‘Atlantists’ on the Russian Navy: 

1.  being dependent on deploying Soviet era warships,

2.  carrying out infrequent blue-water deployments with such ships.

Interestingly, the exercises involved three warships instead of the just the one being deployed, doing the naval diplomacy rounds.  Although this is quite insignificant issue compared to what else is going on in the world, it does reflect a change in the outlook presented by the Russian Navy.

The older classes of ships that make long-distance deployments, were not present this year in the region. The category of ships I refer to include:

  • ‘Vice-Admiral Kulakov’, (Udaloy class, commissioned 1981, modernised 2010),
  •  ‘Admiral Vinogradrov’, (commissioned 1988), 
  •  ‘Admiral Tributs,’ (commissioned 1985) & 
  •  ‘Severomorsk’, (commissioned 1987).  

All of which were and are the backbone of long-distance naval deployments for several decades until last year, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, as outlined in the article “Russian naval presence in Indian Ocean” [4]. I haven’t included in the list the ‘Yaroslav Mudry, (Neustrashimyy-class frigate) as it was commissioned in 2009.

The Russian Navy is consistent in the manner of deploying ships on long-distance voyages further afield, with usually one combat ship with one or two support ships (oiler and/or ocean-going tug).  This pattern is certainly the case for bilateral exercises or naval diplomacy port calls.  The exception to this is the ‘Dmitry Rogachev’, a patrol ship [7], that went with the ‘Admiral Grigorovich’.  That was an eye opener to see a Project 22160 arrive in the Arabian Sea.  Project 22160 ships are designed primarily for service in green-water area, as such as are not necessarily fitted to carry out long-distance deployments.  Nonetheless, they have a good endurance of 60 days and a cruising range of 6,000NM.

Last year, the Russian Navy carried out a 2-month trial in the Arctic, with the Vasily Bykov, (Project 22160), as a testbed for the use of container modules and other auxiliary equipment in harsh conditions. These tests will eventually enable this class of ships to carry upgraded and bespoke armaments depending on the type of mission. Container-based modules can include dedicated systems & weapons for ASW and also Kalibr cruise missiles. 

Back in 2017, the Baltic Fleet based corvettes, ‘Boykiy’ and ‘Soobrazitelniy’, (Project 20380), considered as medium-tonnage-size green-water ships, (“close maritime zone” operations), undertook a long-distance deployment, (20,000NM all in all), covering the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and also the Indian Ocean. [8]

It would be interesting to see if a Karakurt (project 22800) small-missile ship goes to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in the near future.  Although this might be not realistic, given its integral role, operating in the “close maritime zone” or the “near abroad”, under the umbrella of onshore defence systems. Nonetheless, it is theoretical possible for such a vessel to be forward deployed from Tartus on a flag waving mission.  Importantly, not only would it highlight a greater versatility in deployment but would underscore the approach taken to having a wider distribution of firepower that spans across the green-water / blue-water operational distinction.

A gradual shift in using more often low-tonnage but more versatile combat ships, along with some medium-size tonnage is becoming more noticeable recently, markedly so than in February 2021.  Equally, the Russian Navy green-water capability is extending farther from just being in the “close maritime zone”. The low and medium-tonnage sized ships have taken on the duties previously carried out by larger sized Soviet era ships.


[1] Towards a ‘corvette-centric’ Russian navy









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