Russian Navy

Aircraft Carrying Burden

Recent year can be called the year of the Russian Combat Air Force without exaggeration. Both, in July in the French Le Bourget and in August, in Zhukovsky (near Moscow), many observers held their breath watching the wonders of flying displayed by the MiGs and the SUs, equipped with engines with thrust vector control. And it sure is a thing of pride. Nevertheless, it’s all about airfield-based craft. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the Air Force today is largely determined by the presence of deck-based aviation.

We do have a new revision of MiG – MiG-29 KUB (ship-based, trainer and combatant). But this aircraft is going to India, to equip future aircraft carriers of Air Defense Ship type.

One can’t say that we don’t understand the importance of aircraft carriers, and of the fleet in general, for the modern combat activity. In today’s unpredictable world, a mere sighting of a powerful ship, combining three types of Armed Forces, near coastline of some “hot spot” can have a sobering effect on a potential aggressor.

So, at first glance, there is nothing surprising about the Fleet’s leadership, represented by the Commander in Chief Vladimir Masorin, announcing in the middle of this year plans to reform the Russian Navy that would eventually result in creating a combat-capable ocean fleet, having the second in the world in numbers deck-based aviation group. To be more precise, the plan in the next 20 years is to create six aircraft carrier battle groups (ACBGs), which would propel Russia to second place after the United States in terms of the entire surface fleet power.

Note that an aircraft carrier, although definitely menacing as is, requires a lot of support. According to the world-wide practice, where the “trend-setter” is historically the USA, aircraft carrier acts as part of an ACBG. Besides the multi-purpose giant, such a group consists of up to 6 combat escort ships, including one-two GM (guided missile) cruisers, one GM destroyer, and two-three anti-submarine destroyers or frigates. Of course, the American standards are far from being an authority for us, but so far there is no data to indicate that the quality and quantity of their ACBGs do not stand up to the challenges presented or warrant any considerable modifications.

So then - six aircraft carrier battle groups in 20 years, with all the ensuing consequences.

One organizational/philosophical question immediately puts on guard. In the beginning of 2004, that is, quite recently, it was announced that the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation came up with a development plan for the Navy up to 2040-2050s. Main thesis of this plan was giving up on protecting the nation’s interests in the oceans and, as a result, giving preference to ships of smaller class, acting within the 500-kilometer zone of the nation’s maritime belt.

“We are moving away from ships of large class that we have today and that are left over from the Soviet era, and switching to multi-purpose ships,” said the then active Commander in Chief of the Navy, Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov. According to him, “Russia would have its own frigates and corvettes that would be unparalleled in the world.” The Commander in Chief expressed an opinion that the “aircraft carrier is a task for the next decade, and today is a bit early to talk about this constituent of the Fleet.” However, according to his words, the only Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would remain in-commission. Nobody would sell or decommission it. “We aren’t even thinking in that direction,” – reassured Kuroedov.

We’ll return to the long-suffered Kuznetsov a bit later. For now note that the program determining the future of the national fleet and the program, developed in mere two years, conceptually contradict one another. The only commonalities between them are the so-typical for us statements of facile optimism, such as “unparalleled” or “second in the world”.

Indeed, do we really have the basis to responsibly plan construction of so many aircraft carriers in the next two decades? Let’s consider.

Russian shipbuilding industry will be faced with the task of releasing into the waters one aircraft carrier every three years and four months. To compare – Americans built six aircraft carriers in the time period between 1981 and 2003. The last one, Ronald Reagan, even though built with fantastic speed of about 30 months and released into the waters in the middle of 2003, was commissioned into the active fleet only in January of last year. Sea trials and other tests took almost three years.

In other words, in reality Pentagon needed quarter of a century to complete the construction of that which we are planning to do in 20 years. But even discounting the unparalleled high potential of naval shipbuilding that characterizes the Americans, they also have plenty of everything else – the funds, and the arms, and the crew to staff the ships and aircraft groups. Their logistics support is also up to par.

And what’s the situation in Russia? First of all – money. Practice shows that the cost of building a modern aircraft carrier with a nuclear propulsion system (any other would defeat the point of this global weapon system) amounts to $4 billion. Monthly maintenance expenses (not counting the crew wages) are over $10 million.

Basing our estimations on what mixed information we have about the state of the national defense budget, we see that with today’s financing of the defense agency of about $35 billion a year and with the defense order being a little over $12 billion, we are going to spend more than a billion dollars a year for shipbuilding alone. This billion dollar deficiency will be quite tangibly felt by the military personnel remaining “on shore.”

And that is only true for unrealistically ideal conditions, with the work pace precise to the minute and inflation, let’s say, non-existent. But military budget cannot be stretched forever and will not be able to gain momentum as fast as a torpedo boat.

The turn will then come for a second, a third, and, I’m afraid, yet another ship, while the ships already built will need to be maintained and operated. Or is the plan to do it all in one batch? In that case, the math becomes even more impressive.

Ok, let’s say the ship is built. Now, to begin with, it needs to be equipped with aircraft. We are planning to compete with ships that carry a total of approximately 90 units of just the airplanes. Our carrier-based fighter SU-33 emerged as a modified version of the SU-27 fighter, originally developed for the air defense team at the end of the 60s. Total of 24 airplanes were released by the beginning of 2002. No specific plans are known about building up the production or developing new models of deck-based aircraft.

First flight from the deck of Admiral Kuznetsov took place in 1995. Incidentally, about that ship. Launched in 1989, it spent most of its time in repair. During an attempt to send the ship off to sea trials in 2003, it started to sink. In 2004 and twice in a row in 2005, accidents during landing approach put Kuznetsov out of action for long periods of time. All that in addition to multiple serious breakdowns of the propulsion system and fires. Clearly the ship is seriously ill, with cancer spreading through all of its joints and units.

To complete the picture, it’s worth noting a statement from the Center of Strategy and Technology Analysis that, as of year 2004, Russia had only 12 pilots of deck-based aircraft. Just for reference – an aircraft group of the “competitor” consists of 3000 elite pilots having gone through a tough selection process.

But even if we built, armed, and fully staffed all of it, we would have nowhere to base, equip, or repair even one aircraft group. Of the 4 Russian fleets, only the Northern and the Pacific Fleets are suitable for aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, due to insufficient financing of the very same Northern Fleet, it did not have a single new storage, tender, or a stationary dock added since 1993. In comparison with the shipbuilding giants, releasing new ships from their shipbuilding slipways, dockyards are quite prosaic. Yet among all the problems of maintaining the combat-readiness and combat-capability of the Northern Fleet, at present, the most critical is that of ship repair, which is characteristic of the Navy as a whole. Today, ship repair is financed at a rate of about 6% of what’s actually needed. Just in the Northern Fleet alone, more than 200 combat ships, submarines, and auxiliary vessels are in need of repair, while less than 10% of them were actually repaired in the last years.

And look at India. They don’t need competition to plan to release their first displacement 40000 t aircraft carrier off the slipways in 2012. Already equipped themselves with airplanes, too – Russian-made ones.

Source: RIA Novosti, author: Andrey Kislyakov, political commentator of the RIA Novosti

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