In a still whirlpool
Recently it became known about the beginning of factory running tests of the newest small missile ship (MRK) of project 21631 “Grayvoron”. “Factory sea trials are carried out by the ship’s regular crew together with the factory delivery team,” said the head of the information support department of the Black Sea Fleet, 2nd Rank Captain Alexei Rulev. – The main parameters of the ship, all ship devices, mechanisms and equipment are checked for compliance with technical conditions. This is one of the important stages before the ship is accepted into the Navy. ”
According to Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official publication of the government of the Russian Federation, after the completion of sea trials, the shipbuilders, together with the crew, will revise ship systems, devices and mechanisms and continue to prepare it for the next stage of the state test plan.
For the Russian fleet, which is experiencing great difficulties in terms of surface ships, the ship’s sea tests are a landmark event. Since 2010, nine such RTOs have been built, including Grayvoron. On the whole, this is not the worst pace of construction (again by Russian standards). It is possible to draw a conditional parallel with the frigates of the project 22350 of the “Admiral Gorshkov” type: the lead ship was laid down in 2006, and today there are only two such combat units in service. The third frigate, “Admiral Golovko”, will enter the fleet no earlier than 2022.
Project 21631 has already managed to prove itself in battle: in October 2015, as part of an operation against the “Islamic State” (prohibited in the Russian Federation), the ships “Uglich”, “Grad Sviyazhsk” and “Veliky Ustyug” together with a patrol ship of project 11661 from the Caspian Sea carried out shelling of the positions of the militants. A total of 26 launches of 3M14 Caliber cruise missiles were carried out against eleven targets, which were at a distance of approximately 1,500 kilometers. After that, the ships of the project 21631 were also used to destroy ground targets.
Armed and Dangerous?
For a relatively small ship (total displacement is 949 tons), Project 21631 has a very good arsenal of weapons. Its basis is the installation of a 3S14 vertical launch on eight Onyx or Caliber cruise missiles. A 100-mm gun A-190 “Universal” is installed in the bow. In addition, small missile ships have a 30mm Duet artillery mount, two 3M47 launchers with Igla-S or Verba anti-aircraft missiles, two 14.5mm and three 7.62mm machine guns.
The project has a weakness. We are talking about the modest capabilities of air defense: in fact, the ship is defenseless against air attacks. However, you need to understand that ideal ships (especially with a relatively small displacement) do not exist. One example is the American Littoral Combat Ship, which is widely criticized for its modest combat power and poor concept. Recall that LCS exist in two variations: Independence and Freedom. The displacement of the ships exceeds 2000 tons, but neither one nor the other carry missile strike weapons, which in practice makes them practically useless in the event of a major war. And even high-intensity localized hostilities.
In the case of the LCS, the Americans tried to implement the notorious “modularity”, however, as practice shows, this concept of weapons does not work very well in the Navy. This applies not only to the United States, but also to other countries. The use of modules forces us to keep an “army” of specialists ready to service certain systems. In addition, this concept loses all meaning after the ship goes to sea.
The most interesting thing awaits us in the foreseeable future, when the fleet’s arsenal will be replenished (if replenished) with the latest Zircon hypersonic missile, which can be launched from the 3S14 installations available, as we have already written above, on the ships of Project 21631. According to data from open sources, the rocket develops a speed of about 6 M (according to some reports, it reached a speed of 8 M during tests) and has a range of 400-600 kilometers (according to other sources, the Zircon’s range exceeds 1000 kilometers). With an estimated warhead weight of 300-400 kilograms, one missile will be enough to disable any surface ship, including the American Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
The main intrigue concerns the timing of the adoption of “Zircon” into service. According to data voiced by a source in the military-industrial complex in April of this year, the missile may become part of the Navy’s arsenal in 2022: tests are scheduled for 2020 and 2021.
There is, however, one “but”. If we at least saw “Dagger” (an air-launched missile, which some mass media call “hypersonic”), then we cannot say the same about “Zircon”. The only material confirmation of its existence is the transport and launch containers shown in 2019, installed on board the frigate Admiral Gorshkov. Not the fact that we are talking about “Zircon”, but the containers are similar to those that should be used for a complex of hypersonic weapons.
(Not) an easy win
In total, the Russian Navy should receive 12 small missile ships 21631. To this should be added 18 new small missile ships of the project 22800 “Karakurt”, also equipped with 3S14 launchers and theoretically capable of launching “Zircons”. Now in service there are two ships of project 22800.
The ships of the project 21631 and 22800 prompted Western experts to talk about the danger from the “mosquito fleet of Russia.” Indeed, if you look at the situation in isolation from the realities of the Russian Navy, then the Zircon + small missile ship bundle looks impressive. The problem is that naval battles have never been won by a mosquito fleet. The latter, in fact, is an addition to large surface ships and in no way can be considered as its alternative.
It’s no secret that after World War II, aircraft carriers became the main striking force at sea. And at the moment there are no alternatives to carrier-based aircraft. Whatever the Zircon’s range, it cannot be compared with the target engagement range that a carrier-based fighter-bomber armed with cruise missiles can provide.
So if Russia wants to retain its status as a maritime power, it will somehow have to invest in the construction of “large” ships: frigates, destroyers and, of course, aircraft carriers.
It must be said that the first steps (we do not take into account the de facto incapacitated heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov) have already been made. In July this year, for the first time in its history, Russia laid down two universal amphibious assault ships-helicopter carriers, which conditionally can also be considered “aircraft carriers.” However, one must understand that they cannot be regarded as a full-fledged response to the rapid growth of the combat potential of the aircraft carrier of the US Navy and the PRC Navy.