Russia’s Navy is growing and playing a greater role is Russia’s aggressive foreign policy posture for the first time in two generations, and the US seems – still – unprepared and unwilling to push back.
Russia’s military capacity has been severely limited since the end of the Cold War. It’s most noteworthy events were two Chechen Wars in the 1990s and early 2000s that went poorly, and the 2000 disaster that sank and killed all 118 sailors aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk. Even Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was poorly executed against a nominal military power.
Since Georgia, Russia has done better. The invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2009 was more or less flawless. The Russian involvement in Ukraine today is less so, but is also hampered by having to maintain the pretense of non-involvement.
Until recently, though, the Russian Navy remained in the doldrums of a post-Cold War retraction that saw it lose more than three-quarters of its ships by 2007. The Navy had not been used in anger possibly since before the fall of the Soviet Union.
But then naval forces were involved in the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, with little or no combat engagement (the head of the Ukrainian Navy defected to the Russian side early in the invasion). With Crimea, Russia regained the Soviet Union’s great warm-water port with relatively comparatively easy access through the Dardanelles and Bosporus to the Mediterranean.
In the Syrian Civil War Russia is really stretching its naval muscles. Ten ships are on station in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Russia reportedly has used another Soviet-era naval station in Tartus, Syria for support and deploying ground troops. Four others ships have fired cruise missiles into Syria from over 1,000 nautical miles away in the Caspian Sea, a capability it has not previously demonstrated.
In addition to Tartus, Russia now operates four forward operating bases and two airbases in Syria. Russia’s aggressive pace of operations and profligate use of ordinance has pushed ISIS back. Legal Insurrection discussed Russia’s performance in Syria, here.
This uptick in naval operations is a small sample, but may reflect a turnaround some anticipated. In March, 2013, Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn, U.S.N. (Ret.) noted the first steps of a Russian Navy renaissance. According to Capt. Fedyszyn, Russia’s revamped shipbuilding and a variety of new ships were and are coming into service, including three separate classes of submarine.
More recently, in November, Russia inadvertently (supposedly) disclosed plans for a “doomsday” underwater nuclear drone that could bypass US anti-missile defenses. Russia is also establishing a permanent base in the arctic, positioning itself for resource extraction and potential future expansion.
Current estimates are that Russia confronts a difficult task replacing surface ships as they fail or grow obsolete, but it may be that Russia is willing to absorb a period of short supply in order to design and build new ships more economically.
The U.S. Navy, in contrast, is shrinking rapidly, down to 273 ships as of August, 2015 from 316 on 9/11. While there there are bipartisan expressions of support for a significant growth into the low- to mid-300s in the next decade, that additional ship building has not been funded.
And while the US is in the early-stages of deploying next-generation technology, those technologies are unproven. The USS Zumwalt put to sea this month and may be the most technologically advanced ship afloat, but it cost $4 billion, is being downplayed as a tests platform with questionable utility, and the original plan to build 32 Zumwalt-class ships has already been slashed to 3.
The USS Ponce went to sea in 2014 with the US Military’s first combat laser (as opposed to targeting, dazzling or other non-lethal purposes), but that laser system is relatively small and it remains to be seen how it will perform and whether it can scale up to a weapon with more operational ability.
Nor is the U.S. leadership deploying the Navy it has to great effect. China’s quest to claim de facto dominion over the South China Seas proceeds and US opposition has reached the farcical. Instead of intentionally contesting Chinese dominion, the US actually apologized for flying a B-52 near one of the fabricated islands thank anchor China’s contrived claim.
Today the US still has far and away the most powerful navy on earth, but its future is uncertain in light of budget restraints and dubious political commitment in the executive. Russia’s Navy is just reemerging from a long hibernation, is deploying new ships at a steady clip and has a commander-in-chief with proven ability and commitment to regaining lost Russian military prowess.DONATE
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.