Naval Air: Tribulations of the Russian Aircraft Carrier


December 17, 2023: Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, is expected to return to service by early 2024 after six years of repairs, refurbishment, and upgrades. All this work is supposed to make the carrier able to serve another 25 years. The work was carried out at a naval shipyard in the northern Russian port of Murmansk.

The Kuznetsov only carries 24 jets, 18 Su-22s and six MiG-29K, which is a much smaller air group than those on American and British carriers. There are also six helicopters. The Kuznetsov compensates for its smaller air group by being primarily armed with missiles and is fully armed and equipped for independent operations without a screen of smaller warships.

The jets are launched from an angled ski-jump fight deck. This is called the STOBAR (short take-off but arrested recovery) system that substitutes an angled ski jump flight deck to replace the catapult. Using a catapult aircraft can be launched carrying more fuel and weapons than aircraft launched from a ski-jump flight deck. Using a ski-jump deck, aircraft have to leave the carrier at full power and that means carrying fewer weapons in order to reduce the weight of the aircraft so it can safely get into the air, rather than into the water. Catapults on flat decks are more efficient but more complex systems that literally pull loaded aircraft along a level flight deck to help it gain enough speed to get off the deck and into the air with their jet engines or propellers generating as much speed as they can. The faster you leave the deck the more you can carry while doing it. What it comes down to is catapults get aircraft into the air with more weapons compared to the angled STOBAR flight deck. Catapults are expensive to install and operate, especially compared to an angled flight deck. Initially Russia wanted to use vertical takeoff warplanes like the Harrier or F-35B vertical takeoff aircraft. Russia was unable to create aircraft similar to the British Harrier and American F-35 and was forced to use a ski-jump flight deck to launch conventional aircraft.

The 57,000-ton ship is 305 meters (1,000 feet) long and has a top speed of 54 kilometers an hour. Propulsion and power is provided by steam turbines which also supply electrical power for various ship systems as well as crew living quarters. The six-year refurbishment upgraded the ship electronics, which included surface and air search radars as well as a fire control radar for the six CIWS (Close in Weapons System) 30mm auto-cannon carried.

There are 24 vertical launchers for the 192 anti-missile and anti-aircraft missiles with ranges of 15 kilometers. Those can also be used against small ships. This is a much heavier self-defense load than any Western aircraft carrier. Its major weapons, unlike those of Western carriers, are twelve large anti-ship missiles with a range of 400 kilometers. There is also sonar for detecting enemy submarines and approaching torpedoes. Helicopters on the ship can be equipped for detecting and attacking submarines.

Kuznetsov can stay at sea for 45 days before needing refueling and replenishment of other supplies for the crew of 2,336 officers, sailors, and aviation personnel. There are also accommodations for a flagship staff of 40 officers. As the largest ship in the fleet, it would serve as a flagship of the fleet, or at least a carrier task force.

Despite the sanctions and need to spend heavily on Ukraine operations, the Russian navy has been able to keep work going on the refurbishment of the Kuznetsov. This vessel is the pride of the fleet but cursed with accidents and other delays during an earlier upgrade of the carrier so it can remain in service. Originally the plan was to have the carrier undergo a two-year period of repairs, upgrades, and modernization in a drydock belonging to the Russian navy. This began in 2018 but the largest floating dry dock in Russia, PD-50, had an accident and sank. The Kuznetsov was afloat in the PD-50 at the time and survived some damage from a collapsing crane. The PD-50 sank in deep water and most salvage experts agreed that it would be too expensive to raise the dry dock and repair it. The navy could not afford to buy a new one and admitted that this might be the end of the line for the Kuznetsov, which was overdue for major maintenance and refurbishment and the PD-50 was the only Russian dry dock that could hold the Kuznetsov. Many Russians saw this as just another example of the sloppiness and poor management that have crippled the military industries and the space program.

An affordable solution was found for the Kuznetsov when two separate drydocks built parallel to each other were then combined into one drydock to accommodate the carrier. In 2019 work began on the new drydock and getting the carrier back to the fleet was delayed two years, to 2022. That was optimistic because an expensive engine room fire did so much damage that it delayed the completion of work on the carrier until 2024. Kuznetsov had to leave the drydock and spend a year having new equipment, including a lot of new electronics installed. Then will come sea-trials. Problems will be found and repaired until there are none and the carrier can be turned over to the fleet. That might not be until 2026, because that’s been the pattern for the last few large ships Russia has overhauled and modernized.




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