How much of a threat does Russia’s Pacific fleet pose to the US?
The Russian navy has been active in the Pacific during the war in Ukraine.
Russia has launched a surprise inspection of its Pacific Fleet, and a video posted on Twitter shows some of Russia’s ships in the Pacific going underway for military exercises.
The U.S. military has long been focused on China’s Navy and other armed forces as its primary challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, but Russia’s naval drills serve as a reminder that it can project combat power in the Pacific Ocean as well.
The Defense Department declined to provide any information about the age and capabilities of Russian ships, submarines, and aircraft that operate in the Pacific.
“While we routinely monitor Russian naval activity around the world, we are not able to provide intelligence assessments of their disposition or capabilities,” said Army Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Pentagon spokesman.
Russia has spent many years modernizing its Pacific Fleet since it fell into disrepair in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, according to Indo-Pacific expert Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia.
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The Russian naval forces in the Pacific are now a mix of old and new vessels that include modern nuclear-powered and diesel submarines and older vessels that have been retrofitted with anti-ship cruise missiles, Herzinger told Task & Purpose.
“The balance of power still heavily favors the United States, especially when considering its alliance relationships, but the Pacific is a region of importance to Moscow and the Pacific Fleet has received commensurate attention in recent years,” Herzinger said.
Although not as large as Russia’s Northern Fleet, which patrols the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, the Russian fleet in the Pacific includes some modern surface ships and submarines that give it the ability to do considerable damage to an adversary, said Katarzyna Zysk, a Russian military expert and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C.
In 2008, Russia launched an effort to modernize its military that has focused on its nuclear deterrence capabilities, including replacing old ballistic missile submarines, said Zysk, a professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
Now Russia has deployed four Borei-class nuclear-powered submarines, its newest ballistic missile submarines, to the Pacific, Zysk told Task & Purpose. Russia’s Pacific Fleet also has one Yasen-class attack submarine, and it is expected to receive another one. Those attack boats, which can carry cruise missiles, have proven to be very hard for the U.S. Navy and NATO partners to detect,
Even though Russia has focused on its war in Ukraine for more than a year, Russia’s Pacific Fleet has conducted “provocative and pretty far distant operations,” including joint military exercises with the Chinese navy, said retired Navy Capt. Brent Sadler, the senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The Russian Pacific Fleet has been very active working with the Chinese in driving around the Japanese islands to send a strategic message throughout this war in Ukraine,” Sadler told Task & Purpose. “It’s basically telling the United States and Japan and everyone else: ‘While we may be involved in a land war in Europe, our navy is still very active in the Pacific.”
The Russians are also increasingly sending their more modern surface ships and diesel submarines to the Pacific, said Sadler, whose book U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century: A New Strategy for Facing the Chinese and Russian Threat is set to be released next month.
Some Russian warships from the Pacific that deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to deter NATO have since returned to their homeports, including the Slava-class cruiser Varyag, the flagship for Russia’s Pacific Fleet, Sadler said.
However, the reason those ships are returning to the Pacific is not part of a shift in Russian strategy, Sadler said. Rather, Russia has been unable to sustain larger warships for long periods of time at their naval base in Tartus, Syria.
While Russia maintains a potent naval force in the Pacific, China has the largest navy in the world with roughly 340 ships and submarines, and is expected to grow to 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030, according to the Defense Department’s most recent report on Chinese military power. By comparison, the U.S. Navy has a total of 294 ships, and that number is expected to fall to 291 vessels by fiscal year 2028, according to the service’s budget documents.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet has between one-eighth and one-tenth the size of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, and China has dozens of newer destroyers and cruisers, said retired Navy Capt. Thomas Shugart, a military innovation expert with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
On its own, Russia’s Pacific Fleet would not last long in a conflict with the U.S. Navy, Shugart told Task & Purpose. However, the United States would face a much more serious threat if it had to fight both the Russian and Chinese navies in the Pacific.
“That makes what would already be a pretty challenging situation much more challenging by the addition of that extra margin of vessels that the Pacific Fleet could add, in particular, the ability for it to have some relatively quiet nuclear submarines – much quieter than the Chinese – that could be roaming around creating lots of trouble behind the lines for us.”
Russia’s Pacific Fleet has practiced with China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy for years, and the combination of Russia’s stealthy nuclear-powered submarines and China’s silent-running electric diesel boats – all of which would be armed with anti-ship missiles – would pose a formidable challenge to the United States and its allies, said James Holmes, the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“I suppose the way to compare the Russian Pacific Fleet to the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy would be to say it’s rather like the JMSDF [Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force] to the U.S. Navy: a capable junior partner that could stretch out the major adversary across wide geographic space, attenuate the adversary’s strength at any given place, and basically make things tough on the adversary,” Holmes told Task & Purpose. “So, I would look at the fleet more as a supplement to the PLA Navy than a standalone competitor.”
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