Staunton, August 11 – Moscow has announced an ambitious program to expand its military fleet especially in the Arctic, but Norwegian defense analysts say that the Russian government is unlikely to be able to complete this program in the timeframe it has announced. As they put it, “bragging about new vessels is one thing; building them is another.”
Many in the West have been impressed and even alarmed by Moscow’s declarations of plans to build a modern fleet in order to project power into the Arctic and elsewhere; and if Moscow were to have such a fleet, it would fundamentally change the balance of forces there and elsewhere given the absence of similar plans in Western capitals.
But as Thomas Nilson of “The Independent Barents Observer” points out, there is a huge gap between what the Russian authorities have announced and their ability to implement these plans within the short time frames they outline (thebarentsobserver.com/security/2016/08/no-breaks-russias-warship-program-experts-question-timeframes).
Katarzyna Zysk of Norway’s Institute for Defense Studies, told him that “there is no doubt that Russia is willing to build the new warships,” but its current time frames and scope are “another question” entirely given Russia’s economic difficulties, including those resulting from the sanctions regime.
Since Vladimir Putin called in 2013 for a boost in Russia’s military presence in the Arctic, Russian naval planners have come up with a variety of proposals for new ships, including next-generation nuclear-powered icebreakers that Moscow claims will be able to “cross the North Pole in any direction, any time of year, in any ice thickness” (izvestia.ru/news/624429).
Zysk says that Russia’s program envisages three stages: “First, building ships with focus on the littoral zone with the Steregushchij class corvette as the main ship; second, constructing vessels intended for long-range operations, with new frigates of the Admiral Gorshkov class as the main asset, and at the third stage, building a new class of destroyers.”
If that program is realized, Russia would represent a far larger threat in the region; but the Norwegian expert points out that “Russia has been struggling with implementing the program even at the first stages due to economic, financial, as well as structural problems in the military-industrial complex, which continues to struggle with corruption, ineffective use of resources and exorbitant prices, as well as waning expertise and professional skills.”
At present, she says, the Russian navy is enthusiastic as is the Russian political elite, but “the future of the surface shipbuilding programs” has “fragile foundations.” That is because Moscow “has been prioritizing warfare over welfare in the past few years, financing the military build-up on the expense of health budget, social spending and education. This comes with a high social price, as the steep fall in living standards has demonstrated.”
Moreover, the shipbuilding effort has been hampered by Western sanctions which have meant that Russian construction firms cannot buy gas turbine engines from Ukraine or diesel engines from Germany as they had planned. There are no good substitutes at present for either, Zysk suggests.
Kristian Åland of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment agrees. He doubts that Russia will be able to put the new class of destroyers to sea before 2025 “at the earliest,” far later than Moscow claims or that many Western commentators fear. He adds that the icebreaker program is also likely to be delayed given “technological or financial constraints.”
This will have other consequences for Russia, Zysk says. “If Russia [ends] up not being able to pay salaries, the naval construction and other military projects will obviously be negatively affected … Broader consequences such as political instability, domestic, as well as in terms of foreign policy, are among likely outcomes,” she says.
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