In raw numbers, the Russian navy is adding ships faster than the U.S. and Chinese navies are doing. Putin is preparing for a naval war. But the kind of war Putin is preparing for might not be the same kind of war the United States expects.
At one level, Russia’s official shipbuilding numbers are deceptive. Putin included small boats and support vessels in his tally—ship types the U.S. Navy, for one, rarely bothers to include when it counts its own warships.
What’s more, Russia’s new ships on average are much smaller than new American and Chinese vessels, and are less capable of traveling long distances to fight overseas wars.
But all that might not matter. Experts told The Daily Beast that Putin’s new fleet is well suited to his increasingly aggressive foreign policy along Russia’s borders. “They are a land power after all,” Michael Kofman, a Russia expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast.
There are big vessels as well. The Russian navy still possesses large, Cold War-vintage warships that it’s upgrading, including an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered battlecruiser that’s one of the biggest surface warships in the world, plus an impressive force of submarines.
Many of these big old ships may be unreliable—they’re what Moscow deploys when it wants to make an impression—but Russia’s new warships, by contrast, are small, nimble, relatively anonymous, and surprisingly heavily armed with new Kalibr cruise missiles.
“What they are doing is selectively dipping into the best of the old vessels—surface ships and submarines—and giving them more powerful weaponry while accelerating the build rate for smaller combatants with relatively big punch,” Iain Ballantyne, author of The Deadly Trade, a history of naval warfare, told The Daily Beast.
To that end, this year the Russian fleet is accepting into service four surface warships armed with the latest Kalibr cruise missiles, plus three support ships and 19 other vessels, Putin said. By comparison, the U.S. Navy bought 14 large warships in 2018. The Chinese navy doesn’t release official ship counts, but observers counted at least 18 new vessels entering service with Beijing’s fleet in 2016.
In all, the U.S. fleet includes 284 frontline warships plus another 124 support and transport ships that technically belong to the Defense Department’s Military Sealift Command. In 2015 the Chinese fleet numbered around 300 large ships, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.
The Russian fleet also possesses around 300 ships. But nearly half are patrol boats and corvettes—smaller vessels that rarely exceed 1,000 tons displacement. The U.S. Navy operates just 13 similar small surface warships, and doesn’t even include them in its official count of frontline combat vessels.
America’s most numerous warship type is the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, a $2 billion, 10,000-ton vessel capable of independently sailing thousands of miles from its home port while carrying scores of long-range missiles.
Today the U.S. Navy possesses around 100 Burkes and other large surface warships. The Chinese fleet operates around 80 ships of similar size and armament to the American destroyers. Unsurprisingly, the Russian fleet includes just 29 such ships.
Geography favors Russia’s approach to naval warfare. Where the United States must deploy ships across the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in order to wage America’s wars and China is steadily expanding its own influence across the Pacific, Russia’s conflicts for the most part are along its own land borders.
The Russian fleet can easily reach from Europe to Asia while still deploying from home ports. Russian territory stretches from Europe’s Baltic Sea to the Bering Strait, where the Russian mainland and the U.S. state of Alaska are only 55 miles apart.
The high cost of big, long-range ships has made it difficult for the United States to quickly grow its fleet. President Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to increase the size of the U.S. Navy to as many as 355 frontline ships. But the Navy recently admitted it could take until the 2050s to reach that goal. In favoring small, short-range ships that cost tens of millions of dollars apiece instead of billions, Russia can grow its own fleet more quickly than the United States can do.
In recent years the Russian fleet has directly supported ground operations in Crimea while putting pressure on NATO along the alliance’s eastern flank. Moscow’s fleet is busiest in the confined, relatively shallow waters of the Black, Baltic, and Caspian seas. Russian warships rarely venture more than a few hundred miles from their home ports.
But the ships don’t have to sail far in order to give a major boost to Russian military operations. In early 2014 Russian ships quickly cut off and wiped out the Ukrainian navy in the Black Sea as part of Moscow’s invasion of Crimea.
The short range of Russian warships helps to explain why Putin was keen to intervene in Syria starting in late 2015. As part of the intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s fleet gained access to Russia’s only ports on the Mediterranean Sea, giving Russian ships their only direct access to southern Europe’s maritime borders.
In October 2015, Russian corvettes sailing on the Caspian Sea fired 26 Kalibr missiles at targets in Syria, more than a thousand miles away. It was the combat debut for the 30-foot-long, precision-guided munition. “This is Russia demonstrating on a global stage that it has a lot of reach,” one U.S. military official said of the missile strike.
Corvettes armed with Kalibrs “can form a small fleet that would be able to come close to an enemy, deliver a missile strike and immediately leave the area,” Russian state media noted.
The Kalibr, a rough analogue to the U.S. Navy’s own Tomahawk cruise missile, is central to Moscow’s efforts to build a fleet of small but powerful warships. “Why build a huge surface combatant with all the complexity and expense that entails?” Ballantyne asked rhetorically. “You can churn out smaller vessels with Kalibr missiles and then distribute them to your crucial spheres of interest.”
Russian naval modernization efforts are only just beginning, following years of inadequate funding and industrial dysfunction. “We will continue taking measures aimed at strengthening and developing the fleet, making it better equipped,” Putin said.
As the Russian fleet rebuilds, small ships with big missiles will probably become an even more significant part of the overall force. With a single corvette costing just $30 million, “it’s easy to keep shipyards full of corvette and light frigate orders,” Kofman said.