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Mar 25, 2015 | 09:16 GMT

8 mins read

Russia: Reviving the Pacific Fleet

Russian guided missile cruiser Varyag in a port in Shanghai after taking part in a joint military drill with China in 2014. During the Cold War, the Russian Pacific Fleet was a defensive force, completely outmatched by the naval forces of the United States. Russia plans to bolster its Pacific naval forces over the next decade.
(AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

The Russian Pacific Fleet, though severely weakened in the two decades following the end of the Cold War, may soon see its importance and development resurge. The fleet has suffered from deficient investment, aging vessels, lower training levels and subpar maintenance. Moreover, it has only begun to receive new vessels again over the last two years. Moscow is trying to bolster the Pacific Fleet as a key component of its overall military modernization plan while it is increasingly looking to expand its influence in the east. Russia's economy, however, will force Moscow to strategically prioritize its spending on the fleet, as well as on its overall military strategy.

Even during the Cold War, the Russian Pacific Fleet was a defensive force, completely outmatched by the combined naval forces of the United States and Japan. This dynamic intensified in the aftermath of the Cold War with the fleet's deterioration. Russia's strategy has, therefore, historically focused on deterrence. Its forces are composed of its nuclear ballistic submarine force and the nuclear attack submarines that escort them that are survivable enough to wage offensive actions far from Russian ports. They are also highly useful in the anti-submarine warfare role closer to shore. However, other types of warships have not been completely neglected, and Moscow has invested heavily in large and small surface combatants and in diesel electric submarines, even as it has focused its attention on nuclear submarines since the 1960s.

These vessels were not expected to survive long in a conflict with U.S. Navy fleets, but they nonetheless acted as a preliminary barrier against Moscow's enemies.

Small surface combatants and diesel-electric submarines were particularly important for defending the Russian shoreline during the Cold War and preventing the United States from sending carrier battle groups too close. They also contributed to the Russian bastion strategy, which tried to create a protective bubble around the seas close to Russia and which used Russian Delta-class nuclear ballistic and subsequent classes of submarines capable of attacking U.S. cities without venturing far from Russian ports.

Russian large-surface combatants, including nuclear-powered cruisers, were also constructed in considerable numbers. These vessels were not expected to survive long in a conflict with U.S. Navy fleets, but they nonetheless acted as a preliminary barrier against Moscow's enemies. They were also highly effective at intimidating smaller powers, at supporting the Russian army in localized amphibious operations, and at venturing far from distant ports to support equally distant allies. These roles, however, were not as important as the deterrence role played by the Soviet and subsequent Russian nuclear submarines.

Competing for Funding

Though the Pacific Fleet has greatly weakened since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's use of and strategic conception of the fleet is essentially the same. Moscow still overwhelmingly prioritizes the nuclear deterrence and coastal defense missions. More ancillary roles, such as out-of-theater deployments with large surface combatants, would be highly beneficial but are not as critical. Within this strategic context, Russia's ambitions for the Pacific Fleet, while grandiose, face several limitations — the largest of which is funding. Russia is undoubtedly going to increase financial investment in its military, but it will not be able to fund all its desired programs, especially given the sanctions levied on Russia and the low oil prices.

The Pacific Fleet is facing stiff competition from the four other regional maritime forces in the Russian navy, which are all slated to receive new vessels. The Pacific Fleet is likely to fare well in this competition, but will still come second to the more important Northern Fleet. Both the Pacific Fleet and the Northern Fleet are engaged in the nuclear deterrence mission. However, the Northern Fleet is responsible for a greater share of that mission because of its more defensible geographic area, its mission to project force across the Arctic, and its task to defend most of the Northern Sea Route. Moreover, Russia is disadvantaged by the great deterioration of its shipbuilding industry since the end of the Cold War, delaying the construction of vessels that Russia could build for the Pacific Fleet.

The Pacific Fleet will still come second to the more important Northern Fleet.

Moscow will therefore have to make difficult choices on the investments it makes in the Pacific Fleet. Even during the bleak budgetary times of the 1990s, Russia prioritized its nuclear forces to compensate for its quickly deteriorating conventional power. The Pacific Fleet played and continues to play a key role in the nuclear deterrence mission, and so the fleet's nuclear ballistic missile submarines will receive the bulk of the funding. Other areas of prioritization will be the nuclear attack submarines that escort and protect ballistic missile submarines and the small combatants that are required for the coastal defense role.

Strategic Implications

Because nuclear deterrence and territorial defense have been and will continue to be the best-funded areas of the Russian navy, core forces with other missions will find it hard to compete for funding. The large surface combatants of the Pacific Fleet, which are tasked with secondary missions such as protection of sea-lanes, army support, and out-of-area deployments, will continue to age and decrease in number over time.

Still, small surface combatants such as the Steregushchy-class corvettes will handle the coastal defense mission. Furthermore, while the Russian shipbuilding industry is not well-positioned to produce large numbers of major surface combatants, the participation of foreign shipyards could help in the endeavor. Meanwhile, the existing major surface combatants of the Pacific Fleet will see their maintenance and overhaul levels improve as they are increasingly relied on to ensure Russian dominance over the Northern Sea Route and to carry out the occasional global patrol jointly with the other Russian fleets.

Improvements alone will not restore the Russian Pacific Fleet to its former glory, but they will ensure the Pacific Fleet plays an important role in the Asian maritime sphere.

But the fleet will be given new equipment to support its nuclear deterrence role and the bastion mission. The Pacific Fleet received its first vessel in 2013, a Borei-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine. Five more of these submarines are expected to enter service with the Pacific Fleet over the next decade, gradually replacing the aging Delta-class boats currently serving as the mainstay of the Pacific Fleet's nuclear ballistic missile force. The Pacific Fleet will also receive six Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines over the next decade. Together the Borei- and Yasen-class submarines will ensure the continuation of the powerful bastion strategy by the Russian sea-based leg of the nuclear triad in the Sea of Okhotsk.

International Reaction

As Russia increases its involvement in Asia and seeks to bolster its Pacific Fleet, other naval powers in the region will naturally keep a close eye on developments. However, Russia's prioritization of nuclear deterrence will not fundamentally shift the naval balance of power in the region over the next decade. Already heavily invested in strengthening its navy, China will welcome the marginal increase in Russian Pacific naval power that will provide more opportunities for joint training and will distract U.S. 7th Fleet assets. Japan is already scrambling to intercept the increased number of Russian military flights. With the Kuril Islands dispute still unresolved, Tokyo can further point to the growth of the Russian Pacific Fleet to underline its case for military normalization and enhanced investments for its own navy. However, China and Japan will focus on the developments of each other's navies, and the enhanced Russian Pacific Fleet will not fundamentally alter Russia's relationship with the Asian powers or unduly affect energy talks and negotiations.

The United States will be the one paying the most attention to the new Russian Pacific Fleet. Russia already holds nuclear supremacy over all other nations in the world except the United States, and any shifts in nuclear force posturing will necessarily affect the close nuclear balance between the two. An enhanced Russian nuclear ballistic submarine force, carrying out more nuclear deterrence patrols and with ever more capable nuclear attack submarines to guard them, will push the United States to refocus once again on honing the anti-submarine warfare skills of their nuclear attack submarine fleet. The bastion strategy employed by Russia will make it almost impossible for the United States to dispatch non-submarine assets into the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Okhotsk seas in the initial stages of any nuclear conflict.

Absent massive alterations, we can expect notable improvements in the Russian Pacific Fleet over the next decade, specifically the enhancement of the sea-based nuclear deterrence and coastal defense parts of the fleet. Still, budgetary and industrial limitations will temper the elevated Russian expectations and ambitions for their navy. Improvements alone will not restore the Russian Pacific Fleet to its former glory, but they will ensure the Pacific Fleet plays an important role in the Asian maritime sphere.

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