The U.S. and Russian Navies met to establish and further refine safety protocols and specify parameters regarding international navigational zones, maritime interactions, according to a Navy report.
The annual consultations, called the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the Waters Outside the Limits of the Territorial Sea, took place in Moscow May 25. Established in 1972, the bilateral agreement “codifies” the mutual interest of both sides promoting safety of navigation and flight in international waters. Do these meetings ever actually mean anything? Could they reduce tensions? Maybe, but maybe not.
Air-to-air intercepts were a specific part of the discussions, however the talks, which are pretty much standard procedure, raise an interesting question as to whether they are just a formality with little or no impact or an actual gesture or demonstration of sincere cooperation. The truth may involve shades of each, however any kind of dialogue regarding security is likely not entirely useless given the number of intercepts, close approaches and points of tension in recent years. In recent week and months, in fact, Black Sea operations from both Russian and U.S. Navies seem to be upticking, perhaps in response to Russian build ups on the Ukranian border.
The U.S. Navy regularly deploys destroyers, Coast Guard vessels and other surface ships into the Black Sea to demonstrate freedom of navigation, ensure stability and of course connect closely with NATO allies bordering the ocean such as Bulgaria and Romania. Some of these Eastern European countries, it could be argued, are potentially quite vulnerable given their proximity to Ukraine, Crimea and the Black Sea.
Furthermore, while the Russian Navy might not necessarily present a deep or “blue water” threat to the U.S. Navy, at least in terms of surface firepower, the coastal areas could be more vulnerable given that the Russian Navy does operate a large number of smaller Patrol boats and Corvettes similar to a U.S. Littoral Combat Ship. These kinds of ships can threaten ports, launch small boat attacks and fire weapons at closer-in ranges. They can also much more easily disrupt or threaten commercial shipping traffic as well.
The Russian Navy simply cannot compete with the U.S. when it comes to destroyers, carriers or other kinds of heavily armed open-water warships. Russia is known to operate only one carrier and a fraction of the destroyers operated by the U.S. Navy. Based upon 2021 assessments available by Globalfirepower.com, the U.S. operates as many as 92 destroyers, compared with Russia’s 15. By contrast, Russia operates 85 Corvettes, and the U.S. is listed as only having 21. This is a massive difference which, it could be surmised, might be part of the U.S. Navy rationale for building a large LCS fleet.
It also does not seem apparent that Russia is now immersed in any kind of large-scale acquisition or modernization of its heavy warship fleet. For example, Unlike China’s new stealth destroyer, Russia does not seem to have a Zumwalt, or even Flight III DDG 51 equivalent, as the country may simply not possess or wish to pursue the ambition of operating a massive Naval force sufficient to project major international power on the ocean. However, that does not mean Russia does not wish to compete and pose serious threats to rivals at sea, as it does possess some heavily armed warships and the range of modern sensors and weapons can, at least in some instances, compensate for larger numbers of actual warships to a degree. Furthermore, Russia Naval offensive power, while primarily appearing to be regional in scope, could rely upon smaller, agile, yet still armed lighter warships able to threaten coastal areas or exert control over Eastern European countries in the area.
Russian submarines, however, paint an entirely different picture, as they are considered to be extremely dangerous as well as numerous. Globalfirepower lists Russia as operating as many as 64 submarines, roughly comparable to the U.S.’ 68. Unlike its surface fleet, Russia’s undersea force is likely to be global in scope, perhaps in large measure due to the importance of nuclear-armed submarines. Also, a well-armed and capable fleet of submarines does indeed present a deep water threat to the U.S., as opposed to Russia’s smaller and less threatening deep water surface force, something which may contribute to the ongoing U.S. Navy effort to massively increase and speed up submarine production.
The Russian Navy is reporting progress with its second 955A Borei-class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine, an upgraded boat reported by Russian media outlet to incorporate some of the most advanced “quieting” technologies to ever exist.
Just last year, Russia deployed its first in series of at least seven upgraded Borei-A nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, called the 955As. The second one, called the Knyaz Oleg, is slated to enter service in July of this year, TASS reports. At least five more are on the way as well, according to TASS, which reports that three additional 955As are under construction and two more have been ordered. The first of the Borei class, the 955s, were fielded as far back as 2013, however the 955As are reported to incorporate a number of technical upgrades intended to lower the submarine's acoustic signature. While details of these kinds of innovations are likely not available for obvious reasons, several reports point to the nature of the new quieting technologies incorporated in the 955A design.
An interesting 2017 analysis written in navyrecognition.com highlights a few of the innovations informing Russian efforts to upgrade the 955 submarines to the 955As.
The sound-adsorbing coating together with specifically located onboard equipment provides for practically noiseless combat patrol. The sound-absorbing insulation composition changes with the emergence of each submarine, as well as the method to fix it to the hull. Unique technologies for the creation of high-density substances decreased the noisiness of modern submarines over 100 times against Cold War era U-boats,” the Navy Recognition report states.
The 955As also incorporated hydraulic jets for “covert movement” and a technology called “high-duty low magnetic hull” to lower noise even further and subvert acoustic sensors seeking to track them. One TASS report even claimed the 955As were even “quieter” than U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines, something which is of course completely unverified.
The boats carry up to 16 missiles with a significant range of 9,300km, roughly equivalent to reported ranges of the China’s new nuclear armed JL-3 missiles. Both of these nuclear weapons can, depending upon strategic positioning, introduce the possibility of placing the continental U.S. at risk from considerable distances.
What the Russian report does not incorporate is any comparisons with or details of the U.S. Navy’s emerging Columbia-class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines, new boats built with innovations which may make it the stealthiest submarine ever to exist. Of course many of the most impactful technologies intended to lower the boats’ acoustic signature are likely not available for security reasons, the Columbia’s are built with electric-drive propulsion, a technology which is of course much quieter than legacy hydraulic system. mobile electrical power to the submarine, systems of great relevance given the large number of advanced electronics built into the submarine. Newer kinds of command and control, computerized or automated navigational systems, and electrically-powered weapons and sensor interfaces.
Yet another way to remain less detectable is through the use of missile-tube launched undersea reconnaissance drones. Many of these drones are now being built by the Navy to bring new launch and recover surveillance systems to undersea warfare through the use of missile tubes. The technical ability to dispatch and track unmanned sonar and underwater reconnaissance systems, increasingly able to share data in real-time with larger host submarine platforms, can enable a large Columbia-class boat to linger more safely in “impossible to detect” locations, allowing forward-operating undersea drones to enter higher-risk areas to patrol for threats such as enemy subs.
The Russian Naval threat may indeed be part of the inspiration for the Navy’s ongoing surge to arm its surface fleet with upgunned mine-hunting, submarine-attacking Littoral Combat Ships armed with guns, drones, mini-sub-hunting undersea drones and new over-the-horizon missiles is quietly surging along beneath the radar of a large variety of pressing Navy topics at the moment.
However, the service is maintaining an ambitious production pace of new Independence-variant LCS ships, a shipbuilding pace which a Navy report says has not existed since the 1990s. The Navy recently completed acceptance trials for its LCS 28 in the Gulf of Mexico, a series of combat-preparation steps which includes testing the ship’s propulsion, electrical systems, maneuverability and “combat system detect-to-engage sequence,” according to a Navy report.
The Navy report also says the LCS is now the Navy’s second-largest surface ship class in production, behind the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyer program. Deliveries in recent years seem to affirm this pace, as three LCS ships were delivered in 2019, four in 2020 and the Navy is on track to deliver four this year as well.
Of course the Navy’s ambition to deploy a larger surface fleet is certainly established, so a high-optempo for LCS production is not a surprise persay, yet there is another interesting element to the equation which might easily be overlooked. Russian Corvettes. A larger and well-armed surface fleet of Navy LCS ships, able to drop sonar, launch drones to hunt submarines, shoot deck-mounted guns and even fire Raytheon’s over-the-horizon longer range Naval Strike Missile, can introduce previously unavailable tactical options for Maritime Commanders in high-risk coastal areas.
A quick look at Globalfirepower.com reveals that Russia operates as many as 85 Corvettes, compared with only 21 for the U.S. These kinds of faster, armed, shallow-water attack boats can conduct coastal patrols and reach strategically vital areas for submarine hunting and mine sweeping less accessible to deeper draft ships. They can also transport special ops, conduct reconnaissance missions and even perform certain kinds of land-attack or small-boat hit and run operations. Added to this equation is the fact that Russia is test-firing its new Corvettes in the Pacific, an area filled with islands, extended areas of coastline, ports and shallow water flashpoints.
A report last year published by Russia’s TASS news agency cites a live-fire exercise in the Pacific with its latest Project 20380 Corvette, by firing artillery and launching a Uran cruise missile against targets 40km away.By contrast, Russia operates eighty-five corvettes, and the United States is listed as only having twenty-one.
“The cruise missile successfully struck the surface target at a distance of about 40 kilometers from the warship at the designated time. Up to 10 ships and vessels, and also aircraft of the Pacific Fleet’s naval aviation were involved in the test-fire to provide security in the area and exercise control of the results of accomplishing the combat assignment,” the Russian Pacific Fleet press office said in a statement quoted by TASS.
The Project 20380 third corvette is designed to accomplish green-water missions, fight enemy surface ships and submarines and provide artillery support for amphibious assault operations. In addition, they are armed with multi-purpose artillery guns, surface-to-air missile/artillery systems, supersonic missiles and automatic artillery launchers; they carry a Ka-27 helicopter, displace 2,200 tonnes and have a crew of 99, TASS reported. The new corvette also tested its air defense weapons during Sea Trials in the Sea of Japan as part of the effort to fire off artillery at coastal targets.
Also interestingly, the Russian TASS report makes reference to the stealth properties of the corvette, stating that its construction is incorporating “radio absorption materials and specially designing the ship’s hull and superstructure.” A quick look at the ship's configuration confirms this as it appears to have a rounded bow and smooth, curved exterior, part of an apparent effort to minimize the return signal generated back to radar systems seeking to locate or target the ship.
Having a fast-growing fleet of well-armed, high-tech maneuverable LCS ships, able to reach 40-knots, change course, launch surveillance drones, find enemy submarines attack shore locations in shallow waters does appear to indicate the Navy’s growing interest in countering Russia’s Navy to a larger extent than what have previously been necessary.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.