The Trials and Tribulations of the Admiral Kuznetsov: A Fiasco

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

by Stephen Bryen

The Admiral Kuznetsov, whose full name is Адмира́л фло́та Сове́тского Сою́за Кузнецо́в or Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, was deployed for the sixth time to the Mediterranean, off the shores of Syria, where it is currently conducting air operations against the Syrian rebels and ISIS. The idea of Russia’s military leaders was to demonstrate an aircraft carrier capability like the Americans and to intimidate NATO.

By Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41905402

By Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41905402

Initially it was a success: alarmed governments in Europe shadowed the Kuznetsov and its small task force, trying to show just how dangerous the Russian deployment was and how it threatened NATO.  Top European leaders pressured Spain not to allow the Kuznetsov and its sister ships refueling rights.  The press kept up the drumbeat of this dangerous action, blaming Putin for being aggressive and behaving badly.

But the reality is quite at variance with the headlines.  The Kuznetsov operation is an expensive disaster for the Russians which has already cost them two pricey aircraft, an upgraded Su-33 and a MIG-29KR.  (The bill is probably about $100 million!)

By Yevgeny Pashnin - http://www.airliners.net/photo/Russia---Navy/Sukhoi-Su-33-(Su-27K)/0428039/L/, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5494070

By Yevgeny Pashnin – http://www.airliners.net/photo/Russia—Navy/Sukhoi-Su-33-(Su-27K)/0428039/L/, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5494070

This is not the first time aircraft have been lost by the Kuznetsov. In 2007 another Su-33 “fell into the sea” and was lost.

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

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

The fact that the Kuznetsov is sailing under a Russian flag is due in 1991 to the quick thinking by the Deputy Commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet. In that same year the Ukraine became independent and would have claimed the Kuznetsov as its property as it was then berthed in Feodosia. Feodosia is a Black Sea port in the Crimea which, as the Russian’s say today is “fully integrated” into Russia. But in 1991 the Crimea was Ukrainian –the same year Ukraine itself became independent. 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. It is surprising the Ukrainians didn’t take notice: the Kuznetsov belches black smoke and is hardly stealthy.  But maybe the Ukrainians knew something they weren’t telling (that the Kuznetsov is a white elephant).

 

Kuznetsov in English Chanel

Kuznetsov in English Chanel

In any case, the story told is that the Russians stole back the Kuznetsov from under the noses of the Ukrainians. In retrospect the Russians may have been better off leaving it where it was.

The Kuznetsov, which the Russians call an Aircraft Cruiser*** and not an Aircraft Carrier, 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. The Kuznetsov also is capable of defending itself, and so does not require a large task force for protection. The Kuznetsov can launch cruise missiles and has air defense and other systems.

Unlike US 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 generally are quite capable, the cable mechanism culprit seems more likely.

It is worth noting that two of the sister ships of the Kuznetsov have had quite differing fates. The Varyag was sold by the Ukrainians to a Chinese travel agency perhaps as a floating restaurant. It was, however, taken over by the Chinese and turned into their first aircraft carrier, now called the Liaoning. The other sister ship of the Kuznetsov was the Ulyanovsk. Its construction was never finished and it was scrapped in 1992.

The other class of Soviet carriers, called the Kiev class have not done well. The Minsk was initially sold for scrap and then ended up in China as a floating museum. The Novorossiysk was scrapped.  The Gorshkov, on the other hand, was sold to India and is now commissioned as the INS Vikramaditya.

One of the interesting side-stories on Russia’s carriers are its aircraft. 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 an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine, designated as the T-10K-3. And they used that model to design a home-built plane called the J-15 Flying Shark. The name is well-chosen.

Chinese J-14 Flying Shark

Chinese J-15 Flying Shark

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

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.

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***This designation also allows the Kuznetsov to get around the restrictions of the Montreux Convention which prohibits aircraft carriers from transiting through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits.  Turkey has allowed, without objection, the transit of the Kuznetsov recognizing its somewhat strained designation.

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