AFTER THE KURSK DISASTER

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Oleg Odnokolenko Itogi, No. 32, August 13, 2002, pp. 12-15

A strategic outcome of the tragedy in the Barents Sea: the Russian Navy has turned from “the poor relation of the state” into the main combat arm of the military. It has become a real priority for the government, and has been given more funding than it had over the previous few years.

LESSONS

The majority of specialists predicted after the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine that the Russian Navy would be ousted to the wayside of military development. However, the situation developed the other way. It sounds as blasphemy, but the last breath of the Kursk’s crew became the first breath of a fully-fledged reform in the Navy. In July 2001 the government signed the Naval Doctrine, which defined what kind of the Navy Russia needed. After that the state revived the Naval collegium headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov. A bit later high ranking officials made the colors over the Gepard nuclear submarine and laid the Steregushchii corvette the construction of which will be based on the Stealth technology. Minister for Industry Ilya Klebanov stated that problems of the Russian Navy were “problems of the state”. President Putin emphasizes the importance of the Russian Navy when he has the chance to. According to our sources, the Leningrad naval base has placed an order with the Severnaya Verf shipyard to build a barge. The vessel is to be built by March, by the celebration of St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary. It is believed that President Putin will take part in the parade in St. Petersburg on board this ship (the unofficial name of this ship is “Putin’s galley”).

THE FAVORITE

During the “pre-Kursk” period ground generals gained the upper hand over admirals. This tradition was ruined after the Kursk disaster. Officials stated that in the near future the main part of Russia’s nuclear potential would be concentrated on underwater missile-carriers, not in the Strategic Missile Force. This means that the Navy is becoming a priority object of funding.

As a consequence, the naval sector of the Russian military-industrial complex, which had been kept on starvation ration for a long time (the main resources were spent on building the Topol missiles), currently is in the state’s good graces. The defense industry has urgently launched the Dmitry Donskoi heavy missile cruiser, in the presence of Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The Severodvinsk nuclear submarine has been rusting in the docks for ten years. The same applies to the Yury Dolgorukii submarine (fifth-generation). But now these warships have a realistic prospect of actually sailing.

Moreover, on the eve of the exercise in the Caspian Sea the leadership remembered about an exotic thing, winged surface effect vehicles. The USSR designed several types of ships hovering over the sea: the Orlenok landing vehicle, which could carry a company of marines, and the Lun missile vehicle, which could destroy an aircraft-carrier. Russia currently intends to restore and upgrade them.

Admirals’ plans include intention to return to the world’s oceans. This means a cardinal revision of the defense budget, since the state has to invest huge sums in each mission in the ocean. Strengthening of the oceanic status of the Russian Navy means that Vladimir Kuroyedov has managed to pin down his rivals whose appraisals of the Navy’s future were somewhat different. For instance, judging from one of the versions of the military reform considered by the Kremlin the role of the Navy boiled down to protecting the sea border of the Russian Federation – a very unpretentious task. Generals planned to shoulder the function of nuclear containment on the Strategic Missile Force.

The fact that President Putin supervises many issues connected with the revival of the Russian Navy personally shows that people in black overcoats have obtained a special status. As is known, the president attended the defense of Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov’s doctoral thesis, which has become the foundation of the Naval doctrine. Itogi’s trustworthy sources said that Vladimir Kuroyedov’s rating has substantially increased during the time, which has passed since the Kursk disaster. Sources in the Defense Ministry assert that he has become one of the most influential commanders-in-chief in the country. He meets with the Kremlin’s officials and the defense minister more often than his colleagues. This fact has given birth to rumors that in the prospects Admiral Kuroyedov may replace the incumbent defense minister.

A SEA-GREEN BUDGET

Over the past ten years, the number of combat units of the Russian Navy has decreased by 150%. Meanwhile, the Main Staff of the Navy assures that despite this fact the actual combat capabilities of the Navy have decreased only by 45% to 50% in the oceanic zone, and by 25% to 30% in the near-shore zone. Admirals say that the Navy can cope with its tasks. As for the Navy’s prospects, they depend on the defense budget. Admirals think that the state should spend 20% of the military budget on the Navy’s needs (at present this indication is below 8%).

If this does not happen the Navy will continue losing combat units, and only 100 to 120 warships will remain by 2010. According to the worst-case scenario, Russia may lose the status of a sea power by 2015.

Even the most approximate analysis shows that in the near future Russia’s rivals in the sea will double their naval potentials. Western countries spend around 30% of military budgets on realization of national shipbuilding programs. Russian seamen hope that funding of the Russian Navy will soon increase. Vladimir Putin recently stated that “it is high time for Russia to understand the Navy’s role in the country’s defense system and stop treating the Navy as a poor relation”. Can the Russian shipbuilding industry and economy realize these wishes?

Vladimir Pospelov, Director-General of the Russian Shipbuilding Agency, says that the share of the state defense order in the Russian shipbuilding industry amounts to 70%, and almost a half of this is export contracts. Russian shipbuilders intend to display the Amur diesel submarine (generation four) and a new warship at the first international naval show, which will be held in St. Petersburg next summer. To all appearances, the Russian industry will offer other new warships at the show. The naval show will cost the state around 40 million rubles. But when will the Russian Navy receive new warships?

THE SIZE MEANS NOTHING

The military and political leadership are disputing over tactical issues of the naval reform. For instance, the question what kinds of submarines Russia needs has become very topical after the Kursk disaster: a few gigantic “underwater space centers” or many small and maneuverable submarines?

Many experts think that the mania to build gigantic submarines has not justified itself. The probability that a big submarine will be destroyed is three times higher. Nevertheless, it is very likely that the naval strategic nuclear component will be based on submarines of gigantic displacement. Anyway, such submarines have not been scrapped. Why? To all appearances, inertia has played its role. The point is that both the Typhoon and the Kursk were designed when the world was bipolar, and the USSR could only attack its potential enemy from under the ice of the North Pole. Such giants were built for being used in the Arctic zone. At present, the strategy has changed. However, changing technologies, technical drawings, and designers’ philosophy takes many years.

Revival of the Navy’s oceanic status touches upon another acute problem, which the Kursk disaster has revealed. The matter concerns rescuing the crews of sunken submarines. Judging from the Naval Doctrine, Russia intends to use its warships and submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the Arctic zone. Realization of this task requires two to three aircraft-carriers, five strategic missile submarines, around 20 multipurpose nuclear submarines, and 80 to 90 warships.

Is Russia prepared to ensure the security of this armada, or rescue the crews of warships if necessary?

Practically all specialized rescue submarines have been scrapped, and diving complexes have been dismantled from the Navy’s vessels.

This is why Russia will have to restore practically everything.

It is hard to say if the naval idea has more supporters or opponents. But one thing is evident: it has become related to the national idea.

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