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Alexander Antonov

Independent Expert

Russia is regaining the status of a world power, and this new status requires providing force projection capabilities on a global scale to meet current and future foreign policy goals. The article analyzes the prospects for the quantitative and qualitative growth of the Russian maritime forces designed to operate in remote areas of the seven seas, in particular the strengthening of the amphibious forces as the most effective instrument to exert military and political pressure and to intervene in political and humanitarian crises far away from Russia’s borders.

“In military matters, capability, not intentions, matters most”.

Otto von Bismarck

In early 2014, Vice Adm. Frank C. Pandolphe, Director for Strategic Planning and Policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that conventional armed forces made Russia a regional power, but the country had a limited capacity for global power projection. “Today, Russia is a regional power that can project force into nearby states, but it has very limited global power projection capability,” Pandolfe said. [1]

It must be admitted that this senior US military official was very close to the truth. Able to operate as far as thousands of kilometers away from home shores, the Navy appears to be the only instrument of power at the disposal of the state to exert influence on the military-political situation in the world on a global scale, but today the ability of the Russian Navy to build up its presence away from the homeland is undeniably inadequate.

However, the situation is changing rapidly. According to the 68-page unclassified Office of Naval Intelligence report on the Russian Navy (titled “The Russian Navy: a Historic Transition”), published in mid-December 2015, “Russia has begun and over the next decade will make large strides in fielding a 21st century navy, capable of a dependable national defense”, and having an impressive, albeit limited capacity for the transfer of troops and military equipment. [2] The report is authored by George Fedoroff, the US Office of Naval Intelligence’s top expert on Russia.

Russia is regaining the status of a world power, and this new status requires providing force projection capabilities on a global scale to meet current and future foreign policy goals. The article analyzes the prospects for the quantitative and qualitative growth of the Russian maritime forces designed to operate in remote areas of the seven seas, in particular the strengthening of the amphibious forces as the most effective instrument to exert military and political pressure and to intervene in political and humanitarian crises far away from Russia’s borders.

Prospects for Russian Navy amphibious forces development in the wake of the cancelled Mistral contract: ships and equipment

Recent events testify to the fact that the experts promoting the idea of developing the Russian Navy first and foremost as a coastal fleet, capable of controlling the 200-mile exclusive economic zone in peacetime and of defending our seacoast during the war, proved to be wrong.

Russia has political and economic interests away from its shores. Moreover, it has overseas allies and rendering support to them is essential for preventing the spread of political and religious extremism. Extremism destabilizes the situation in certain countries and whole regions of the world by resorting to mass terror against the population in defiance of the laws of humanity.

Today, Russian warships launch missile attacks against the infrastructure of the banned in Russia Islamic State in Syria, and provide air defenses to Syrian Hmeymim airbase off the city of Latakia, where a combat unit of the Russian Aerospace Forces is stationed. Russian marines protect Hmeymim airbase and Russian naval facility in Tartus against possible terrorist attacks. Landing ships along with auxiliary ships are meeting the challenge of rendering materiel support to the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic and logistic support to Russia's army contingent in Syria.

Had the Mistral class assault helicopter carrier dock-ships Vladivostok and Sevastopol joined the Russian Navy, they, most likely, would have been involved in the mission to facilitate the rendering of the above support. Unfortunately, the Russian Navy did not receive these amphibious ships of French construction as the purchase contract was cancelled.

Russia has to build all by itself modern seagoing and ocean-going assault landing ships that can effectively meet the challenges of peacetime and wartime away from home shores. Furthermore, the country will have to develop and manufacture modern personnel-carrying amphibious boats for these ships using its own resources as well.

According to the promising concept for the development of the Russian Navy [3], developed back in the 1990s, to offset future military threats to the interests of the Russian Federation in remote theatres of military operations, Russia's Navy should have the capacity to potentially deploy an expeditionary task force composed of four to eight marine brigades with reinforcements [4]. Large-scale amphibious warfare requires involving of up to 9-12 large seagoing and ocean-going landing ships as well as a number of auxiliary ships and civil vessels.

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Lavina Project

Offers of Russian shipbuilders

As of today, national designers have already submitted two draft projects for building advanced seagoing and ocean-going amphibious assault ships, known as Lavina (“Avalanche”) and Priboi (“Surf”).

The Lavina assault helicopter carrier dock-ship, developed by Krylov Central Scientific Research Institute, appears to be the most promising, although controversial, and offers a domestic alternative to Mistral class ships.

French Mistral class landing helicopter docks (LHD) are a cheaper version of a 24.5 thousand ton amphibious assault ship of the failed BPC (French: bậtiments de projection et de commandement or BPC) 250 project. LHD of the national Lavina project [6], which is close in terms of displacement to ships of the BPC 250 project, retains certain tactical and technical elements of the smaller-displacement Mistral that significantly reduce the warship’s operational capability. Thus, the hangar deck can hold only 16 helicopters (anti-submarine warfare or multipurpose Kamov Ka-27; combat/transport Kamov Ka-29; combat Kamov Ka-52K, nicknamed “Alligator”), while the deck has only six helicopter landing spots.

Given the longer flight deck of the helicopter carrier of Russian design than that of Mistral, and smaller deck space required for takeoff and landing due to the more compact size of Kamov helicopters compared to their Western counterparts, it makes sense to organize eight helicopter takeoff/landing spots on the flight deck. This will make it possible to send a group of six combat/transport helicopters on combat missions with an air assault company on board and two close support combat helicopters (Ka-52K), followed by a rapid takeoff of the second wave of transport and combat helicopters.

Since the average rate of serviceability of aircraft on board the helicopter carriers is usually less than 100%, it appears expedient to increase the number of shipboard helicopters to 20-22. Lavina LHD designers appear to have neglected the fact that by purchasing French landing helicopter docks, the Navy planned to deploy more than sixteen Kamov helicopters aboard each. The smaller size of Russian helicopters compared to the French ones allowed this in theory. This idea has never been tried out, but the Egyptian Navy, having bought 50 Kamov Ka-52 helicopters, probably also plans to deploy a larger helicopter group on the unexpectedly purchased ships.

This promising assault helicopter carrier of domestic construction will allow the carrying out of helicopter-borne assaults of two marine companies one after another, even if some transport and combat helicopters on board happen to be non-operational due to malfunctions and/or periodic technical servicing.

High-speed armored amphibious vehicles

In addition to the helicopters developed by Kamov Experimental Design Bureau, which are indispensable for carrying out “vertical envelopment” amphibious operations, the second modern key amphibious operation, namely “over-the-horizon landing” requires high-speed armored amphibians. Armored assault vehicles for marines are developed by designers of KAMAZ Open Joint Stock Company [7] and Bauman Moscow State Technical University [8] within the framework of respective platform R&D.

The ability to provide “over-the-horizon landing” is one of the basic requirements of modern landing craft of the amphibious forces [9]. This means that the amphibious warfare ships should be able to land personnel, weapons, equipment and cargo on the coast of the enemy from a safe distance of at least 25 miles from shore (not less than 46 km) to keep away from the hitting area of the enemy’s coastal defense.

Bauman University designers offer a 30.7-ton armored wheeled landing vehicle, capable of covering water distance of up to 60 km including the areas of effective missile and artillery fire of the coastal defense, at a speed exceeding 37 km/h. As envisioned by designers, apart from the crew, the armored vehicle will transport a landing force of 10 marines, and carry weapons that BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicles in operational service are fitted with.

Equipping Russian naval infantry with such a fighting vehicle is bound to bring about revolutionary changes in the national tactics of marine landing. In fact, the landing and combat capabilities of Russian marines have been limited by the characteristics of armored combat vehicles, for the most part, Soviet-designed wheeled floating BTR-80 amphibious armored personnel carriers, which are insufficiently armed and poorly protected. The replacement of the BTR-80s with BTR-82s that is currently underway in the Marine Corps should be considered only as a temporary measure, until new generation high-speed armored amphibious vehicles with previously unattainable combination of mobility, armor and firepower enter into military service.

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Priboi Project

In this regard, the Lavina amphibious assault ship designers’ attempt to equip their landing craft, having a displacement of 24 thousand tons, with a proposed bow ramp for amphibious logistics over the shore, sounds inappropriate. This unloading will require an unsafe approach to the shore of a big amphibious assault ship, carrying many aircraft and a large amount of aviation fuel and ammunition. Given that these amphibious assault ships have marine units that can land using helicopters and high-speed armored amphibians, which can cover up to 60 km by sea, over-the-beach unloading appears to be quite irrelevant.

Heavy armored vehicles: tanks and heavy infantry fighting vehicles

Conversely, the bow ramp is fully justified on the promising landing transport dock Priboi, designed by JSC “Neva Design Bureau.” In contrast to the Lavina project ships that should ensure landing in helicopters and high-speed armored amphibians for the initial assault, Priboi is intended, first and foremost, for landing on the already secured bridgehead of the units on heavy and not floating armored vehicles (tanks, self-propelled guns, heavy infantry fighting vehicles) to consolidate gains. [10].

The task of transporting heavy machinery on the beach can be accomplished by means of assault boats. The hangar deck of a 14 thousand tons Priboi LHD can hold up to four assault boats, while a 24 thousand tons Lavina LHD – up to six. However, delivering heavy equipment to the bridgehead by assault boats will slow down the speed of landing. Therefore, following the seizure of the beachhead, an into-the-beach run of a relatively small Priboi LHD, comparable to the Soviet Ivan Rogov-class landing ship, for further rapid unloading, using a bow ramp, of a few dozen of heavy armored vehicles, is tactically justified. According to the characteristics stated by its designers, Priboi LHD can provide transportation to the theater of military operations and subsequent landing on shore of up to a battalion of tanks or heavy infantry fighting vehicles. In theory, four of these amphibious assault ships can quickly land on the bridgehead armored vehicles for the whole tank brigade. The time required for this can be measured reliably only over the course of practical exercises, and for that, such ships have to be in service with the Navy first.

Project 02320 landing craft Cossack

Modern tank landing boat

It is necessary to proceed from the fact that due to considerable mine threats or to insufficient seabed slope at the captured bridgehead, heavy machinery that cannot float will, as a rule, have to be transported from landing craft by high-speed assault boats. Given this, Project 02320 landing craft Cossack, developed by KIT-engineering Design Bureau in Nizhny Novgorod and first presented at the International Maritime Defense Show (IMDS-2013) is of particular interest. Unlike the project 11770 Serna amphibious assault ships which are already available to the Navy and that can carry one tank, the Cossack landing craft is designed to carry two T-90A tanks.

Replacing a 25.6-meter long Serna landing craft with a 28-meter Cossack landing craft with a ratio of 1 to 1 in well-docks of promising Lavina LHD, would make it possible to land a tank company at a time. Unfortunately, the Project 02320 designers failed to find a suitable power unit for their ship to make it as fast as the French 27-meter long CTM NG landing craft of the same carrying capacity.

Russia’s Navy expected to get French CTM NG boats along with the Mistral, and the inferior in speed domestic project did not receive the necessary funding. Today, it seems expedient to renew the work on Project 02320, giving designers the task of increasing its speed up to 15-20 knots without decreasing the shipload.

Working for the future

Russian research engineers have not yet presented to the public a draft design of a promising multi-purpose amphibious assault ship. In contrast to LHDs, modern amphibious assault ships can carry fighter jets. Multi-purpose amphibious assault ships are often used not only as landing craft, but as light aircraft carriers too. This is particularly true for the US Navy.

Should such a project of a national ship of this class appear, it can be expected that our multi-purpose amphibious assault ship will be able to deploy multifunction deck-based MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB (double seat) fighters, whose mass production has already been started, as well as deck modification of the 5th generation fighter in the future. Then, the Russian Navy will have not only modern amphibious ships, but aircraft carriers too, the absence of which today hampers notably intensifying joint efforts with the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria.

1. http://archive.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=122013

2. http://news.usni.org/2015/12/18/document-office-of-naval-intelligence-report-on-russian-navy

3. N. Novichkov, V. Nikolsky “The Russian Navy: Will There Be a Revival? Part I,” Military-Industrial Courier, # 27 (444) of July 11, 2012. [in Russian]

4. N. Novichkov, V. Nikolsky “The Russian Navy: Will There Be a Revival? Part II,” Military-Industrial Courier, # 28 (445) of July 18, 2012. [in Russian]

5. The “vertical envelopment” tactics provide for blocking the enemy’s anti-amphibious assault defense through helicopter landings in the rear, followed by landing from the sea on this part of the coast of the sea-borne troops’ assault echelon in amphibious armored vehicles.

6. http://www.sdelanounas.ru/blogs/63950/

7. http://www.business-gazeta.ru/uploads/2013/june/kamaz.pdf

8. http://pr.bmstu.ru/?p=22499

9. Captain II rank D. Shinkarenko “Works in the United States, Great Britain and France on the modernization and development of a new generation of amphibious boats,” Foreign Military Review, # 4, 2012 Pp. 79-88 [in Russian]

10. Given these peculiarities, Lavina and Priboi projects of ocean-going amphibious assault ships cannot be considered competitors, as they complement each other.

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