Russia’s New and Unrealistic Naval Doctrine

July 26, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

The Russian Navy is keen on showy demonstrations of strength. Just in the last week, it has begun an exercise with the Chinese navy in the Baltic Sea and sent its largest warship, the Peter the Great nuclear cruiser, and the world’s largest submarine, the Dmitry Donskoi, from the Northern Fleet to the Baltic to participate in the Navy Day parade on July 30. In another act primarily significant for its symbolism, Vladimir Putin approved a new Russian naval doctrine last week. Taken at face value, the doctrine appears to promote a vision of a revived Russian Navy that can maintain its superiority over up and comers like China’s navy, and even pose a serious threat to the U.S. Navy in certain environments. The reality is, as with most such documents, the gap between aspiration and feasible plans remains quite large. Since no English translation of the document is currently available, it may be useful to briefly summarize some key portions of the 22-page text, put the doctrine’s aims into context, and show where the gaps between dream and reality can be found.

What Does It Say?

The doctrine highlights many of the usual threats and dangers to Russia. First on the list of dangers is the “ambition of a range of states, and foremost the United States of America and its allies, to dominate the high seas, including in the Arctic, and to press for overwhelming superiority of their naval forces.” Other threats include territorial claims on maritime and coastal zones, efforts to limit Russian access to maritime resources, and attempts to weaken Russian control over the Northern Sea Route. Only three potential specific threats to Russia are listed in the document. The first is a sudden decline in the political-military situation leading to the use of military force in maritime areas holding strategic interest for Russia. The second is the deployment of strategic non-nuclear precision weapons and ballistic missile defenses in territories and maritime zones adjacent to Russia. And the third is the use of military force by other states in ways that threaten Russian national interests. In addition to the Arctic, the doctrine highlights the importance of protecting access to energy resources in the Middle East and Caspian Sea, and expresses concern about the negative impact of regional conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa on international security. It also notes the danger posed by the growth of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet and Russian forces in Crimea, as well as the maintenance of a constant naval presence in the Mediterranean, are singled out as the most critical geographic priorities for the Russian Navy’s future development.

The doctrine spells out the priorities and goals of Russian naval policy. After the usual opening generalities about protecting Russia in the event of a conflict and deterring adversaries from initiating hostile actions, there is a focus on control of sea lanes of communication, increasing the effectiveness of maritime border defense both above the surface and underwater, and improvement of naval command and control systems. In addition to the purely military aspects of policy, political aspects such as joint exercises and operations with friendly states are mentioned, as are port calls and participation by representatives of the Russian Navy in maritime security cooperation forums. There is a fairly lengthy section on naval priorities in non-military spheres, including subsections on the role of the navy in ensuring Russian economic security, its role in foreign policy, science and education, and environmental protection.

Most interestingly, the doctrine spells out the priority areas for Russian naval development. These include ensuring the Russian Navy secures its place as the second most powerful naval force in the world. Given that Russia has no pretensions to overtaking the U.S. Navy, this passage suggests it will focus on remaining stronger than the rapidly expanding Chinese navy. As part of this effort, Russia will seek to further strengthen its navy’s ability to strike targets on land with both conventional and nuclear missiles. It will also seek to improve the sustainability of its naval forces in order to ensure continued presence in strategically important maritime regions around the world regardless of distance from Russian home ports. In times of war, the doctrine highlights the Russian Navy will be able to defend itself and Russian territory from opponents equipped with advanced high-precision weaponry in all spheres of naval warfare (anti-air, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-mine), in both coastal and blue water environments.

The doctrine seems particularly focused on the role the Navy can play as an instrument of deterrence. Russia’s leadership seems to be particularly worried about the U.S. military Prompt Global Strike concept, which would use hypersonic glide vehicles to strike targets anywhere in the world about an hour after launch. They see as aimed squarely at neutralizing Russia’s nuclear deterrence capability. The Russian Navy is described in the doctrine as a potentially particularly effective tool at deterring such conventional global precision strike attacks. This effectiveness is characterized by a combination of a high level of readiness with the ability to deploy to any part of the world and to remain there for an extended period of time without requiring permission from other states. Using its recently developed long-range high-precision conventional weapons, the Russian Navy can threaten high-value military and dual use targets from the sea. The doctrine argues that this capability will allow Russia to deter global strike or other conventional attacks against itself.

To achieve these goals, the doctrine states the Russian Navy is to build a balanced force, both maintaining its existing strengths in ballistic missile submarines and developing a qualitatively “new look” for its conventional forces so that the latter are to be able to fulfill the conventional strategic deterrence mission. In order to carry out this mission while also being prepared for regular naval warfighting missions, the doctrine calls on the Navy to procure the full range of possible naval equipment including multipurpose nuclear and conventional submarines, multi-purpose surface combat ships, naval aviation, coastal defense forces, and even ground effect vehicles.

What is it Really About?

Here we get to what most likely is the real purpose of the naval doctrine document. It appears to be yet another salvo in the ongoing rearguard action by the Russian Navy to protect its procurement budget in the context of pressure to reduce naval procurement in the next State Armament Program, which is expected to be finalized later this year. What’s more, the Russian Navy is seeking to ensure its procurement priorities are enshrined in official documents for the long term. To this end, the doctrine states that while through 2025 the main conventional armament of the Navy will consist of high-precision long-range cruise missiles, subsequently these will be supplemented with hypersonic missiles and various automated systems such as unmanned underwater vehicles.

The problem with this plan, as has been pointed out by a number of Russian analysts, is that it is entirely unrealistic. (One commentator has described it as “riddled with nostalgic reminiscences of late Soviet naval construction.”) In the real world, Russian surface ship construction remains woefully slow. No combat ships larger than a frigate have been built since the 1990s and none are likely to be completed in the next ten years. While nuclear submarine construction remains a strong suit, the development of a new generation of non-nuclear powered submarines remains hampered by the lack of a working air-independent power system, leaving the fleet dependent on existing diesel engine-based designs. (An air-independent power system does not require access to atmospheric oxygen, requiring less frequent surfacing and allowing for virtually silent operation.) And the current economic environment means financing for military shipbuilding is likely to decline in the next decade.

What’s more, all the talk about the important role the Russian Navy could play in conventional deterrence may well be designed to mask the lack of need for larger combat ships given the essentially defensive nature of the Russian Navy’s actual primary missions. Thus, although the newly approved doctrine on the surface seems to indicate Russia is primed to rebuild its surface combat fleet, the reality is that this doctrine is poised to join many other similar pronouncements on the Russian Defense Ministry’s already rather full shelf of unfulfilled aspirational documents. The likelihood that Russia will retain its position as the world’s most powerful navy after the United States until 2030 remains quite low.

 

Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA. Dr. Gorenburg is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at http://russiamil.wordpress.com.

Image: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!