Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier Is in Pretty Bad Shape

David Axe

Key point: Moscow's carrier is limping along and it might be better for Russia if it was just replaced.

The Russian navy plans to dry-dock its only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in 2020 and conduct extensive repairs on the aging, unreliable vessel.

The plan makes a perverse kind of sense from Moscow’s point of view. But it’s still a bad idea, two experts explained in Proceedings, the professional journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.

“As Russia’s only aircraft carrier and its flagship, the Kuznetsov’s main mission is projecting national prestige,” wrote Richard Moss and Ryan Vest, both instructors at the U.S. Naval War College. “From that perspective, Russia must overhaul her and get her back into service as quickly as possible.”

But from the perspective of utility to current Russian navy strategy, “Kuzya” is a huge resource sump that will never offer as much value as several Yasen-class fast attack submarines or a squadron of small, lethal missile patrol boats. 

She has never performed her original mission of extending Russia’s defensive perimeter, nor has she been a reliable power projection platform. The ship has suffered her share of power plant, hull, aircraft launch and recovery, electrical and mechanical problems and is expensive to man and maintain.

Kuznetsov commissioned in 1990. Problems plagued the ship from the beginning. One of Kuznetsov’s major weaknesses is her lack of catapults for launching her fighters. Another is her powerplant. The vessel is powered by steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers that Defense Industry Daily generously described as “defective.” 

Her pipes are bad. “When it’s this cold, water freezes everywhere including pipes which may cause a rupture,” English Russia reported. “To prevent this, they just don’t supply almost 60 percent of the cabins with water (neither in winter nor in summer). The situation with latrines is just as bad. The ship has over 50 latrines [for 1,900 crew] but half of them are closed.”

Kuznetsov rarely goes to sea and conducted just six patrols between 1991 and 2015. During a 2016 mission off of Syria, the ship’s air wing lost two jets in just three weeks.

Before late 2018, Moscow planned on extending the service lives of Kuznetsov and other warships from the 1980s in order to complement the newer, smaller vessels.

But Kuznetsov in October 2018 suffered serious damage at the 82nd Repair Shipyard in Roslyakovo, a northern port city, when the PD-50 dry-dock sank while the carrier was aboard for repairs.

Swedish-built PD-50 was the only large dry-dock capable of supporting the Russian northern fleet’s largest warships. Russia's other large dry-docks are thousands of miles from the fleet's main northern bases. 

Moving the docks, or the ships needing repair, could be prohibitively difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Beside the cost, foreign sanctions complicate the acquisition of a dock similar to PD-50.

According to the newspaper Izvestia, the Kremlin considered just decommissioning Kuznetsov rather than spending the money to acquire a new dry-dock, move an existing dock or the carrier or find some other way of repairing the aging, unreliable and accident-prone flattop.

“Not everyone considers the continuation of repair to be appropriate,” a navy source reportedly told Izvestia. “There are different opinions, including those that boil down to the fact that with this money it is better to build a pair of frigates or a nuclear submarine.”

By spring 2019 a plan reportedly was in place to assemble a new dry-dock that in theory could accommodate the carrier, Moss and Vest explained. The No. 35 Ship Repair Plant in Murmansk in northern Russia has two, adjacent 200-meter-long dry-docks that yard workers could combine in order to fit Kuznetsov. 

“However, the modifications may not be as easy as the source would have us believe,” Moss and Vest wrote. “Even after the two dry-docks are combined, they will have to be lengthened to accommodate the 305-meter ... aircraft carrier, and a new gate structure of the combined dock will have to be custom fabricated.”

Considering the labor and expense involved, the work might not proceed according to the current schedule. “Considering the necessary dry-dock modifications, the current fiscal realities the Russian government is facing under sanctions and lower oil prices and endemic corruption, the Kuznetsov may be undergoing modernization for the foreseeable future,” Moss and Vest explained.

Even if Kuznetsov can be repaired, the navy most likely strictly will use the carrier as a training ship, a Kremlin source told Belsat, a Belarusian news agency.

As Americans, Moss and Vest sarcastically advised Moscow to continue pouring money and effort into Kuznetsov. “Russia will be doing NATO and the U.S. Navy a huge favor if it decides to spend the money, repair-yard time, and human capital needed to overhaul the ski-jump-ramp carrier that is clearly an albatross of the Cold War era.”

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in July 2019.

Image: Reuters. 

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