The Russian navy’s deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean has provoked a very confused response in the Western media.
On the one hand it is described as a major escalation, as if the Admiral Kuznetsov was a US style supercarrier. On the other hand there has been a great of deal of derision, with the ship called an obsolete rust bucket dangerous mainly to its crew.
Where does the truth lie?
The Admiral Kuznetsov is the first and only Russian aircraft carrier capable of launching fighter aircraft conventionally. The preceding Kiev class carriers were smaller ships, which could only launch a small number of aircraft vertically.
Contrary to what reports say, Admiral Kuznetsov is by the standards of navy carriers a relatively new ship. She was launched in 1985, commissioned in the then Soviet navy in 1990, but only became operational after prolonged trials in 1995.
The US navy currently operates 10 Nimitz class supercarriers. If the age of a ship is determined by its date of launch; then three of the US navy’s Nimitz class supercarriers are older than Kuznetsov; if by date of commission, then five are; if by entry into service then six are.
The Russian navy had no previous experience of operating carriers, so the lengthy time scale of her sea trials between commission and entry into service is not surprising.
In addition what undoubtedly extended this period before her full entry into service was the political and economic crisis Russia experienced during the 1990s. Given the severity of this crisis, it is a wonder a ship as large and complicated as Kuznetsov was brought into service at all.
Either way talk of Kuznetsov as some sort of archaic ship from a bygone era is exaggerated, whilst jokes about Kuznetsov being “….practically old enough to have been deployed in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war….” are simply silly.
Aircraft carriers as it happens tend to be long-lived ships. Coral Sea, a US Medway class carrier, served in the US Navy from 1947 to 1990. By the standards of aircraft carriers Kuznetsov is not an old ship.
What is true about Kuznetsov is that because she was the first of a type of ship of which the Russians had no previous experience, and because of the fraught period during which she was commissioned and brought into service – which made it impossible to sort out her teething problems properly – Kuznetsov suffers by comparison with US navy carriers from design flaws and from engine problems.
The ship’s engines are unreliable, because they are insufficiently powerful for a ship of this size.
The Russians when they built Kuznetsov lacked suitable nuclear reactors for this type of ship (they were designed for the intended follow-on Ulyanovsk carrier, which because of the 1990s crisis was however never built). They also lacked conventional engines large enough for a ship of this size, which was roughly twice as heavy as the largest other ship the Russian or Soviet navy had commissioned before.
The Russians accordingly came up with a complicated solution of using multiple steam turbines and turbo-pressurised boilers to make up for the lack of power of the individual engines. Like all complicated arrangements, this arrangement is unreliable and prone to breakdown, with the engines experiencing stress especially in heavy seas.
To compound the trouble with the engines, they were built by a plant in what is now independent Ukraine. As political relations between Russia and Ukraine deteriorated, servicing of the engines by this plant became increasingly erratic, and has now stopped completely.
It is these problems with the engines that account for the practice of accompanying Kuznetsov on long range deployments with a tug.
The tug in question – the Nikolai Chiker – is the most powerful tug in the world. This same tug played a key role in successfully hauling Kuznetsov’s uncompleted sister ship Varyag from Ukraine to China in 2005, where she has now become the Chinese carrier Liaoning.
The fact Kuznetsov is accompanied by a tug on long range deployments has provoked some derision. However it is common practice in any navy to accompany large surface warships with service ships, and accompanying Kuznetsov with a tug ensures in Kuznetsov’s case that the carrier will get to where the Russian naval staff are sending it. The engine problems will not affect Kuznetsov’s Mediterranean deployment when the carrier finally reaches its position.
Kuznetsov suffers from other problems, which are unsurprising given that Kuznetsov is so much bigger and so different to any other ship the Russian navy has ever previously commissioned, and the unhappy times when it was launched.
There are for example known to be problems with Kuznetsov’s water pipes, which have a history of breakdowns and of freezing up in Arctic weather. These problems too however will not affect Kuznetsov’s capabilities as a warship when the carrier finally reaches the eastern Mediterranean, and the close proximity of Russian bases in Sevastopol and Tartus means they can be dealt with quickly if they arise.
Once this deployment is ended Kuznetsov will go through a lengthy refit, which unlike previous refits is intended to be practically a rebuild. With Russia developing a new range of much larger and more powerful engines, Kuznetsov’s current unsatisfactory engines will finally be replaced, and the other teething problems like the problem with the water pipes will finally be addressed.
Ultimately this is a potent warship, bigger than any other carrier other than those operated by the US navy, and once the refit is done it will be a powerful asset. In the meantime the ship already provides the Russian fleet with a carrier capability matched by no other navy apart from that of the US.
In saying this it is important to stress however that the US navy carrier force – with its 10 nuclear powered supercarriers – dwarfs the capability of any other navy, including Russia’s, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Neither the Kuznetsov, nor any other carrier the Russians might build, nor any other navy, can match or rival it.
A more pertinent criticism of Kuznetsov is that though Kuznetsov is a large ship (at 55,000 tonnes standard weight and with a 305 metre length Kuznetsov is midway between a US Medway class carrier and a US Forrestal class supercarrier) the air group it carries at 40-50 aircraft is relatively small (by comparison a smaller US Medway class carrier carried an air group of 75-80 aircraft in the 1980s).
This suggests that Kuznetsov is inefficient in its use of its spaces, a fact which again reflects Russian inexperience designing this sort of ship when Kuznetsov was built. However it also partly reflects differences in Kuznetsov’s intended role.
At the time Kuznetsov was built the Russians did not envisage using their carriers for the sort of long range carrier type operations carried out by the US navy. Unlike US navy supercarriers Kuznetsov prioritises air defence of the fleet rather than long range strikes. That explains why Kuznetsov’s fighter aircraft take off from the carrier using a ski jump rather than steam catapults.
Ski jump takeoffs put less stress on the pilots and shorten takeoff times, enabling more aircraft to take off from the carrier more quickly, which can be important in an air defence situation.
The penalty is that aircraft are limited in the loads they can carry by comparison with aircraft launched by steam catapults.
For air defence – the purpose for which Kuznetsov was designed – this is unimportant since fighter aircraft carrying out air defence missions only carry light air to air missiles rather than heavy air to ground missiles and bombs.
However it does significantly reduce the air group’s capability to carry out long range strikes. Combined with the relatively small size of the air group, this means that Kuznetsov’s ability to carry out long range ground strikes is fractional compared to that of a US navy supercarrier.
If Kuznetsov is not really designed to carry out long range ground strikes, why are the Russians deploying Kuznetsov off the coast of Syria?
The plan to deploy Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean was made many months ago, long before the recent collapse in relations with the US over Syria. The decision therefore can have nothing to do with deterring the US from declaring a no fly zone over Syria, as some people are suggesting.
Most likely the intention is to gain experience operating aircraft against ground targets from an offshore carrier. This is not something the Russians have ever done before. Even if Kuznetsov’s capability to do it by comparison with a US navy supercarrier is marginal, the fighting in Syria does at least give the Russians an opportunity to try it out to find out how it is done and what it involves.
In other words the deployment of the Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean is essentially a training exercise. It does not merit either the derision or the hype that has been created around it.