The Russian navy is divided into four fleets: the Baltic, Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific, each with its own fleet air force, plus the Caspian Sea Flotilla. The naval infantry (marines), 9,500 strong, includes three independent brigades and three special forces brigades. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]
The primary missions of the naval forces were to provide strategic nuclear deterrence from the nuclear submarine fleet and to defend the sea-lanes approaching the Russian coast. The naval forces include shore-based troops, naval aviation units, four fleets, and one flotilla. The shore-based forces and naval aviation forces were operationally subordinate to the fleets. The strategic naval forces, comprising forty-five nuclear submarines and 13,000 personnel, were operationally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and logistically supported by the fleets in whose ports they were based. Some 138 other submarines were in service, although in the mid-1990s a major reduction of the nonstrategic submarine force was in progress. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
In the mid-1990s, Russia's naval aviation force was almost entirely shore based, after having achieved substantial sea-based strike capability in the Soviet era. In 1996 only the steam-powered aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov , assigned to the Northern Fleet, conducted active flight operations at sea. Two new nuclear-powered carriers were scrapped before completion, indicating abandonment of that program, and older aircraft-carrying cruisers were sold to the Republic of Korea (South Korea) for scrap.
Russian Navy Vessels and Personnel
In 2005 the navy had 46 tactical and 15 nuclear submarines, 1 aircraft carrier, 6 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 19 frigates, 26corvettes, 41 mine warfare vessels, 22 major amphibious vessels, and 72 patrol and coastal combat vessels. The navy also had 266 combat aircraft.
In the mid 2000s, the Russian Navy had 171,5000 active personnel, 70 submarines, 1 aircraft carrier, 8 cruisers and 17 destroyers. By contrast the United States Navy had 367,679 active personnel, 73 submarines, 12 aircraft carrier, 27 cruisers and 55 destroyers. Because of lack of funds few of Russian naval vessels go out to sea much anymore. Russia needs a lot of money to upgrade its navy. **
In the 1990s the Russian naval forces included about 200,000 sailors and marines, about 20 percent of whom were conscripts, and 500,000 reserves. Of the active-duty personnel, about 30,000 were in naval aviation and 24,000 in coastal defense forces.
One of the world's largest battle cruisers, the 823-foot, $1-billion atomic-powered Petr Velikiy (Peter the Great) was finally delivered to the Russian navy in 1998 after 12 years of work. The last of four ships in there class, it is the largest vessel other than an aircraft carrier built since World War II. Built to be an aircraft carrier killer and ssigned to the Pacific Fleet, 28,000-ton vessel carriers 20 SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles designed to destroy enemy aircraft carriers. It is supported by a crew of 610. By 2004, it was so poorly maintained that there were worrites it could explode anytime
At the height of the Cold War the Soviet had more than 300 submarines and 83 missile-carrying submarines in service. These days few Russian submarines even leave their bases because it is simply too expensive to maintain them and keep them running.
The Soviet Union produced the world's largest submarines—29,211-displaced ton, 562-foot-long typhoon class vessels— and the world's fastest submarines—Alpha class nuclear powered vessels, which attained 40 knots. Featured in the film and book Red October, typhoon class submarines carried 20 multiple-warhead SS-NX-20 missiles, each with 10 warheads—meaning that a single submarine carried 200 warheads, each capable of hitting a different target, with more firepower than all the explosives used in World War II. The Five-story high Delta and Yankee class submarines were also enormous.
Soviet submarines were among the most feared weapons delivery systems in the Soviet arsenal. Armed with dozens of nuclear warheads they were able to pass undetected through American defenses to within a few miles of the United States coast. Both the United States and the Soviet Union risked collisions as they looked for and followed each other’s submarines. Billions of dollars was spent on technology to listen for submarines moving through the sea and to make submarines quiet.
Russia's submarine technology developed faster in the mid-1990s than Western experts had expected, as the fleet underwent reduction from its 1986 total of 186 vessels to ninety-nine. According to one intelligence estimate, more than half of the 1996 fleet was capable of moving undetected into Western sea-lanes. In mid-1996 the navy scheduled four submarines for production, including one upgraded addition to its existing fleet of Akula-class vessels and three of the new Severodvinsk class, which were expected to go into service in 2000. The Severodvinsk is a state-of-the art submarine that allegedly is so quiet that it eliminates the United States technical lead in this area, and it is armed with the new 650mm Shkval rocket that travels at 200 knots underwater. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]
The Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky submarine base on Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East was regarded as strategically important with an important mission. The personnel that worked there were highly paid. The base was deemed so secretive that the main reason the the Korean Air 747 was shot down in 1983— killed 269 people— was because it thought it might take reconnaissance photographs of the base.
Russian Naval Fleets
Each of Russia's four fleets has a subordinate, land-based naval air force. The Caspian Flotilla has no naval air arm. The naval shore-based troops consist of naval infantry and coastal defense forces. The naval infantry forces include one infantry division subordinate to the Pacific Fleet and four naval infantry brigades--one in the Baltic Fleet, one in the Black Sea Fleet, and two in the Northern Fleet. The coastal defense forces are a combination of infantry regiments, brigades, and divisions with air defense missile regiments. Amphibious landings are a low priority; according to intelligence estimates, only 2,500 marines and 100 tanks could be put ashore by Russia's thirteen amphibious ships. According to a Russian source, in 1996 most ships were at a relatively low readiness level, with most units remaining close to home port. *
The Northern Fleet is headquartered at Severomorsk, at the top of the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk, with additional home ports at Kola, Motovskiy, Gremikha, and Ura Guba. The mission of the Northern Fleet is to defend Russia's far northwestern Arctic region surrounding the Kola Peninsula. The fleet provides home ports for thirty-seven nuclear submarines, twenty-two other submarines, forty-seven principal surface combatants, and ten coastal and smaller ships. The naval aviation contingent includes a complement of twenty Su-39 fixed-wing aircraft and ten antisubmarine warfare helicopters on board the Admiral Kuznetsov , which heads the air defense of the Barents Sea. Shore-based naval aviation includes 200 combat aircraft and sixty-four helicopters. The Northern Fleet has two naval infantry brigades, one coastal defense regiment, and an air defense missile regiment. *
Situated between the Barents and White Seas just east of Norway and Finland, Murmansk was selected as the base for the Northern Fleet because it lies at the end of the Gulf Stream and is Russia's only port with unrestricted year-round access to the Atlantic. Russian naval officers monitoring the Barents Sea near the northern town of Murmansk have an English phrase to help them figure out what to say if someone unexpectedly shows up in their the territory. They can chose from one four possibilities: 1) YOU ARE ARRESTED; 2) I AM SEARCHING FOR THE SPACESHIP IN DISTRESS; 3) ARIEL BOMBING IS BEING CARRIED OUT IN THIS ZONE and 4) WE ARE GLAD TO BID YOU WELCOME ON OUR HOSPITABLE SOVIET SOIL AN WISH YOU EVERY SUCCESS. [Source: National Geographic, Miles Clark, June 1994]
The Baltic Fleet is headquartered in Kaliningrad, where it is defended by a naval infantry brigade. From this rather exposed location, the fleet controls naval bases at Kronshtadt and Baltiysk. Operational forces include nine submarines, twenty-three principal surface combatants, and approximately sixty-five smaller vessels. The air arm of the Baltic Fleet includes five regiments of combat aircraft and a number of other fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. In the Cold War, the Kaliningrad-based Baltic Fleet was one of the most forward Soviet bases in Europe. Today it is being allowed to rust and wither. In 1992, it was home to 85,000 men, 20 submarines, 3 cruisers, 5 destroyers, 29 frigates and other craft. In the early 2000s it was occupied by 40,000 underpaid and underfed troops.
Russian Black Sea Fleet
The Soviet Union's Black Sea fleet was based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol starting in 1954. with an additional home port in Odessa, After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 both Ukraine and Russia claimed the 330 or so naval ships—including two small carriers, three cruisers and 28 submarines—based there.
The Black Sea Fleet comprises fourteen submarines, thirty-one capital ships of the line, and forty-one coastal ships. The Moskva , Russia's first seagoing aircraft cruiser, is assigned to the Black Sea Fleet. It is an antisubmarine warfare helicopter carrier with a complement of eighteen KA-25 helicopters. The land component of the Black Sea Fleet comprises one naval infantry brigade, a coastal defense division, and a surface-to-air missile (SAM) regiment. It is not known how these assets will be distributed between Russia and Ukraine. The naval aviation component of the fleet includes an inventory of nearly 8,000 aircraft of all types. Its strike power is concentrated in a bomber regiment and a mixed fighter and ground-attack regiment. *
The Caspian Flotilla is a small force for coastal defense and waterways patrol consisting of two frigates, twelve patrol boats, and about fifty other small craft based in Astrakhan'. Command and equipment are shared with Azerbaijan and Kazakstan, other former Soviet republics on the Caspian littoral. *
Dispute Over the Russian Black Sea Fleet
The Black Sea Fleet became an object of contention between Russia and Ukraine when the latter republic achieved independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Although Ukraine has no use for a blue-water navy and cannot afford to maintain one, it has been reluctant to surrender its share of the fleet, both of whose home ports are in Ukraine, to a larger neighbor with a tradition of domination. A long international squabble ended temporarily when a June 1995 summit meeting arrived at a formula for disposition of the Black Sea Fleet's assets: the ships of the fleet were to be divided equally between the two nations, but Russia eventually would buy back approximately 60 percent of Ukraine's share. The Russian portion of the Black Sea Fleet continued to be based in Sevastopol', with separate Russian and Ukrainian ports designated on the coast. All ships were to be under dual command until the agreement took effect in 1998. However, substantial nationalist opinion on the Russian side opposed this solution. *
There was some discussion of swapping the fleet for debt relief on the money Ukraine owed Russia for oil and gasoline. The deal called for 15 percent of the fleet to go to Ukraine in return for credit and the leasing Sevastopol to Russia. The deal was delayed because the Ukrainian parliament refused to endorse it. Russia in turn threatened to cut off fuel supplies. Yeltsin vetoed a law that would have divided the Black Sea fleet between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine inherited an unfinished carrier and auctioned it off to a Macau-based company that hoped to convert it into a resort with a casino, disco and 600-room hotel. The carrier circled aimlessly around the Black Sea because Turkey would not it less pass through the Bosporus because of worriers that the waterway would be closed down if the carrier ran aground. The carrier eventually made its way to China, where it was it was refurbished and sent to sea as a working carrier.
Russian Pacific Fleet
The Pacific Fleet and the Northern Fleet are rated as the two most powerful Russian naval forces. Pacific Fleet headquarters is in Vladivostok, with additional home ports in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Magadan, and Sovetskaya Gavan'. The Pacific Fleet includes eighteen nuclear submarines that are operationally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and based at Pavlovsk and Rybachiy. The blue-water striking power of the Pacific Fleet lies in thirty-four nonnuclear submarines and forty-nine principal surface combatants. *
The air power of the Pacific Fleet consists of the 250 combat aircraft and helicopters of the Pacific Fleet Air Force, all of which are land-based. Its most powerful strike force is two bomber regiments stationed at Alekseyevka. Each regiment consists of thirty supersonic Tu-26 Backfire aircraft. The land power of the Pacific Fleet consists of one naval infantry division and a coastal defense division. The naval infantry division includes more than half of the total manpower in the Russian naval infantry. Following the pattern established elsewhere in the naval infantry, in the mid-1990s the Pacific Fleet infantry is expected to be reorganized into brigades in the near future.
In Vladivostok, more than 1,500 ships have been scrapped and thousands of sailors have left.
Poor State of the Russian Navy
The naval forces are in approximately the same state of readiness as the air forces. Only one ship, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov , had as much as five months of time at sea in 1994. Other naval sea time training was described as "infrequent." In 1995 nearly 95 percent of the ready naval vessels remained at dockside because of shortages of fuel, ammunition, and crews, and a backlog of repairs. Fuel shortages have caused the Pacific Fleet to cancel visits by single ships to Asian ports, and electricity was cut off to a nuclear submarine base in the Kola Peninsula, nearly causing a serious nuclear accident, because the base could not pay its bills. The Black Sea Fleet was embarrassed when a cruiser in the Mediterranean in 1996 ran out of water and had to request emergency resupply from the United States Navy. The once-proud aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov , the last of the Kiev class in service, was in drydock in 1996 for repair after a serious fire, and there were proposals to sell the ship for scrap or to the Indian navy. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]
Naval logistics had reached a crisis state by the mid-1990s. In 1996 fuel allocations were reduced by 65 percent from 1995, and rations were cut by 60 percent. Similar cuts were made in funds for maintenance, parts, tools, and batteries. The result was that fleet readiness was reduced by an estimated 30 percent for coastal forces and 50 percent for the blue-water navy. *
Russia's four Kirov-class nuclear cruisers have fallen into disuse because they require large crews and are expensive to operate. Of the ships in that category, the Ushakov had been at dockside in its home port, Murmansk, for nearly five years in 1996 because of a lack of spare parts. The Petr Velikiy began sea trials in 1996 after a delay of three years. The Lazarev was scheduled to be refueled in 1996, but scrapping also was considered. Conventionally powered ships also have experienced maintenance difficulties. The Slava-class Marshal Ustinov was in drydock in St. Petersburg for two years for refurbishing, but it was expected to be scrapped for lack of parts and funds. *
Submarine bases are in an equally poor state. The once a strategically important Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky base now is cluttered with rusting submarines, rusting cranes and depressed sailors who have nothing to do. The base was departure point for the mini-sub that got caught in the fishing nets in 2005.
Russia once had 90 submarines in the Pacific but as of the early 2000s had mothballed all but 20 of them. Some of the submarines tied up in their bases and unlikely to ever to return to sea yet contain payloads and missiles that can still be fired at American and European cities. A group called the Nunn-Lgar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program is working with Russia to decommission to 543 missiles capable of hitting the United States with thousands of warheads.
As of 2005, almost 200 strategic-missile and general-purpose submarines had been decommissioned. Ninety-four had been dismantled. An additional 55 are in the docks waiting to be dismantled. Norway, Britain, France, Japan and Germany are working with Russia to help it dismantle its submarines in several locations in northwest Russia and the Far East. To decommission all the submarines properly at a rate of 15 a year is estimated to cost around $1.5 billion.
One 84.6-meter, diesel-powered submarine now sits in a harbor in Providence, Rhode Island in the U.S. as a museum. It has a dormitory that can used for kid sleepovers and special room for birthday parties. The submarine carried nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and was used to track aircraft carriers. Before its arrived in the United States it was used as a restaurant and vodka bar in Russia.
In August 2003, a scrapped Russian nuclear-powered submarine sank in stormy Arctic seas, killing nine servicemen. The 40-year-old submarine had been decommissioned in 1989 was being towed to a scrapyard to have its nuclear reactor removed and dismantled. It sunk after floats that were supporting it gave way in the storm. It carried 1,700 pounds of spent nuclear fuel. Test after the sinking revealed significant releases of radiation.
There are about 100 nuclear-power submarines in the Murmansk area, including three nuclear submarines in the icy waters off of Snezhnogorsk on the Kola peninsula. There are worries that a serious accident or terrorist attack involving these submarines could cause a nuclear disaster the would make Chernobyl look like a playground accident. There is some talk of "200 Hiroshimas." See Separate Article NUCLEAR WASTE AND RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATION IN RUSSIA Under Nature and the See Environment.
Russian Submarine Accidents
The film K-19: The Widowmaker (2004) with Harrison Ford was about an accident on a nuclear powered submarine in 1961 in which eight sailors died from radiation exposure while the crew constructed a makeshift pipeline into an overheated reactors on the verge exploding. Few of the events in the film really happened. A survivor of the tragedy told Reuters, “Only two things in the film are true: the bottle of champagne did not break when the submarine was launched, and yes, there was an accident with the reactor.” In one scene some of the crew is handcuffed. Policemen in Russia, let alone sailors, didn’t use handcuffs back in 1961.
The K-19 submarine was in the Norwegian Sea when its radiation detectors sounded an alarm. The reactor was shut down but the fuel rods continued to heat up. the ship reportedly was saved by nine brave men who climbed into the reactor chamber and jury-rigged a cooling system to bring the temperatures down. The nine men each received a 100 times the lethal does of radiation. They all died within weeks of the disaster but saved the sub. In 1969 the same sub collided with a U.S. submarines. In 1972, a fire aboard the vessel killed 26 crew members.
On April 8, 1970, a November-class submarine sank in 12,354-foot-deep water the Atlantic Ocean after two fires started simultaneously. Fifty-two people died. According to Greenpeace, in 1982, a strategic nuclear submarine at a base at Rybachiy in Kamchatka accidently fired a ballistic missile which reportedly landed in the Sea of Okhotsk.
On October 6, 1986, an explosion occurred in the missile silo a of Yankee-class submarine in 16,000- to 18,000-foot-deep water in the Atlantic Ocean north of Bermuda. Four died, two in the explosion and two who prevent the nuclear reactors from overheating. The submarine barely made it the surface. On April 7, 1989, soon after it was launched the Komsomolets had a fire in 5,528-foot-deep water off the coast of Norway. Forty-two of the vessel's 69 crew members died.
Nuclear material, including plutonium, was been leaking from a submarine that sank in 1986 and broke open in the Atlantic 600 miles east of Bermuda. Thirty-two nuclear warheads were on the sub, several of which were destroyed by the high pressure of the deep seas.
On August 12, 2000, the 505-foot-long, Yankee-class submarine Kursk sunk to the bottom of the Barents Sea, about 90 miles north of Murmansk, after a massive explosion in or around the torpedo room. The submarine was taking part in a naval exercise and sunk in 350 feet of frigid water. All of the 118 men on board either died in the explosion or died of suffocation. It was the worst naval disaster ever. Designed to hunt and kill American aircraft carriers, the Kursk displaced 18,300 tons, was more than twice the length of a Boeing 747 and was armed with torpedoes and 24 cruise missiles.
U.S. surveillance ships heard two explosions: the first, short and sharp, the second massive. carrying forces of two tons of TNT and measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale. The entire front section of the double-hulled vessel was torn open and all those in the section and the control room are believed to have died immediately. No radiation leaks were detected.
At first it was not clear what caused the explosions. Theories includes 1) an accidental firing of a missile or torpedo; 2) an internal explosion of another kind; or 3) a collision with a large object, possible a mine or a ship. The Russian military pushed the collision theory: presumably with a NATO submarine. In February 2002, the Russian navy announced that the disaster most likely was the result of the use of obsolete torpedoes on the submarine that contained an unstable fuel that somehow caught fire and caused the torpedoes to explode. Investigators said that the torpedoes were designed in 1957 using a highly volatile mix of hydrogen peroxide and should have been decommissioned,
One thing that was quite extraordinary is that the Russians were quite candid and revealing when they finally revealed the cause of the accident. A number of false statements had been released about the problems the sub was having. An investigation of the disaster reported that safety lapses, technical problems, poor management, inadequate maintenance. and sloppiness also played a part in the disaster. It cited specific problems with torpedo rubber gaskets and a failure to follow standard procedures. A malfunctioning buoy released from the submarine that was supposed to send distress signals was blamed for the slow response to the disaster. Crew members on a nearby ship, the Peter the Great, heard the explosions but failed to respond. There were a number of other ships plus helicopters and submarines that could have been dispatched to help the Kursk but none of them were.
Doomed Survivors of Kursk Disaster
At least 23 men survived the Kursk explosion and were trapped in the submarine with no means of escape. Surveillance vessels heard someone tapping out "S.O.S. Water" in Morse code on the sub's hull the first day. The men died slowly. News of the disaster didn't begin to circulate until three days after the submarine sunk. Offers of help by the United States and European nations were rejected. Attempts to rescue the survivors and dock with sub failed. Russians blamed bad weather . Families of Kursk victims were given $25,000 each in compensation. The crew when they were alive were paid only $200 a month.
A couple months after tragedy, divers were able to enter the sub and retrieve some of the bodies of the dead. A note found in the pocket of one of the dead men read: "All the crew from the sixth, seventh and eighth compartments went over to the ninth. There are 23 people here. We made this decision as a result of the accident. None of us can get to the surface. I am writing blind." A note found on another victim read: "We are feeling bad. We are getting weaker from the effects of carbon monoxide following the fire. Pressure is rising. If we get out we won’t stand the compression."
Raising the Kursk
The Kursk was raised in September 2001 by a consortium of Dutch-based companies, led by the salvage experts Smith International and Mamomoet, both of whom normally handle jobs involving offshore oil platforms. Even though it was one of the largest salvage jobs every tried it was accomplished with surprising ease.
Divers, using high pressure water jets, cut 26 holes in the sub's hull. Then a hydraulic cylinder anchored on the sea floor pulled an abrasive-covered chain side to side and sawed off the sub’s damaged front section. Fifty-four Steel cables were placed through the holes and attached to the sub's ribs with steel plugs. When the weather was calm the cables and the sub were raised by a specially-modified "pontoon" barge. The raising took 15 hours Then the barge and sub were towed to the shore. The total cost of the operation was $65 million.
Mini-Sub Near Disaster
In August 2005, a small 13.4-meter-long Russian submarine with a seven man crew became entangled in fishing nets and fishing net cables in 190 meter deep water off the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific Ocean.
The submarine was finally brought to the surface and the entire crew was saved with the help of an unmanned British rescue vehicle that went under water in choppy seas and cut the submarine loose from the nets and cables. This story had a much happier ending than with the Kursk, when the Russians refused outside assistance and everyone on the sub was lost.
The crew endured three days underwater in the cold and dark, doing their best to save oxygen so they could survive. It was never clear how much air they had. The heater on the sub was turned off to save energy. One of the crew members said after the rescue, “I was cold, cold, very cold. I can’t describe it.” The men wore thermal suits and huddle together to stay warm and kept their movements to a minimum to save air. When they were rescued they reportedly had about six hours of air left. They had all written farewell letter to their family.
Russia was unable to muster a rescue vehicle of its own or deep seas divers and sent out messages for help to Britain, Japan and the United States. The United States and Britain both loaded rescue vehicles on planes and flew them to a port on the Kamchatka peninsula six hours away from the site. The British rescue vehicles arrived first and were secured to a Russian ship which brought them the site of the mishap. There were false statements from the Russian government, which said, for example, the crew had five days of air left.
A member of the British rescue team told AP, “The submarine was caught very firm into the fishing nets and had driven into them so that they were very tight and they actually looked like and behaved like steel wires, so it was very, very difficult to cut through with cutting implements.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016