Russia's ageing navy still packs a deadly punch


  • World
  • Wednesday, 12 Nov 2008

MYT 8:17:34 AM

ABOARD THE MOSKVA MISSILE CRUISER (Reuters) - This Russian warship left the shipyard 25 years ago and it shows: the electronics consoles look like museum exhibits and its hull carries a thick crust of paint from years of running repairs.

A sailor is seen standing under a Russian naval flag on the missile cruiser Moskva in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol in this September 16, 2008 file photo. (REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov/Files)

Its shortcomings reflect the Russian navy's many problems, highlighted again this month by an accident on a nuclear submarine that killed 20 people.

But looks can deceive. Hidden beneath the decks of the Moskva cruiser are 16 "Bazalt" guided missiles, which travel faster than the speed of sound and can strike an enemy aircraft carrier group 500 km away.

The Moskva, flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, symbolises Russia's navy: all too easy to dismiss as an ageing rust-bucket, it can still pack a formidable punch.

The navy's capability matters now more than at any time since the Cold War because the Kremlin is using it to project Russia's new-found confidence far beyond its coastal waters, bringing it face-to-face with NATO warships.

"I believe we are treated with respect," captain of the Moskva Igor Smolyak told a group of visiting journalists when asked what foreign navies made of his vessel. He was standing in front of a 130-mm cannon at the bow of his ship.

"They treat with respect the flag, the ship and -- accordingly -- our nation," he said during the visit in late September.

BUTT OF JOKES

When Russia this year sent its nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great to Venezuela -- the first such manoeuvres off the U.S. coast since the Cold War -- Washington poked fun.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack quipped that it was "very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela".

The jokes are not entirely baseless. For years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, funding for the navy all but dried up. Building new vessels was put on hold and the existing fleet had to languish in port because of a lack of fuel.

The only time the world remembered Russia's navy was when, as with the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000 with the loss of all 118 on board, something went terribly wrong.

Memories of the Kursk disaster were revived on Nov. 8 when 20 people died from gas asphyxiation on board a nuclear submarine undergoing sea trials in the Pacific Ocean.

"We have lost 15 years," Captain Igor Dygalo, aide to the commander of Russia's navy said at the Moskva's mooring in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, home port of the Black Sea Fleet.

"Warships are not tanks. They are far more sophisticated and need proper care."

AGE NO OBSTACLE

But military analysts say what counts with naval power is not the age of the ship but what is inside it.

In the case of the Moskva, -- originally called "Slava" or "Glory" when it was launched in 1983 -- its officers say its electronics, sensors and weapons have been constantly upgraded.

One of only three missile cruisers of this class in the Russian navy, it bristles with weapons, including anti-submarine bombs, anti-aircraft rockets, six-barrelled anti-air Gatling guns, torpedoes and an on-deck helicopter.

"Due to the power of its strike weapons, the Moskva is called 'carrier killer' by NATO," the captain said.

Nick Brown, editor-in-chief of Jane's International Defence Review, said the age of the Russian fleet did not necessarily mean it could not fight.

"It's all about how it's been maintained," he said in written comments supplied to Reuters. "The U.S. Navy's oldest Ticonderoga-class cruisers were launched in the early 1980s and they have plenty of life left."

"I'm not sure that you can say the same about the Black Sea Fleet, because maintenance and upgrade programmes have been somewhat haphazard. That's not to say that the fleet is obsolete by any stretch, it's still a powerful fighting force."

KEEN RIVALRY

According to official data, Russia's Black Sea Fleet now comprises about 50 warships and other vessels, up to 80 planes and helicopters and some 13,000 servicemen.

More, and newer, ships are promised as Russia spends some of the huge cash pile it has built up from years of high oil prices on beefing up its military.

President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the Defence Ministry to prepare a programme of building aircraft carriers and new nuclear submarines, adding that "the money issue is not that important now".

The officers of the Black Sea fleet know they have to be battle ready because their adversary is getting closer.

In August, the Moskva was put to sea to track NATO vessels which were despatched in the aftermath of Russia's war with Georgia. NATO said they were delivering aid to Georgia, but Moscow saw them as encroaching on its sphere of influence.

Even in the home port that Ukraine's government -- which wants to join NATO -- grudgingly rents to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Western military power is hard to ignore.

As the Moskva sat at its moorings in Sevastopol, the U.S. navy survey ship Pathfinder, invited to visit by the Ukrainian military, steamed past and headed out to sea.

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe)

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