Is a New Russian Black Sea Fleet Coming? Or Is It Here?
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a special series in collaboration with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “Black Sea’s Back.”
Last summer, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia will continue to strengthen its forces around the Black Sea in order to “neutralize the security threat in the Black Sea region from NATO.” This rhetoric highlights the change in threat perceptions that has taken place on both sides in the region in recent years. Just 10 years ago, the Black Sea was touted as a model of naval cooperation among former adversaries. Collaborative naval activities such as BlackSeaFor and Black Sea Harmony, as well as regular Russian participation in NATO’s Active Endeavor, promised a future where all Black Sea littoral states worked together to ensure regional security and mitigate security threats such as smuggling. This cooperation started to falter after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war but was maintained through the combined efforts of Russia and NATO members – especially Turkey.
The situation changed radically after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with NATO leaders expressing concern that Russia could turn the Black Sea into a Russian lake by devoting significant resources to the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and strengthening Russian military forces in Crimea more generally. Russian political leaders, naval commanders, and policy experts have been open in explaining why they have prioritized the Black Sea Fleet in their naval modernization efforts. Part of that has to do with the parlous state of the fleet prior to 2014. Due to tensions with Ukraine and a general lack of investment in military procurement, Russia had sent only one new combat ship to the fleet between 1991 and 2014. As a result, by 2014 the fleet was barely functional and ships from other fleets had to be used to carry out Russian naval missions in the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Since the Ukraine crisis resulted in a sustained downturn in relations between Russia and the West, leaders in Moscow have repeatedly focused on their fears of NATO encroachment in the Black Sea region as the key factor requiring the strengthening of the Russian military in the region and of the Black Sea Fleet in particular. Former Black Sea Fleet commander Adm. Alexander Vitko has been most explicit in connecting the fleet’s modernization to a heightened perception of threat from NATO. He highlighted the increasingly routine nature of Western naval presence in the Black Sea in recent years, as well as an increase in the number of Black Sea exercises carried out by NATO member navies. He was particularly concerned by “almost daily” flights along Russia’s maritime border being carried out by intelligence collection aircraft and UAVs. He also condemned the military buildup being carried out by NATO member states and NATO allies in the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
Russian military leaders and analysts were particularly concerned about the Sea Breeze 2017 anti-submarine warfare exercise, which took place in the Black Sea in July 2017 and was co-hosted by Ukraine and the United States with the participation of 16 NATO and NATO partner states. They highlighted the anti-submarine warfare component of the exercise and noted that Russia is the only adversary against whom such an exercise could be aimed. The use of American P-8 Poseidon aircraft drew attention, as did the presence of an Arleigh Burke AEGIS destroyer. The potential missile defense capabilities of AEGIS destroyers are connected to the construction of onshore missile defense infrastructure in Romania as military threats to Russian forces in the Black Sea region. These statements make it clear that Russia made the modernization of the Black Sea Fleet and the concurrent strengthening of Russian military presence in the Black Sea region a priority to counter the threat it sees emanating from NATO and its partners in the region, including Ukraine.
Although the Black Sea Fleet modernization plan envisioned in the 2020 State Armaments Program has not been fully carried out, the fleet has received a large number of new ships and submarines. Six new Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo) diesel submarines, received between September 2015 and early 2018, and three Admiral Grigorovich class frigates, are all capable of firing Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) or anti-ship cruise missiles. As such, they are far more capable than the fleet’s vintage Soviet combat ships and barely functional submarines. However, the end of defense cooperation with Ukraine has resulted in delays in construction, so that an additional three frigates of this class will not enter the fleet until the middle of the next decade, five years behind schedule. The Black Sea Fleet will also receive six 1300-ton Project 22160 Vasily Bykov-class corvettes, featuring a modular design that will allow for changes in armaments depending on missions. Like almost all other Russian combat ships currently being built, they will be armed with universal cruise missile launchers.
New smaller ships will include 4-6 Kalibr-armed Project 21631 Buyan-M class 950-ton small missile ships. These ships were designed to operate in littoral zones, where they can be covered by shore-based air defense systems while threatening enemy ships or land targets with long range cruise missiles. At the same time, they are limited by their relatively poor seaworthiness and weak engines. For this reason, the Russian Navy has chosen to develop another Kalibr-armed small missile ship class, the 800-ton Project 22800 Karakurt. Six of these ships are expected to join the Black Sea Fleet by 2022, with the first scheduled to be in service sometime next year. Compared to the Buyan-M ships, these ships have a deeper draft, increasing their stability in rough seas. They are also being equipped with Pantsir-M air defense systems. Together, these two changes will allow these ships to operate farther away from shore, while retaining the same long-range strike capability.
The pattern of Black Sea Fleet ship acquisitions highlights the Russian military’s decision to focus on a combination of submarines and smaller ships equipped with highly capable long-range missiles that do not require heavy tonnage to be employed — especially in the narrower Black and Mediterranean Seas. In other words, defense of Russia’s maritime approaches remains paramount in Russian naval doctrine as applied to the Black Sea.
Militarization of Crimea
The expansion of Russia’s military footprint in the Black Sea goes far beyond the introduction of new ships and submarines. The Russian military has taken steps to introduce a wide range of new capabilities to Crimea across all services. Upgrading air and coastal defenses has been a priority, with the introduction of two battalions of S-400 long-range air defense systems in Crimea in early 2017 and two additional battalions in early 2018. S-300 long-range and Pantsir-S medium-range surface-to-air missiles have also been deployed in Crimea in recent years, as have modern Nebo-M radars. The Black Sea Fleet is expecting to deploy Buk medium range air defense systems soon. Coastal defenses have also been augmented, with a combination of long-range Bastion systems and medium-range Bal systems. Current plans call for two Black Sea Fleet coastal defense brigades, one located near Sevastopol and the other near Novorossiisk. Each brigade would be equipped with 3-5 Bastion battalions and 1-2 Bal battalions. These systems are being augmented with helicopters and Orlan drones designed to assist in target identification.
The Black Sea Fleet has also received a variety of new aircraft, including 12 new Su-30SM and an unspecified number of Ka-52 and Mi-28N helicopters. Ground forces units on Crimean territory have also been strengthened, with the deployment of Msta artillery and Tornado multiple rocket launcher systems, as well as a territorial defense motor rifle division. Naval infantry has also been augmented, with a particular focus on countering sabotage operations given fears of Ukrainian infiltration into the territory. To assist in this mission, the Black Sea Fleet has also acquired six Grachonok-class anti-saboteur ships.
According to Ukrainian sources, the total strength of the Russian military in Crimea is at 32,000 personnel. Russian equipment there includes 40 main battle tanks, 680 armored personnel carriers and 174 artillery systems of various kinds. This is a major change from before the Ukraine crisis, when the bases Russia leased from Ukraine in Crimea housed less than half as many troops, no Russian tanks, 92 armored personnel carriers, and 24 artillery systems. The number of combat aircraft has increased from 22 to 113. While Ukrainian sources generally inflate the extent of Russian military presence in Crimea, there is no doubt that the Russian military has greatly augmented its forces in the region across all services.
Russia’s expanded military footprint in Crimea allows it to carry out a range of operations that it was not capable of prior to 2014. The deployment of S-400, Bastion, and Bal missiles allows the Russian military to establish an anti-access/area-denial zone (A2/AD) covering almost all of the Black Sea. By using a combination of ground-based and ship-based missiles, backed with strong electronic warfare capabilities, the Russian military can inhibit military movement into the Black Sea and deny freedom of action to an opponent if it does make it into the theater. The long-range sea-, air-, and ground-launched missiles deny access, while shorter-range coastal and air defense systems focus on the area denial mission. The result is several interlocking air defense zones. At the outer edges, Russia’s ships, submarines and aircraft seek to deny access. Closer in, naval aviation, long-range coastal defense missiles, and smaller surface combatants such as missile boats are prepared to inflict costs, while electronic warfare stands ready to degrade the effectiveness of enemy weapons.
Until 2015, most analysts argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood, as its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theaters of operations. However, over the last three years, the Russian military has shown that it can carry out and sustain a long-term deployment away from its borders, in large part using Black Sea Fleet ships and reflagged commercial vessels for the Syrian Express operation.
Finally, the introduction of long-range cruise missiles has fundamentally changed the nature of how the Black Sea Fleet operates. The advent of ships with universal vertical launch systems that can launch long-range LACMs and ASCMs is seen by Moscow as a potent force multiplier that can offset shortfalls in numbers and quality of ships. The advent of small multi-mission ships that can strike distant targets from well-protected zones near Russia’s coastline adds a multi-dimensional offensive and defensive capability that can also be used to deter NATO and other adversaries.
New Missions for a New Environment
Russia’s seizure and claimed annexation of Crimea has remade the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea. Crimea’s geographic position allows the country that controls it to dominate the waters of the Black Sea. Sevastopol is by far the best harbor on the sea. Its navy and air force, with the combination of S-400, Kalibr, and Bastion systems, have turned the Black Sea into to a forbidding A2/AD environment that will be difficult for any potential adversary, including NATO, to penetrate.
Western concerns about the Black Sea becoming a Russian lake are well-placed, but not necessarily all that relevant. Even without annexing Crimea, Russia was on track to being the dominant power in the region simply by virtue of its geographic position and its relative military capabilities in air defense and long-range fires. Control of Crimea simply cemented this position and meant that Russia no longer had to worry about losing its Sevastopol naval base. And yet this dominance is not relevant outside of a conventional war scenario, as NATO is unlikely to contest Russian control of the sea in the early stages of a conflict. Instead, it would work to bottle up the Russian Navy in the Black Sea and prevent it from accessing the Mediterranean. This is a mission that is manageable for NATO, as it still has a much stronger relative force posture in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, Russian access to the Mediterranean is geographically constrained by the Bosphorus.
The Black Sea Fleet’s main missions over the next decade are expected to consist of ensuring that the Black Sea cannot be used as a staging area for strikes against Russian infrastructure, protecting Russian facilities and military infrastructure in Crimea, and serving as a staging base for military operations and naval diplomacy in the Mediterranean. Protection of the Black Sea region will be carried out through a combination of robust onshore air and coastal defense platforms, together with the deployment of submarines and surface ships armed with capable ASCMs. More importantly, the ability of submarines and surface ships to fire sizeable numbers of LACMs at onshore targets is intended to send a deterrent message to potential adversaries, and to NATO member states in particular.
Given the adversarial nature of Russia’s relationship with the West, the Black Sea Fleet will take on additional missions beyond the Black Sea in the coming years. As ship numbers increase over the next five to 10 years, the Black Sea Fleet will assume the role of primary supplier of ships to Russia’s Mediterranean squadron. In addition to continuing to provide sealift for Russian operations in Syria, the Black Sea Fleet’s cruise-missile equipped ships will have a power projection role in the Mediterranean. Even with a small number of frigates, the fleet will present a potential threat to other naval forces in the region, even U.S. carrier strike groups. This task requires an increase in the number of surface combat ships available to the fleet, which may be one of the reasons for the increase in the number of relatively small ships that can be built quickly being procured for the Black Sea Fleet.
This does not mean that the Russian Navy should be expected to undertake aggressive actions in the Mediterranean. Rather, its objective will be to create conventional deterrence against a Western attack by threatening to use its air and sea capabilities to inflict unacceptably high casualties on enemy naval forces attempting to engage Russian forces in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean.
From the Black Sea to the Med
In the future, the Black Sea Fleet is expected to support an even larger Mediterranean squadron, with Adm. Vitko calling for a constant presence of one or two multi-purpose submarines (from the Northern Fleet) and 10 to 15 surface ships (primarily from the Black Sea Fleet). Russian efforts to expand its presence in the Mediterranean would also include more and bigger bases in the region. Such bases would not just provide an opportunity for refueling and repair of ships but could also house coastal defense systems that would protect the squadron. Russia’s goals for the fleet stretch beyond the confines of the Mediterranean. As the fleet is strengthened over the next decade, it may take over primary responsibility for patrolling the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Gulf of Aden, as well as the western sections of the Arabian Sea, all of which are currently the responsibility of the Pacific Fleet. Vitko suggests a permanent presence of at least three ships from the Black Sea Fleet in this region in the future, a sign of the Russian Navy’s aspiration to restore its status as an ocean-going force to rival the U.S. Navy.