A few weeks ago, TASS announced that Russia has signed a contract for two project 23900 large universal landing ships. These are very large ships able to carry up to 20 heavy helicopters, small boats, and up to 900 naval infantry soldiers.
This is not particularly surprising, but it is still an interesting confirmation that Russia is on track with this project. Last fall, it was confirmed that Russia was close to beginning the actual construction of such ships, and in January we even learned the names of the two helicopter carriers: They will be called Sevastopol and Vladivostok. These are the same names that were intended for the two Mistral-class ships that were canceled by France after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It is thus somewhat ironic that the two new ships will be built at the Zaliv shipyard in Crimea.
In a piece for Forbes, David Axe notes that the sketches of the Russian ships look very similar to the Mistral-class, and he goes so far as to hint that Russia more or less blatantly has copied the design. He also notes that “just because Russia plans to copy the Mistral design doesn’t mean it will succeed in doing so. The Russian shipbuilding industry in recent years has struggled to build any vessel larger than a frigate.” This article caused some indignation in Russia, and Gazeta.ru found the need for a rebuttal. They mobilized professor Boris Usvyatsov to explain why Russia absolutely hasn’t stolen design clues from the French. The rebuttal seems weak, though. Usvyatsov explains that there is a fundamental difference in philosophy between Russia and the West in the design of amphibious ships, and therefore it is certain that Russia has nothing to gain from copying. In the West, amphibious operations are mostly conducted with helicopters, whereas the Russian approach is to roll amphibious armored vehicles off the ship through a bow visor. He also explains that maritime operations are conducted differently in Russia and the West, and for that reason Russia has no benefit from the command facilities that the Mistral-class offers.
One has to wonder whether Usvyatstov has even seen the sketches of the new ships. He claims so, but it is hard to follow his logic while comparing to the pictures. It unmistakably looks like a Mistral-class, and it obviously is designed primarily for helicopter operations. But his comments do emphasize one important thing about this class of ships: They are not primarily meant for amphibious assaults. This is also why I object to the classical Western classification of them as amphibious assault ships or amphibious assault carriers. Sure, that is one thing they can do, but they are an extremely versatile maritime platform that is optimized for pretty much any kind of interaction with land, and they benefit from a large size and endurance. They are useful for amphibious assaults, but they are also perfect for tasks like disaster relief, logistical support, special operations, and operational command. Therefore, I find the Russian classification as “universal landing ships” more accurate than the Western “amphibious assault ships”. It is ironic that the Russian professor is the one to focus narrowly on amphibious assaults.
These ships are the future of Russia’s maritime global power projection capability. Forget the Shtorm-class aircraft carriers or the Lider-class cruisers. Russia can’t afford them, and frankly their money is better spent on more frigates and destroyers. But the universal landing ships provide unique capabilities that cannot be compensated for with smaller platforms or longer range aviation. They are the multi-tool of giant warships, and they will give Russia the ability to project power onto shores in a variety of different ways in almost any scenario. Just imagine the forceful message it would send if Russia had such a ship lingering off Tripoli these days.