Asia Defense

How the Ukraine Crisis Interrupts Putin’s Naval Dreams

Recent Features

Asia Defense

How the Ukraine Crisis Interrupts Putin’s Naval Dreams

Russia’s surface fleet modernization will face further delays without Ukrainian military hardware.

How the Ukraine Crisis Interrupts Putin’s Naval Dreams

Putin aboard the battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy during the Northern Fleet manoeuvres in the Barents Sea, 2005.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kiev’s decision last year to ban Ukrainian military exports to Russia is causing additional delays in the Russian Navy’s ambitious 2050 shipbuilding plan.

The Russian surface fleet is particularly affected by the sanctions since two of its newest surface ship classes — Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356) and Admiral Gorshkov-class (Project 22350)  guided missile frigates — require Ukraine-made gas turbine engines.

Overall, the Russian Navy is expected to acquire 16 Admiral Gorshkov-class and nine Admiral Grigorovich-class over the next decades, although the current plan only foresees the construction of eight of the former and six of the latter vessels.

The first two ships of the Admiral Gorshkov-class, the Admiral Gorshkov and Admiral Kasatonov are powered by M90FR gas turbines designed and built by Zorya-Mashproekt in Ukraine, Moscow’s principal surface ship-builder since Soviet days, located in Mykolaiv in Southern Ukraine. According to the Russian military expert Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia may have also received turbines for another two Gorshkov-class and four Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates.

Yet IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly states that, because Russia will have to develop the capability to indigenously produce M90FR engines, the launch and commissioning of four additional ships of the Admiral Gorshkov-class — expected to enter service by 2020 — will be delayed, as will the last three ships of the Admiral Grigorovich-class. This would imply that the Russian shipbuilding industry currently only has enough engines for the first two Admiral Gorshkov-class and three Grigorovich-class vessels.

This Monday, Russian shipbuilder United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) announced that it awarded a contract to NPO Saturn, a Russian aircraft engine manufacturer, to produce and test the M90FR turbine engine by 2017.

This announcement appears to be in line with the assessment of Western military experts like Gorenburg, who states in an analysis that the “transition to Russian domestic substitutes is expected to take two to three years.” A 2014 study by the Royal United Services Institute explains that around “30 per cent of Ukrainian military exports to Russia are unique and cannot currently be substituted by Russian production.” Additionally, the report states:

While Russian industry has learned how to build large gas-turbine engines since then, it cannot yet master manufacturing the gears for them and Russia requires Ukrainian-produced gears for 60 per cent of the surface combatants planned for its navy.

USNI News quotes naval expert Eric Wertheim on the feasibility of designing and producing the gas turbine engines in time:

 It’s a very complex thing they’re trying to replicate. It’s going to have a significant impact on their surface navy modernization. They’re probably going to use it as an excuse down the line. They might have better luck going to court.

USC has announced that it will sue Kiev over the engines it has already paid for but which were not delivered.

The two new classes of surface ships are seen as the cornerstone of Russia’s surface modernization program, particularly the  Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, which are equipped with 16 Oniks (SS-N-26 “Strobile”) or Kalibr (SS-N-27 “Sizzler”) cruise missiles. As IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly notes:

 Moscow views construction of the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates as a milestone in the rebirth of Russian shipbuilding. The frigates are the largest vessels laid down in the post-Soviet era. The navy regards them as ‘first rank’ ships for operations at distance.