U.S. Fears Grow of a ‘Newly Awakened’ Russian Navy

A new report from the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch paints a sobering picture of Putin’s increasingly aggressive fleet—and its deadly international shows of force.

12.28.15 5:01 AM ET

For the first time in 24 years, the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch has published an unclassified report warning against a rapidly rearming and increasingly aggressive Russian fleet.

And while the report—which the Navy intends for public consumption—has been years in the making, recent events have underscored just how serious its findings are. It’s becoming clearer by the day that, with the strong backing of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian navy is making a serious effort to challenge the world’s preeminent maritime power—the United States.

“Russia has begun, and over the next decade will make large strides in fielding a 21st-century navy capable of a dependable national defense [and] an impressive but limited presence in more distant global areas of interest, manned by a new generation of post-Soviet officers and enlisted personnel,” The Russian Navy: A Historic Transition concludes.

Sixty-eight pages long and lavishly illustrated, the Russian navy report, published online and in print in mid-December, is the uncredited work of one man—George Fedoroff, the top Russia expert at the Maryland-based Office of Naval Intelligence.

Fedoroff started out as a Navy linguist, reportedly rising to become the sailing branch’s best Russian speaker in the 1990s before moving into intel work. While other military analysts—and American politicians and the general public, too—focused their attention on terrorists, Iran, North Korea, China, and other military threats, Fedoroff apparently never wavered from Russia.

The Office of Naval Intelligence had ceased publishing its previous annual report on the Russian fleet, Understanding Soviet Naval Developments, in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed and took the country’s navy with it. Hundreds of ships, submarines, and warplanes rusted away at dilapidated bases, idled by a lack of funding.

But Russia inherited the remnants of the fleet and, under Putin, began rebuilding. In early 2014 the resurgent Russian navy supported the Kremlin’s lightning invasion of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, arguably heralding Russia’s return as a major military power. It was around that time the Pentagon decided the Russian fleet warranted a new public report.

The Office of Naval Intelligence knew just the person for the task, according to Norman Polmar, an author and longtime analyst who wrote the first edition of Understanding Soviet Naval Developments, way back in 1974. “Let’s get George Federoff to do it” is how Polmar characterized ONI’s thinking.

“He did a great job,” Polmar added.

Poring over the raw data, Federoff got busy counting the Russian fleet’s new ships, subs, and planes, assessing its new weaponry and gauging the quality of its sailors and officers, and its standing within the wider Russian military and political systems. He confirmed a naval force on the rebound.

“Since 2000, as Russia’s governmental order and economy have stabilized, there has been a focused and funded effort to revitalize the Russian military—including the navy,” Fedoroff wrote. “Suspended construction programs are now moving toward completion and new construction programs are beginning to provide the navy with 21st-century submarine and surface platforms.”

From an early 2000s nadir when just a handful of vessels were seaworthy and capable of combat, today the Russian fleet boasts 186 war-ready subs and surface ships operating in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans plus the Black Sea, the Baltic, the Caspian, the Mediterranean, and even the Arctic, according to Fedoroff’s report.

This makes the Russian navy the world’s third-biggest maritime force after No. 1 America—with more than 280 modern warships plus more than 100 support vessels—and second-place China.

And in certain key aspects the Russia fleet has recently, and to the rest of the world’s great surprise, caught up to the Americans. In October, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired new Kalibr cruise missiles thousands of miles to hit rebel targets in Syria. And in December a Russian submarine repeated the feat, firing Kalibrs into Syria from the Mediterranean.

Before the twin missile launches, only the United States had demonstrated the modern ability to launch long-distance cruise-missile strikes from ships and subs, against ground targets. Sea-launched cruise missiles are a key weapon system for any country hoping to stage precise military interventions while also avoiding serious risk to its own forces.

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Fedoroff anticipated these impressive missile strikes by repeatedly highlighting Kalibr in his report. “Kalibr provides even modest platforms, such as corvettes, with significant offensive capability and, with the use of the land attack missile, all platforms have a significant ability to hold distant fixed ground targets at risk using conventional warheads,” he wrote. “The proliferation of this capability within the new Russian navy is profoundly changing its ability to deter, threaten or destroy adversary targets.”

Ironically, the final edition of Understanding Soviet Naval Developments in 1991 had also anticipated the advent of powerful new “smart” munitions such as Kalibr, according to Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of the definitive reference work Combat Fleets of the World.

“It is almost as if time was paused for 20-plus years between the two naval reports—and now the Russian navy and military is reawakening from its slumber,” Wertheim told The Daily Beast. “This latest report from ONI allows us to take stock of this newly awakened and growing force.”

“This is a highly significant publication,” Polmar said of Fedoroff’s report.