Gorshkov-class Frigate Production Challenging for Neglected Russian Shipbuilders

A Gorshkov-class guided missile frigate. Image credit: Jakarta Greater.

A Gorshkov-class guided missile frigate. Image credit: JakartaGreater.

Note: this article is part of a series on Russia’s naval modernization. For part one, see the article on the Black Fleet’s Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates.

Defense strategists and policy wonks will often speak of a country’s “defense industrial base,” a term for the industries that are involved in producing military hardware and its requisite componentry. Defense industrial bases, like a garden, must be cultivated or they will wither away and die. Of course, instead of water, defense industry requires payment and contracts to survive and continue to attract fresh talent.

While maintaining a healthy defense sector is costly and may appear frivolous, many nations nevertheless strive to maintain their in-house defensive capabilities. There are a few reasons for this. While purchasing equipment from other countries is an option, most governments would prefer to distribute contracts to companies which will employ their own citizens and recycle their salaries back into the domestic economy. Many defense jobs are blue-collar machining and engineering jobs with good pay, so keeping these industries means less discontentment among the working class. Also, in many states, nationalistic tendencies mean that producing one’s own equipment is a point of pride. When it is necessary to purchase equipment from a foreign government, inter-state arms deals tend to have “offset agreements” which attempt to secure some benefits for the domestic economy.

However, independence is perhaps one of the most important reasons to foster a domestic defense industrial base. As discussed in a previous article, arms sales tend to be politicized, and most countries will not transfer their products if they disapprove of the buyer’s policies or think that the buyer will likely use their equipment for nefarious purposes. Many advanced components, such as diesel and turbine engines, advanced radars, combat systems, and high-performance missiles, are only produced by a handful of nations; a situation in which all of these suppliers enact sanctions against a condemned state is not unfathomable.

This is a lesson that Russian shipbuilding officials are learning the hard way.

The Soviet Navy was once the world’s second-best. As stated in a  previous article on Russia’s Grigorovich-class frigates:

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 alive, let alone continue to conduct 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 development; all larger vessels launched after 1991 were based on Cold War designs, with few upgrades to critical systems such as radars and armament.

It would be an overstatement to say that Russian shipbuilding was completely decimated. After all, production of the recent Grigorovich-class was fairly successful, and other programs have been undertaken since then.

But to read too much into the modest triumph of the Grigorovich-class would be to miss larger systematic issues in the Russian shipbuilding regime. For one, the Grigorovich-class was a small frigate with a simple and proven air defense system. The Grigorovich-class may be modern relative to other Russian combatants, but its capabilities are far below that of the ships fielded by other powerful navies.

Large air defense escorts with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, long-range missiles, and advanced combat systems are a whole other beast, one which the Russian shipbuilding industry has struggled to tame. Russia’s current attempt at an air defense frigate, the Gorshkov-class, exemplifies some of the issues that crop up when a neglected industry tries to jump to state-of-the-art.

An overview of the Gorshkov-class frigate

A Gorshkov-class frigate under tow.

A Gorshkov-class frigate under tow.

During the 2000s, Russia realized it lacked an answer to the American Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers, which were designed from the ground-up to defend against air and missile attacks. The Gorshkov-class was envisioned as the solution. With an AESA radar, an S-300-derived air defense system, and long-range strike capabilities, the Grigorovich-class looked to finally bring the Russian Navy up to speed. Plus, Russia had long desired expeditionary capabilities, for which air defense escorts would be necessary.

The Gorshkov-class is a stealthy air defense frigate designed primarily for the anti-air and anti-surface roles. Its air defense suite is based on the S-350E Vitayaz missile system, which itself is derived from the S-300. The ship boasts 32 Redut VLS cells, each of which can house either one large 9M96 missile or four smaller 9M100 short-range missiles. Primary radar coverage is provided by a quadruple-faced 5P-27 Furke-4 AESA set. Together, these systems comprise the air defense suite often referred to as Poliment-Redut by Russian media outlets.

Compared to the more mature systems used in the Gorovich-class frigates, not much information pertaining to the Poliment-Redut system is openly available. However, one can assume that the Poliment-Redut should perform similarly to the S-350E upon which it is based. The S-350E Vitayaz was designed to partially replace S-300s in Russian service. The S-350E shares some components (most notably missiles) with the S-400 but is cheaper and less capable overall. The 9M96 missile has a maximum range of 120km, while the quad-packable 9M100 can engage targets out to 10km. While the 120km maximum range and advanced components are an improvement over previous Russian configurations, the 9M96 is still inferior in range to American naval missiles; the SM-6, for example, has a maximum range of over 450km, and the SM-2 can engage targets out to 180km.

A 50P6E transporter erector launcher, the launcher element of the S-350E system upon which Poliment-Redut is based.

A 50P6E transporter erector launcher, the launcher element of the S-350E system upon which Poliment-Redut is based.

The Gorshkov-class is notable for carrying an unusually potent anti-ship armament for a vessel of its size. The 16-cell UKSK VLS system can handle 3M-54 Klub cruise missiles and P-800 Oniks anti-ship missiles. Both are modern missiles capable of supersonic flight before impact. The UKSK is a multipurpose VLS system similar to the US Mk. 41, so the 16 UKSK cells could theoretically be used to launch other missiles in the future. The Redut cells, on the other hand, are bespoke and thus limited to firing 9M96s and 9M100s.

The Gorshkov-class’s other systems are relatively standard fare for a modern frigate; it mounts a 130mm naval gun, lightweight anti-submarine torpedo launchers, two Pashtan CIWS systems, and a Kamov KA-27 helicopter. The 130mm naval gun is significantly larger than the OTO Melara 76mms usually mounted to frigates of similar displacement.

Production difficulties

While highly promising on paper, the Gorshkov-class proved difficult to realize, as enumerated in an excellent report by Paul Schwartz of the CSIS. The saga began in 2006, when the lead ship of the class, Admiral Gorshkov, was laid down. The program was initially delayed by the kind of irregular funding characteristic of Russian surface programs. When the Admiral Gorshkov finally received the necessary attention, designers decided to upgrade the class’s combat systems to keep them state-of-the-art. While an attractive proposition, pre-production upgrades introduce extra risk into programs and tend to bog them down further, which is exactly what happened to the Admiral Gorshkov. The Vitayaz-derived Poliment-Redut was the main culprit. Development of the naval and land variants of the S-350E were concurrent, meaning Russia had to integrate an untested air defense suite into an untested naval platform. Ensuring compatibility between the various upgraded electronics systems also proved highly difficult for the shipbuilder.

The 40%-completed Admiral Gorshkov was eventually launched in 2010 with much work remaining. Many of its major systems suffered malfunctions during testing and construction, delaying the timetable further. Even once the ship had supposedly been completed, sea trials uncovered further issues, which Russian officials chalked up to inherent difficulties in testing such a novel and heavily-armed design. Schwartz, however, believes the Russians likely discovered additional flaws in the air defense system.

The difficulties were undoubtedly exacerbated by tensions with the West, especially during the later stages of construction, when Russian engineers had to troubleshoot the ship’s electronics and engines. If rapport was better, skilled systems integrators from a Western defense firm might have been enticed to assist in the effort. Instead, Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine precluded any sort of foreign help, save for perhaps the Chinese. Worse still, the Ukraine eventually decided to enforce a military goods embargo against Russia.

A sizeable portion of the Warsaw Pact’s military engineering was done in the Ukraine. When the Pact and the USSR dissolved, Russia continued to purchase military hardware, especially transport aircraft and gas turbines, from the Ukraine, and so Russia learned to produce these items domestically. This later backfired on the Russian defense industry, as Moscow had no domestic option when the Ukraine denied further sales of the naval gas turbines necessary to complete Gorshkov and Grigorovich-class vessels. Russian firms are attempting to engineer a substitute for the Ukrainian turbines, but turbine engines are notoriously difficult to perfect, so it will take Russian industry a while to produce a satisfactory replacement. In the meantime, the completed Grigorovich and Gorshkov-class vessels have no spares available, which will severely limit sea trials and training. German engine giant MTU also halted deliveries of its diesel engines, which were used in smaller vessels such as corvettes.

Russia’s difficulties with the Gorshkov class are not an anomaly but rather part of a wider trend. Similar delays and overruns were experienced by Russian firms rebuilding a Kiev-class carrier for the Indian Navy. Construction of the ship, later commissioned as the INS Vikramaditya, ended up taking five years longer than expected because of severe mismanagement and cost overruns. India’s indigenous carrier project, the Vikrant-class, has also suffered at the hands of Russian suppliers; Indian officials blame delays in Vikrant-class construction on late deliveries of crucial Russian components such as generators and gearboxes.

INS Vikramaditya underway during its delivery to the Indian Navy.

INS Vikramaditya underway during its delivery to the Indian Navy.

These overruns are unsurprising considering the state of Russia’s shipyards, which are desperately in need of modernization. According to a Russian defense website, Russian shipyard productivity is a meager 20% of the international average, and fundamental reforms are necessary to improve the situation. These issues stem from under-investment in the post-Soviet period; as a result, techniques such as 3D computer aided design and modular construction, which were perfected by other shipyards in the 1990s and early 2000s, have not been fully implemented in Russian shipyards.

The state of Russian shipbuilding is, in summary, quite dysfunctional and will not likely improve in the near future, as Russian firms must focus on engineering and integrating domestic replacements for the gear rendered unavailable by Western sanctions. Of course, the Russians could always turn to the Chinese, but to do so would wound national pride. More concretely, Chinese shipbuilders do not have the kind of advanced skills and expertise needed to overcome some of Russia’s challenges, and buying components from China could later backfire in the same way buying components from the Ukraine and Europe already has. As such, it appears that Russian officials would prefer to fix their own capabilities instead of continuing to rely on others.

Luckily for the Russian Navy, domestic submarine, missile, and aircraft industries are flourishing, so Russia has other options for projecting naval power in the near future. However, Moscow cannot hope to achieve its ultimate naval goals without improving its surface vessel production base; without high-performance air defense warships and a modern carrier design, the Russian Navy will never achieve the blue-water expeditionary capabilities it so desires.

The objective of this article is not to chastise the Russian government for under-investing in shipbuilding. After all, Moscow had to make hard fiscal decisions after the collapse of the USSR, and it was clear that some sectors of the bloated Soviet defense industry could not be retained. Nevertheless, the current state of Russian shipbuilding serves as a warning to all other powerful nations of the havoc that can be wreaked on a resource-intensive industry by 20 years of fiscal neglect.

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