Naval Air: Prince Potemkin Would Approve

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February 15, 2017: Recently the only Russian aircraft carrier (the Kuznetsov) completed its longest and busiest cruise yet, spending 117 days at sea and carrying out 420 aircraft takeoffs using its Su-33s and MiG-29Ks jets. Some of those flights were for combat missions in Syria. That level of activity comes out to 3.6 fixed wing aircraft operations per day. While doing that two jets were lost. Russia considered this a training cruise that cost less than $200 million. That was true but while it demonstrated the Russian carrier could carry out flight operations it did them at a lower level of intensity and with far more accidents than their U.S. Navy counterparts. An American carrier averages about 24 catapult assisted aircraft operations a day over careers that last more than 40 years. The accident rate is much lower than what the Russians experienced. While the Russians may not gain much from this achievement, the Chinese are paying attention because the Chinese, unlike the Russians, already have one carrier operational and another one under construction. The Chinese, in a way, are out to finish what the Kuznetsov started. Kuznetsov has an interesting history that started back in the 1970s and eventually involved China as well.

Only two ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag, which was sold to China, by Ukraine, which inherited the unfinished ship then building in a Ukrainian shipyard when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. China rebuilt the Varyag as the Liaoning.

Kuznetsov entered service in 1995, after a decade of construction. The Kuznetsov was an experiment to see if Russia could build and operate a large carrier. Kuznetsov is a 65,000 ton (full load) ship that uses a ski jump type flight deck instead of a steam catapult. The ship normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters and two search and rescue helicopters. Max capacity is 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load.) The crew size for the recent trip to Syria was only 2,000.

Originally the Russians planned to build four or more large (similar to the American Nimitz class) nuclear powered carriers. But they soon realized (in the late 1970s) that this was beyond their capabilities or resources. By the time construction began in 1982 the design had been scaled back to what it now is and the number planned was only two. Nine years later the Soviet Union went bankrupt and dissolved. Construction of the Kuznetsov was completed by the mid-1990s but from 1995 to 2005 there was no money to send the carrier to sea much. A mockup of the flight deck was built on land so the Kuznetsov's air group could practice carrier landings. After 2000 the Russian Navy began to rebuild and again made plans to build five or more larger carriers but by 2010 it was clear the money was not there and would not be for a long time. So Kuznetsov, after nearly 40 years of effort, appears to be the end of the line for Russian carriers, at least for the next decade or so.

While the Kuznetsov was undergoing a 24 month refurbishment in 2005-7, the navy realized that the Su-33 was also in need of replacement and in 2009 ordered 24 MiG-29Ks to replace the Su-33s. In 2008 the carrier version of the Russian MiG-29, the MiG-29K, made its first flight, about fifteen years later than originally planned. The MiG-29K modifications included arrestor gear and stronger landing gear for carrier landings, folding wings and rust proofing to reduce corrosion from all that salt water. Anti-radar paint is also used, to reduce the radar signature. Fuel capacity was increased 50 percent and more modern electronics installed. A more powerful engine is used, which enabled the aircraft to carry over five tons of weapons (air-to-air and anti-ship missiles, smart bombs).

In 2007, after two years of refurbishment, returned to service. But the refurb, like the original construction, was sloppy. Ten years later the Kuznetsov finally got a chance to do what it was designed for (long cruises to distant waters) and demonstrated that it could go through the motions but not much more than that.

The famous "Potemkin Village" is named after Russian Prince Gregori Aleksandrovich Potemkin and 18th century general who erected false fronts on impoverished villages to cover up his shortcomings as a civil administrator during the reign of Catherine the Great, in the late eighteenth century. This impressed foreign visitors (who did not realize what was going on) as well as the empress Catherine (who did realize what was going on). Catherine and her favorite prince went on to become very close friends.

 


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