Ivan Gren 2.0 – new capabilities and tactical refinements

The lead ship of the Russian Ivan Gren-class had a long and troubled start of it’s career, requiring over 20 years of work before it finally was accepted into operational service in June 2018. For a while the whole future of the project, including the second sister laid down in 2004, seemed to be in jeopardy. However, the French refusal to deliver the two Mistral-class vessels built for the Russian Navy following the Russian invasion of Crimea suddenly threatened the ability to maintain the amphibious capabilities of the Russian Navy in the medium term. As such, work continued/was restarted on the second vessel, named Pyotr Morgunov, in late 2014.

Ivan Gren at sea. Note the bow doors. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

The Project 11711 Ivan Gren-class is significant for the Russian Navy in many ways. It is one of very few major warships to be added to the Russian Navy since the end of the Cold War, and as such is important both from an industry and prestige point of view. But that also mean they play a key role in revitalising the amphibious fleet, which currently mainly rests on ex-Soviet Ropucha-class LSTs backed up by the last few Tapir-class LSTs. The newest of these are approaching 30 years in service, with the older ones dating back to the late 60’s. The fleet has also been heavily worked as part of the Russian campaign in Syria, where they have run cargo between Black Sea ports and Syria on a regular basis. As such, a replacement is sorely needed.

The stern of the Ivan Gren, showing the rear ramp as well as the helicopter platform and hangar in the rear island. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A short interlude on explaining the different kinds of amphibious ships and what makes them differ from each other:

  • The Landing Ship Tank, LST, is a large landing craft capable of traversing open waters which can be driven onto the beach and unload vehicles through the bow,
  • The Dock Landing Ship, LSD, has a well dock (hence the name) from which it launches landing crafts which then ferry personnel and vehicles to shore,
  • The Landing Platform Dock, LPD, functions as a LSD but has better aviation facilities to be able to support helicopter assaults,
  • The Landing Helicopter Dock, LHD, and Landing Helicopter Assault, LHA, both look like small carriers with full-length flight decks and a focus on helicopter and V/STOL operations. The LHD also has a well dock, while the LHA doesn’t.

Both the LSD and LPD can be found with bow doors similar to the LST, making vessels such as the Ivan Gren hard to classify accurately. This is especially true, as the designations above are based on US naval vessels, and vessels of other nations doesn’t necessarily strictly adhere to the same dividing lines. In the case of the Ivan Gren, it lacks a well dock, but the presence of a hangar is something unheard of in most other LSTs.

The Mistral-class is a typical LHD, which can bring in a 40-tank strong Leclerc battalion, some 900 troops, and some 16 heavy helicopters in shorter operations. To say that by acquiring the significantly smaller Ivan Gren (13 tanks or 36 APCs, 300 troops, 2 helicopters) the Russian Navy replaced the shortfall in amphibious capability would be a lie. In essence they go from being able to lift a tank battalion to being able to lift a reinforced motorised company per ship. However, the vessels still hold great potential, though especially the Ivan Gren has been plagued by technical issues.

Ropucha-class LST Aleksandr Shabalin unloading a swimming BTR-80 APC which will drive the last part to the shore under it’s own power. Source: Mil.ru via Wikimedia Commons

A notable tactic of the Russian Ropucha-class is that instead of driving all the way to the shore and beaching the bow, they stay some distance out and let amphibious vehicles enter the water through the bow doors and ‘swim’ the last part to the shore. This has certain benefits, as well as some rather significant drawbacks. The obvious benefit is the ability to use shores where the large LST can’t safely beach itself. The requirements for a suitable landing spot are rather strict, as it should be solid enough and at a shallow enough angle to allow the forces to disembark safely, while still being deep enough to allow for safe passage to and from the shoreline. The LST is also kept out of range of most infantry weapons, with the swimming vehicles providing smaller and less valuable targets. The biggest drawback is that it takes significant time for the APCs to reach shore, giving prolonged warning to the waiting defenders. The swimming vehicles are also more vulnerable to bad weather compared to the larger ship, and while their low profile makes them hard targets, their situational awareness is seriously hampered until they can get out of the water. As such a dug-in defender with ample anti-tank weapons can wreak havoc on an incoming wave of swimming APCs.

A typical modern amphibious assault from NATO exercise Trident Juncture 18 with a heavy CH-53E transport helicopter heading to shore escorted by an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, with landing crafts below and a Mistral-class LHD in the background. Source: Ole-Sverre Haugli/Forsvaret

The obvious solution then is to add speed. This is nothing new, with both the US and the Soviet Union having added some classes of faster landing crafts and, crucially, helicopters to their amphibious forces already during the Cold War. The helicopters give the possibility to secure spots that aren’t reachable from the sea (i.e. in the enemy rear), and provides significantly faster cruise speed compared to any landing crafts found. But if landing a motorised battalion by sea is hard, helicopters aren’t suitable for anything heavier than light infantry, make a serious amount of noise, and have their own set of requirements when it comes to landing locations. As such the need to be able to bring heavy ships close to shore will remain if the landing is to be able to open up a new front (in the long run a harbour with working port facilities will have to be secured, which further opens up interesting tactical and strategic considerations which are too complex to fit inside the scope of this post. Just be aware that securing a beachhead is rarely enough).

The Mistral could thus have landed infantry units by helicopter to secure key spots along the shoreline and protect the beachhead from counterattacks until the main fighting force, including tanks, could be carried ashore by the heavy landing crafts operating out of the Mistral’s well dock. The Ivan Green can try to do a ‘lighter’ version of the same thing, with a total of two Ka-29 transport helicopters carrying two squads each ashore to be followed by infantry in swimming BTRs. The use of helicopters is also evident in how the Russian naval infantry brigades are set up, as one of the three (or possibly four) rifle battalions in any brigade is airmobile.

The other option is to use faster landing crafts. The general arrangement of the Ivan Gren is such that landing crafts can be carried as deck cargo (light craft such as RIBs can also be launched and apparently retrieved over the stern ramp). However, the lack of a well dock means that these have to be carried as deck cargo and then hoisted with a crane over the side of the ship, a time-consuming maneuver which also increases the risks during the transfer of soldiers between the LST and the landing craft compared to using a well dock.

Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ at sea. Source: FmGo . 111 via Wikimedia Commons

The latest development is that the Russian Navy has ordered two further vessels of a modified Ivan Gren-class. These will be further tailored to provide additional options to the task force commander when it comes to how the forces will be landed, namely with improved aviation facilities and better facilities for handling landing crafts. These are stated to be either of the Project 03160 ‘Raptor’ or the similar looking Project 02510 BK-16 classes. Both of these are best described as combat boats or assault landing craft, being able to transport around twenty marines to shore at high speed, and then support the landing with machine guns and other infantry support weapons from roof-mounted remote weapon stations. The reasoning behind this is clearly stated in an Izvestia-article, where former chief of the General Staff of the Navy, Admiral Valentin Selivanov, was interviewed:

Boats will allow the special forces to quickly and quietly approach the shore to ensure a successful landing of the main wave of the landing. They will destroy the most important firing points, demining approaches to the coast.

The special forces in this case could be ‘true’ SOF such as OMRP, or elite marine infantry such as the separate reconnaissance battalions of the naval infantry brigades (724th Separate Reconnaissance Battalion in the case of the Baltic Fleet’s 336th Guards Naval Infantry Brigade). Another interesting aspect is that modifications to enhance the ability to operate the assault crafts are apparently still unconfirmed, and could include either a dedicated chute or even a well dock instead of the rear ramp. While the latter is unlikely considering the serious modifications to the basic design it would entail (especially considering the projected in-service date of 2024/2025), it would be a significant improvement to the Russian capabilities and in essence make the two vessels of the second batch LPDs rather than LSTs. This would also improve the ability of the Russian Navy to operate far from home both on amphibious assault missions as well as on more peaceful ones, such as disaster relief.

In essence, the non-delivery of the Mistral-class has caused a serious gap in Russian amphibious capabilities in the near- to mid-term, especially when it comes to the ability to conduct stand-off amphibious landings with helicopters and fast landing crafts. Now the Navy is trying to make up for at least part of the shortfall in capability through ordering more vessels of the troubled Ivan Gren-class and trying to adopt the design to better fit the stand-off requirements. Time will tell if this will make a useful workhorse of the class in the vein of the venerable Ropuchas, or if it will be left a poor attempt to beat a square peg into a round hole.

Hat-tip to Robe Lee (@RALee85) who first brought the story to my attention. Head over to Twitter and give him a follow if Russian equipment is of any interest to you!