Written by Alexandr Shishkin; Originally appeared at Vzglyad; Translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
A few years ago, the Navy actively pushed the concept of “new ship in the old body”, a radical reconstruction of Soviet-built ships with new armaments and electronics. A whole group of ships was sent for upgrades, but now we can say that all these plans failed completely. How did it happen and who should be held accountable?
At the beginning of the 2010s advances in the Russian military steel construction caused a kind of euphoria. Its typical manifestations were, for example, ideas of resuming the production of missile trains, ekranoplans, hovercrafts and an almost universal deep modernisation of the main ship composition, inherited from the USSR.
A technical project was approved in 2012, providing for the tripling of ammunition of the nuclear submarines of Project 949A for the replacement of the complex “Granit” for “Onyx” and “Kalibr”. According to some reports, all five ships of the Pacific Fleet were to be upgraded. In 2013, in the “Star” shipyard work began on the nuclear submarine “Irkutsk”, the following year “Chelyabinks” was pulled up, third, “Tver” was next. It would seem that the process had begun.
With regard to the cruising submarines of Project 971, the plans were even broader; it was about the whole series of 10 boats. In 2011, the “Leopard”, set to become the leading ship of Project 971M, came to the “Little Star” shipyard. The planned terms of modernisation were about three years, and although at the end of 2013 there were already delays on the “Leopard”, it was believed to be all good, especially since in 2014 the boats “Wolf”, “Samara” and “Bratsk” arrived at the “Little Star” shipyard.
With surface ships, the situation was no less rosy. “Little Star” received for intermediate repairs the missile cruiser “Marshal Ustinov” of Project 1164, which was supposed to return to duty in 2014, treading a path for same class “Moscow” and “Variag”. In 2013, a state contract was signed with Sevmash for intermediate repairs and modernisation of the heavy battlecruiser “Admiral Nakhimov” of Project 11442M, the first of two maintainable “Eagles”, with the completion date in 2018. In the same 2013, the Murmansk 35th shipyard received for intermediate repairs (until 2016) the large anti-submarine ship “Admiral Chabanenko” of Project 11551. It was presumed that all seven destroyers of Project 956 were to be repaired and all eight large anti-submarine ships of Project 1155 were to be modernised.
Collapse of an attractive Concept
By the end of last year it was crystal clear that the concept of “new ship in the old body”, the essence of which is the rapid and inexpensive renewal of the main ship’s structure through intermediate repairs with the modernisation of Soviet projects, was a total failure.
The serial submarines of Project 949AM, after some hesitation, settled at 4 units. The term of transfer of “Irkutsk” to the fleet (and subsequently “Chelyabinsk”) increased by 4 years, from 2017 to 2021, and the duration of the repair increased to 8 years (despite the fact that it was built twice as fast). In this regard, the Deputy Minister of Defense’s statement that 2021 is a real timeframe for when the Fleet can get the four ships back (while on the “Tver” and “Tomsk” work has not even begun) raises questions.
The situation develops miserably with the nuclear-powered submarines of Project 971M, the series from which “the whole series” was cut to six, and then to four units. The deadline to return “Leopard” was moved from 2016 to 2019; however, a source at the “Star” considers even a four-year delay too optimistic. In case of unexpected work acceleration by 1.5 to twice faster on the other three boats, the Navy will receive the latest 971M around 2023-2024 – simultaneously with the latest “Yasens” or even after them, making the modernisation programme of “Pike-B” if not meaningless, then highly questionable.
1. Mistakes in planning
Even under the Soviet regime, with its penchant for voluntaristic decisions, decisions in the field of military construction were made by taking into account the opinions and capabilities of the parties involved. Now and even more so, the state armament programmes undergo careful coordination with all participants of the process. Nevertheless, because of bad faith or negligence of some contractors, the agreed upon and adopted programmes are beginning to lag from the schedule and fall apart in front of the eyes. The nuclear submarines Project 971M is an example of this history.
There is no doubt that the decisions on the complete modernisation of the series of submarines of Project 971 were taken collectively – the Ministry of Defence, the Navy, the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), the Saint Petersburg Maritime Bureau of Mechanical Engineering “Malachite” and the shipyard “Little Star”, with the result that it was agreed on the scheduled period of work for one order “for about three years”. The sailors and designers have no complaints, the Navy was “happy to be deceived” and the “Malachite” could hardly present in detail the possibilities to the shipyard. However the leadership of the shipyard knew them well, and its consent meant at best incompetence, at worst, cheating (understatement of the actual terms of two-three times more in order to obtain a profitable contract).
The embarrassment with the 971M programme is merely a particular case. Judging by the fact that the rescheduling to 4 more years (or by 6 years) has already become a kind of norm, the risk assessment in the planning of repairs is amateurish or not conducted at all, and deadlines are assigned according to the principle of “believe in the word of the contractor”, interested in concluding the government contract. The best remedy for intentionally understating the terms would probably be a technical audit not only on the potential main contractors, but of sub-contractors to ascertain the possibility of their performance of the state defence work orders.
It is possible that if the Ministry of Defence and Navy command knew the true and not the fictitious terms, plans would have been adjusted to accelerate the restoration of the technical readiness according to the original project with the most minimal modifications (e.g. installation of the complex “Kalibr-PL” on the “Shchuka-B”s). The boats of both projects cannot be called hopelessly out-dated, and they could well provide a decent number and high efficiency of nuclear submarine forces before the arrival of the fourth generation of nuclear submarines.
2. Mutual Responsibility
In one of his recent interviews, the head of the USC stated: “If previously the implementation percentage of state defence order (GOZ) the [Corporation] fluctuated between 47 to 67%, then in  we come to a stable 85-90%”. Knowing about the systematic increases of terms of work completion on GOZ, it is hard to believe what has been said. We must assume that the high percentage is obtained through a simple trick.
When the deadline for completion of the state contract approaches, and the technical readiness of the order is almost as far from 100% as the time of its placement for repairs, the representatives of the customer and the contractor conclude an amicable supplementary agreement to the contract, extending the period by one or two years. After a year or two the procedure is repeated. As a result, the fact that the contractor violates its obligations has no more importance, penalties are not applied, and the implementation of the GOZ at the end of the years reaches 85-90%.
The military is easy to understand, they have to go on about the contractors. Nevertheless, with the vicious practice of such “circular bail”, it is also time to stop it. It would be unfair to punish workers, engineers, junior and middle managers or imposing fines on the enterprise as a whole. The strictest personal responsibility should be borne by the general director of the shipyard and the president of the USC”
3. Orders on the Left
If Russian military ship repairs flourished, delivering Navy ships upgraded on time, but not fully booked, there would be nothing wrong in the orders taken “on the side”. But now, in the conditions of a severe industry crisis, any non-core activities that load the shipyards only add to the crisis and harm the readiness of the Navy.
It is well known that the specialisation of the shipyard “Little Star” is the repair of nuclear submarines. However, despite the long queue of multi-purpose submarines waiting repairs (8-9 units), and slow repairs on four more, “academics” are being actively trained at the “Little Star”, support vessels on the basis of Project 20180. The press services of the repair centre refers to the extent of damages to the main issue of the enterprise, according to which, on completion of only one of the two being built at the same time, about 500 specialists were involved, in effect, isolated from the modernisation of Project 971 submarines.
A ridiculous situation emerged from the higher ups and at the “Nerpa” shipyard, a second shipyard in the Russian North. After the triumphant end of 2015 (delivery of 2 submarines), the next two years for “Nerpa” were wasted, although “Vepr” and “Tambov” are there for repairs. The reasons articulated by the director of the shipyard A. Oganyan are discouraging. It turns out that with the unfinished heat generator of the two submarines, the plant worked under a contract with the northwestern centre for radioactive waste management and under six contracts of Rosatom, including the dismantling and unloading of the steam-generating unit of the recycled icebreaker “Siberia”, although, according to Oganyan, “there is someone [except for “Nerpa”] to repair and service nuclear icebreakers”.
And this is not all: another additional load at the Snezhnogorsky repair centre, the only one on the Kola Peninsula, that mastered the Projects 971 and 945 boat repairs in full, was the conversion of the first domestic Project 627 submarine K-3 for further conversion into a museum-ship (by the way, “Yantar” is engaged in the same in relation to the decommissioned destroyer, while the formation “Neustrashny” was stuck there in repairs for 6 long years).
A little bit of honey in a barrel of tar
It cannot be said that in recent years our shipyards worked for nothing on the medium-size repairs and generators. However, it should be noted that most of the orders are either state priorities or long-term construction.
The first group includes strategic missiles and anti-aircraft group APCR Project 949A. The breach of contractual obligations on priority orders does not bode well for contractors of the Ministry of Defence, and they understand it perfectly well. Thus, three strategic missile submarine cruisers (“Ekaterinburg”, “Tula”, “Ryazan”) and three nuclear submarines with cruise missiles (“Smolensk”, “Orel”, “Tomsk”), handed over to the “Little Star” and to the “Star” in 2013-2017 are not indicative from the point of view of efficiency of ship repairs, work on them were carried out, in fact, “with a gun to the head” (which did not prevent “Ryazan” and “Tomsk” to drag the repairs for six years).
The nuclear-powered submarine “Kuzbass”, submarines “Kaluga”, “Vladikavkaz”, “Komsomolsk-on-Amur”, the missile cruiser “Marshal Ustinov”, the large landing ship “Orsk”, had undeniably long-term construction (not necessarily the shipyard’s fault), were handed over at the same time after standing in repair for a long time (from 5 and a half to 14 years). The average number of past repairs (nuclear power generators) in a reasonably short time (2-4 years) were the anti-submarine bombers “Pskov” and “Obninsk”, the large submarines “Vyborg” and “Dmitrov”, the landing ship “Admiral Tributs”, the large landing ships “King” and “Oslyabya”, a total of seven ships for five years.
Fewer claims to dock, inter-route navigational repairs, thanks to which the combat surface ships of the Russian Navy were able to provide a hyperactive demonstration of the flag on the oceans, as previously written by the newspaper Vzglad. In this sense, the Dalzavod, the 35th, 13th shipyards and several other shipyards are commendable.
Unfortunately, this is clearly not enough to admit that the work of the military ship repairs is satisfactory. We will hope that changes for the better will take place in the near future.