One of the most interesting disclosures during July’s MAKS 2017 airshow in Moscow came from Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yury Borisov, who has the official within Russia’s Defence Ministry who coordinates the Ministry’s work with Russia’s Defence industries.
Borisov suggested that rather than build a fully fledged conventional supercarrier along the lines of Project Shtorm Russia instead build a smaller flat-top carrier carrying short and vertical take-off and landing aircraft instead.
These aircraft would be a mix of helicopters – KA-52K gunships and KA-27 multipurpose helicopters – and supersonic jump jets, with Borisov specifically referring to the YAK-141 supersonic jump jet designed by the USSR in the 1980s for use by the projected Admiral Kuznetsov class carriers, which however never entered service, as a possible starting point for the design of these jets.
Borisov’s comments comes as opposition within Russia appears to be growing against the Project Shtorm supercarrier concept. Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister in overall charge of Russia’s Defence industries, has made his opposition to Project Shtorm clear, whilst there has also been a flurry of articles in the Russian media which question whether Russia in fact actually needs an aircraft carrier at all.
In the West these discussions invariably get reported as an argument over resources, with claims being made that Russia cannot afford and does not have the facilities to build a US style supercarrier, and that that is the reason why the plans for one are being shelved.
This is a misconception. A country which is capable of building a gigantic cosmodrome like the one under construction in Vostochny or which is investing in a superheavy space rocket is obviously not short of money or resources to build a supercarrier. There is no doubt the Russians could build a US type supercarrier if they put their mind to it, and in the 1980s they came close to doing so.
Russia’s problem with supercarriers is not money or resources; it is mission.
Unlike the US, which is essentially a continental island with immediate access to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Russia is a self-sufficient continental Eurasian land power. Unlike the US Russia does not need a vast ocean going surface fleet either to defend itself or to project its power into those regions that concern it, and the fleet it has is not structured to do those things.
Nor does Russia have the global interests that the US has taken on itself, and nor does Russia have the vast global network of overseas bases (700 by some counts) that the US has, and which are essential to sustain supercarrier operations far from the homeland.
The result is that whenever the question of building carriers comes up in Russia there is always a conflict between those naval officers who hanker for supercarriers because they feel that without them theirs will never be a ‘proper’ navy, and the rest of the country’s political and military leadership, who are never fully convinced of Russia’s need for them.
The result is the strange stop-go character of Russia’s various carrier projects, with the Russian navy lobbying strongly for aircraft carriers in the late 1930s and early 1950s – and once again today – but with plans for aircraft carriers invariably running into opposition once they are brought before the country’s top leadership, who are unable to see the reason for them and always balk at the cost.
Only in the late 1970s, at a time when the USSR was briefly challenging the US for global leadership, did the country’s leadership authorise the building of aircraft carriers. The result was the two conventional carriers which appeared in the 1980s – the Admiral Kuznetsov and its sister ship the Varyag – and the larger nuclear powered Ulyanovsk which was intended to be their follow-on.
In the event only the Admiral Kuznetsov was completed and brought into service, though the Varyag has recently gone into service with the Chinese navy as the aircraft carrier Liaoning.
As it happens even the Admiral Kuznetsov and the Varyag were not designed as fully fledged aircraft carriers of the US type. By US standards they are compromised designs, carrying relatively few aircraft, lacking steam catapults, and focused more on air defence of the fleet than on long range air strikes.
Consistent with this both the Admiral Kuznetsov and the Varyag were designed with heavy missile armaments – both for air defence and for long range missile strikes – like the missile cruisers of the Russian navy but quite unlike US supercarrier designs.
Unsurprisingly when the Admiral Kuznetsov was deployed to the Mediterranean last autumn to support the Russian air group in Syria at the time of the fighting in Aleppo, the role it played in the fighting was limited, with much of its carrier group operating for much of the time from land at Khmeimim air base.
This was because – as I pointed out at the time – the Admiral Kuznetsov was not really designed for this role, and its deployment was more than anything else a training exercise.
Only the Ulyanovsk had it ever been built would have fully conformed to US ideas of a supercarrier. In the event the Ulyanovsk was never built because the USSR broke up when she was still only 20% complete.
Borisov’s comments suggest that the same pattern is now repeating itself.
After the initial excitement following publication last year of the plans for Project Shtorm, doubts and criticism have emerged, and the plans have been drastically scaled down, with Russia now planning a much more modest carrier better adapted to its needs designed like the Admiral Kuznetsov not for long range strikes or power projection but for fleet air defence.
Unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov this carrier will probably have a carrier group consisting of short and vertical landing and take-off jump jets rather than conventional aircraft.
Since the carrier’s purpose will be fleet air defence the Russians no doubt calculate that the reduced range of these sort of aircraft is acceptable, and that they provide a much more cost effective solution than adapting the highly sophisticated SU-47 to operate at sea, which would also require building a much bigger carrier to operate them.
The new aircraft will almost certainly take design cues from the YAK-141 of the 1980s, though it will of course be a new design to take into account the technological advances which have happened since then.
However because the aircraft will be able to borrow technology – possibly including its engines – from the YAK-141, and will probably share the systems of the new MiG-35, its development should be relatively cheap and straightforward. Certainly since it will not be as ambitious an aircraft as the overly complex F-35B it should not run into the huge problems which have afflicted that aircraft.
As with the Admiral Kuznetsov but unlike US supercarriers the new Russian carrier will almost certainly also be equipped with air defence missiles and anti ship missiles, reducing the need for the carrier to be accompanied by the sort of expensive escort ships without which US supercarriers cannot operate.
However almost certainly – unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov – the new carrier will be nuclear powered.
It seems that studies for this carrier are now underway, as confirmed by this Sputnik article which however confuses this carrier with the quite different Project Shtorm.
Unlike Project Shtorm it is highly likely this carrier will be built, probably entering service some time in the late 2020s. Unlike Project Shtorm a carrier of this sort is a valuable addition to the Russian navy, enabling the navy to perform better its role of defending Russia’s immense coastline and the seas approaching it.
There have been some suggestions that the deployment plan once the new carrier is completed will be for the new carrier to take the Admiral Kuznetsov’s place in the Northern Fleet, with the Admiral Kuznetsov being redeployed to the Black Sea Fleet, where it will based in Sevastopol.
Possibly a sister ship to the new carrier will also be built, and will be deployed to Vladivostok in the Far East.