The Russian Navy’s woes after the fall of the Soviet Union are well-documented. During its glory years, the Soviet Navy was the second-most-powerful in the world. While it never quite reached the level of sophistication and supremacy enjoyed by the US Navy, the Soviet Navy was nonetheless quite well-equipped for its primary tasks: wreaking havoc on American expeditionary elements and deploying the sea-based leg of the USSR’s nuclear triad.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, much of Russia’s shipbuilding ground to a halt as the new Russian government cut funding in the face of an economic crisis. In fact, Russia during the 1990s barely had enough resources to keep its existing fleet afloat, let alone to continue conducting further research and development of naval technologies. For this reason, little progress was made in Russian shipbuilding during the two decades after the collapse of the USSR. Some classes of small vessels (corvettes, missile boats, and patrol ships) saw post-1991 investment, but all large surface vessels launched after 1991 were based on Cold War designs and often laid down before the dissolution of the USSR.
That all changed in the early 2010s, when Russia began designing and producing two new classes of modern frigates, the Admiral Grigorovich-class and Admiral Gorshkov-class. This article will examine the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, which are a critical addition to Russia’s strategically located Black Sea Fleet. The fleet is based in Crimea, where most of its infrastructure resides, and a territory that Russia recently wrestled from the Ukraine. The Black Sea Fleet comprises Russia’s major power projection instrument for the strategically important Mediterranean region, which has been cast into the spotlight by recent events in Syria and Iraq. Tensions in the Black Sea and Mediterranean are high, owing to geopolitical instability and run-ins between Russian and NATO forces. Undoubtedly, the Grigorovich-class frigates will be a force to reckon with in the Mediterranean, as they bring capabilities to the table that were previously lacking in Russia’s outdated Black Sea Fleet. Three Grigorovich-class vessels have been launched, while three more are under construction.
Understanding the capabilities of Russia’s new Grigorovich-class frigates is important for understanding Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, or Eastern European military affairs, as these vessels would likely be involved should any sort of a conflict flare up in the region.
It is worth noting that, while the Grigorovich-class represents a step forward for Russian shipbuilding, its production does not mean that Russian shipyards have caught up to their Western and Asian counterparts. In fact, Russian shipyards are still having severe difficulties producing anything more complex than the Grigorovich-class. Those issues are documented in another article on the larger Gorshkov-class frigate.
The Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate: weapons and systems
Cold War Soviet ship designers usually envisioned a specific role for each of their ships. Instead of designing one multirole vessel, the Soviet naval establishment preferred producing multiple classes of similar displacement, each tailored for its role. The Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate appears to represent a departure from this approach, as it has no clear specialization and is a truly multirole vessel.
The design philosophy of the Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate is more similar to its Western-European peers such as the FREMM and the Type 26, which are equipped to employ a diverse array of weapons. At 3,620 tons, the Grigorovich-class vessels are much smaller than contemporaries such as the French FREMM or Indian Shivalik-class frigates. Grigorovich’s 3,620-ton displacement is on the low end for a modern guided missile frigate. However, there is one major difference between the Grigorovich-class and most Western frigates, and that is the air defense suite.
The Grigorovich-class frigates have an air defense suite based on the 3S90M Shtil-1 missile, which has a range of around 32km and was introduced in 2004. The Grigorovich houses its 24 Shtil-1s in VLS cells (these VLS can only be used to launch Shtil-1s). Many Western frigates such as the FREMM and the upcoming Global Combat Ship utilize missiles which are more capable than the 3S90M.
The Grigorovich-class vessels also carry a small number of Igla-E missiles, which have a range of only 5km and are used for point defense. Illumination for the 3S90Ms is provided by the MR-90 Orokeh fire control radar. The 3S90M’s range is much shorter than the air defense missiles fitted to the frigates of many other Western navies. While 32km is enough range to defend the ship itself against most aerial threats, 32km may not be adequate for performing area air defense. Also, any aerial missile attack against the Grigorovich-class would pose little risk to the attacking aircraft, as the 3S90M’s 32km is less range than that of most air-launched anti-ship missiles.
The Grigorovich uses a Fregat M2EM air search radar to detect aerial threats. The Fregat radar, according to its Russian manufacturer Concern Morinsis-Agat, can detect fighter-sized targets at out to 230km and missile-sized targets at out to 5okm. Russian companies have a tendency to exaggerate system performance, and exact detection ranges for radars tend to be guarded figures, so these cited ranges may be rough approximations or even exaggerations. However, because there is no other open-source information available on the Fregat radar, these figures are the only way to gauge the performance of the radar. The range figures put forth by Morinsis-Agat are good for a small frigate but lackluster compared to an advanced air defense ship, as would be expected. One interesting consequence of the Grigorovich-class’s setup is that the range of the radar far exceeds the maximum engagement range of the missiles carried. For comparison, the SPY-1D(V) radar set mounted to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer can detect missile-sized targets in excess of 310km, far greater than the 50km cited for the Fregat. Of course, many factors, such as line of sight restrictions, limit actual detection ranges. Nevertheless, it is clear based on the air defense configuration that the Grigorovich-class frigate, unlike many other modern frigates, is not intended as an air defense escort ship; that role is undertaken by the larger and more-capable Gorshkov-class.
The Grigorovich-class’s offensive armament, however, is quite formidable for such a small frigate. The Grigorovich-class vessels feature an eight-cell UKSK VLS system, which is capable of launching 3M-55 Oniks and 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles. The Oniks is a modern supersonic anti-ship cruise missile capable of attaining speeds of up to Mach 2.5 using its ramjet. Its 370-mile range is also noteworthy, especially for such a fast missile. The Kalibr is a subsonic missile capable of performing Mach 2+ terminal sprints upon approaching its target. The Kalibr’s range is much longer than that fo the Oniks. Kalibr variants exist for both land attack and anti-shipping, so the Grigorovich-class could theoretically perform anti-shipping and land-attack simultaneously. Unlike multipurpose VLS cells such as the Mk 41, the UKSK cells can only launch 3M-55 and 3M-54 missiles and cannot accept anti-air missiles.
The Grigorovich-class also mounts a variety of auxiliary weapons. A 100mm A-190 naval gun is prominently featured; this gun is much larger than the naval guns fitted to other vessels of a similar displacement. In addition to the Igla launchers, the Grigorovich-class vessels also have two Kashtan close-in weapons system units, which utilize rapid-fire autocannons and 9M311 point defense missiles to defend the Grigorovich-class against missile attack or close passes by aircraft. The inclusion of both Igla-E missiles and 9M311 missiles in the ship’s armament is curious, considering the overlap in range and role of the two systems. One possible explanation is that the 9M311 are intended for high-end anti-missile use in conjunction with the Kashtan, while the Igla are a last-resort weapon for use mainly against aircraft. Other weapons include two 533mm torpedo tubes and an RBU-6000 anti-submarine rocket launcher.
Overall, this armament suite is quite extensive for a ship of this displacement. The loadout of the Grigorovich-class is comparable to that of the French FREMM, despite the latter displacing around 2,000 tons more.
Propulsion for the class is provided by a combined gas-and-gas marine propulsion system. The system uses two sets of gas turbines, one set of 8,450shp “marching” or “cruising” turbines that provide base power, and another set of “boost” turbines that provide another 20,000shp for higher speeds and for supplemental electrical power.
Russia originally planned to purchase six of these vessels but has since encountered issues. Specifically, Russia’s annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine prompted the Ukrainian government to halt exports of military equipment to Russia. Among the most critical systems that Russia purchased from the Ukraine were the gas turbines that power the Grigorovich-class. Russia had already purchased enough engines to outfit three ships, but now that Russia is no longer able to purchase additional engines, the future of the Grigorovich-class is unclear. The other three vessels, in various stages of construction, cannot be completed without their gas turbines, so Russia is looking to export them and recoup some of its funds. Indeed, the gas turbine dilemma has thrown a wrench into other Russian shipbuilding programs as well, illustrating how reliance on foreign industry for critical componentry has the potential to backfire. Whatever the outcome, the three Grigorovich-class vessels already completed will undoubtedly aid Russia’s quest to assert itself in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. While Russia may never operate more than three examples of the class, the Grigorovich-class and its counterpart the Gorshkov-class represent a new era of modern Russian shipbuilding which focuses on packing formidable equipment and weaponry onto a relatively small frigate platform. The main question going forward is whether or not Russian shipyards can use the lessons
Whatever the outcome, the three Grigorovich-class vessels already completed will undoubtedly aid Russia’s quest to assert itself in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. While Russia may never operate more than three examples of the class, the Grigorovich-class and its counterpart the Gorshkov-class represent a new era of modern Russian shipbuilding which focuses on packing formidable equipment and weaponry onto a relatively small frigate platform. The main question going forward is whether or not Russian shipyards can use the lessons learned during the Grigorovich-class project to produce a more sophisticated air defense escort. For an in-depth look at Russia’s effort to do just that, check out the next part in this series on Russian naval modernization: Gorshkov-class Frigate Production Challenging for Neglected Russian Shipbuilders.