Russian Navy Ponders Investments In Nuclear-Powered Surface Ships

By Anand Datla
The Russian navy recently announced plans to build either a nuclear powered destroyer or cruiser — depending on translation — by 2016.

The pronouncement, made at the 5th Maritime Defense Show in St. Petersburg, caused an uncomfortable surprise in many naval circles.

A move to build a nuclear surface ship would give Russia a capability that is not currently possessed by most navies around the world. These potential nuclear powered surface ships would be faster, not as dependent on supply ships for refueling, and have the ability to traverse greater distances. In terms of future technology capacity, it could also provide greater energy resources to charge directed energy weapons.

The Russian navy’s ambition is worth examining because it suggests that the Russians have a different view of the cost versus benefits of fulfilling their evolving mission needs. These developments, further, should be analyzed in the context of planning and designing future U.S. combatant warships.   

The Russian navy experience with nuclear surface ships offers many parallels. However, instead of focusing on either a nuclear destroyer or cruiser the Russian navy pursued battle cruisers. The Kirov battle cruisers were developed in the 1970s, but because of costs they were limited to four ships. These battle cruisers were comparable to older U.S. battleships in size but outfitted with missiles to use against large surface ships. Unlike the U.S. Navy, the Russian Navy has kept four of these ships and continues to use one of them for operations today. Costs have played a large role in their fate. The other three Kirov battle cruisers are waiting for upgrades and are presently not in use.

The desire to have a nuclear powered destroyer or cruiser is not new. During the 1970s the U.S. Navy built a number of nuclear cruisers and even considered pursuing a nuclear destroyer. Eventually, the effort to develop a nuclear destroyer was cut short due to cost-saving measures. It should be noted that at the time the move to not pursue a nuclear destroyer was controversial. Today, all the nuclear cruisers of the U.S. Navy have been decommissioned and only aircraft carriers are nuclear powered. The rationale behind decommissioning nuclear cruisers was that maintenance costs outweighed the return on capability.

Since the 1970s the technology behind building nuclear power plants on ships has greatly improved. It is still debatable though if the cost of building a nuclear surface vessel saves money in the long run. Some argue that the upfront costs for building surface nuclear vessels are greater and offset by being less expensive to operate as well as refuel. Since current surface ships use diesel engines or gas turbines for propulsion, the cost of fuel is subject to great variability.

There is little debate, however, as to the relatively high expenses associated with maintaining a nuclear surface ship. A nuclear powered ship does not require a special port for maintenance. But it does require properly trained and certified personnel. Routine maintenance time for a nuclear powered surface ship is no longer than a conventionally powered ship maintained to the same standards. Refueling operations, nevertheless, require lengthy shipyard periods. Specially trained maintenance crews to properly handle the nuclear ship would be critical. A nuclear surface ship also requires extensive training of its crew to be able to operate the propulsion plant. As recently as 2007, House Armed Service Committee members Rep. Roscoe Barnett, R-Md., and former Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., encouraged a re-evaluation of all associated costs attached to a nuclear surface ship to explore its potential merits. A large number of critics argued that maintenance expenditures, when combined with the upfront costs, sufficiently make the nuclear surface vessel unappealing.  

It is unclear how the Russians view benefits versus cost as they contemplate building a nuclear surface vessel. It could be that the Russian navy is willing to look past the costs because its leaders have a different view of the mission needs for nuclear surface vessels. Inherent with the surface nuclear vessels is the ability to arrive faster than other vessels over a long distance to a particular point on the ocean. Clearly this capability would allow for the Russian navy to be able to make a visible presence before others. The proposed nuclear surface vessel would be able to operate patrols over longer periods, thus further deterring other navies over disputed territory if the need arose.

The ability to patrol or arrive at a destination without refueling would be hugely valuable to Russian navy forces. The Russians have long identified interests in the Arctic and continue to face disputes from other neighbors about these claims. Given the difficulty to send ships to the Arctic, the nuclear destroyer would be able to travel there with much greater ease because it would not have to rely on supply ships for fuel. Such a capability would give Russia a marginal lead over other countries.

Another reason for Russia’s interests in nuclear surface ships could be to sell these ships to other navies. Countries such as China will likely need to be able to protect strategic waterways for oil supplies in the future. Nuclear surface ships would be a better choice than non-nuclear because they may not be as vulnerable to supply lines that could be attacked.

It is still too early to know the precise reasons for considering the nuclear surface ship by the Russian navy. One good measure that will help identify the reason will be the number of ships that are built. If there are only a few ships that are designed then there is likely truth to the view that the design of the ship was more for show than combat. But if a large number of ships is built, it would indicate that the country is serious about enhancing its naval power.

Anand Datla is a former Defense Department civilian who worked on strategic planning, policy and operations. He also served as a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee. He is currently a consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area.

Topics: Shipbuilding, Surface Ships

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