Naval Air: Where The Future Is Failure

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December 15, 2018: At the end of October 2018 Russia lost the use of its only aircraft carrier (the Kuznetsov) when the largest floating dry dock in Russia, PD-50, had an accident and sank. Kuznetsov was in PD-50 at the time but got free and stayed afloat with some damage from a collapsing crane. The PD-50 sank in deep water off the north coast near Murmansk. That is where Kuznetsov is based along with the rest of the northern fleet. The PD-50 was the only Russian dry dock that could hold the Kuznetsov. Salvage experts fear it may be too expensive to raise the dry dock and repair it. Even if that worked it would take at least a year. There are other foreign dry docks that could hold Kuznetsov but because of sanctions the only ones Russia has access to are in China and those are busy building new carriers for the Chinese fleet, which now has two with a third under construction. The navy cannot afford to buy a new dry dock and admitted that this is the end of the line for the Kuznetsov, which is overdue for some major maintenance and refurbishment. The dry dock Kuznetsov was built in is in the Ukraine, which Russia is at war with.

Many Russians saw the loss of PD-50 as just another example of the sloppiness and poor management that have crippled the military industries and the space program over the last two decades. Aside from submarines, the Russian shipbuilding industry has been unable to build adequate replacement for the many Cold War era destroyers and cruisers that are now at the end of their service lives. Even the nuclear subs built or completed since the 1990s have had problems, but not as many as with new large surface ships. Russian shipyards have had some success in building new frigates, corvettes and patrol boats but these will not replace the high seas flee Russia had at the end of the Cold War. During the Soviet period the government could order shipyard workers to concentrate on warships and do it right.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the workforce was free to seek employment elsewhere and few of the capable managers and workers stayed with warship construction yards. Even during the Soviet period, many commercial ships were bought from non-Russian shipyards. The PD-50, which entered service in 1980, was built in Sweden. A basic problem with Russian shipbuilding is that the Russian managers never learned or adopted the many modern naval construction methods created in the last few decades. Russian leaders were aware of that had arranged for new large warships (like the two French Mistral amphibious ships) to be purchased with the inclusion of technology and worker/manager skills transferred by example. But this solution was eliminated in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine and, in effect, revived the Cold War with NATO. In addition to sanctions, oil prices went down unexpectedly and the Russian military and defense industries to cope as best they can.

Russian naval experts have been pointing out that in the 2020s the last of the Cold Warships will be gone and the refurbishment Kuznetsov was undergoing in PD-50 was the last one because, well, Kuznetsov was getting old and refurbishment will only get you so far. The lower oil prices and Ukraine related economic sanctions have hurt the economy and even the defense budget has been suffering major cuts. Not only are the shipyards not capable but the money is not there. The loss of the PD-50 is seen as a sign that the Russian high seas fleet is not coming back anytime soon.

For years the state-controlled media played down the fact that the Kuznetsov was kept operational more as a status symbol than as a useful warship. For example in early 2017 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 Western counterparts. An American carrier averages about 24 catapult assisted aircraft operations a day. The accident rate is much lower than what the Russians experienced. While the Russians may not gain much from this dubious “training cruise”, the Chinese paid attention because the Chinese, unlike the Russians, already have two carriers 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 (extensively) 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 2017 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 Kuznetsov 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 generation 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 by 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). While seemingly adequate on paper the MiG29K proved less effective in practice. India was the main user of the MiG-29K and has complained of many shortcomings.

In 2007, after two years of refurbishment, Kuznetsov returned to service. But that 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. Towards the end service on the ramshackle Kuznetsov was seen as punishment for sailors and officers who were not performing well. Trying to portray the Kuznetsov as the future of the Russian Navy also turned out to be a cruel illusion that is now being abandoned.

 


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