by Leonid Nersisyan
Translated by: Seva
Russian heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser “Admiral Kuznetsov” will be deployed this fall to the Mediterranean, near the shores of Syria. According to an informed military source, its aircraft will attack the positions of ISIS and other militant groups in Syria from October 2016 to January 2017. Interestingly, rumors that “Admiral Kuznetsov” would be sent to her first task circulated earlier, but they were denied after partial withdrawal of Russian military air forces from the base Hmeimim in Syria. It looks like the plans have changed again.
A “complicated” ship needs testing before deep modernization.
“Admiral Kuznetsov”, which was placed on duty in the Russian Navy in 1991, turned out to have problems. The reason for that was that it was planned as multi-functional – it functions as rocket-carrying cruiser (“Admiral Kuznetsov” is armed with 12 heavy anti-ship rockets P-700 “Granit”), as well as aircraft carrier. Compared to the US aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class, it is much smaller (water displacement 59,000 tons, as compared to 101,000) and can carry fewer aircraft – 50 (helicopters and planes) as compared to 66 (although, if needed, it can carry up to 90 aircraft).
In addition, as it was equipped with a springboard instead of steam catapult, “Admiral Kuznetsov” does not have airplanes for long-range radiolocation and command, because of which it “controls” a much smaller area than American aircraft carriers. The greatest problem of the only Russian aircraft carrier is its power generation: in contrast to Nimitz carriers that have nuclear reactors, “Admiral Kuznetsov” is equipped with boiler-turbine system, which turned out to be unreliable. Frequent breakdowns and long repairs became the norm. Another problem of unreliable propulsion system is that the ship cannot move at full speed for long, which is necessary for fighter planes to take off with full fuel tanks and full complement of weapons. Thus, planes take off either with limited fuel, or with reduced set of weaponry.
In addition, the number of aircraft on board never approached the nominal – as a rule, it carries 7-8 heavy deck fighters SU-33. These fighters can only dominate the air, whereas at land targets they can only use free-falling bombs and unguided air-to-surface missiles, as their radio-electronic equipment (REE) is the same as in the base model of SU-27, and these planes were not modernized.
The situation is partially improved by light fighter MiG-29K, which was first designed for the Indian Navy and then later ordered for the Russian Navy. This aircraft has modern REE, which allows the use of various air-to-surface munitions. Military sources tell us that “Admiral Kuznetsov” will sail to Syria with 15 airplanes (likely, 8 SU-33 and 7 MiG-29K) and about 10 helicopters (assault copters Ka-52K, multi-task Ka-27, and electronic surveillance and command copters Ka-31). In this configuration, the ship is ~50-60% filled with aircraft, which would allow it to fulfill at least training and combat mission in Syria. Small number of aircraft is largely due to lack of trained pilots for Navy aircraft.
Considering that in the Spring of 2017 “Admiral Kuznetsov” will undergo long overhaul and modernization, operation in Syria will be a good opportunity to identify its weakest points. This experience would allow optimal modernization of the ship and its aircraft complement. Combat experience of the pilots is also very important. This explains the appearance on “Admiral Kuznetsov” of assault helicopters Ka-52K, which were originally built for ill-fated Mistrales and are not suitable for a real aircraft carrier. Basically, the task is to test the equipment in real combat.
Considering that the numbers of combat aircraft at the airbase Hmeimim now are much lower than at the beginning of the operation, sorties of MiG-29K would be a positive contribution to the balance of power, but hardly a game changer. As to Su-33, they will likely ensure air cover for assault aircraft. Their own assault potential is unsuitable for the Syrian conflict.
In its present state, heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser “Admiral Kuznetsov” is not an efficient force. Considering that the Russian Navy is unlikely to get an aircraft carrier before mid-2030-s (the building won’t start earlier than in 2025, and would take about 10 years), it is important to make “Admiral Kuznetsov” combat-ready. Even just to preserve personnel that can serve on such a ship and fight on it. If things are done right, “Admiral Kuznetsov” can be converted into a ship capable of fulfilling combat tasks at the level of the force based in Hmeimim in any point in the world. This would require several changes in the course of its modernization:
- Change the propulsion system. Ideally, it should be replaced with nuclear reactor. This would enable the ship to maintain full speed, so that aircraft would be able to take off with full payload, as well as increase reliability.
- Modernize fighters SU-33, equipping them with modern REE, like in SU-30CM or SU-35C. In this configuration 14 SU-33 and 12 MiG29K would be able to fulfill assault tasks and maintain domination in the air.
- Lighted the ship’s load by removing launch equipment for P-700 ‘Granit”, which, it is believed, are in non-working order after one of the accidents. It’s better for an aircraft carrier to be just an aircraft carrier.
- Install modern radio-electronic equipment.
- During the time of the overhaul and modernization, train enough deck aircraft pilots and update supply ships. Otherwise, it would be impossible to base on the ship 50 aircraft it is supposed to carry.
This modernization would take at least 4 years. However, the result would be essentially a new combat complex. Considering vague prospects of building new aircraft carriers (among other things, it is unclear whether this is needed, considering the state of ship-building industry and Russian geography), modernization can recreate “Admiral Kuznetsov” as a ship that can fulfill combat missions for another 40 years.