Russia Has Abandoned Its Massive Nuclear Destroyer And Supersized Frigate Programs

Russia’s Severnoye Design Bureau has stopped development entirely of its Project 23560 destroyers, also known as the Lider class, and the Project 22350M frigate, an expanded derivative of the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov class. The company has said these ships are among its most promising future offerings and the halting of the two programs has raised questions about its long-term financial stability.

Russian newspaper Interfax reported the new developments at Severnoye, which is part of the country’s state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation, on Apr. 18. The information was reportedly contained in an annual review of the shipbuilder’s activities in 2019, which the outlet had obtained.

The Project 23560 project first emerged publicly in 2015, but had reportedly been in development for two years already by then. The Krylov State Scientific Center had been responsible for the actual design, which Severnoye would then build.

The Lider destroyer, also referred to at times as the Shkval, was clearly an extremely ambitious project, perhaps overly so, from the very beginning. Though originally intended to be a conventionally powered warship, plans subsequently shifted to a nuclear-powered design. Its expected displacement also grew from already massive 12,000 to 13,000 tons to 19,000 tons, stretching its classification as a “destroyer.” 

A model of the Project 23560 Lider class destroyer design., Artem Tkachenko via Wikimedia

For comparison, the U.S. Navy’s Flight III Arleigh Burke class destroyers will have a displacement of around 9,800 tons, equal to that of its Ticonderoga class cruisers. That service’s Zumwalt class stealth destroyers are closer to 16,000 tons. At a displacement of 19,000 tons, size-wise, the Liders would be around halfway between more traditional destroyers and the Soviet-era nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruisers, which have a displacement of 28,000 tons with a full combat load.

The Project 23560 design featured an especially heavy armament, including a vertical launch system array with 64 3S14 universal cells capable of firing various weapons, including Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles and Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. The still-in-development hypersonic 3M22 Zircon cruise missile is also reportedly being designed to work with the 3S14 cell dimensions. The ships would also have a 56-cell navalized variant of the S-500 surface-to-air missile system, as well as separate launchers for the medium-range Redut surface-to-air missile and navalized Pantsir-M point-defense systems.

As of 2019, the estimated cost of each Project 23560 destroyer was 100 billion rubles, or around $1.5 billion at the time, which is cheaper than what the U.S. Navy spent on its much smaller, conventionally-powered late-model Flight II Arleigh Burkes. This seems exceptionally low for a ship of this size and complexity and would seem to conflict with the fact that high costs had contributed to the Russian government’s previous decision to put the project on hold back in 2017. There were continued reports that the Kremlin still planned to begin building the first of these ships in 2022 or 2023, but Severnoye’s 2019 report makes it clear that all work on the project has now stopped.

It’s unclear how serious Russia ever was about pursuing the Lider destroyer and it may turn out that Severnoye’s reported halt on work on the Project 22350M frigate may actually have greater impacts on the future of the Russian Navy, as well as that of the shipyard. The shipbuilder only reportedly finished work on the ship’s design in March 2019

The Project 22350M design is a major upgrade of the existing Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov class featuring a larger hull with 48 vertical launch system cells and a displacement of around 7,000 tons. The first-in-class Admiral Gorshkov, which is in service now and is arguably the Russian Navy’s most modern warship, displaces 5,400 tons and has 16 vertical launch system cells. These are all capable of firing Kalibr and Oniks cruise missiles, and are expected to eventually be able to accommodate Zircon in the future.  

Another Project 22350 frigate, the Admiral Kasatonov, is presently undergoing sea trials and the Kremlin plans to acquire six more, for a total of eight. At least two of these ships, the future Admiral Amelko and Admiral Chichagov, which Severnoye laid down last year, are expected to be in a subclass of ships with 24 vertical launch system cells. This is still half that of what the shipbuilder had proposed for the much larger Project 22350M design.

The Project 22350M had been billed as a potential replacement for aging Soviet-era Project 956 Sarych and Project 1155 Fregat class destroyers, also known as the Sovremenny and Udaloy classes, respectively. Both of those classes notably lack vertical launch system arrays with universal cells capable of firing Russia’s more modern naval missiles. 

The Udaloy class destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov., Brian Burnell/wikicommons

Of course, it is possible that the Kremlin could again revisit either the Project 23560 design, as well as the Project 22350M, in the future, but it could take substantial resources for Severnoye to restart those projects. Military shipbuilding, in general, is an inherently long-term process requiring the cultivating of a skilled labor force familiar with the design and the establishment of supply chains to provide large amounts of raw materials and critical components.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks at a model of a Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov class frigate during the keel-laying ceremony for the future Admiral Amelko and Admiral Chichagov in 2019., Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik via AP

The Severnoye Design Bureau also relies heavily on Russian government orders to sustain its military shipbuilding enterprise, as a whole, and the elimination of potential orders for Project 23560 and Project 22350M warships, at least in the near future, could have serious ramifications. The decision to fully halt work on both of these programs “do[es] not allow counting on the stable financial and economic situation” of the company, its 2019 review said, according to Interfax.

It also can only call into question the full extent of Russia’s plan to modernize its surface fleets. Its lone aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has also been out of commission indefinitely after a major accident in 2018 in which the floating dry dock it was in sank. In December 2019, the carrier caught fire, making it more questionable when, or even if, it will return to service. A massive overhaul of the Admiral Nakhimov, one of the Russian Navy’s two remaining Kirov class battlecruisers, has been perpetually delayed. That, in turn, has pushed back plans to upgrade its sister ship Pyotr Velikiy.

The decisions to end the Project 23560 and Project 22350M programs were also made before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is having massive impacts on the global economy. This includes a significant drop in the worldwide price of oil, a major source of income for the Russian government, which has slipped further just in the last 24 hours on the heels of the complete collapse of a U.S. oil futures contract. Russia’s defense budgets have seen significant contractions in recent years already and there have long been questions about whether it has the funds to support its more advanced weapons development programs.

The economic situation has repeatedly forced the country to cut programs shift funds around to support higher-priority programs, especially a host of new strategic weapon systems, as well. This includes new hypersonic missiles and still-in-development nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missiles and long-range torpedoes.

It remains to be seen whether the Project 23560 and Project 22350M designs are gone for good, but by Severnoye’s own reported assessment of the situation, the future of either of those projects, is not bright. Of course, there remains a possibility that the Russian government could still try to raise these programs from the dead. 

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