Russia’s President Putin held a meeting a few days ago to discuss the state of the Russian shipbuilding industry. This meeting comes on the heels of confirmation that the Russian navy is now absorbing a bigger share of budget spending than the Russian air force or army.
One subject that is certain to have been discussed is Russian plans to start construction next year of helicopter carriers for the Russian naval infantry to replace the cancelled French Mistrals.
The Russian naval infantry – Russia’s marine force – is a relatively small elite force very differently configured to the far bigger and more powerful US Marine Corps and with a very different role. The Russians have never used their naval infantry as a power projection force in the way the US Marine Corps is often used, and Russian naval infantry – unlike US marines – scarcely ever operate independently. To the extent that the Russians have a power projection force, that role is traditionally fulfilled by their much bigger paratroop forces.
The role of the naval infantry has traditionally been to carry out sea borne landings in the enemy’s rear in support of the ground operations of the Russian army. The Russians appear to have carried out exactly that sort of a landing on the coast of Georgia during the 2008 South Ossetia. Russian naval infantry alongside Russian paratroopers and special forces have also been deployed to Syria to support Russian military operations there, with naval infantry landing ships of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet being used to ferry supplies there.
Though the troops of the Russian naval infantry have managed to maintain their elite status and their high level of training in the years since the Soviet collapse, their sea-lift capability has severely declined since the Soviet period with a sharp reduction in the number of amphibious warfare ships they can call on. Moreover these ships, of the Ropucha and Alligator classes (below), are now old and outdated, lacking the helicopters which modern marine forces today consider essential for effective landing operations.
The Russians sought to make up for this weakness by buying Mistral helicopter carriers from France. The Mistral sale was however hugely controversial both with France’s NATO allies and in Russia, where the shipbuilding industry was unhappy that such an important order had been placed abroad. In the event the Mistral sale was cancelled by France after construction of the first carrier had already been completed as a result of the Ukrainian crisis. This has however opened the way for the Russians to design and build helicopter carriers themselves to their own design replace the Mistrals.
Two different designs have been proposed, a larger design called the Lavina (below) – at 24,000 tonnes and with a maximum speed of 22 knots bigger and faster than the Mistrals – able to carry 500 troops, 16 helicopters and 50 armoured vehicles, and a smaller design called the Priboy (below) – of just 14,000 tonnes and carrying only 8 helicopters but apparently also able to carry a similar number of troops and vehicles to the Lavina.
Of the two designs a definite decision has been made to build the Lavina class, with construction of the first due to start next year.
Some Russian spokesmen have hinted that there are also plans to build the Priboy class (below) as well, apparently to complement the larger Lavina class. This would follow the deployment plan intended for the Mistals, where the 6,000 tonne Ivan Gren class (below) – the first example of which has now been finished and is now on trials – was planned to be built to complement the Mistrals.
The Ivan Gren class (below) has had a protracted and difficult construction history (work on the first started as long ago as 2004 and has only just been finished) largely because of lack of enthusiasm for the class from the naval infantry, who saw it as already outdated since it can only carry 2 helicopters. A decision has been taken to discontinue construction of the Ivan Gren class after completion of the second ship, which is expected next year. It is possible that the far more capable Priboy class is intended as the successor.
Though the Mistral sale was ultimately unsuccessful, it enabled the Russians to familiarise themselves with modern amphibious warfare helicopter carriers of the type nowadays used by marines and naval infantry. This was a type of ship the Russians had never previously operated or built. The Russian shipbuilding industry is claiming that building helicopter carriers like the Lavina and the Priboy is cheap and easy, far more so than building frigates or submarines, which Russia already builds in quantity.
Whilst there is no indication so far of how many of these ships the Russians intend to build, it likely they will build at least two of the Lavina class and possibly as many as four. If the Russians do decide to order the Priboy class to complement the Lavina class, then a possible order for these type of ships might be six. Together with the two Ivan Gren class the Russian naval infantry would then finally have the potent sea-lift capability they have long wanted.