The Russian navy is in Cuba. It does not mean what you think it means (2024)

There has been an interesting reaction over the last few days to a small Russian naval task group visiting Cuba. “A missile crisis”, “nuclear escalation” and “Armageddon” have been mentioned more than “routine foreign run ashore”.

But the truth is that the Russian navy is a pale shadow of its Cold War self: it has been comprehensively defeated in the Black Sea, and this Cuba visit is no more than a routine show-the-flag cruise.

So what has Russia actually sent?

There is one frigate – Admiral Gorshkov, name ship of her class – one Yasen-class nuclear powered (not armed) submarine, one Project 23130 replenishment oiler and one Project R-5757 Rescue Tug.

The Gorshkov class are new, the first large warship design to come out of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their tonnage is similar to a British Type 23 frigate (so quite small by modern standards) although their draft is shallower (so they will be less able to operate in bad weather). They have roughly the same size ship’s company, suggesting they are either not particularly automated, or that the Russians have remembered the importance of having lots of people on board when things go badly in war.

As ever with Russian warships, Gorshkovs are heavily armed for their size. The current ships have 16 adaptable vertical launch missile tubes which can take the ubiquitous Kalibr family of long-range cruise missiles as well as the Mach 3 Oniks ship-killer or the Otvet anti-submarine weapon. There are also another 32 launch slots for “Resurs” anti-aircraft missiles, the naval version of the land-based S-350. These tubes can each hold one 9M96 long-range interceptor missile, or a quad pack of four short-range 9M100s. Gorshkovs also have a large calibre gun, close-in air defence guns, torpedo tubes and a helicopter.

The adaptable missile tubes can also take the much-publicised “Zircon” hypersonic cruise weapon, which is one of Vladimir Putin’s six super weapons which he declared to be unstoppable back in 2018. That list also included the “Kinzhal” air-launched cruise, which has now been stopped many times by American Patriot interceptors in Ukraine: and it rather appears as though Zircons have been stopped also.

Various realities of physics and engineering, and Russia’s long record of exaggerating its weapons’ capabilities, suggest that Zircon – while no doubt a dangerous threat when it is working properly – is not the undefeatable super weapon Putin claims it is. It’s probably not a lot more worrying than some of the terminally-supersonic Kalibr variants.

But don’t get me wrong, this is a ship I would have liked to command back in my day. A Russian officer would be fortunate to get such a command now, however, as there are as yet only three Gorshkovs in commission.

The Yasen-class submarine is a Cold War design – the first boat was actually laid down in 1993, but not completed until 2014 – but it’s powerful, stealthy and well-armed. As we have seen in the North Atlantic the Russian navy does submarine operations well. These boats can also take a combination of Kalibr, Oniks and Zircon missiles and, of course, heavyweight torpedoes. Russia has four Yasens at sea, but may not get many more: it is known that the Kremlin is struggling to cope with the escalating costs of the programme.

Moving on, the oiler is pretty standard fare but it’s worth noting that the Russians have never learned to refuel underway at sea the way Nato navies do – they have to anchor somewhere to top up, which can badly restrict their options and their ability to stay on task or station. The rescue tug is also interesting: it’s standard practice for the Russians to send one on a long-range deployment, which argues a possibly justified lack of faith in their ships’ reliability, and slows the task group down. There was at least one occasion in my own career when I wished there was a tug handy, but nonetheless you have to say it’s a little bit embarrassing that the Russians find they need one as routine.

In sum, this is a small but well-armed group and assuming they have specially chosen, experienced crews (as Russian out-of-area deployers like this often do) then they should not be dismissed out of hand, despite the lamentable performance of the Russian navy in the Black Sea.

Nonetheless, if for any reason this group needed to be eliminated, a single American or British nuclear attack submarine could do it without assistance. But the fact is that this has very little to do with combat operations and everything to do with strategic messaging, exactly as Nato navies do around the world every day of every year.

Part of this ‘game’ is the counter-move. To say this group was ‘tracked’ as it crossed the Atlantic would be an understatement. Once the Russians reached the western side of the ocean, three US destroyers, a US Coastguard vessel and a Canadian frigate all came out to say ‘hello’ – and those were the ones which could be seen. Given that a core part of this deployment for Russia was to showcase its alliances, the presence of a Canadian warship in the US group was an important part of the counter-message.

We should also remember that the Russian ships are entitled to be there. They are on the high seas exercising the same right to freedom of navigation that we Westerners work so hard to maintain elsewhere in the world. You can’t conduct freedom of navigation cruises in Chinese waters one day – as Nato warships do routinely – and then object when there are Russian ships 25 miles east of Florida. What you can do, however, is send a slightly larger group out there that says, ‘we got this’.

With this deployment, Russia will be keen to demonstrate that it can operate a task group at range from the motherland. To some degree this has been done, but polishing up your best and newest ships for a brief one-off trip is very different from maintaining a task group on station for months on end – and then sending out replacements to take over before bringing the first lot back. It’s even more different from maintaining operations in contested waters against real, shooting opposition.

Russia’s fleet has been defeated in the Black Sea by a nation without a navy. The lifespan of Russian surface ships in the Caribbean against the mighty USN, should today’s Cold War ever turn hot, would be measured in minutes. That of a Russian submarine might be a bit longer, but probably not by much.

Given all this, and the fact that Russian warships visited Cuba every year between 2013 and 2020, and the visible fact that this visit will have been planned well before President Biden’s belated decision to allow limited use of US-made weapons against Russian territory, you have to wonder why all the media uproar.

It is puzzling that when the Royal Navy or the US Navy deploys around the world, for instance in the case of next year’s planned RN carrier strike group deployment, there are always many media voices to dismiss the move as irrelevant or meaningless, or to speak of Britain or the USA clinging on to a bygone era. Yet here, apparently, we have evidence of Russian power and potency.

But anyone who looks at ships and weapons, and at the story of the Black Sea, will come to quite the opposite conclusion. The Russian bear may not be toothless: but it has smaller and fewer teeth and claws than one might think.

Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and frigate captain

The Russian navy is in Cuba. It does not mean what you think it means (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Virgilio Hermann JD

Last Updated:

Views: 6246

Rating: 4 / 5 (61 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Virgilio Hermann JD

Birthday: 1997-12-21

Address: 6946 Schoen Cove, Sipesshire, MO 55944

Phone: +3763365785260

Job: Accounting Engineer

Hobby: Web surfing, Rafting, Dowsing, Stand-up comedy, Ghost hunting, Swimming, Amateur radio

Introduction: My name is Virgilio Hermann JD, I am a fine, gifted, beautiful, encouraging, kind, talented, zealous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.