For the last two months, you might have noticed the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov (bit of a mouthful, I know) has been in the news quite a bit. Usually in reference to her 2016 deployment, which in involved her battlegroup sailing through the English Channel and being denied access to a port whilst on the way to Syria. But after reading some critical “news” articles about Kuznetsov, I felt I should get my views straight about the carrier.
Admiral Kuznetsov (the generally-accepted short name) is an interesting carrier, or aircraft-carrying cruiser as the Russians like to call her. She has a maximum displacement of ~62,000 metric tonnes and has an overall length of 305 metres, which makes her bigger than a lot of her Cold War contemporaries. Her size and airwing (approximately 41 aircraft) is a lot smaller than the current 100,000-tonne US Navy supercarriers however. She is part of a class of two carriers, with the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning (formerly Riga then Varyag whilst under Soviet control) being her sister ship. A Chinese-built variant of the class is now also being constructed.
Now let us talk about what has happened recently. Around the end of October, Kuznetsov and her battlegroup left the North Sea to travel to Syria, leading to it passing through the English Channel. Two Royal Navy warships, destroyer HMS Duncan (D37) and frigate HMS Richmond (F239) shadowed the battlegroup during the entire time they were near British waters. During Kuznetsov‘s transit through the Channel, the media heavily reported on the technical issues of the carrier, including the condition of the engines (evidenced by the amount of smoke being exhausted) and the internal plumbing. NATO allies then voiced concern over the planned fuel stop of the battlegroup at a Spanish port, which eventually lead to the refuelling request being withdrawn. After passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, the carrier refuelled at sea off North Africa. During November, the group reached Syria and subsequently began launching airstrikes to aid the Syrian government. Two aircraft were lost; one MiG-29K crashed into the sea after take-off and one Su-33 crashed into the sea during a landing attempt, with the latter accident happening at the start of this month. No one was killed during the accidents.
Seems like a rocky road for the carrier, does it not? The engineering problems can be attributed to the poor maintenance over the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US Navy, on the other hand, maintains its supercarriers and Landing Helicopter Assault/Dock carriers to high standard that allows them to remain in operation for multiple decades at peak efficiency. Crew training standard is also lax compared to the training that other power-projection navies like the Marine Nationale (French Navy), Royal Navy and US Navy can give to their personnel. Poor training is widely used as the cause of the first accident, with the second one being attributed to the arresting cable (used to rapidly decelerate and hold an aircraft as it lands) failing. The refuelling issue is just a cause of politics (NATO not wanting a country aiding the battlegroup in any way, shape or form).
I rarely agree with opinions forced upon us by the media, but it seems reasonable to assume these events indeed happen. The current state of the Russian Navy is not really great at all. But my main reason for adding my two cents to this is the treatment of the carrier, which is has received nothing short than slander. Yes, the carrier has its major faults, but we (the United Kingdom) have nothing to show for it. Which brings me onto issue two of the day, the scrapping of 22,000-tonne Invincible-class light carrier HMS Illustrious (R06). Illustrious was our only remaining true aircraft carrier as of now, which has just began her transit to some breaker’s yard in Turkey. The Queen Elizabeth-class supercarriers are still years away from combat-ready service, and we have now ridden ourselves of true aviation capability until then. Landing Platform Helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12) is not enough to defend ourselves from a naval attack at sea, and Kuznetsov represents a capability that the Russian Navy has and we do not. Maybe we should not be the ones to laugh…