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Tag: "russia"

Sunday Maritime Book Review: The Tsar’s Last Armada

[ 15 ] July 6, 2008 |

The Tsar’s Last Armada, by Constantine Pleshakov, tells the story of the transit of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the Straits of Tsushima, where it was destroyed by Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s battle squadron. The Baltic Fleet was dispatched in response to the successful Japanese blockade of Port Arthur, and to the Japanese victory over the Russian Pacific Fleet at the Battle of Yellow Sea. The Fleet, commanded by Admiral Zinovy Rozhesvensky, would circle Europe, Africa, and most of Asia on its way to Port Arthur, where it would break the Japanese siege and destroy Togo’s fleet. With the Japanese Navy destroyed, the Russians would presumably be able to cut contact between Japanese forces on the mainland and supply bases in the homeland.

It was not to be, but the trip, after all, is half the fun. Russian battleships (which were understood to be competitive with foreign contemporaries) were not built for a journey through the tropics, or really for any long range expedition. Similarly, Russian sailors were not prepared for the sort of journey that the Tsar ordered them to undertake. Among the more mundane problems the fleet faced was a lack of charts, a lack of suitable food, a lack of refrigeration, and a lack of appropriate medicines and medical treatment facilities. The less mundane problems included serial confrontations with the Royal Navy, which did not look kindly on the transit of a major fleet through areas it viewed as its playground. In an imagined confrontation near Denmark, the Russian fleet opened fire on a group of fishing vessels with fatal results. Near Gibraltar, the commanding Royal Navy officer mused about using the Mediterranean squadron to destroy the Baltic Fleet at anchor. The Russians also experienced friction with their French allies, who saw no reason to antagonize Japan and chafed at the presence of the Russians in their colonial waters.

The Russian fleet consisted of four modern battleships, four older battleships, three coast defense battleships, and various assorted support craft. This was a hodgepodge of several different squadrons, resulting from the somewhat confused instructions of Nicholas II. This had the positive effect of concentrating as much power as possible in the fleet, but the negative effects of creating a slow battleline (the line could only move as fast as its slowest ship), and producing a divided and confused command situation. Many of the Russian ships were obsolescent, incapable of doing serious damage to Togo’s battleships (although they certainly could have hurt his armored cruisers).

The bulk of the squadron left in October 1904. Port Arthur fell in January 1905, while the fleet was off the coast of Madagascar. The new Russian objective was Vladivostok; assuming that the Russian fleet would not be in condition to confront Togo right away, it would refit in the Far East Russian naval base and destroy Togo later. To get to Vladivostok, Admiral Rozhesvensky decided to take the Straits of Tsushima, rather than the longer route to the east of Japan. The Russian fleet, in poor mechanical condition and with low morale, sought to avoid battle with Togo’s fleet. Togo, on the other hand, decided that this was the time to destroy the Russians.

This was a riskier choice than Pleshakov (or many other commentators) let on. The Russian fleet, after all, was much larger than the Japanese. It was at a low ebb in terms of combat effectiveness, and the Japanese were at their maximum efficiency, but the presence of so many more guns weighed in the Russians favor. Moreover, Togo was at a significant strategic advantage. Since the fall of Port Arthur, the strategic rationale of the deployment of the Baltic Fleet had been lost. Vladivostok is roughly five hundred miles from the routes used to supply the Japanese armies on mainland Asia, and Admiral Rozhesvensky’s fleet could not have maintained itself on station long enough to significantly disrupt Japanese logistics. Any division of the fleet would leave it easy prey for Togo’s faster, more agile squadron. As such, all Togo needed to do to win was not to lose; the only result that could have transformed the situation would have been a Russian annihilation of the Japanese.

Pleshakov concentrates on the Russian experience, and so doesn’t have a lot of insight into Togo’s choice. Instead, he discusses the course of the battle, which is quick, devastating Japanese rout. Moreover, the story is told without much detail in terms of the tactical decisions undertaken during the battle. The Russian battleships catch fire, explode, and capsize one by one; little damage is inflicted on the Japanese. Admiral Rozhesvensky is knocked out early in the battle by a shell fragment, and is captured by the Japanese after his deputy, Admiral Nebogatov, surrenders his squadron without firing a shot.

Seven Russian battleships, including three of the most modern, were sunk. Four others were captured. Three of the thirty-seven ships in the Russian squadron made it to Vladivostok. Japanese losses amounted to three torpedo boats. Rozhesvensky, Nebogatov, and a couple of thousand other prisoners spent several months as guests of the Emperor, in conditions that were quite hospitable. Upon return to Russia after the peace treaty, Admiral Rozhesvensky, Admiral Nebogatov, and several captains faced courts-martial. Rozhesvensky took all responsibility for the defeat, probably saving some of his captains from the firing squad. Nebogatov, who certainly should have been shot, was sentenced to 16 years, commuted to two.

Pleshakov’s book is useful enough for the lay reader; it has an excellent description of the journey and a non-technical description of the battle. His discussion of the political situation of the war (and the greater strategic significance for the combatants) is quite weak, and anyone looking for an account of the course of the battle, or for details about the combatants, will be disappointed.

Sleeping Elephants…

[ 9 ] June 8, 2008 |

Let me go on record as saying that whatever minimal value there might be in returning Abkhazia to Georgia (and the value may indeed be negative, since the residents of Abkhazia don’t seem to want to return) is vastly exceeded by the costs of picking a fight, diplomatic or otherwise, with Russia. In other words, this is a situation into which NATO ought to be very wary of intruding, in particularly because of the possibility of emboldening the Georgians to do something stupid.

Via Nexon.

All You Wanted to Know About the Russian Navy

[ 2 ] May 27, 2008 |

…and a bit more at the new Russian Navy Blog. It’s not an official Russian Navy blog, but rather is run by an enthusiast who pays a lot of attention to Russian naval developments and translates Russian naval materials. My favorite feature thus far is “Soviet Submarine Disaster of the Day”, although “Incomplete Russian Capital Ship of the Day” runs a close second.

Further Indications that the World Has Changed

[ 16 ] May 14, 2008 |

The Chinese appear to be stealing an effective and marketable Russian weapon design; the Russian response is to threaten a lawsuit:

Russia is getting more and more upset at what it sees as Chinese making unauthorized use of Russian military technology. The latest irritation is the new Chinese diesel electric sub design, the Type 39A, or Yuan class. They look just like the Russian Kilo class…. The Russian sub building organizations are not amused, and are warning China of legal action if Yuans are offered for export (and in direct completion with the Kilos.)

Ah… I remember when this kind of problem was handled through bitter claims of ideological revisionism, dire threats of military action, and the rumbling of artillery along the Ussuri River. Now it all comes down to the lawyers…

Via Information Dissemination.

…Incidentally, we’re working on a paper on the intersection of intellectual property law and military procurement; if anyone knows a ton (or even a few pounds) about the issue, please drop me a line.

Russian SSBNs not Patrolling

[ 0 ] May 4, 2008 |

Hans Kristensen has a good post on the inactivity of Russian SSBNs:

The number of deterrence patrols conducted by Russia’s 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missiles submarines (SSBNs) decreased to only three in 2007 from five in 2006, according to our latest Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In comparison, U.S. SSBNs conducted 54 patrols in 2007, more than three times as many as all the other nuclear weapon states combined.

The low Russian patrol number continues the sharp decline from the Cold War; no patrols at all were conducted in 2002 . The new practice indicates that Russia no longer maintains a continuous SSBN patrol posture like that of the United States, Britain, and France, but instead has shifted to a new posture where it occasionally deploys an SSBN for training purposes.

Kristensen notes that the SSBN schedule stands at odds with the tempo of the rest of the Russian Navy, which has increased substantially over the past year and a half or so. The short explanation, I suppose, is that SSBN operations don’t really convey all that much prestige; they sail into the Arctic and hide, but don’t impress anyone other than a few whales. Taking this a step farther, I think that it confirms impressions that the Russian Navy operates today primarily as a public relations organization.

I would also guess that the survivability of those Russian SSBNs in a hot war is pretty low; the Russian Navy is no longer capable of providing layered “fortresses” for its boomers as it did in the Cold War, and the old Deltas can’t be much of a match for modern US attack boats. Fortunately, no one seems to care.

Conflict in Abkhazia About to Get Unfrozen?

[ 0 ] May 1, 2008 |

This backs up something I heard at the recent International Studies Association meeting:

A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said that “a bridgehead is being prepared for the start of military operations against Abkhazia”.

Russia accuses Georgia of amassing 1,500 soldiers and police near the rebel areas of the upper Kodori Gorge.

Russia is hardly a trustworthy source on questions of Abkhazia (a part of Georgia that has sought independence since the 1990s), but the speaker at ISA suggested that Georgia has gone beyond talk and is beginning active preparations for an assault on Abkhazia. According to the presenter, the Georgians expect the Russian troops currently in Abkhazia to stand down when the invasion begins. This report comes on the heels of the shoot down of a Georgian UAV by what appears to have been a Russian MiG operating out of Abkhazia, a incident which Russia has implausibly denied.

In any case, it’s incidents and accusations like this that make me extremely leery of allowing Georgia into NATO anytime soon. Long story short, the Western Alliance really doesn’t need to get mixed up in an obscure border dispute between Russia and Georgia; there’s much to be lost and little to be gained.

Carrier Blogging

[ 28 ] April 15, 2008 |

A couple of aircraft carrier related links for your afternoon…

  • Via Danger Room, Martin Sieff has a new series at UPI on the vulnerability of carriers to submarine attack. Galrahn has a very useful critique here, pointing out in particular that the ASW component of the typical carrier battle group has shrunk in the past fifteen years. I’d add that several of Sieff’s historical assertions are plainly wrong; there were only 24 Essex class carriers, not “over 40″, and only 17 were commissioned prior to the end of the war. Also, interwar naval theorists and tacticians thought a lot about the threat that aircraft and submarines could pose to capital ships. Like Sieff, I wonder about the vulnerability of the modern supercarrier to attack, a subject which was discussed in this thread. No one has ever tried to sink a 90000 ton warship with a conventional torpedo before; I suspect that it would be rather a difficult task, even if a Chinese submarine got the drop on a US carrier.
  • An LGM correspondent forwards this, in which a Russian admiral again declares that the Russian Navy is planning to build five or six new carriers, and divide them between the Northern and the Pacific fleets. The target date? 2050, which is still probably a bit optimistic, given Russia’s history with carrier aviation.

Let’s Discuss Enlargement… No, Not That Kind of Enlargement

[ 0 ] April 2, 2008 |

Like Matt, I don’t have any principled opposition to Ukrainian membership in NATO. It will irritate the Russians, yes, but I don’t have a terrible lot of sympathy for Russia on this point; making it more difficult for Russia to intimidate its neighbors seems, on balance, like a good thing. It also seems as if NATO membership does have a real stabilizing influence on domestic political arrangements. I’m less interested in Georgia, in large part because “frozen conflicts” in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that risk putting Georgian and Russian forces in the field against one another.

On the other hand Ukranians, as opposed to a substantial segment of their political elite, don’t seem terribly enthusiastic about NATO membership. NATO membership would have genuine costs for Ukraine, in terms both of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia and Ukrainian military transformation. Like Poland, Ukraine has virtually bankrupted its military transformation process through participation in Iraq. Things have gotten better since the withdrawal, but membership in NATO wouldn’t necessarily make things easier for Ukraine.

Dan at Duck does make a good point, however; how can President Bush claim that NATO is no longer in the business of defending against Russia, while at the same time claim that Ukraine and Georgia need to join so that they can remain sovereign and independent? Who, besides Russia, is threatening the sovereignty and independence of these two states? Dan makes the perfectly cromulent suggestion that robots might be the problem, but I’d still like further clarification from the President.

Or Maybe No Deal…

[ 0 ] February 29, 2008 |

This was quick; maybe rumors about Kitty Hawk were being deployed strategically?

India and Russia have ended a protracted dispute over the cost of a Soviet-era aircraft carrier which will be now sold at a higher price to the Indian navy in 2011, officials said Feb. 28.

Indian Defence Secretary V. K. Singh, returning from Moscow, said a new undisclosed price had been agreed upon for the 44,570-ton Admiral Gorshkov.

Russian export firm Rosoboronexport in 2004 signed a deal to refurbish the carrier for $970 million but last year demanded India pay an additional $1.2 billion.

Singh declined to give details of the negotiations but conceded “there will be a substantial increase in the “reworked estimate” for the modernization of the 30-year-old ship.

I have to think it’s unlikely that either a) the Indians will back out of a deal that they made yesterday, or b) that the Indian Navy will want to deploy two carrier battle groups (likely with different aircraft) in the near future. So I’d have to say that the chances of the transfer look dim.

Kitty Hawk to India?

[ 0 ] February 28, 2008 |

Last August I wrote:

It’s unclear whether the Indians will keep Viraat around for another three years or accept a carrier deployment gap. It’s kind of interesting to me that, in spite of our newfound tight friendship with the Indians, I haven’t heard a peep about selling India one of the six supercarriers the US currently has rusting in mothballs. Although five of the six have been stripped down (Kennedy is just beginning the process), I can’t imagine that they’re in much worse condition than the Russian ship, and even though older, the US carriers are much larger, more effective platforms than the Russian Gorshkov will ever be.

And now, via Drum:

As reports begin to suggest that Russia and India are too far apart to agree on the Gorshkov refit, speculation grows that the USA intends to solve India’s problem with a stunning offer during Defense Secretary Gates’ imminent visit to india. instead of retiring and decommissioning its last conventionally-powered carrier, the 81,800 ton/ 74,200t USS Kitty Hawk [CV-63, commissioned 1961], would be handed over to India when its current tour in Japan ends in 2008. The procedure would resemble the January 2007 “hot transfer” of the amphibious landing ship USS Trenton [LPD-14], which become INS Jalashva. The cost? This time, it would be free. As in, $0.

As a number of sources point out, this is a multi-pronged move that would achieve a number of objectives all at once. First, the offer removes all Russian negotiating leverage over India by removing the issues of sunk costs, foreign possession of the Vikramaditya, and any danger of being left without a carrier. The Indian Navy would be greatly strengthened, and its ability to police the Indian Ocean from the Straits of Malacca to South Africa would take a huge leap forward. Any additional work to upgrade or refurbish the carrier could be undertaken in India, providing jobs and expertise while maintaining full national control over the refit. The USA gains financial benefits of its own, as the Navy avoids the expensive task of steaming the Kitty Hawk home and decommissioning it. Americans would almost certainly receive maintenance contracts for the steam catapults, and possibly for some new electronics, but those economic benefits pale in comparison to the multi-billion dollar follow-on wins for Boeing (Super Hornet), Northrop Grumman (E-2 Hawkeye), and possibly even Lockheed Martin (F-16 E/F, F-35B). All of which works to cement a growing strategic alliance between the two countries, and creates deep defense industrial ties as well.

In short, pretty much everyone wins. Except for the Russians; they lose.

…I probably should actually explain why I think this is a good idea. On the US side, it makes good fiscal sense; the Kitty Hawk would be expensive to tear down and put into reserve, so giving her to the Indians actually saves money. The F/A-18 deal (or whatever fighter aircraft we sell) also makes a fair amount of economic sense, and down the road India may be another F-35 customer. The US also wins, I think, from an increase in Indian naval capacity; an extra carrier in the Indian Ocean makes for more secure sea lanes, etc. On the Indian side, I think it’s fair to say that the Kitty Hawk is significantly more capable than the Gorshkov is likely to be, even with the Russian refurbishment. Indeed, in a stroke India will have the second most powerful carrier fleet in the world. I’ve seen some concerns regarding the state of the Kitty Hawk; the JFK was newer, but in terrible condition when she was finally decommissioned. Again, this is basically a comparison issue, and I find it hard to believe that Kitty Hawk will be in worse condition that the Gorshkov. The Kitty Hawk will represent a leap forward in Indian naval aviation capability.

On the political side, the issues are with Pakistan and Russia. Of the latter, I could care less; the Russians promised to deliver the Indians a carrier at a certain time and at a certain price, and have failed utterly. If the Indians tell the Russians to fuck off it’s their own business, and not ours. The Pakistanis are more of a concern; as a direct military contribution the Kitty Hawk wouldn’t make that much of a difference in an Indo-Pakistani War, but it does send a message that we’re solidifying a relationship with India. But I’m okay with that; if we can solidify a friendly relationship with the world’s largest democracy without gutting the NPT, it’s a good thing.

Sunday Maritime Book Review: Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet

[ 14 ] February 24, 2008 |

Jurgen Rohwer and Mikhail Monakov wrote Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet in 2001, after the opening of Soviet archives had let considerable light onto Soviet Navy doctrinal and procurement decisions during the Stalin period. Rohwer is a German historian, and Monakov a Russian naval officer. The book concentrates on the period from 1935-1953, but inevitably compares that period to what came before and what came after. It’s a book that will appeal mainly to specialists, but that’s nevertheless chock full of yummy data and insight.

The Soviet Union emerged from the civil war with a small, obsolete fleet. While the Imperial Russian Navy had been a player, much of its strength had been destroyed at Tsushima, and new construction had not been sufficient to replace the losses before the beginning of the war (although the ships lost at Tsushima would of course have been obsolete by 1914 anyway). World War I served to weaken the reduced Russian Navy. Of the seven dreadnoughts built before or during the war, one exploded accidentally, one was scuttled by its crew to prevent seizure by the Germans, one was stolen by counter-revolutionaries and taken to Bizerta, and one burned down. Moreover, the three survivors were hopelessly obsolete by contemporary standards. The rest of the fleet wasn’t in much better shape.

Initial plans for reconstruction focused on the development of a force capable of executing a “jeune ecole” strategy; that is, an asymmetric force concentrating on sea denial and anti-commerce operations. Given the perilous state of Soviet industry, the weakness of the existing fleet, Russia’s geographic maritime limitations, and the profile of Russia’s most likely security threats, this was a sound assessment. However, there were other considerations. Although a revolutionary state, the Soviet Union proved just as susceptible to conceptions of prestige and power as any other state. The lesson of Mahan was that great powers had great fleets, and World War I had not sufficiently dissuaded the international community of this idea. Consequently, to be a great power the Soviet Union must possess a great fleet.

Plans were, to say the least, grandiose. The Soviet Union was cursed by bad maritime geography, in that the fleets protecting various parts of the USSR (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific) had great difficulty supporting one another in time of war. The solution was to build a fleet in each area that could establish local superiority. The 1937 construction plan called for the building of fourteen battleships and six battlecruisers by 1945. Eight would go to the Pacific, six to the Baltic, four to the Black Sea, and two to the Northern Fleet. Curiously, the battlefleets were to be complemented by only two aircraft carriers, one in the Pacific and one in the Northern. The irony of these plans is that, even in all of their unachievable grandiosity, they would have been insufficient to deliver victory on any front other than the Black Sea. By Soviet calculations, both the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Kriegsmarine would dwarf the Soviet contingents opposite them by 1945, and this assessment did not include an appreciation of the dominance that Japanese naval aviation would provide, much less an assessment of the German and Japanese geographic advantages.

The ship designs varied over time, with the battleships more or less resembling 60000 ton versions of the Italian Littorio class with 16″ guns, and the battlecruisers resembling the German Scharnhorsts, but with 12″ or 15″ guns. The aircraft carrier designs were considerably behind those of foreign contemporaries, being smaller, slower, and with a lower capacity than their American and Japanese counterparts. In addition to the capital ships a group of ten heavy cruisers was planned, displacing over 20000 tons and armed with 9 10″ guns. A substantial number of destroyers, submarines, and auxiliary vessels were also planned. In 1937 the Soviets approached the United States with a proposal to build Soviet battleships in American yards. Plans eventually emerged for a class of battleships displacing 45000 tons and armed with 10 16″ guns, but the US suspended cooperation after the Soviet invasion of Poland in fall 1939. Had plans gone forward, it’s likely that any construction would eventually have been incorporated in the USN.

The “big fleet” plans met resistance in the Navy, which resulted in the execution of a significant percentage of the naval officer corps. The Red Army also resisted the expansion of the Navy, as it would have placed a severe strain on Soviet industrial capacity during the mid to late 1930s. Nevertheless, Stalin felt that the prestige effect of having a large fleet was worth the expense. Indeed, he made the argument explicitly as early as 1933. The Soviet experience in the Spanish Civil War bolstered Stalin’s case, as he believed that intervention by the Kriegsmarine and the Royal Navy had given their respective governments a larger voice in matters on the peninsula. The focus on prestige also led to some odd claims in internal discussions, such as the argument that existing Soviet battleships (which, by objective measures, were some of the worst battleships in the world) outclassed all but a few of their foreign contemporaries.

A combination of the danger of war and the serious limitations of the Soviet industrial base forced a curtailment of naval procurement in the late 1930s. Two battleships were laid down, but never completed, along with a host of smaller craft. Interestingly enough, the battleship ambitions survived the end of the war. Although the new construction had been destroyed, new plans for battleships and battlecruisers were drawn up, including a 1950 plan for a class of 70000 ton behemoths. Two battlecruisers (35000 tons, 9×12″ guns) were actually laid down in 1951. In spite of the apparent dominance of the aircraft carrier during World War II, Stalin remained interested in naval aviation only in a supporting role. To his mild credit, this was defensible in the context of the Black Sea or the Baltic, although it would have proved disastrous in the Pacific or the North Sea. The response of the naval staff to these demands was polite acquiescence, but the battlecruiser and battleship projects were cancelled shortly after Stalin’s death.

Rohwer and Monakov aren’t going to win any awards for prose styling, and they don’t make much of an effort to reach an audience that isn’t already abnormally intersted in Soviet interwar naval policy. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of data here, and in particular a lot that would be of interest to scholars of statebuilding and international society. What we have here is a country which understood itself to be an international pariah, and that suffered from the most severe economic and geographic roadblocks to maritime power. Nevertheless, whether because or in spite of the Soviet disdain for international society, the USSR embarked on an amazingly expensive effort to match foreign navies on a metric of international prestige that was deeply tied to conceptions of imperial, colonial power. Naval professionals understood the roadblocks (both before 1933 and after 1953) and adjusted their plans accordingly, but the civilian leadership had different priorities. It’s tempting and at least partially true to chalk the programs up to Stalin, but nevertheless interesting that socially driven conceptions of prestige loomed so large in his decision-making, or alternatively that they structured his understanding of the meaning of Soviet national security. I suspect there are also some lessons to be learned regarding recent Russian proposals to build half a dozen carrier battle groups and deploy them in the Pacific and with the North Fleet.

If We’re Going All Retro, Wouldn’t an F-106 Have Been More Appropriate?

[ 0 ] February 5, 2008 |

The Russians seem desperate for attention. Alex:

Russian air force out again, in some strength; and exercising a whole range of types, including the White Swan…sorry…Tu-160 BLACKJACK, BEAR, BACKFIRE, and MiG31 and Su27 fighters into the bargain, to say nothing of jet tankers. For people who aren’t making a political point, they certainly look like it.

And this, via Defense Tech, is an awesome picture:


That’s an F-22 escorting a Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bomber. Ward:

That’s the kind of progress $200-plus million unit flyaway cost buys you. That’s how DoD rolls, baby!

And that Stealth technology sure comes in handy during an escort, don’t it? Here’s hoping the Russians don’t look out the window.

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