[this analysis was written for the Unz Review]
Those following the news from Russia have probably heard that Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov (official name: Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov), was put into dry dock for major repairs and retrofits. Things did not go well. First, the dry dock sank (it was Russia’s biggest) and then a huge crane came crashing down on the deck. And just to make it even worse, a fire broke out on the ship killing 2 and injuring more. With each setback, many observers questioned the wisdom of pouring huge sums of money into additional repairs when just the scheduled ones would cost a lot of money and take a lot of time.
Actually, the damage from the fire was not as bad as expected. The damage from the crane was, well, manageable. But the loss of the only huge floating dry dock is a real issue: the Kuznetsov cannot be repaired elsewhere and these docks cost a fortune.
But that is not the real problem.
The real problem is that there are major doubts amongst Russian specialists as to whether Russia needs ANY aircraft carriers at all.
How did we get here?
A quick look into the past
During the Soviet era, US aircraft carriers were (correctly) seen as an instrument of imperial aggression. Since the USSR was supposed to be peaceful (which, compared to the USA she was, compared to Lichtenstein, maybe less so) why would she need aircraft carriers? Furthermore, it is illegal to transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus with an aircraft carrier and yet the only shipyard in the USSR which could built such a huge ship was in Nikolaev, on the Black Sea. Finally, the Soviets were acutely aware of how vulnerable US aircraft carriers are to missile attacks, so why build such an expensive target, especially considering that the Soviet Union had no AWACS (only comparatively slow, small and much less capable early warning helicopters) and no equivalents to the F-14/F-18 (only the frankly disappointing and short range Yak-38s which would be very easy prey for US aircraft).
Eventually, the Soviets did solve these issues, somewhat. First, they created a new class of warships, the “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser”: under the flight deck, these Soviet aircraft carriers also held powerful anti-ship missiles (however, this was done at the cost of capacity under the deck: a smaller wing and smaller stores). Now, they could legally exit the Black Sea. Next, they designed a very different main mission for their “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser”: to extend the range of Russian air defenses, especially around so called “bastion” areas where Russian SSBNs used to patrol (near the Russian shores, say the Sea of Okhotsk or the northern Seas). So while the Soviet heavy aircraft carrying cruiser were protecting Russian subs, they themselves were protected by shore based naval aviation assets. Finally, they created special naval variants for their formidable MiG-29s and Su-27s. As for the AWACS problem, they did nothing about it at all (besides some plans on paper). The collapse of the USSR only made things worse.
The Soviets also had plans for a bigger, nuclear, aircraft carriers, and on paper they looked credible, but they never made it into production. These supposed “super carriers” would also come with a truly “super” price…
So how good was/is the Kuznetsov?
Well, we will probably never find out. What is certain, however, is that she is no match for the powerful U.S. carriers, even their old ones, and that the USA has always been so far ahead of the USSR or Russia in terms of carriers and carrier aviation that catching up was never a viable option, especially not when so many truly urgent programs needed major funding. Did the Kuznetsov extend the range of Russian air defenses? Yes, but this begs the question of identity of the “likely adversary”. Not the USA: attacking Russian SSBNs would mean total war, and the U.S. would be obliterated in a few short hours (as would Russia). I don’t see any scenario in which US ASuW/ASW assets would be looking for Russian SSBNs anywhere near the Russian coasts anyway, this would be suicidal. What about smaller countries? This is were the rationalizations become really silly. One Russian (pretend) specialist even suggested the following scenario: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt takes power, thousands of Russian tourists are arrested and the Islamists demand that Russia give full sovereignty over to all Muslim regions of Russia, if not: then hundreds of Russians will get their throats slit on Egyptian TV. Can you guess how an aircraft carrier would help in this situation?
Well, according to this nutcase, the Russian carrier would position itself off the Egyptian coast, then the Russians would send their (pretty small!) air-wing to “suppress Egyptian air defenses” and then the entire Pskov Airborne Division would be somehow (how?!?!?!) be airlifted to Egypt to deal with the Ikhwan and free the Russian hostages.
It makes me wonder what this specialist was smoking!
Not only does it appear that the Egyptians are currently in negotiations with Moscow to acquire 24+ brand new Su-35s (which can eat the Russian airborne aircraft for breakfast and remain hungry for more), but even without these advanced multi-role & air superiority fighters the rest of the Egyptian air defenses would be a formidable threat for the relatively old and small (approx.: 18x Su-33; 6x MiG-29K; 4x Ka-31; 2x Ka-27) Russian airwing. As for airlifting the entire 76th Guards Air Assault Division – Russia simply does not have the kind of transport capabilities to allow it to do that (not to mention that Airborne/Air Assault divisions are NOT trained to wage a major counterinsurgency war by themselves, in a large and distant country). Theories like these smack more of some Russian version of a Hollywood film than of the plans of the General Staff of Russia.
Back to the real world now
Frankly, the Kuznetsov was a pretty decent ship, especially considering its rather controversial design and the appalling lack of maintenance. She did play an important role in Syria, not thanks to her airwing, but to her powerful radars. But now, I think that it is time to let the Kuznetsov sail into history: pouring more money in this clearly antiquated ship makes no sense whatsoever.
What about new, modern, aircraft carriers?
The short answer is: how can I declare that the USN has no rational use left for its aircraft carriers and also say that the Russian case is different and that Russia does need one or perhaps several such carriers? The USN is still several decades ahead of modern Russia in carrier operations, and (relatively) poor and (comparatively) backward Russia (in naval terms) is going to do better? I don’t think so.
Then, there is one argument which, in my opinion, is completely overlooked: while it is probably true that a future naval version of the Su-57s (Su-57K?) would be more than a match for any US aircraft, including the flying brick also knows as F-35, Russia STILL has nothing close to the aging but still very effective carrier-capable USN Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. Yes, Russians have excellent radars and excellent airframes, but it is one thing to have the basic capabilities and quite another to effectively integrate them. As always, for Russia, there is the issue of cost. Would it make sense to finance an entire line of extremely costly aircraft for one (or even a few) aircraft carriers?
We need to keep in mind that while Russia leads the world in missile technology (including anti-shipping missiles!), there are many countries nowadays who have rather powerful anti-ship missiles too, and not all are so friendly to Russia (some may be at present, but might change their stance in the future). Unless Russia makes a major move to dramatically beef-up her current capabilities to protect a high-value and very vulnerable target like a hypothetical future aircraft carrier, she will face the exact same risks as all other countries with aircraft carriers currently do.
A quick look into the future
Hypersonic and long range missiles have changed the face of naval warfare forever and they have made aircraft carriers pretty much obsolete: if even during the Cold War the top of the line U.S. carriers were “sitting ducks”, imagine what any carrier is today? The old saying, “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind. Furthermore, what Russia needs most today are, in my opinion, more multi-role cruise missile and attack submarines SSN/SSGN (like the Yasen), more diesel-electric attack submarines SSK (like the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky), more advanced patrol boats/frigates (like the Admiral Kasatonov), more small missile ships/corvettes (like the Karakurt), more large assault ships (like the Petr Morgunov) and many, many, more.
As for aircraft carriers, they are not needed any more to extend the (already formidable) Russian air defenses and in the power-projection role (operations far from Russia), the Russian Navy does not have the capabilities to protect any carrier far away from home shores.
Which leaves only three possible roles:
1) “Showing the flag”, i.e. make port calls to show that Russia is as “strong” and “advanced” as the US Navy. Two problems with that: i) the USN is decades ahead of Russia in carrier operations and 2) there are MUCH cheaper way to show your muscle (the Tu-160 does a great job of that).
2) “Retaining the carrier know-how”. But for what purpose? What naval strategy? What mission? Russia is the nation that made aircraft carriers obsolete – why should she ignore her own force planning triumphs?
3) Prestige and $$$ allocation to select individuals and organizations within and next to the Russian Navy. Since Russia does not have a money-printing-press or criminally bloated budgets, she simply cannot afford the capital outlay either for the Russian Navy, or for the nation of Russia, just to fill the pockets of some interested parties.
If I have missed something, please correct me. I don’t see any role for carriers in the future Russian Navy. That is not to say that I am sure that they won’t be built (there are constant rumors about future Russian “super” carriers, no less!), but if they are built, I believe that it will be for all the wrong reasons.
The plight of the Kuznetsov might be blessing for Russia. She was a good ship (all in all), but now she should be viewed as an object lesson to (hopefully) kill any plans to build more carriers for the Russian Navy.