“Nuclear-Powered Warships are Here to Stay”
Interview with Vladimir Yukhnin, former CEO of Severnoye (Northern) Design Bureau
Prof. Vladimir Yukhnin: born 1937, graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute and was assigned to Central Design Bureau No 53, which later became the Severnoye Design Bureau (Severnoye PKB), and where he has spent his entire career, from junior engineer to chief designer and CEO. Prof. Yukhnin has led or contributed to the development of more than 100 large warships and 15 civilian vessels. He is the author of more than 60 research publications and inventions, including 32 published papers, two books, two series of lectures, 12 monographs, and 16 inventions. He holds the Services to Motherland Award Class 3 and 4, the Order of the October Revolution Award (1988), the Order of the Red Banner Award (1985), the Special Distinction Medal (1977), the Special Distinction Award (2003), and several other awards. Prof. Yukhnin holds a PhD in Technology and is a member of the Russian Engineering Academy.
What is the current state of the Severnoye Design Bureau? What are your most promising R&D projects, and what are the main problems the company faces?
Our design bureau was 70 in 2016. A lot has been achieved over the years. We have designed the first, second, and third post-war generations of Russian warships, and we are now well into the fourth generation. These ships acquitted themselves very well during their service with the Soviet and Russian Navy. Some of the third-generation ships are still in service. We continue to develop new ships, including border patrol and small ships, which is a new market for us. As for problems, we have our fair share of them, of course.
Do you have enough skilled personnel? Are young specialists joining your company in sufficient numbers?
We have had many new arrivals in recent years. Many of them were trained at a specialist department of the St Petersburg State Institute of Maritime Technology. It trains young specialists — though not quite enough of them — who then join our team.
Does the bureau have the capability to develop any type of ship, however complex?
Of course. No ship is too complex for us. But new areas of expertise open up all the time, and we have to master them as well. When we were transitioning from steam turbine and gas turbine technology to developing a nuclear-powered cruiser, we needed to find the right specialists and to train them, and later make sure they pass on their skills to the next generation. We are now also working on the integration of aircraft, especially helicopters. That requires another specialist area of skills and expertise, for which we need to train new specialists. The latest developments always keep us busy.
What do you think of the future generations of warships — hovercraft, for example?
We mainly design water-displacing ships because these are ocean-going ships. Hovercraft aren’t suited for operation in the open ocean: this technology just doesn’t perform very well in such scenarios. These craft have to keep to calmer waters. We design ships that can sail anywhere.
But what about the new technologies the Americans are trying to implement as part of their LCS ships?
That program has a very strong PR component. We have studied these projects. I am not at all sure that these new technologies will be key to their success. In terms of pure science, they are interesting. But our own Krylov Institute (the Krylov State Research Center) has tested these technologies, so there’s nothing particularly novel about them. Still, one must always strive for something new.
What is your opinion of the recent developments in stealth ships?
That is a very important technology, and we are working hard in this area. The most important element is the architecture. Stealth architecture is very different from the traditional one. For example, the Project 61 destroyers are one big pile of reflective angles. The Project 11356 frigate, on the other hand, incorporates new architectural shapes. I am talking about the slope of the deck walls and the hull, as well as special adhesive coating on the most reflective surfaces. Another important thing is a ship’s heat field. We have implemented measures to reduce that field in almost all our ships. These measures include active cooling, injecting water into exhaust channels, etc. Still, the heat-seeking homing heads are very sensitive these days, so you can’t completely eliminate the heat signature radiated by the sides of the ship. But you can try to eliminate it from the bow and stern aspects. In any case, you can’t eliminate it completely.
Talking of the Project 11356 and Project 22350 frigates, how different are their signatures?
Architecturally, there is not much difference between them in terms of the area of dispersal. But Project 22350 has more stealth elements (adhesive paneling, special coating, etc.). Still, these measures cannot deliver a perfect result. Take the radars, for example: each radar is a large reflective surface, and you can’t hide it. Our Navy ships have even taken to angling these radars upwards while at sea to reduce visibility.
In general, Project 22350 is a very beautiful and striking ship. Its chief designer, Igor Shramko, is a very talented engineer; he has given his best to this program. Incidentally, my eldest son, who is a Captain 1st Rank, was the chief supervisor of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate development and construction project.
As for the Project 1135 ships, they are some of the very best our design bureau has ever delivered. Thirty-two ships of that type were built at three different shipyards for the Soviet Navy, another seven for the Soviet Border Service (one of them is now part of the Ukrainian Navy), and six for the Indian Navy. We then started to build Project 11356 ships for our own Navy — six ships in total. The key to their success is their excellent turbines and the operating mode of these turbines our bureau came up with. We developed a staggered mode for the four turbines, which delivers maximum fuel efficiency. Unfortunately, the turbines were made in Ukraine, and that country has now stupidly refused to supply them to us. As a result, the Ukrainian maker of these turbines, Zorya-Mashproekt, has ceased production. They may be able to sell these turbines to the Indians, but only if they manage to sign a contract with the Indian Navy for a new batch of frigates.
Meanwhile, Russia is now developing a replacement for these turbines. The Russian turbine will be more advanced; it will incorporate new materials that will increase the combustion temperature, delivering a greater efficiency. But sometimes perfect is the enemy of good. We just need to deliver a good product. That was the motto of Soviet Navy Commander Sergey Gorshkov.
Can the rotating radar dishes be replaced with an active phased array radar, like the U.S. and Chinese navies have done?
We have such systems, but they are mounted on the surface. We had them back in the Soviet period. NPO Kvant in Kiev developed a radar called Mars-Passat. But the system is very expensive. A better way to reduce radar visibility is to use special anti-radar coating.
Severnoye developed several fleet destroyers for the Chinese Navy in the 1990s and 2000s. Do you currently have similar export programs?
We are still working only with the Indians, mainly coasting along on the momentum gained in previous years. As for the Chinese, they are a special people: they have learned how to do everything on their own, and they don’t need anybody’s help any more. But we did help them a lot in the past; I had many business trips to China. The Chinese are very good at copying: they buy a sample, study it, then start making copies. They are very good at industrial espionage. I recall a negotiation in Beijing; the room where it was held was chock-full of microphones to eavesdrop on conversations between members of the Russian delegation. I once took them by surprise by suddenly walking into the next room, and saw them listening in and recording us.
In the 1990s we had three major export destinations: Vietnam, India, and China. India was the top destination because we designed and built a whole series of projects for them, including Project 15 and Project 61ME destroyers, Project 17 and 17A frigates, and Project 25 and 25A corvettes.
Incidentally, the Project 61ME destroyers are still in service. That is a good illustration of what can be achieved with proper operation and maintenance. Several other series have already been retired. It’s all a matter of proper operation and maintenance, the quality of the fuel, air filtration, etc. For example, the chief mechanic of one of the Indian Navy’s Project 61 ships used to wear white gloves on inspections of the engine room. The engine room team would get a dressing down unless the gloves stayed spotless.
Why did the Indian Navy choose Project 11356 ships?
That’s an interesting one. Back at the time, the Chinese and the Indians approached us at the same time, looking to buy surface ships. We offered Project 11356 to them both, but the Chinese had some special requirements; they wanted the ship to be equipped with the Moskit cruise missile, which had a 110km range and a heavy warhead, to guarantee assured destruction of U.S. Navy ships. The Indians, on the other hand, just wanted a versatile ship with a good offensive and anti-submarine capability. The frigate is armed with Club missiles, which are also very good, but not quite as heavy, and fly at a subsonic speed. Still, they were adequate for the potential adversaries India had in mind. So, the Indians and the Chinese had different approaches.
You have mentioned the issue of proper operation and maintenance. This is probably one of the greatest problems in our own Navy, and a perfect example of it is the tragic story of the Project 956 fleet destroyers. What are the reasons for these difficulties?
The reason is inadequate maintenance. The key component in these propulsion units are the boilers, and boilers are very sensitive to water purity. The boilers would fail very rapidly because there was next to no water treatment. The problem did not affect the Project 956E and Project 956EM destroyers we supplied to China, to the number of four, because the Chinese followed all the proper procedures for water treatment.
So why couldn’t our own Navy do the same?
Our Navy is used to cutting corners. They are always in a rush. They are already trying to retire some of their ships that are barely 20 years old. It’s easier for them to say that they need new ships than to maintain the existing ones properly.
Why then do the Project 1155 large anti-submarine ships seem to perform better and longer?
Their propulsion units are gas turbines. That’s another matter entirely. Such a turbine can be replaced at 24 hours’ notice without even returning to port. It is compact, and can be lifted from the engine room by a system of pulleys via the gas exhausts, to be replaced by a new unit going in the same way. But on the other hand, it has a much shorter lifespan compared to a steam turbine unit. When we open up the gearboxes on the steam turbines, they look like new.
Was it actually the right decision to sell Project 956 fleet destroyers to the Chinese?
The two remaining hulls were rotting at the Northern Shipyards. The shipyard itself was idle. By selling these ships, we managed to keep the shipyard from going under. It was a desperate situation at the time. Then the Chinese got a taste for it, and the next pair of Project 956EM ships were a complete new build. They were also equipped with modified Moskit missiles, whose range was increased to 220km. The Chinese customers were left very happy.
What about the upgraded destroyers that were supposed to be built for the Soviet and Russian Navy? Were they to use the same technology?
It’s hard to say. The commander of the Soviet Navy, Sergey Gorshkov, was a smart guy. He believed that Project 956 ships did not need long-range missiles. He thought their job would be simply to escort aircraft carriers.
You have mentioned cooperation with Vietnam. What was the nature of that cooperation?
We designed the Project PS-500 missile boat for them. But it proved difficult for them to make such boats at their own shipyards, so in the end they bought Project 12418 Molniya missile boats from our suppliers. Back at the time they lacked the skilled labor — even though the boats were equipped with German-made MTU diesel engines, which are very good and reliable.
So that was the first small ship designed by the bureau?
It was, yes. I’ll tell you how it came about. A Vietnamese delegation came to Russia, and was given a tour of the Krylov Institute. Our specialists explained the theory and science to them; they told them that everything would have to be built from scratch [in Vietnam], including test pools. The Vietnamese got cold feet. On top of that, the Almaz Central Naval Design Bureau quoted an outrageous price to them. And some way or another, they managed to get in touch with our bureau. They told us what they needed, and they literally wouldn’t take no for an answer. A group of their engineers, about 15 men in total, even worked here at our facilities. Back at the time, when the crisis struck, it was very cold here in this building, the central heating was off, and the plant had ceased production. So we gave them their own room, gave them a few electric heaters, and they started to work right here.
Why didn’t Russia’s own Navy show interest in the PS-500 boats?
Because they already had the boats designed by Almaz Design Bureau. The Vietnamese, it made no difference to them because they didn’t have any boats at all. I can even tell you that they are planning to resurrect this project and complete the unfinished hulls. Back at the time, the plans weren’t limited to boats; we also had a 2,100-tonne patrol ship on the drawing board. The Vietnamese had even built the ways and a slip dock for it, for which we provided the blueprints. The program was then abandoned, but they may yet resurrect it.
Is there much rivalry between the different Russian design bureaus?
There is some, but not too much. We always manage to come to an agreement. For example, we have developed Project 1135, and the bureau in Zelenodolsk worked on Project 11540. These are quite similar ships, and only two were initially built. But then the Navy decided to focus on Project 1135 instead of having two similar models in service.
Are there any new nuclear-powered ships in development?
Unfortunately, nuclear-powered shipbuilding is currently dying a slow death. We are losing skilled engineers. But on the whole, we are ready, and we would be glad to take on such a project. We even have ideas already in development. The Navy is commissioning a blueprint design of a large fleet destroyer under the Lider program, led by chief designer Sokolov. We have offered two versions: one with a gas turbine power plant, and another with a nuclear propulsion reactor. This is going to be a great ship, and the Navy is leaning towards the nuclear-powered version. There may also be a third version with a hybrid power plant, where the nuclear reactor will be used only in high-efficiency propulsion mode.
How much of a future do nuclear-powered warships have, in your opinion?
The United States has many nuclear-powered ships in service. They have built the necessary infrastructure, and they have an excellent system of training the required personnel. A nuclear-powered ship is a great thing. For example, our own nuclear-powered RNS Pyotr Velikiy, which is a Project 1142 battlecruiser, spends a lot of time at sea because it does not need refueling. Nuclear-powered ships are here to stay. A navy’s capability is determined to a large extent by whether it has any nuclear-powered ships and submarines.
So you believe the Navy made the right decision to upgrade the RNS Admiral Nakhimov battlecruiser?
Of course! Project 1144 ships are, first and foremost, an excellent hull made of AK-25 grade steel, and a nuclear propulsion unit. The hull is made of two layers of steel, the outer layer being stainless steel. That hull will last forever. It can be used for 40, 50, or even 60 years. It has unique biological and structural protection systems. It is designed very intelligently, using great technological solutions. A combination of a great hull and a nuclear propulsion unit is a platform that can be put to almost any use. Let us also recall the great structural defenses that ship has. It’s a special design that prevents missiles from penetrating the ship’s ammunition dumps by means of a series of barriers. Yes, the ship’s various systems and pipelines, as well as its armaments, need to be replaced, but the main thing, the platform itself, it fit for purpose. I believe that all four ships of that class must be refurbished and brought back into service.
How do Project 1144 cruisers compare with Project 1164 missile cruisers?
I call Project 1164 lumber carriers because of the distinct shape of their cruise missile launchers. How did that project come about? Project 1144 cruisers were designed as aircraft-carrier killers. The Soviet Navy wanted to assign such a cruiser to shadow every U.S. aircraft carrier — but that proved unaffordable, so only four of them were ever built. The Navy then decided to commission a cheaper cruiser, but designed for the same purpose. Only three have been completed. The fourth ship was left sitting unfinished at a shipyard in Ukraine - but they won’t be able to complete it on their own, and Russia has decided against buying it because of the high price, and because all the communication lines and cables need to be replaced, and the hull itself requires repairs.
Russian defense contractors often complain that they are barely breaking even on MoD procurement contracts. What is the situation at Severnoye?
By and large, they give us enough money — but what’s the point of receiving funds to be spent before the year’s end only in mid-December? There’s just not enough time left to spend it! These funds should arrive in January, or February at the very latest if we are to be able to make good use of them. There have already been several episodes when we turned down a funds transfer late in the year because we wouldn’t have been able to make a proper accounting for those funds in any case.
Another issue is the so-called earmarked cash, which is deposited into special accounts under the defense procurement program. That creates all sorts of problems for us.
Interview by Andrey Frolov
Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST)