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IRONY: NATO warship breaks down, Russia’s ridiculed Kuznetsov powers on

Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan (D37) at Portsmouth

As Russia’s fleet has deployed to the eastern Mediterranean the well-known engine problems of its aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov have received an inordinate amount of attention.

I have previously discussed the reasons for these problems.  Briefly, the Admiral Kuznetsov when it was built in the 1980s was not only by an order of magnitude the biggest warship the Soviet/Russian navy had ever commissioned, but at 60,000 tons it was more than twice as heavy as the USSR’s/Russia’s next largest warships – the missile battlecruisers of the Kirov class – which use a combination of nuclear reactors and gas turbines.

The Russians had not previously had to develop engines – whether nuclear or conventional – for warship as large and heavy ship, and the arrangement they came up with involving a complicated arrangement of steam turbines and turbo-pressurised boilers is unreliable and comes under strain in heavy seas. 

The follow on ship to Kuznetsov and her intended sister Varyag was to be the planned aircraft carrier Ulyanovsk (which was never finished), which would have had a more suitable engine mix of four nuclear reactors.  Note however that this would still have been twice as many nuclear reactors as the two much more powerful Westinghouse nuclear reactors used by the much bigger and heavier US Nimitz class carriers – a further sign of the USSR’s/Russia’s lack of fully suitable and sufficiently powerful engines, whether nuclear or conventional, for warships of this size.

As I have also previously said, the Russians are aware of the problems with the Kuznetsov’s engines, and they would almost certainly have fixed them had the Kuznetsov not been commissioned at a time of extreme political and economic crisis in Russia in the mid 1990s.  As it is, the Kuznetsov is due to undertake a comprehensive refit after 2018 during which the present unreliable engines are due to be replaced.

The over-emphasis on the problems of the Kuznetsov’s engines – which are not affecting the carrier’s conduct of its current mission in Syria – has however given the impression that its engine problems are somehow unique.  This is very far from being the case as I was reminded when I was  reading the British House of Commons’ Defence Committee report on the state of Britain’s Royal Navy, which was published four days ago.

The most advanced warships of the Royal Navy are its Type 45 Daring class destroyers, described by some as the most advanced naval destroyers in the world.  Since 2009 when the first entered service with the Royal Navy they have been plagued by engine reliability problems.  Here is house the Defence Committee report describes them

“75. The Type 45 destroyer is the most modern ship in the British Fleet and a key part of its innovative design was its propulsion system. However, shortly after its introduction into service, the propulsion system developed serious problems. Between the launch of the first of class (HMS Daring) in February 2006 and the final Type 45 launch (HMS Duncan) in October 2010, approximately 50 design changes were necessary. Despite that remedial work the Type 45s continue to suffer from reliability issues including major power failures.  There have been improvements and the current failure rates are now one-third of those experienced in 2010.  However, as Sir Mark Stanhope noted, there remains a “risk inherent” in using the Type 45.”

However perhaps the most extraordinary revelation is that the engines do not work properly in warm waters such as those of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.  Here is what the Defence Committee report has to say about that:

“84. A second issue with the engine was a loss of reliability when the Type 45s operated in areas with high ambient air and sea temperature. When we questioned Tomas Leahy, Rolls Royce, on how this came to be, he told us that the engine “met the specification for the Type 45 class [set by the MoD] and that the system met that specification”.  However, he added:

“Are the conditions experienced in the Gulf in line with that specification? No, they are not. The equipment is having to operate in far more arduous conditions than were initially required by that specification.”

Given that the Royal Navy has undertaken significant operations in the Gulf for decades, this appears to be a startling error.

85. John Hudson, BAES, said that industry had highlighted to the MoD that there would be an upper limit for environmental temperatures and they had sought to produce a design that would have “graceful (sic) degradation beyond those temperatures”.  In other words, the engine would have the ability to carry on and operate, albeit sub-optimally, which would result in “a bit of drop-off” in terms of top speed.  However, that was not the outcome. Admiral Jones acknowledged that a key failing in the specification was that the WR-21 was unable to operate effectively in hot temperatures and that, instead of a “graceful degradation”, the engines were “degrading catastrophically”.

86. It is astonishing that the specification for the Type 45 did not include the requirement for the ships to operate at full capacity—and for sustained periods—in hot regions such as the Gulf. The UK’s enduring presence in the Gulf should have made it a key requirement for the engines. The fact that it was not was an inexcusable failing and one which must not be repeated in the Type 26 and GPFF programmes. Failure to guarantee this would put the personnel and ships of the Royal Navy in danger, with potentially dangerous consequences.”

(bold highlighting in the original)

In light of all this it comes as no surprise that there are now reports that instead of the Admiral Kuznetsov having to be towed into combat by its accompanying tug, it is HMS Duncan, one of the Britain’s Type 45 destroyers which were shadowing the Kuznetsov, which recently broke down and which has had to be towed back to port by a tug.   Needless to say the Western media,which has been awash with stories about the Admiral Kuznetsov’s engine problems, has given minimal coverage to this incident.

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