The Russian Navy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the impressive blue water fleet built up by Admiral of the Fleet Gorshkov soon disintegrated into almost utter irrelevance. Russia simply had no money to maintain the fleet. Further, many of the hulls were obsolescent, held in service to artificially boost fleet size. 

Russia simply scrapped, abandoned, or sold off huge chunks of the fleet, focusing on maintaining a kernel of capability, primarily its nuclear armed ballistic missile submarine force.

Beginning about the middle of the first decade of the 20th century, however, as Russian economic fortunes began to improve, renewed emphasis was placed on naval capability.

The Office of Naval Intelligence recently released an overview of the Russian Navy’s past, and its current status.

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Take note that the first emphasis in renewed shipbuilding was on strategic capital ships. The top priority was to develop and deploy a new class of strategic ballistic missile submarines. The uttermost priority for Russia must be to continue to field a credible nuclear deterrence force.  After that, only then does submarine building focus on attack submarines.

Contrast that with developments in the surface forces. Shipbuilding capability, particularly for warships, is quite limited. And so rather than stress building large combatants, they’ve focused on building small, but quite capable, light combatants. New classes of corvettes, light frigates, and guided missile frigates are in production. Only after serial production of these types will Russia begin development of guided missile destroyers.

Note also that concurrent with our own Navy’s CNO’s emphasis on payloads over platforms, the Russians have taken a similar stance. Whereas our own LCS has a main battery consisting of a 57mm gun and Hellfire short range missiles, the Russian light warships have a Vertical Launch System capable of firing either the KALIBER series or YAKHONT series cruise missiles.

And Russia was sending a message recently when its corvettes and frigates used KALIBER cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea to attack targets in Syria. The targets almost certainly would have been easier to service via air strikes from Russian jets based in Syria. But that wouldn’t have served to remind a whole host of nations that Russia has a currently fielded capablity to conduct deep strike missile attacks at will from a stand off range that renders the launch platforms invulnerable.

The Russian Navy is unlikely to rise again to challenge the US Navy (nor the PLAN) for control of the high seas across the globe. But it is showing that it is becoming a genuine power in the region capable of complex operations and effective results.

“Rebels” adjusting artillery fire with a drone.

Yeah, “rebels” who just happened to be in Russian uniform. What are the  odds. The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine in the eastern regions of Ukraine has been characterized by heavy, heavy use of artillery. Any time either side attempts to mass decisive combat power, the other pounds it with artillery. Sadly, the Russians have done a better job. While they lack the sophistication of UAVs like our MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper, these commercial off the shelf drones do provide enough information to make terrain feature recognition and artillery adjustment quite feasible.


The Lessons of the Russo-Ukraine War

A tipster sent this roundup of lessons from the ongoing slow motion Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

It appears that a page or two is missing from near the end (and it badly needs a copy editor) but provides a good deal of insight into Putin’s army’s tactics, it’s operations, and its strategy. Sadly, it also exposes a good deal of the fecklessness of the US in supporting allies and partner nations in Eastern Europe.

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It goes without saying that the Obama administration has done little to nothing to assauge our allies fears of an expansionist Russia. But it must also be noted that there is little public support for a harder line with Russia. Wearied by a decade and a half of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a seemingly ever increasing number of other hot spots, the US public isn’t eager to face off with Russia, seeing little to gain, and the potential for much to lose.

Offensive Aerial Mining

Think Defence shared this little bit about recent training operations in the Baltic, known as BALTOPS.


The Air Force was sending a bit of an obvious message to Russia. The Baltic nations are a tad nervous about the expansionistic foreign policy of Russia right now. Russia probably has the capability to overrun the Baltics. But Russia also has some vulnerabilities, such as its dependence on the Baltic Sea for commerce and defense. And the Baltic Sea is particularly vulnerable to interdiction by an offensive mining campaign.


Aerial delivery of mines in World War II was practiced by virtually all sides, particularly in Europe, with Germany attempting to interdict British ports, and Britain similarly attempting to shut down German U-boats.

Possibly the most effective mining campaign in history was the use of B-29s to shut down Japanese shipping in its home waters near the end of the war. Operation Starvation laid a series of minefields around Japan that accounted for an astonishing 670 ships sunk or damaged for the cost of only 12,000 or so mines, and the loss of only 15 B-29s.

And of course, I can never post about aerial mine delivery without mentioning my father’s contribution.

22 May 1968, Loss of USS Scorpion SSN-589


On 27 May 1968, for the second time in just over five years, the United States Navy announced the disappearance of a modern nuclear attack submarine.  The Skipjack-class SSN, USS Scorpion, disappeared on 22 May as she transited near the Azores.

589 sail

The cause of the loss of Scorpion continues to be a subject of fierce debate.  The recorded acoustic signature of the event has been analyzed extensively, and expert opinion is divided regarding what the SOSUS data points to.  Several recent books have addressed the subject, positing that the Soviets had targeted Scorpion and sank her with assistance from ASW helicopters, and intelligence gained from the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and the John Walker spy ring.  Other theories included a battery fire which caused a Mk 37 torpedo to detonate in the tube in the torpedo room, or an inadvertent launch of a Mk 37 which came back and struck Scorpion.  Other analysis points to a possible explosion of hydrogen gas, built up to unsafe levels during a charge of batteries, that doomed Scorpion.

Much has been made of the abbreviation of her overhaul and the postponement of the SUBSAFE work (initiated in the wake of the loss of Thresher, SSN-593, in April of 1963) by the CNO, and the tagging out of the Emergency Main Ballast Tank system.   However, there seems little that points to any neglected maintenance or repair being responsible for the loss of the boat.

Regardless of the cause of the loss of Scorpion, the submarine carried 99 US Navy sailors to their deaths.  Her loss should stand as a reminder that plying the sea is a dangerous occupation, and that there is a a cost in lives for vigilance and readiness for war, even a Cold War.   It should also serve as a warning, that a Navy without sufficient ships and sailors to meet mission requirements in peace must compromise that readiness and vigilance, which has a far higher price in the unforgiving occupation of war at sea.

The New Russian Armata Tank

It’s actually a family of fighting vehicles.

The prime variant is the T-14 tank. Finally some pics of it without  a tarp over the turret are coming out.

The big innovation here is that the turret itself is unmanned. That has the advantage that you can make it significantly smaller, in that you don’t need to leave space for people. That means a given weight of armor provides more protection, as it has less surface area to cover. But it also means any failure of the autoloader is much more difficult to remedy. The gun is basically the same 125mm smoothbore the Russians have been using for nearly 40 years. The flat panels suggest either composite armor similar to the M1 series, or integrated Explosive Reactive Armor panels. The bulky side sponsons along the hull suggest ERA. The prominent boxlike projection on the left top of the turret appears to be an independent thermal viewer similar to that of the M1A2 tank. What level of sophistication the fire control has is unknown. Interestingly, there are reports the tank will field a radar based fire control channel.

The tank reportedly uses a 1500hp diesel engine, downrated to 1200hp for normal operation, on  a tank with a combat weight of 48 tons. Even at the downrated horsepower, that yields a very respectable 25 horsepower per ton.

The T-15 Heavy Infantry Fighting Vehicle variant uses the same chassis and engine, but apparently reverses the arrangement, with the engine in the front, and the troop compartment in the rear. This is actually a fairly common adaptation of tank hulls. Many early US self propelled artillery series used this trick. The T-15 likewise has a remote controlled turret, with a 30mm autocannon, and an anti-tank missile launcher. The troop compartment has space for 6-8 troops.


The first “public” display of the Armata family is expected Saturday, during the parade in Moscow celebrating 70 years since the victory over Nazi Germany.

Other variants ordered include a 152mm self propelled artillery piece.

Once you’ve developed a successful vehicle chassis, it makes sense to adapt it to other roles, to reduce development costs, and to benefit from commonality of production, spare parts, logistics, and training.

Of course, the downside is that an IFV on a tank chassis is much more expensive than one on a lighter chassis. The trend however, suggests most future IFVs will be tank chassis based, and have much higher levels of protection than those of today.

The Armata family appears to be quite capable, certainly near peer to our own M1 and Bradley series.

Having said that, virtually every vehicle produced so far will be in the parade Saturday, a force of somewhere around two dozen vehicles. And while Russia claims that some 2300 will be produced, the economic challenges Russia faces may make that production schedule difficult to keep. There are suggestions that the T-14 and T-15 will be specialized units, and that a less ambitious IFV will be the main replacement for legacy BMP-1, 2, and 3 series. The Kurganets 25 has been touted as the main replacement for older IFVs.

Kurganets-25 30mm gun variant with turret covered

The numbers of T-14s scheduled for production also suggest older T-80/T-90 series tanks will remain in front line use for many, many years to come.

The S-300

Recent news that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will deliver S-300 missiles to Iran has raised concerns that the US, Israel or other nations would lose any ability to use military force to delay, degrade or eliminate Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Setting aside the political aspects for a moment, let us take a look at the dreaded S-300 Surface to Air Missile System (SAM).

The Russians have had a robust SAM development program just as long as the United States, and arguably had better results than the US. The Russian S-25 (NATO reporting name SA-1) Berkut and S-75 (SA-2) Dvina SAMs were roughly analogous to the US Nike Ajax, and the S-125 (SA-3) Neva was analogous the US HAWK missile. Similarly, the S-200 (SA-5) Angara fulfilled a role much as the US Nike Hercules.

A historical aside- the Soviet Union had two distinct air defense organizations. The first V-PVO, the Soviet Air Defense Forces, was a separate military service dedicated to the air defense of the Soviet Union, with its own interceptors and surface to air missile systems, and associated warning and control systems. The second was The Air Defense of Ground Troops, which was similar in mission to our own US Army Air Defense Artillery. Obviously the needs of the two forces were quite different, and so each service tended to pursue different missile systems.

That’s important, because when we talk about the S-300 SAM system, it’s important to realize that there are two entirely distinct families of S-300 with vastly different capabilities.  The S-300V family is a national defense asset. The system that Iran has purchased, and which Moscow seems ready to deliver, is the S-300P family, originally designed to protect Soviet forces in the field.

Watching US forces in Vietnam, and Israeli forces in the Yom Kippur war learn to negate the early generation Soviet SAMs through jamming and Wild Weasel tactics, the Soviet Union began development of what would become the S-300 families.  Prime objectives were better mobility for the system, to allow “shoot and scoot” capability, longer missile range, better kinematics (energy and maneuverability) for the missile, greater rate of fire, increased resistance to jamming and other ECM, and reduced vulnerability to anti-radiation missiles that homed in on the SAM battery radar.

When the Soviet Union began developing the next generation of SAMS in the 1970s, several related areas were seeing significant advancements in the state of the art, such as integrated circuits and solid state electronics, reliable digital computers for signal processing and data management, improvements in solid rocket motors, and a shift from mechanically scanned radars to phased arrays.

Let’s talk about the organization of SAM units. The basic unit is the battery, which is a roughly company sized organization, and is the smallest unit capable of independently completing an engagement. That is, it has the resources to acquire, track, identify, and engage a target. This in effect means that each battery has a command post, an acquisition (or search) radar, an engagement radar, and one or more Transporter, Erector, Launch (TEL) vehicles which hold the actual SAMs themselves.  Typically, a battery would have three TELs, each with four launch tubes, for twelve missiles. Usually two missiles are tasked to each target, so a battery can normally engage six targets before it needs to reload. Typically, two to five batteries are integrated into a battalion to cover an even wider area.

The S-300P, manufactured by Almaz, was first fielded in the late 1970s and known in the West as the SA-10 Grumble. As noted, a battery consisted of a command post, an acquisition radar, and engagement radar, and usually three TELs.

Each of the four elements is integrated to the S-300P system, but over time, each of the four elements was also upgraded, or even replaced to enhance the capability of the system. For instance, the original engagement radar, the Flap Lid (5N63), has given way to the Tomb Stone* (30N6) radar. Improvements in one element improve the overall system. And over the course of the life of the S-300P, pretty much every element has been upgraded or replaced by an improved system, to such effect that modern S-300P systems are in effect completely different systems from the original, though care has been taken to ensure backward compatibility.

Iran originally ordered S-300P in for delivery in 2008, but UN imposed sanctions, while not explicitly barring delivery, have to this point led Russia to hold off from closing the deal.  Reportedly, the Iranians will receive the S-300PMU1, also known as the SA-20A Gargoyle A.

Let’s take a look at the elements of the SA-20A.


The command post is the 54K6E.

Note the antenna for data link connection to the radars and TELs of the battery, though it can also be connected via cable.

While the system sold to Iran is reportedly the SA-20A, exactly which radars associated with the sale are included are something of a mystery. And the Russians have a vast array of, well, arrays available to chose from. One high end system is the 64N6E Big Bird.

The Big Bird is a large passively scanned phased array. In fact, the array is larger than the arrays of an Aegis radar on a US destroyer. Normally the Big Bird scans in azimuth by mechanically rotating the array, and scans in elevation by electronic beam steering. It can stop the rotation, and scan a sector of 60~90 degrees azimuth by electronic beam steering. Detection range against high flying fighter sized targets is credited as being around 150 miles. Of course, due to the earth’s curvature and the resulting radar horizon, detection range versus low altitude targets is much shorter. Consequently, many S-300P systems also use a dedicated radar for low altitude search. The radar horizon issue persists, but the radar is optimized for operating in the ground clutter environment. One such radar is the 76N6E Clam Shell.

The engagement radar is likely the 30N6E Tomb Stone phased array radar.

Rather than emitting one beam and rotating to move the beam, a phased array uses thousands of phase shifters mounted in an array (hence the name) to electronically steer the main search beam, and can also simultaneously transmit and receive secondary beams. For instance, it might be searching its engagement sector, while simultaneously also tracking half a dozen targets for engagement. It is also frequency agile, so the targets being tracked don’t receive a continuous stream of energy at the same frequency, making it harder for the target to realize it is under attack, and further, making it much more difficult to jam.

The SA-20A missile itself is the 48N6, a large, single stage missile quite similar to our own early Patriot missile. The SA-20A is cold launched vertically from a four tube launcher mounted either on a truck or semi trailer.

It is generally credited with an effective range of anywhere from 40 to 80 miles versus an aerial target. It has a maximum speed of about Mach 6, though the average speed, particularly for longer range engagements, is more typically around Mach 2 or Mach 2.5. In addition to engaging aircraft and cruise missiles, it has a limited capability against short ranged ballistic missile type targets.

The SA-20A uses a guidance technique known as Track Via Missile, or TVM. There are a couple different variations on TVM, but most work generally the same. Let’s walk through a hypothetical engagement to show how TVM works.

  1. The Big Ben acquisition radar detects a target in the battery’s sector.
  2. The target is displayed on the command posts scopes.
  3. The command post initiates the engagement by queuing the Tomb Stone engagement radar to lock onto the target.
  4. The Command post tasks a TEL to engage, and gives the 48N6 missile’s autopilot initial steering commands to follow.
  5. The missile launches vertically, then tips over to the direction of the estimated intercept point.
  6. As the missile flies toward the target, the Tomb Stone uses a radar beam to illuminate the target.
  7. A passive radar receiver in the missile receives the reflected radar energy from the target, and transmits that information in a coded stream back to the Tomb Stone radar.
  8. The Tomb Stone radar sends that message to the command post.
  9. Fire direction computers in the command post generate steering commands for the missile, and transmit them to the Tomb Stone radar.
  10. While still illuminating the target, the Tomb Stone radar also sends the coded steering commands to the missile, which generally has a receiver antenna in the back of the missile’s fins.
  11. The missile corrects its flight path.

Note that as the missile gets closer to the target, it is receiving ever more of the reflected radar energy from the target. In essence, it gets more accurate as it gets closer. TVM means that the illumination beam doesn’t need to be as powerful as a conventional semi-active homing system. Further, the missile can be somewhat cheaper, as the computing power is not on board the missile, but in the command post.



Cold Launch doesn’t always work as planned.


While the SA-20A has a formidable low altitude capability, it is optimized for the mid to high altitude counter-air role.** Since the US has, since the end of the Vietnam War, tended to operate at those altitudes to avoid low technology defenses such as gunfire and short range IR guided missiles, that poses a challenge for the US and other nations with a similar operational philosophy.

That the S-300P is a formidable air defense system is without question. But can we (or more likely, the Israelis, or less likely, the Saudis) penetrate to a target defended by it.

Well, yes, but…

As we’ve seen in air campaigns from the 1982 Israeli-Syria Bekka Valley war through Desert Storm, and Allied Force in Kosovo, the first phase of a campaign is to disintegrate the enemy Integrated Air Defense System. Some of that can be as simple as putting a Tomahawk cruise missile in the headquarter of the enemy’s air defense organization. Other weapons used to suppress or destroy air defense assets can include the Army’s ATACMs short range ballistic guided missile system. The problem is that precise targeting is needed to attack a system such as the S-300P. The S-300P can be moved in as little as five minutes. So the targeting has to be in virtually real time. To do that requires an investment in quite a few electronic warfare aircraft or other system. Once found, simply attacking it is a challenge. The maximum range of the SA-20A is nominally greater than the range of the HARM anti-radar missile normally used to attack SAM systems.

But the US, and its allies, tend to eschew taking a system versus system approach, and instead use multiple avenues to address any single platform. For instance, attacking any target protected by an S-300P would almost certainly involve significant numbers of electronic warfare aircraft, such as the EA-18G Growler, both for locating the SAM site, and for jamming the associated radars, as well as launching HARMs at them. Other supporting HARM shooters would also be used.

Other stand-off weapons targeted in real time would include the Joint Stand-Off Weapon and likely the Small Diameter Bomb, both conceived of in part to defeat long range SAM systems. All these weapons would be used on coordination with a swarm of Miniature Air Launched Decoys.

A promotional video explaining how multiple weapons can be used to overwhelm advanced SAM defenses:


Bottom line, while the S-300P system in Iran would not preclude the US or its allies penetrating defended airspace, it would make such a task much more difficult, and likely time consuming. It would also greatly increase the risk of crew losses or captured airmen.

Having said that, if the alternative is a nuclear armed Iran, it seems that risking treasure and lives is worth it.



* Current Russian designation systems are somewhat impenetrable to my mind, so I’ve tended to mostly use the NATO Reporting Name for a given system.

**It is also quite typical for an SA-20A battery to have a modern short range air defense system such as the Tor-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet)  co-located for terminal defense of the battery itself.

Cold War Redux

The XX Committee* has a great post on just who NATO is facing in Russia, and why our responses have been so poor.

As the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, with the Russian military and its “rebel” minions never having honored the Minsk-brokered “ceasefire” for even an hour, something like low-grade panic is setting in among NATO capitals. Western elites have a tough time sizing up Putin and his agenda realistically, for reasons I’ve elaborated, and the situation seems not to be improving.

German has a delightfully cynical line, die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt (hope dies last), that sums up much of the wishful thinking that currently holds sway in Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC. As the reality that Putin knows he is at war against Ukraine, and may seek a wider war against NATO too, is a prospect so terrifying that thousands of Western diplomats and “foreign policy experts” would rather not ponder it, so they don’t.

A classic example comes in a recent press report about how Western foreign ministries are striving to prevent Putin from doing more to destabilize Eastern Europe. Amidst much dithering about how to deter Putin — more sanctions? maybe some, but not too many, weapons for Ukraine? how about some really biting hashtags? — NATO leaders aren’t coming up with anything that can be termed a coherent policy, much less a strategy.

Western nations have consistently underestimated Putin’s willingness to use force.

How can we forget Putin overseeing the Second Chechen War? The 2008 invasion of Georgia? We’ve already effectively conceded Crimea. For that matter, who seriously thinks diplomacy will ever return eastern Ukrainian lands from Moscow’s grip?

Will we see a straight up invasion of Germany right out of Red Storm Rising? Probably not.

But almost certainly some “incident” will eventually take place in Latvia or one of the other Baltic nations that will, by amazing coincidence, be used by Putin to justify some Russian intervention.

Which, what a coincidence:

Increasingly frequent snap military drills being carried out by Russia near its eastern European neighbours could be part of a strategy that will open the door for a Russian offensive on the Baltic states according to defence expert Martin Hurt, deputy director at Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security.

The Lithuanian and Estonian defence ministries have expressed alarm at the increased military activity, and drawn comparisons with moves prior to the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Commenting on Russia’s announcement last week that its armed forces will not cease holding snap military exercises, Hurt, who has previously worked for Estonia’s Ministry of Defence as well as for the armed forces of both Estonia and Sweden, warned against taking this news lightly.


*If you don’t know where they got their blog name from, you most certainly should read this.


It’s interesting that the US and Russia, with very different defense requirements and threat scenarios, often end up fielding weapons that, while not mirror images, are at least quite analogous to one another.

When the Army fielded the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), soon after fielded ATACMS*, in which instead of a pod of six rockets, one pod would carry one large long range Army Tactical Missile System guided semi-ballistic missile.

ATACMS (“Attack ‘ems!”) was first used in Desert Storm to neutralized an Iraqi surface to air missile site.


The Russians, never slouches in the artillery and tactical missile fields, have two different platforms. They field the Smerch as the counterpart to our MLRS. And they field the 9K720 Iskandar-M short range tactical ballistic missile in place of ATACMS.


Iskandar has a somewhat longer range, around 500km versus 300km for ATACMS. ATACMS has either a cluster bomblet warhead or a single 500lb warhead, where Iskandar has cluster bomblet, unitary or possibly a nuclear payload, and somewhat larger at that, at around 2000lb.

Both weapons, while flying a semi-ballistic path, are guided throughout the flight, rather than being true ballistic weapons. Inertial navigation with satellite updates (that’s GPS or its Russian cousin GLONASS) gives them excellent accuracy.

Typical targets would be air defense sites, airfields, command and control centers, logistics centers or other similar high value targets.  There are unconfirmed reports that Russia employed Iskandar against a tank depot during its brief war with Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008. The Dutch government concluded that a Dutch national present as a reporter was killed by a fragment from one in the vicinity of Gori.

One reason the US and its NATO allies are concerned about Iskandar-M is that it can reach deep into Western European territories when launched from within Russia. When the US reached an agreement with Poland to install ground based ballistic missile defense on Polish territory, Russia responded by announcing it would station Iskandar launch brigades in the Kalinangrad district, within range of the proposed US installations.  When the US dumped the proposal, the Russians decreed they would not deploy to Kaliningrad. Until eventually they did anyway.

But the real concern is that the Russians have used the launcher vehicle and associated control systems to test and field a new ground launched cruise missile. The missile in question, the R-500, has a reported range of 2000km. That puts Russia in direct violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. Of course, in the face of a blatant violation of the treaty, the entirety of the Obama administration’s response was to send a mildly worded letter.

Deep strike missiles such as the ATACMS and Iskandar are a quick response, precise alternative to airstrikes. But they require significant intelligence collection and dissemination to support targeting, and very close coordination with air assets to deconflict airspace. 


*After a very protracted development that saw several different names and configurations.