The troubles of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, are well-documented. The ship is a relic of the Cold War and has long suffered from fires and breakdowns at sea. Now it will undergo a two-and-a-half year upgrade at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk in Northern Russia, a sign of the Kremlin’s growing military expansion aims abroad—especially in Syria. It sounds like a waste, but Russia doesn’t have much of a choice.
A defense industry source told Russian news agency TASS that specific details of how much the vessel’s upgrades will costs and the amount of work to be done will be available in a few months. So far, it is estimated that modernization costs will be upwards of $350 million. So far, no contract between the shipyard and the Russian government has been signed.
“The ship will be equipped with modern systems of electronic warfare, communication, intelligence, navigation and combat control. Aside from this, new control systems for safe carrier-based aircraft landing will be installed. The composite airwing personnel will remain unchanged,” the source told TASS.
Modernization of the Kuznetsov is expected to be completed by 2020.
Repairs to be conducted on the Kuznetsov, which recently returned from duty in the Mediterranean, include the fixing four of its eight boilers; the other four will be replaced.
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It may surprise Foxtrot Alpha readers that Russia will spend so much money modernizing the vessel. In the past, we’ve made fun of the the aircraft carrier’s mechanical issues, including that time a tugboat had to pull it back to dock after it broke down off the coast of Spain. I once called the carrier the “hooptie of the sea.” In 1996 during military exercises in the Mediterranean, the carrier’s distillation equipment failed, leaving the crew of 2,000 short of potable water, according to the New York Times. The U.S. Navy eventually helped the crew out.
Part of why the Kuznetsov has had so many issues, as The National Interest points out, is due to its poor maintenance and lack of trained staff:
Naval aviation is an inherently dangerous business, but many of Russia’s naval aviation mishaps are due to a lack of experience and proficiency in carrier-based operations. While some of the Russian Navy’s problems can be attributed to the elderly Kuznetsov’s many inherent flaws, the Russians have not developed the proper procedures or practices to operate carrier-borne aircraft safely at sea.
Kuznetsov—commissioned on Dec. 25, 1990—is an older ship, but the vessel’s age is not the real issue. There are a good number of U.S. Navy carriers that are far older than Kuznetsov that operate perfectly well. Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln—are all older than the Russian ship. Moreover, USS Enterprise (CVN-65)—which was retired on Dec. 1, 2012, after more than 50 years in service—was just as ready to launch and recover aircraft on the day she was pulled out of service as she was the day she was first deployed in 1962.
The reason the U.S. Navy can operate a carrier for more than half a century is because the service maintains the material condition of its ships and has superbly trained crews. The Russians—especially over the past 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union—have not always properly maintained Kuznetsov. Nor has Kuznetsov’s crew been given enough of a chance to gain the requisite proficiency to safely conduct carrier operations at sea.
That said, the ship has proven to be very vital for Russian military operations in Syria. The Kuznetsov was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea for three months to support military operations in Syria. The 55,000 ton carrier hosts “approximately 41 aircraft, including Su-33 air superiority fighters, MiG-29K/KUB fighter aircraft, and Kamov Ka-27, Ka-31, and Ka-52K helicopters,” according to The Diplomat.
Eventually, the Su-33s will be phased out and replaced with the MiG-29K/KUB fighter jets. Around 20 can be stationed aboard the Admiral Kuznetsov, The Diplomat added.
Having a carrier capable of deployment with such aircraft is essential for a Russia that is aiming to flex its military muscle abroad, no matter how many issues it has. One reason why it may be worth it for the Russians to invest so much money into the Kuznetsov is because they don’t have many military bases around the world. Russia has nine bases abroad, including the navel base in the coastal city of Tartus in Syria. The other eight are in former USSR countries. (The U.S., by contrast, has more than 800 bases across the globe, probably more than any country or empire in history, ever.)
The Kuznetsov will be able to operate for an additional 25 years after it undergoes modernization, according to Jane’s 360. This will give the Russians time to consider and build a more modern carrier.
While the Kuznetsov may be the fodder of jokes, smoke stack and all, the ambition to maintain a carrier capable of delivering some of the most dangerous fighter jets in the world to a nation’s doorstep is no laughing matter and should be taken very seriously.