Russian Mediterranean “Aircraft Cruiser” – A Fiasco

By Stephen Bryen
Sunday, November 27th, 2016 @ 8:12PM

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Russia’s experience with aircraft carriers and on-deck fighter aircraft has been expensive, frustrating and has not helped Russia project power. About the only thing so far demonstrated is the gullibility of the Western press in its alarmist stories.

The Admiral Kuznetsov (or Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, in Russian, Адмира́л фло́та Сове́тского Сою́за Кузнецо́в) has been deployed for the sixth time in the Mediterranean, off the shores of Syria, where it is conducting air operations against the Syrian rebels and ISIS. It is there to demonstrate that Russian aircraft carrier’s capability is similar to the Americans’, and to intimidate NATO.

The Russians designated the Kuznetsov as an “Aircraft Cruiser,” not an “Aircraft Carrier,” to allow the ship to get around the restrictions of the Montreux Convention, which prohibits aircraft carriers from transiting through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits. Thus, Turkey has allowed, without objection, the transit of the Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean Sea. 

The fact that the Kuznetsov is sailing under a Russian flag is due to the quick thinking of the Deputy Commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet in 1991. At that time, the Kuznetsov was berthed in Feodosia, Crimea’s Black Sea port, which the Russian’s say today is “fully integrated” into Russia. But in 1991, when Ukraine became independent, the Crimea was Ukrainian. The Russian Deputy Commander flew to Feodosia, assembled whatever crew he could find (around half the crew) and secretly sailed the Kuznetsov all the way to Severodvinsk in northern Russia, a White Sea port. And as the Russians tell it, they stole the Kuznetsov from under the noses of the Ukrainians. More likely, the Ukrainians already suspected the Kuznetsov was a white elephant and ignored the Kuznetsov black smoke as the Russians navigated it out of the port. In retrospect, it may have been better for the Russians to leave it where it was.

Initially, the deployment of Kuznetsov seemed a success: alarmed governments in Europe shadowed it and its small task force. Top European leaders pressured Spain not to allow the Kuznetsov and its task force ships refueling rights. And the press kept up the drumbeat of this dangerous action, blaming Putin for being aggressive and behaving badly.

But the reality is quite different than the headlines would like you to believe.  The Kuznetsov operation is an expensive disaster for the Russians, which has already cost them two pricey aircraft, an upgraded Su-33, and an MIG-29KR that cost about $100 million!. This was not the first time the Kuznetsov has lost airplanes; in 2007 another Su-33 “fell into the sea” and was lost. 

The Kuznetsov was ordered by the Soviet Navy in 1981, and commissioned in 1990, although full operations did not start for another few years, either because of technical problems or for lack of funds to repair the ship.

The Kuznetsov was overhauled in 1998, suggesting that it lasted barely five years before needing substantial repair. In May 2015, the ship was refitted once again. Even so, the ship has been prone to breakdowns and significant problems, such as an onboard fire in 2009 that claimed the life of a crewman. That same year, the Kuznetsov was involved in an oil spill while refueling, suggesting a lack of proper care in managing routine tasks.

The Kuznetsov differs from American and other Western aircraft carriers in a number of ways. The Kuznetsov does not have a catapult system to launch aircraft. Instead, it uses a type of ski jump curved deck for the aircraft to get airborne, meaning that takeoff speeds are low (75 to 85 mph) even with full afterburner engaged. Also, the Kuznetsov is capable of defending itself and does not require a large task force for protection. The ship can launch cruise missiles and has air defense and other systems. 

Unlike U.S. aircraft carriers, which can support around 90 aircraft and helicopters, including AWACS in the form of the E2-C, the Russian aircraft cruiser carries far fewer aircraft and helicopters. As currently deployed, the Kuznetsov started out with 8 Su-33s and 4 MIG-29KR fighters. 

In the reported accidents, both the MIG and the Sukhoi failed to land on the carrier, either because of pilot inexperience or because of problems with the arresting cable which may have failed to hold the planes when they came in for landing. The Russian-press suggests the problem was the failure of the arresting cable mechanism. But Western comments seem to point to a lack of experience of the pilots. Given that Russian pilots are quite capable, the cable mechanism culprit seems more likely.

Two of the sister ships of the Kuznetsov have had different fates. The Varyag was sold by Ukraine to a Chinese travel agency allegedly to serve as a floating restaurant. However, the Chinese government turned it into their first aircraft carrier, called the Liaoning. The construction of the other sister ship, the Ulyanovsk, was never finished and it was scrapped in 1992.

Another class of Soviet carriers, the Kiev class, have also done poorly. The Minsk was initially sold for scrap and ended up in China as a floating museum. The Novorossiysk was scrapped.  The Gorshkov was sold to India and is now commissioned as the INS Vikramaditya. 

Russia also failed in its efforts to sell planes that were modified to land on aircraft carriers.    The Russians tried for a number of years to sell Su-33’s to China for their emerging aircraft carrier program. The Su-33 is a specially modified version of the Su-27. Its wings have more surface area so they can launch from a short carrier deck; its undercarriage has been reinforced for stressful carrier landings, and other changes have been made to make it suitable for carrier use. But the Chinese had other ideas. They bought one developmental Su-33 from Ukraine and used that model to design and build their J-15 Flying Shark. 

Russia’s experience with aircraft carriers and on-deck fighter aircraft has been expensive, frustrating and did not help Russia to project real power. Though it succeeded in spreading alarmist stories by using the gullibility of the Western press.

Unlike Russia’s highly successful operations in Syria, and even some long-range exercises with Tupolev bombers and cruise missiles, the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier deployment is a fiasco.

* The original version of this article titled: The Trials and Tribulations of the Admiral Kuznetsov: A Fiasco, has been posted on Bryen’s blog, on December 5, 2016.

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