Dr. Nikolai Novichkov
Some ten or fifteen years ago, Russia’s Baltic Fleet was the ‘neglected offspring’ of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. A depleted formation made up of its predecessor’s remnants, it did not represent a modern force. Moreover, the formation’s structure, warships and naval component were not supported by a combat concept, let alone a clearly defined military doctrine. By early 2021 this situation had dramatically changed. The Baltic Fleet is in the course of being shored up against the background of NATO’s expanding presence in the region.
The Regional Context
The Baltic Fleet is primarily based in the Kaliningrad Region. This has a distinct place in the Russian Federation, having no land borders with any other part of the country and being surrounded by states which take an anti-Russian stance. Both Poland and the Baltic States form established parts of NATO’s military infrastructure and are modernising their armed forces with the acquisition of new weapons. NATO has intensified its exercises along Russia’s land borders, whilst the reconnaissance aircraft of the NATO member states and of Sweden patrol the shores of the Kaliningrad enclave almost round the clock.
Facing this situation, Russia’s military command has established the country’s first combined arms task force in the region. This comprises naval, land and air components, including coastal units and an air defence network, and brings all forces under the remit of a single commander. The Kaliningrad Region is also home to Russia’s first integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) network, encompassing air defence, electronic warfare and strike weapons systems. The A2/AD system’s main task is to inflict unacceptable damage on any aggressor, using air and missile capabilities to neutralise its offensive potential.
The Baltic Fleet has its headquarters in Kaliningrad, with its main base at Baltiysk.
The formation also encompasses the Leningrad Naval Base, with an operational focus on Kronstadt. Its main responsibilities are to:
Maintain Russia’s interests in the Baltic region
Protect the economic zone, as well as industrial infrastructure.
Interrupt illegal activities.
Provide safe navigation
Act in collaboration with the Russian Navy’s other forces (primarily the Northern Fleet’s North Atlantic task force)
Support Russia’s foreign policy goals across the world’s oceans.
Given the Kaliningrad Region’s potential vulnerability, its protection inevitably forms a core part of the fleet’s responsibilities. Along with other elements of the integrated defence structure, it is tasked with preventing attacks on key military targets and infrastructure across the region, particularly in the vital first two or three days of any conflict. However, the Baltic Fleet has much wider geographical horizons. According to the Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief (VFM) Nikolay Yevmenov, the fleet is the leading formation in Russia’s western combined arms force, “The Baltic Fleet is a developing fleet which is capable of providing protection against sea threats in its operational area far away from its main bases. Today the formation’s servicemen are successfully accomplishing the most challenging goals in interaction with the forces of the Russian Navy’s other fleets, including the military service’s task force in the Mediterranean Sea.”
Baltic Fleet Structure
Administratively part of Russia’s Western Military District, the Baltic Fleet can be considered as a balanced combined arms formation. It encompasses naval forces, naval aviation, an air defence network, coastal and territorial defence troops and logistical support assets. All the formation’s component units are maintained at a high state of readiness. The Baltic Fleet also maintains significant facilities to support its important role as a major training base for the wider Russian Navy.
Most military scenarios in the Baltic region do not favour the use of large surface ships. Instead, the Baltic Sea is a theatre, where light warships can successfully accomplish a wide range of tasks without relying on the support of large naval platforms and nuclear-powered submarines. However, air support is still an essential issue.
The Baltic Fleet currently has the following major ships within its structure:
Surface Combatants –
1 Project 956 Destroyer (NATO: SOVREMENNY class): NASTOYCHIVIY
2 Project 11540 Frigates (NEUSTRASHIMYY class): NEUSTRASHIMYY and YAROSLAV MUDRIY
4 Project 20380 Corvettes (STREGUSHCHIY class): STREGUSHCHIY, SOOBRAZITELNIY, BOIKIY and STOIKIY
3 Project 22800 Corvettes (Karakurt class): MYTISHCHI, SOVETSK and ODINTSOVO
2 Project 21631 Corvettes (Buyan-M class): ZELENIY DOL and SERPUKHOV
4 Project 1234.1 Small Missile Ships (Nanuchka III class): ZYB, GEISER, PASSAT and LIVEN
6 Project 1331M Small ASW Ships (Parchim class): URENGOY, ZELENODOLSK, KAZANETS, ALEKSIN, KABARDINO-BALKARIA and KALMYKIA
Major Amphibious Ships:
6 Project 1241 Missile Boats (Tarantul class)
4 Project 775 Large landing Ships (Ropucha class): MINSK, KALININGRAD, ALEKSANDR SHABALIN and KOROLYOV
2 Project 12322 air cushion landing craft (Pomornik class): EVGENIY KOCHESHKOV and MORDOVIA
Other important units include the lead Project 12700 (Alexandrite class) mine countermeasures vessel (MCMV) ALEXANDER OBUKHOV, ten coastal and inshore minesweepers, various landing craft and fast patrol craft, as well as the usual array of logistic support vessels and tugboats. In 2020, the Baltic Fleet received its first Project 02510 (BK-16) fast landing craft with several more of the type planned for delivery during 2021.
One potential area of weakness is a lack of underwater combatants, as the fleet currently only operates the two Project 877 (Kilo class) submarines DMITROV and ALROSA. However, industrial sources suggest the fleet may receive the two Project 677 (Lada class) boats KRONSTADT and VELIKIYE LUKI that are now being built at the United Shipbuilding Corporation’s Admiralty Shipyards subsidiary in Saint Petersburg. It is also understood that the Russian Navy is discussing the construction of additional Project 636.3 (Improved Kilo class) submarines armed with the KALIBR (SS-N-27 Sizzler) missile system – already operated by the Black Sea and Pacific Fleets – for Baltic Fleet service.
According to Commander-in-Chief Yevmenov, the Baltic Fleet will continue to be bolstered by new warships as Russia attempts to tip the balance of regional power in its favour. Important arrivals are likely to include further KALIBR missile-armed Project 22800 corvettes, the most recent of which also carry the new PANTSIR-M combined missile and gun close-in weapons system.
Modernisation is not limited to warships, with particular attention being paid to improving the long-neglected Baltiysk Naval Base. The base’s berthing facilities have been repaired and extended to a total length of around 3 km, whilst new power cables and waterlines have been laid and communication networks improved. Other improvements extend to the enhancement of repair and maintenance workshops as well as upgraded logistical support facilities. The first stage of the upgrades is believed to have been completed by the end of 2020 and further work is underway. The modernisation programme will reduce the base’s exposure to adverse meteorological conditions and improve overall operational safety. The expanded facilities also improve Moscow’s ability to base naval strike forces close to NATO’s borders in a strategically important region, supporting the capabilities of the new assets that are being acquired.
Another important aspect of force modernisation is the introduction of new weapons systems that have particular relevance to the Baltic region. These include a new generation of ‘smart’ sea mines that are capable of recognising various ship classes. These have already been deployed in the Project 21631 (Buyan-M) class corvettes during exercises, improving their A2/AD capabilities. The new mines are associated with an enhanced concept of ‘intelligent’ sea minefields that will effectively change shape dependent on the type of threat faced. Operating under the umbrella of a networked system of sensors governed by a command and control unit, the system allows priority to be placed on countering the most valuable enemy combatants. For example, a minefield can be commanded to destroy only loaded landing ships whilst ignoring empty ones or to disregard MCMVs but engage large surface combatants. The system is believed to work on the basis of a software library of acoustic signatures that is accessed during the target recognition process, distinguishing between different ships with a high probability of success. The mines can be placed in groups or individually and be deployed by a wide range of assets.
The Project 20380, 22800 and 21631 corvettes have also been integrated into the Russian military’s reconnaissance-and-strike networks to enhance the Baltic Fleet’s ability to provide close fire support to ground forces. Target information can, for example, be acquired by land-based FORPOST unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and then transmitted onwards via digital communications channels. By using the STRELETS (Shooter) command and control and communications system a serviceman can simply mark a target on his or her personal tablet and call in an artillery or missile strike. Achieving cohesion between warship crews and FORPOST UAVs to monitor, detect, track and destroy potential targets has been a feature of Baltic Fleet exercises.
Land and Aviation Assets
The Baltic Fleet’s own coastal troops and aviation forces are also being modernised. According to the Baltic Fleet’s Commander, Admiral Alexander Nosatov, “Over the past three years we have adopted BAL (SSC-6 Sennight) and BASTION (SSC-5 Stooge) mobile coastal defence missile systems, ISKANDER-M (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missiles, S-400 TRIUMF (SA-21 Growler) air defence missiles, PANTSIR-S (SA-22 Greyhound) self-propelled CIWSs, FORPOST UAVs, Sukhoi Su-30SM (Flanker-H) multi-role combat aircraft, and Kamov Ka-27M (Helix-A) and KA-29 (Helix-B) rotorcraft amongst other cutting-edge weapons systems”.
The Baltic Fleet’s tank units form an important part of its land forces. They have begun receiving upgraded T-72B3M main battle tanks, with both the 7th Motor Rife Regiment and the 79th Independent Brigade set to be re-equipped. 2020 saw 30 T-72B3Ms delivered to the Kaliningrad Region and the process is expected to be completed before the end of 2021.
In addition to its missile-armed surface warships, the Baltic Fleet has two ground-based missile units: the 152nd Guards Missile Brigade equipped with the ISKANDER-M and the 25th Coastal Missile Brigade with the BAL and BASTION systems. These weapons are capable of engaging enemy ships at distances of up to 500 km. The Baltic Fleet’s artillery units have also been reinforced with battlefield weapons that include URAGAN multiple rocket launch systems, MSTA and PION artillery and the KHIRSANTEMA (AT-15 Springer) self-propelled anti-tank guided missile.
The Kaliningrad enclave is home to a multi-layered air defence network focused on the 44th Air Defence Division. This comprises a regiment of S-300 and S-400 systems and a regiment with S-300V4 missiles. According to open source information, some eight batteries of S-300 and S-400 missiles and two S-300V4 batteries are deployed in the Kaliningrad Region, providing a level of air defences comparable only with the air defence areas of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Tactical air defences fall under the auspices of the 22nd Air Defence Regiment that is equipped with the TOR-M2 (SA-15 Gauntlet) short-range air defence system. It is understood the ship-based REDUT air defence system of the series-built Project 20380 corvettes have also been integrated into the region’s air defence network.
The Baltic Fleet’s naval aviation component is provided by the 132nd Aviation Division, that includes fighter, air assault and helicopter regiments. Helicopter types include the Ka-27 (Helix), Mil Mi-24 (Hind) and Mi-8 (Hip) series rotorcraft. Upgraded Ka-27M helicopters were delivered in the course of 2020 and the newest Ka-52 (Hokum-B) and Mi-28N (Havoc-B) types are also expected to be inaugurated soon. The detection of submarines in the Baltic Sea can be difficult due to significant variations in water depths; however, the Ka-27M’s dipping sonar allows detection in almost all topographical conditions.
The region’s defences also benefit from one of Russia’s most powerful electronic warfare (EW) units in the form of the 841st Independent Electronic Warfare Centre. In late 2018, the MURMANSK-BN jamming system was deployed to the region. Contained in seven heavy trucks, it is believed to be capable of suppressing enemy systems at distances of up to 5,000 km, extending perhaps as far as 8,000 km in favourable environments. The coastal troops also use a range of their own EW assets. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the Baltic Fleet’s EW equipment provides a full range of capabilities extending from jamming through to the collection and analysis of data received from surveillance of HF and VHF transmissions.
The Kaliningrad Region’s westerly geographical location makes it a prime location for surveillance radar systems, including the VORONEZH-DM missile defence radar. A new KONTAINER long range over-the-horizon radar system, which can detect aircraft and missile launches as far as the United Kingdom, is also being constructed in the enclave.
Training & Exersises
The concentration of significant United Shipbuilding Corporation shipbuilding facilities in the Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad areas mean that many of the Russian Navy’s surface warships and submarines run their trials in the Baltic. According to Commander-in-Chief Yevmenov, providing assistance with the testing and work-up of these vessels is amongst the Baltic Fleet’s most important duties.
An important part of the revitalisation of Baltic Fleet capabilities is the expansion of basic and operational training after the neglect of the immediate post-Soviet years. The most important training exercise is probably the annual Ocean Shield serial, which takes place after the Navy Day celebrations in July. Typically involving some 30 naval vessels as well as aviation, coastal and air defence assets the exercise involves artillery and missile live firing in manoeuvres that include air defence, surface and underwater combat and amphibious operations.
It can be seen from this brief overview that much has been achieved in recent years to rebuild Russia’s Baltic Fleet capabilities as a counterbalance to the strength of NATO and allied forces in the region. As a result, the security of the Kaliningrad Region is on a much firmer footing than previously. However, this increase in capabilities remains work in progress. According to Commander-in-Chief Yevmenov, the modernisation and rearmament of the fleet with cutting-edge weapons and equipment will continue in the years ahead.