An exceptional high point in Soviet international cooperation in the field of naval development, the Project 1701 frigate was born of the confluence of several unanticipated factors.
While resources were poured into catching up with NATO in the fields of naval air, submarines and heavy escorts, the Soviet Navy had somewhat neglected their frigate classes through the 1980s and 1990s. The only new design to leave the shipyards between 1980 and 1992 was the Project 1166.1 frigate, a low-tech specification borne out of a desire for export markets that most other navies would have called a corvette.
In the meantime, India had been looking for a replacement for their 1960s-vintage Nilgiri-class frigates. Political and financial roadblocks stood in the way of acquiring a Western design, of which few met the stringent requirements of the Indian Navy anyway. Not willing to settle for an obsolete design or a pie-in-the-sky effort fresh of the drawing board, the Indian naval procurement office started negotiating with the Soviet Union to develop a variant of the KGB-oriented Project 1135.1 into a full-fledged frigate. This effort, the second on-spec Soviet development for the Indian navy after the Project 15 destroyer, resulted in the Pr.1135.7I class, which entered Indian service around the turn of the century.
While the Pr.1135.7I was a fitting interim type, production beyond the first 4 units was shelved in favor of a new indigenous development with more upgrade potential. Such an endeavor wasn't without its own hurdles, particularly at a time when tensions with Pakistan and the West put in jeopardy the international sourcing the Indian Navy had hoped for.
After struggling for several years to gather enough foreign design input and critical systems, and faced with renewed tensions with the West, in 1997 the newly elected United Front government decided to turn around and request Soviet assistance once again to push the severely delayed project forward. A team of specialists from the Severnoye and Almaz design offices gathered in Mumbai to assist their Indian colleagues in picking up the disparate parts of an early design. What they found there was much more advanced than expected. Designers attached to the Mazagon shipyard had cobbled together conceptual input and architecture from a variety of sources into a coherent design. Covert preliminary work with several Western design and shipbuilding companies had afforded the fledgling design sea-going characteristics and survivability far beyond Soviet practice of the time. Ambitious though it was, the Project 17 initial design remained straightforward enough that it mostly required manufacturing expertise and some imported systems to get rolling. Soviet manpower and funding provided both, with the unexpected payback of first-hand experience in modern Western ship design.
A few ex-pat designers being impressed by a cobbled-together foreign design would not have changed much, if the time hadn't been just right for some major change. Throughout the 1990s, economic and political reforms had left most naval development in limbo, stuck between shrinking budgets and fuzzy plans for the future. As often happens to ambitious armed forces, decision-makers were torn between incremental and revolutionary changes. The Soviet Navy, reaching to for its historically conservative roots since the passing of admiral Gorshkov, veered by default towards the former, but the agitated climate of the 1990s favored the latter in political circles. Under the aegis of the second Abalkin economic bureau, the Project 17 was picked by the fledgling Defense Industrial Cooperation Committee, which turned it into a flagship project for its new methods of international project management.
The resulting ship looked uncharacteristically sharp and uncluttered for a Soviet ship. Even more than the home-grown Pr.1244.1 frigate, this class was the first in Soviet service to embody then-current Western design practices. This was in no small amount due to its Indian originators and the various subcontractors they had called upon in the first years of the project. The clean and modern lines, the top-notch systems and the unprecedented level of comfort led to the class being nicknamed "Radzha" by its crews, and remaining a highly sought-after posting for commanding officers.
The 2000s were a time of major changes for Soviet naval design, though some analysts would argue that that time had come over a decade too late.
A range of crucial technologies were at last coming of age, from much-touted and spectacular high-supersonic near-ballistic missiles and high-power phased radar arrays, to their unassumingly groundbreaking roots, like very-high-scale-integration computer chips, fluid-less cooling systems or woven composite structures.
After the strategic rocket forces and the several air arms, it was the Soviet Navy's turn to enter the space age. While the development effort for a new generation of surface combatants was stoked by this influx of new technology, it would be hampered by competing requirements for several years.
Various concerns with organization and security had prevented earlier upgrades to be phased into the first run of bi-national frigates, and a clean break was favored, at which point a slew of new equipment was integrated into a slightly reworked hull. A minor lengthening helped keep the hull balanced in high seas, and added buoyancy in the face of the rising weight of the radar arrays and command facilities.
The weapons suite was reworked as well, with the RBU-12000 ASW/anti-torpedo rocket launcher being replaced by torpedo interceptors fired from the 406mm torpedo tubes. This allowed the air defense suite to be expanded with 25% more medium-range missiles carried, and newer lightweight gun-only CIWS being complemented by vertical-launch point-defense missiles.
All this new equipment, most importantly the sensors and C4I facilities, was obviously considered too sensitive to be shipped to India for integration, which meant that despite the co-production agreement, all six frigates of Pr.1701.3 had to be launched from Mazagon, transloaded on mobile docking platforms or towed by ocean-going tugboats all the way to Leningrad, where the Zhdanov shipyard would add the finishing touches to the ships before checking and commissioning them.
Thanks to their combination of advanced mission hardware and a spacious and survivable hulls, the Pr.1701 frigates would set new standards for Soviet naval shipbuilding, standards that would sadly fall to the wayside immediately after their completion, when cost and hull number considerations forced the next generation of frigates to shrink by over 20% displacement. In hindsight, only the larger combatants would be deemed important enough to benefit from these advances.