MOSCOW — As part of an ongoing evaluation of Russian procurement priorities over the next decade, President Vladimir Putin has officially postponed the development of a new aircraft carrier and a new class of nuclear-powered destroyers for the Russian Navy.
The decision to postpone these two flagship projects for the Russian Navy were reported by Russian daily Kommersant in mid-May, following a meeting between Putin and military leaders dedicated to drafting a rearmament agenda through 2025. The program will be a follow-on to a 19 trillion ruble (U.S. $337 billion) effort began in 2011, which ends in 2020. Despite the naval deferral, Russian rearmament will continue to focus heavily on strengthening its nuclear triad until at least 2025.
About half of the 2020 program was devoted to the Air Force and Navy. The division of the 2025 program remains unclear, although its priorities are straightforward.
"The 2025 program is a black box right now," says Pavel Luzin, a Russian defense industry analyst at Perm State University. "It has a lot of overlap with the 2020 program, which suggests it is aimed only to hide the failures of the current program. That isn’t to say the 2020 program failed, just that it has strayed far from its original financing and procurement goals."
In a quote carried by the TASS news agency on May 18, Putin said the 2025 program "will become the most important instrument in implementing Russia’s military and industrial policy in the spheres of defense and security through 2025 and beyond." He also used the opportunity to take stock of the progress made by the current modernization drive.
The overarching goal of the 2020 program was to rearm 70 percent of the Russian armed forces by 2020, though the nuclear forces would be completely replaced with new hardware. According to Putin, the aerospace forces will reach 68 percent renewal by year’s end. According to TASS, the ground forces are at 43 percent, and airborne troops are at 58 percent.
2025 program in brief
According to Kommersant, the outlines of the next Russian modernization program will focus heavily on building up Russia’s nuclear triad. The document reportedly calls for the completion of three intercontinental ballistic missile development programs: the RS-26 Rubezh (a development of the Yars-M), RS-28 Sarmat and the rail-based Bagruzin by 2020.
While the full scope of the 2025 program remains unknown, it will continue to focus on the procurement of fighter aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker derivatives, as well as larger orders of the new T-50 stealth fighter, Kommersant reported. Development of a new long-range bomber is also expected while production of the Tupolev Tu-160 is relaunched.
As for the Navy, the 2025 program will again prioritize the construction of new nuclear submarines and small (no larger than frigate-type) surface combatants. Although Russia’s new Borei- and Yasen-class submarine fleets have yet to be completed, the 2025 program calls for a new fifth-generation ballistic missile submarine known as the Husky class.
What was most telling about Putin’s 2025 modernization planning session was what didn’t make the cut: specifically the construction of a new aircraft carrier and the development of a nuclear-powered destroyer. Together, this signals the further postponement of Russia’s restored blue-water naval ambitions.
Surface combatants have again taken a backseat to the submarine fleet. This is only partly due to the historical priority submarines have held in the Russian Navy. Russia simply doesn’t have the shipyard capacity for large surface ships (most large Soviet ships were built in Ukraine) or the engineering know-how for reliable diesel-powered turbines (also built in Ukraine).
While a nuclear-powered destroyer may sound like overkill, it makes sense for the Russian shipbuilding industry: their expertise is in nuclear propulsion systems, said Luzin. As for a new aircraft carrier, it only makes sense in the context of Russia’s great-power ambitions. And as a status symbol, the existing, yet outdated aircraft carrier Kuznetsov works well enough.
Though not part of the 2025 program, Kuznetsov is receiving a major overhaul in September. The ship returned from a highly publicized deployment off the Syrian coast earlier this year. During that deployment, the ship showed serious signs of age and shortcomings — losing two fighters and claiming dubious contributions to Russia’s campaign in Syria.
The overhaul will cost about $700 million and will see new vertical launch tubes capable of housing Russia’s new Kalibr long-range cruise missiles and Oniks anti-ship missiles within the ship’s decks. It is an interesting development, and a reversal of Russian thinking on how best to use Kuznetsov.
Originally designed by the Soviets as a heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser, the Russian Navy reportedly removed the old Granit anti-ship missile tubes in the late 2000s to make room for a larger hangar bay. In this role, the service tried to reinvent Kuznetsov as something of a strike carrier. It was never clear that the tubes were really removed.
If Kalibr tubes are installed aboard Kuznetsov, it will actually make the carrier more useful — though perhaps more superfluous — than it was during the Syria expedition.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.