Russia’s “heavy aircraft-carrying cruisers” have received a lot of unfavorable attention from India’s snake-bit deal to refurbish the Admiral Gorshkov; in fairness, however, the Russians haven’t had much more luck with their own ship. Launched in 1985, it was not commissioned until 1995 – and since then, it has endured extremely long dockings and seen only limited deployment. When it’s operational, the The 55,000t Admiral Kuznetsov is a big step up from the smaller Kiev Class’ combination of Yak-38 Forger V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing) jets and naval helicopters, flying navalized SU-25 close air support fighters, multi-role SU-33s, or MiG-29K jets.
Natural resource exports have eased Russia’s budget woes, and the country wants to maintain carrier capabilities as it tries to rebuild its damaged defense industrial base. The current plan intends to begin designing a new carrier class in 2012 – and to dock the Kuznetov once again, in order to make major design changes and fix some long-standing issues.
The Proposed Upgrades
Russian carrier doctrine is different, as the “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser” moniker suggests. Unlike western carriers, they are typically equipped with long-range anti-ship missiles, as well as aircraft. According to a RIA Novosti article, the refit’s changes will bring Kuznetsov more in line with standard carrier configuration, while fixing some long-standing technical issues, and improving the ship’s air defenses.
The program is reportedly set to begin with a docking in 2012, followed by refits that will last until her intended re-launch in 2017. The hope is that the resulting ship would be fit for service until 2030 or so. Key components of the refit supposedly include:
* Replacement of the defective steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers. Sources have mentioned both gas turbine and nuclear propulsion options. The expense, upkeep, and reliability issues that a nuclear refit would present make it a very high-risk choice. In effect, the decision would turn the Kuznetsov into a technology demonstrator for Russia’s next aircraft carrier class, and raise the odds that the ship would never become a reliable fleet asset.
* Removal of the ship’s 3M45 P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) supersonic, long-range anti-ship cruise-missiles
* Enlargement of the aircraft hangar, and possibly a switch to new aircraft. There are reports that the Russian Navy’s SU-33s could be replaced by smaller navalized MiG-29Ks. They would still be accompanied by Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters, and radar-carrying Ka-31 AEW helicopters. The current SU-25 close support fighters have no naval counterpart or exact replacement; at present, their long-term fate remains a question mark.
* Upgraded air defenses. Existing 3K95 Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) vertically-launched medium-range missiles and Kashtan (SA-N-11 Grisom) short range gun/missile systems would be replaced with a more modern medium-range system, backstopped by a navalized 9M111 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) gun-missile combination for short-range defense.
* New communications and combat system.
There are even reports that the ship will receive aircraft catapults. Cataults are not an impossible choice, especially if Kuznetsov becomes a nuclear carrier prototype/ technology demonstrator. Nevertheless, these reports must be seen as more speculative, for several reasons. One is that steam catapults would require a very extensive, space-consuming, and expensive ship refit. The state of Russian shipyards and industry at the moment is poor, and adding that level of risk to the refit project would be a very questionable move.
Another is the fact that the MiG-29Ks which are supposed to make up its future air wing do not require catapults, and will deploy from several Indian carriers that lack them. That adds up to huge risk, for little benefit. Again, not impossible, but certainly risky.
Contracts & Key Events
April 24/17: The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, will have the Kalibr missile system installed during upcoming refit work. The new platform will replace the P-700 Granit anti-ship missile currently equipped onboard, utilizing a unique vertical launch system that is unified to launch both the Onyx and Zircon supersonic missiles. Other additions involved in the $715 million modernization include an upgraded electronic warfare, communication and aviation network. The vessel had previously spent 2016 in the Mediterranean Sea where aircraft onboard conducted some 420 air operations against militias fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
October 28/15: Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, successfully shot down a target using a Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) surface-to-air missile during drills in the Barents Sea. The live-fire drills also tested the carrier’s communications systems and integration with naval aircraft. The carrier is preparing to enter operational use in Russia’s intervention in Syria according to some press sources; however this has been denied by Russian military officials.
Feb 4/10: Interfax reports that the Kuznetsov will be modernized at Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk, citing “a source in military industry.” RusNavy.
Sept 24/09: Russia’s Vedemosti newspaper reports that the Russian Navy may decide to replace its 19 larger and longer-range SU-33 fighters on its Admiral Kuznetsov carrier with 24 MiG-29Ks, when the SU-33’s must be retired in 2015. Caution is advised, since the article is based on a source who sees a contract as possible in 2 years; that’s not exactly a rock-solid basis for concluding that India will avoid the potential trap of being the MiG-29K’s only operator. Vedemosti [in Russian] | Barents Observer.
Feb 16/09: Not the best cruise ever. Admiral Kuznetsov is involved in a large oil spill while it refuels off the south coast of Ireland. Times of London.
Jan 7/09: Fire breaks out on board while anchored off of Turkey, as a result of a short circuit. It’s a small fire, but 1 crewmember killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. RIA Novosti.
2001 – 2004: In the shipyard for repairs. In late 2003, Kuznetsov returns to sea for inspection trials, and subsequently deploys on a number of missions from 2004-2009.
Late 1997 – Nov 3/98: In shipyard for repairs. Returns to service, but remains in port mostly until the Kursk incident in 2000.
1996: Mediterranean cruise.
1995: Admiral Kuznetsov commissioned.
1993: Ship begins to receive aircraft.
December 1991: Admiral Kuznetsov sails from the Black Sea to join the Northern Fleet.
Oct 4/90: Sip name change to Admiral Flota Sovetskovo Soyuza Kuznetsov, a.k.a Admiral Kuznetsov. This one sticks.
Oct 21/89: First aircraft operation trials. First deck landings of MiG-29K, Su-27K and Su-25UTG carried out on Nov 1/89.
Mid-1989: Ship is reportedly 71% complete.
August 1987: Ship name change to Tbilisi.
1985: Ship launched.
November 1982: Ship name change to Leonid Brezhnev.
Sept 1/82: Construction of the ship begins, as the Riga.
Additional Readings & Sources
* Naval Technology – Kuznetsov Class (Type 1143.5) Heavy Aircraft Carrying Cruiser
* Wikipedia – Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
* RIA Novosti (April 6/10) – Moscow set to upgrade Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
* GlobalSecurity – CVN NEWCON – New Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier. Supposedly, Russia’s next set of aircraft carriers.