Thursday, September 11, 2008

Russian Carrier Doctrine in the 21st Century, the Strategic Conundrum

Past Mindset/Present Doctrine

Cold War

Throughout the last half of the 20th century the Soviet Union faced a simple and clearly defined, though extremely challenging set of strategic requirements. The major threat faced by the USSR in this period came from the western alliance NATO, and any conflict between the two would have centered on the primary theater in northern Germany. The prospect of a large combined arms campaign across western Germany and on to the English Channel was the predominant strategic challenge for both east and west, and just as in 1942 the western allies’ jugular lay across the Atlantic. Supplying NATO formations in the field during high intensity operations on such a scale would require huge amounts materiel from the continental United States, were the bulk of NATO’s industrial power lay. Therefore severing NATO’s jugular through interdiction of the Atlantic Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) became the driving strategic focus of the Red Fleet, shaping its structure, operational & tactical doctrine, vessels, equipment, weapons and training. Consequently by the 1960’s the Red Fleet became a devastating tool of naval interdiction.

By the early 1980’s structurally the Red Fleet reflected the strategic requirements that drove its development; its two major strengths lay in tools of naval interdiction, the submarine arm and land based naval aviation, both of which were the most capable (and numerous) operational anywhere. The doctrine was simple, at the operational level the combination of conventional or nuclear submarine’s with long range, land based naval aviation directed by orbital & suborbital ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) assets. On the tactical level, local saturation of the battle space at the critical point through application of overwhelming numbers of both platforms and weapons. At both the tactical and operational level, this doctrine could be, and historically has been devastatingly effective if applied correctly.

Left: A Tu-22M Backfire Right: A Tu-16 Badger
Clearly the most formidable tool the Soviet Navy possessed in this period was its maritime strike capability. Red Fleet naval aviation was built on the long range maritime strike platform and anti ship missile (AShM), the most capable of which is the Tu-22M Backfire. The infamous Backfire boasts a refueled combat radius of several thousand nautical miles, a top sprint speed of over Mach 2, a maximum payload of 3 supersonic AShM’s and a powerful surface search radar. Coupled with the long range, supersonic AShM like the AS-4 Kitchen the Backfire became a truly fearsome maritime strike platform. During this time frame the Northern Fleet maintained 3 regiments of Tu-22M’s on the Kola peninsular poised to strike south into the Atlantic SLOC.

Tu-22M equipped with the deadly AS-4 Kitchen.
The driving factor behind the development of the Tu-22M and Soviet carrier evolution was the USN’s introduction of an extremely capable fleet interceptor, the F-14A~C Tomcat. When the Tomcat appeared on the decks of the USN’s super-carriers the Red Fleets primary maritime strike asset of the past two decades, the Tu-16 Badger was virtually rendered obsolete. The long range interception ability, high speed and multi target engagement capability provided by the revolutionary AWG-9/AIM-54 Phoenix radar missile combination, in conjunction with E-2A~C gave the USN the ability to detect, track and engage Tu-16 strike packages well outside of the Badgers AShM engagement envelope. In order to counter the lethal threat of AEW controlled, AWG-9/AIM-54 equipped, long range interceptors, a platform that could fill the Tu-16’s role with comparable or better range/payload performance and a top sprint speed of Mach 2+ was clearly required. The primary alternative, the Tu-22B Blinder was originally designed in the 1950’s. The platform however proved to be an abject failure, with poor reliability and range/payload performance. It was only produced in small numbers. Consequently it never comprehensively replaced the Tu-16 in front line formations. The eventual answer to the changed threat matrix was the vastly improved Tu-22M.

Left: an F-14 carrying a 6x AIM-54 Phoenix load Right: A Tu-95 intercepted by an F-14

Soviet Carrier

The evolution of modern soviet carriers was like the rest of the Red Fleet shaped by the strategic landscape of the cold war. Unlike the classical western train of thought on the use and purpose of the aircraft carrier, primarily power projection, Soviet doctrine did not view the carrier as a means of offense on its own. This is clearly evident in the first generation of Soviet cold war aircraft carrier, the Kiev class Heavy Aviation Cruiser. Equipped primarily with ASW helicopters and only twelve Yak-38 STOVL fighters, the Kiev’s aviation component was more akin to the intended (pre Falkland’s) use of the Invincible class as ASW platforms with a limited fleet air defense component. Designed to be the centre of surface ASW groups, the Kiev class were far from true carriers. The Kiev’s primary firepower lay in its organic AShM load, which is typical of the primacy Soviet doctrine placed on this form of weapon.

A Kiev Class Heavy Aviation Cruiser

There was however a significant shift in doctrine during the 1970’s. Due to the increasing lethality of the USN’s fleet air defense and maritime strike capability, the first true Soviet carrier was designed and commissioned. The first of its class, the 65,000 tonne Admiral Kuznetsov was and is the only true, operational Soviet carrier ever built. Equipped with a ski jump and arrestor gear, Kuznetsov can operate conventional fighters using Short Take Off but Assisted Recovery (STOBAR) techniques. Embarking a squadron of 12~16 Su-33 Flanker D fighters the Red Fleet could for the first time project a credible fighter force into the North Atlantic and beyond.

Kuznetsov had two primary effects on the cold war naval balance. For the first time Soviet ASW surface groups operating in the western Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean could enjoy credible organic fighter cover, something that had been severely lacking previously. But perhaps more importantly, now the Red Fleet had the ability to put capable fighters deep into the North Atlantic, which could then provide land based maritime strike packages with fighter escort during the terminal phase of an engagement. This would have a dramatic effect when facing a USN carrier battle group or heavily escorted convoy. In addition to attempting to intercept an inbound strike package’s ingression at Mach 2, any F-14A~C would now have to contend with a counter engagement threat. An F-14 supporting several AIM-54 missile shots would have to maneuver if engaged by an R-27 equipped Su-33, which would in turn have a dramatic effect on the Phoenix shot’s probability of a kill (PK). Providing the Tu-22M with a fighter escort would not only increase the package’s survivability but lethality as well, allowing more missile’s to be launched before interception which is critical to Soviet doctrine of battle space saturation.

Left:The Admiral Kutznetsov Right:An Su-33 Flanker D
Obviously the Soviet carrier force was designed around a distinctly different doctrine to its western counterparts, intended from the outset to work closely with the Red Fleets primary strike asset; the land based supersonic strike aircraft. The Kiev’s and Kuznetsov clearly show the Atlantic/cold war centric strategic thinking that dominated every aspect of the Red Fleet, illustrated by the fact that Soviet carriers were only designed with true power projection as a far afterthought; Kuznetsov embarking only 5 strike capable platforms. In short the Soviet aircraft carrier was designed completely around a specific set of strategic requirements with only one potential foe in mind. For better or for worse, this is the carrier force and doctrine that the modern Russian navy has inherited.

The Strategic Conundrum

After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, like most of the Soviet military the Red Fleet fractured into several national formations distributed between the former Soviet Republics. The largest slice of this massive pie was left to the largest former Soviet Republic, the Russian Federation. However the modern Russian Navy is but a shell of the former Red Fleet. After widespread economic collapse and massive funding shortages during the 1990’s dozens of vessels and aircraft were decommissioned, scrapped or simply left to rust in port. The carrier force was not spared either, with all 4 Kiev class cruisers sold to the Peoples Republic of China (Currently Kiev is now an operating military theme park in the port of Tianjin China, Minsk is being fitted as a museum in China) , broken up (Novorossiyk), or undergoing re-fit in order to be sold to India (Admiral Gorshkov). The only operational carrier left in the Russian navy is the Admiral Kuznetosv. The same bleak story is repeated across the breadth of the Russian navy, with land based Naval Aviation and the Submarine Arm suffering terribly throughout this dark period.

Left:A Foxtrot class SSK rusting in a Russian naval base. Right:Kiev world military theme park, Tianjin
However, fueled by high global demand for energy, oil rich Russia has seen a remarkable economic resurgence of late, allowing a significant increase in funding for the whole Russian military. Notably this precipitated the resumption of Strategic Bomber patrols in 2007 and the first operational deployment of a carrier battle group to the Mediterranean for over a decade. These are small steps, but they are the first on the long road out of the dark days of the 90’s for the Russian navy.

The strategic terrain facing the Russia in 2008 is vastly different to what the Soviet Union faced in the 1970’s and 80’s. There is now no longer any major threat to mainland Russia and no realistic possibility of a war of national survival in the foreseeable future. Therefore the driving strategic focus of virtually every aspect of the Red Fleet, naval interdiction of the Atlantic SLOC, is now a moot point. Currently the Russian navy faces the conundrum of being equipped with an operational doctrine, structure, vessels, weapons and training, all heavily optimized for a set of strategic requirements that no longer exist. In more ways than one Russia stands at the strategic crossroads.

The Contemporary Strategic Landscape

The strategic challenges facing Russia in the early 21st century differ greatly from the last half of the 20th. Apart from the fact that any real (rather than perceived) threat from NATO is now gone Russia finds itself in a greatly different position to its Soviet ancestor. The overarching strategic goal is vastly different to the ideological struggle with the west that dominated the Russian/Soviet thinking during the cold war. The contemporary prize is not ideological supremacy over a dreaded enemy, but economic growth through tapping global markets. Therefore Russia’s mid term strategic goal has shifted to becoming a viable global alternative to the US as the guarantor of local security for smaller nations.

Becoming the guarantor of regional security does grant a level of political hegemony, but more importantly it secures economic ties and reduces impediments to trade. The economic rewards of regional hegemony are clearly evident in America’s position in the Middle East, which provides the US with both a significant source of foreign investment and a large portion of its energy requirements. This fundamentally different strategic landscape posses some interesting challenges to Russian decision makers in the mid term, which will have to change not only their military structure and posture, but the way they are viewed by both the wider global community and themselves.
20% of the US's crude oil imports are from hegemonic allies in the middle east.

Emergent Russia now faces a brand new set of strategic goals, however does not currently now have the tools, or more fundamentally the doctrine to achieve them. The Russian navy is still visibly the mired in the cold war, with what operational units it has left geared heavily toward naval interdiction. If Russia is to be successful in providing security to areas of the globe that stretch beyond its current sphere of influence then it must eventually turn to its navy as a tool of power projection, something the Soviet Union only contemplated but never truly achieved. Central to this question is the current and future carrier force and specifically what role it will play in Russia’s forthcoming global strategic posture and operational doctrine.

Strategic Air Power centric operational doctrine

Perhaps the smallest shift for Russia to undertake would be to peruse a Strategic Air Power centric operational doctrine, simply because the primary element remains the land based strike platform. Operating under the pretense of strategic air power being the primary tool of power projection beyond continental Europe and Asia is well suited to the current Russian operational doctrine, tactics, training and equipment. Russia’s strategic air power is arguably in better shape than the carrier force, with several regiments of Tu-95’s, Tu-22M’s and Tu-160’s currently operational and undertaking widespread training exercises. Russia’s strategic air arm is still extremely potent, coupled with its formidable cruise missile capability it gives decision makers in the Kremlin a viable method of projecting power well beyond its borders. This seems to be the path being perused at the moment with the continued (although limited) production of the Tu-160 Blackjack and development of new stand off missile’s such as the KH-101 and KH-555.

Left:A KH-555 loaded on a Tu-95 Right:A Tu-160 launching a KH-55S Kent
However strategic air power faces a similar challenge to what soviet naval aviation faced in the 70’s and 80’s; operating at extended range against a target that may have organic fighter cover. This problem is exacerbated due to the particulars of attacking land based targets as opposed to ships in blue water. The major difference is the fact that land based targets usually enjoy a level of geographical depth. Even if your strike platform is equipped with a 300nm range standoff weapon, if the target lays 200nm inland the strike package will have to come within 100nm of going “feet dry” to reach weapons release point. Therefore the strikers will have to enter the targets fighter engagement footprint in order to employ weapons effectively. Utilizing high speed ingression and organic EWSP suites it is most likely that the strike packages would still hit their targets when facing a lesser power; however the losses may be unacceptably high considering the cost and time to manufacture a single Tu-160. Additionally the survivability of a Tu-95 when facing even a limited fighter threat may not be acceptable, significantly limiting the number of available platforms. Clearly if the Russians were facing a reasonably well equipped foe the strike packages would require fighter escort while entering the targets fighter engagement footprint.

The value of strategic strike platforms is such that even a moderate risk of loss to the targets air defense system may be enough to deter the Kremlin from taking assertive action if its direct interests or security are not threatened. However if the Russian navy could provide the strike packages with a fighter escort the risk of interception would be significantly reduced. If a Carrier battle group could be deployed to the theater, it would not need a significant amount of organic strike capability, the punching power would be delivered by the land based strike platform. Current Russian carrier doctrine and equipment is well suited to this posture. If such a scenario were to play out in 2009 and the assets were deployable, Kuznetsov deployed to theater with 16 Su-33’s could provide strategic aviation with credible fighter cover, allowing the Kremlin to apply devastating power against a much larger range of possible adversaries. This doctrinal change is cheap, effective and more to the point does not stray far from the pervasive soviet operational doctrine which preceded it.

Left:A Tu-160 escorted by a Su-27 Flanker. Right:A vulnerable Tu-95 intercepted by a Typhoon off the UK .

Aircraft Carrier centric operational doctrine

The other possible option is the pursuit of an operational doctrine and that is centered on the Carrier as the primary tool of power projection. This is the doctrine employed by the world’s greatest naval power, the United States Navy. In engagements that range from Leyte Gulf to the Operation Rolling Thunder to Operation Allied Force, the utility of the carrier as a tool of power projection has been clearly illustrated. The ability to move credible air power into the theater and sustain it there regardless of air field availability is a capability that only the carrier can provide, and the effect of a single carrier deployment to a region is greater than perhaps any other single asset. Truly the potential of a carrier to change the posture and intentions of a lesser power is profound.

Unlike the major western carrier operators (the USN and France) Russia’s carriers are poorly equipped to be used in this manner. As stated previously the air-group Kuznetsov is currently capable of embarking is heavily geared towards fleet air defense and bomber escort. However the Kuznetsov has reasonable potential as a tool of power projection, the main element needing reform is the air group. If the aging Su-33’s are upgraded to Su-30MK standard, or replaced with MiG-29K’s or the newest navalized Flanker the Su-27KUB the Russian navy will have taken a major step foreword. However this will take significant expenditure as frontline fighters are not cheap, and in the short term upgrading existing strategic air power with better standoff weapons is a cheaper and easier path to take.

Left:A MiG 29K
Right:A relative of the Flanker Family, the multi-role Su-30
The critical decisions will be in the mid term. As Kuznetsov reaches the end of its operational life, the type and nature of its replacements will define Russia’s 21st century power projection doctrine. If the replacement carriers are equipped and armed in much the same manner as Kuznetov then Russian strategic thinking will be evident; the primacy of strategic air power will remain. However if the new breed of carriers are equipped with truly multi-role fighters, and there is significant investment in the fleet logistical train to sustain deployed air groups throughout an offensive air campaign then obviously Russia will have moved to a stance similar to the major western powers.


The strategic geography of the 21st century is still taking shape and, in many ways is more dynamic now than it has been in the past 100 years. The emergence of new powers and new markets illustrates the clear departure from the strategic paradigm of the cold war, with contemporary strategic rivals usually also close trading partners (such as PROC & the US). In this dynamic new strategic environment the battle will no longer lay along ideological fault lines but in economic areas of interest. Therefore whatever decisions are made by the Kremlin on Russia’s future global structure and posture, clearly the current status quo can not meet the requirements of the contemporary strategic environment.

Both options have their advantages, however clearly strategic air power can never replace the utility, sustainability, firepower and psychological impact of true carrier capability. Relying on strategic air power as your primary tool has significant limitations. For Russia to achieve global presence, which is clearly the mid term goal she must enjoy truly global reach, and due to the limitations of land based air power without a global basing infrastructure it is not something that can be achieved. Without airborne refueling Russian strategic aviation is limited by range/payload constraints, which in real terms restricts combat range (with a useful payload) to the north Atlantic/Pacific, Europe, North Asia and North America. Currently it only provides Russia with regional/continental reach, far short of the truly global capability required to truly be an alternative to the US as the provider of regional security. Nevertheless Strategic Air Power offers a cheap, readymade capability that with a relatively small capital outlay can be effective in a short time-frame. It seems to be the path undertaken by the Russians in the short term.
The ill fated Soviet Ulyanovsk supercarrier, a true tool of power porjection.

Clearly post 2020 the most effective option for the Russian navy is a combination of land and naval aviation used in conjunction to achieve global strategic results. Recently the Kremlin announced plans for the construction of 5~6 aircraft carriers in the 2020+ timeframe. Obviously the achievability of this number has to be questioned, unless a small (<20kt)>
STOVL design is adopted. Perhaps a more realistic goal would be construction of three, 40,000T carriers with a comparable design to Kuznetov. For all its shortcomings in payload constraints and package generation capability, the technological simplicity of STOVL (and the complexity of steam catapults) lends it self well to the new, lean Russian navy. A sustainable number of carriers supported by land based aviation with an increasing global basing infrastructure will provide Russia with the capability it needs to achieve its strategic aims. Both the flexibility and sustainability of carrier based aviation means that only it can achieve the global reach Russia requires, however it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin has the fortitude or vision to realize that fact.