Russian navy navigating stormy seas

Moscow (AFP) –


Russian officials regularly announce new mega-projects involving the navy, but in reality, the force is battling problems with state financing, ageing shipyards, and delays in fulfilling orders, experts say.

The Kremlin is keen to display the strength of its armed forces -- organising massive war games on NATO borders, backing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or showing off its "invincible" hypersonic missiles.

It also relies heavily on hyperbole.

During Navy Day celebrations last July, President Vladimir Putin delivered the landmark news that the navy would receive 26 new ships from local builders by the end of the year.

But in fact, experts say, only eight of the ships that joined the fleet last year were new -- the other 18 were old vessels that had been repaired.

Such overblown statements frustrate independent military analyst Alexander Golts.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu "has seriously said that over the last six years, the fleet has grown by 120 ships. He must be counting the lifeboats," he joked.

The exact number is not known but Igor Delanoe, defence analyst at the Franco-Russian Observatory, estimates that about 44 ships entered into service between 2013 and 2018.

Russia's naval shipbuilding is a combination of public and private endeavour.

The state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation owns about 40 shipbuilding companies, but has been criticised for poor quality of work.

Seeking to expand its global influence, Moscow launched an ambitious 10-year programme in 2011 to modernise its armed forces, including the navy.

Delanoe says none of the planned new ships was launched on schedule.

- 'Problems with discipline' -

Examples of recent difficulties include the renovation of the Komsomolsk-on-Amur submarine that took more than 10 years, and the 14-year-long construction of the Ivan Gren landing ship.

The most striking example of disastrous delays is the construction of the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, announced by officials as the Russian navy's most advanced ship.

It took 12 years to be completed before going into service in July 2018. Eight such frigates were planned, but only one has gone into service -- one of the projects hit hard by the crisis in Russia's relations with Ukraine.

Since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed some 13,000, Kiev has ceased military cooperation with Russia.

This caused problems since Ukraine used to make the gas turbine engines used in numerous Russian ships.

Moscow switched to a Russian manufacturer, NPO Saturn, but it failed to deliver the first replacement engines in 2017 as planned.

Another problem for shipbuilding is "irregular funding" for naval projects, says Delanoe, with Russian shipyards often reluctant to take on state contracts because "they don't know when they'll get paid".

Details on the military budget are hard to find, but Russia's state arms programme, GPV-2027, has allocated about 20 trillion rubles ($306 billion) to the defence sector for 2018-2027, with the navy expected to receive about 12 percent.

There are also problems with ensuring health and safety for shipyard workers.

In October last year, a 15-metre crane collapsed onto the bridge of the Admiral Kuznetsov, the navy's only aircraft carrier, while it was undergoing repairs and modernisation near the Arctic city of Murmansk.

It emerged that the accident was caused by a power cut that stopped the pumps and caused the floating dock where the ship was moored to sink.

One worker was killed and the Admiral Kuznetsov risks being out of service beyond the original 2021 deadline.

This was no isolated incident. In the last six years, three fires have been reported on submarines under repair.

"There are problems with discipline, with respect for safety standards, that are quite abnormal," said Delanoe.

- Syria role -

Russia nevertheless has "some reasons to congratulate itself", said Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of the specialised Arm Exports journal.

"We are managing to put ships on the water... and despite the competition, our ships continue to sell abroad."

Russia sells mostly submarines, but does not publish numbers on arms sales.

Among its transactions in recent years, the country has sold four submarines to Algeria and six to Vietnam, frigates to Vietnam and India, and four patrol boats last year to Algeria.

Amid a complex geopolitical situation and budgetary constraints, the Russian navy is gradually adapting and starting to build smaller ships that are heavily armed.

In a boon for the navy, the military operation in Syria that Russia launched in September 2015 to back Assad, saw the navy playing an active role.

The navy "played a strategic and geopolitical role for the first time in decades" after the collapse of the USSR, said Frolov.

"You can laugh about the Admiral Kuznetsov or the sinking dock... but if you look back at the state the navy was in up to 1997, you can say that the way it is now is the best possible result."