After a few cruise missile launches and bombing raids on targets on the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib in mid-November, the Russian navy task force in the northeastern Mediterranean remains largely inactive, contrary to expectations. Just before the strikes, the task force suffered the embarrassing loss of a MiG-29K on November 13. Then on December 3 one of its Su-33s overshot the carrier and crashed into the sea.
The pilots of both aircraft ejected and were subsequently rescued, but both aircraft sank to the bottom of the sea. These are painful losses for the Russian navy, especially the MiG-29K single-seater multirole fighter, only 20 of which were procured, along with four MiG-29KUB two-seat operational trainers, with deliveries in 2013-2015.
The MiG accident was initially attributed to unspecified technical malfunctions. But it emerged later that the MiG-29K was lost after it exhausted all its fuel while awaiting clearance to land on the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The permission was never issued because the carrier’s crew had not managed to repair the Svetlana-2M arresting equipment in time, after one of its four wires broke. The MiG could have been saved, if the carrier's commander had instructed the pilot to divert to an airbase in Syria or Cyprus. But he hesitated to approve such an alternative, in the hope that the ship's arrestor gear would be repaired quickly.
The Su-33 loss followed the failure of an arrestor wire on landing.
The day after the MiG-29K crash, the task force did dispatch several aircraft to drop bombs on targets in rebel-held areas. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said on November 15 that for the first time in the history of the Russian navy, its fleet air arm was involved in striking real targets. “Beforehand, we carried out careful, thorough assessment of targets of all kinds. Using the information gathered, we marked targets of major concern, such as ammunition depots, concentrations and, most of all, training centers operated by unlawful armed groups or, to be precise, terrorists.”
Remarkably, the MiG-29K/KUBs, better suited for bombing missions, are yet to be used in anger. Instead, the navy has relied on Sukhoi Su-33s also aboard the Kuznetsov. These were developed as interceptors and, while having an infrared search and track system (IRST) and laser rangefinder/target designator, do not carry precision guided air-ground munitions. On strike missions the aircraft can carry up to eight 500-kg bombs or RBK-500 cluster bombs or twenty-eight 250-kg bombs attached to single- or multiple-beam racks.
Naval Su-33s struck the rebels with free-fall bombs using SVP-24-33 kit installed on the aircraft shortly before the carrier departed her home base, Severomorsk, for the Mediterranean. This subsystem is a derivative of the SVP-24 “specialized calculating subsystem” developed by the Gefest company for the Su-24M2 frontal bomber, the primary Russian type employed in Syria. It does trajectory calculations for cueing the pilot in using free-fall bombs. The Russian Air and Space Force (VKS) finds its accuracy adequate for the theater. Higher computing power and use of more advanced algorithmsimproves by up to five-fold the accuracy of Su-33 strikes using unguided weapons compared to the factory standard.
Among the other recent modifications to the Su-33s are installation of modern EW equipment and incorporation of a navigation and aiming system employing Glonass/GPS satellite receivers. In addition, the aircraft were refurbished with the more robust AL31FM1 engines with a longer life and maximum thrust boosted to 13,500 kgf (about 30,000 pounds). A dozen of these improved Su-33s remain combat worthy at the moment, according to unofficial estimates.
Recent reports state that a number of the MiGs and Sukhois that came with the carrier are now operating from the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, along with Su-24M2s, Su-30SMs, Su-34s and Su-35Ss already based there. However, on December 4, a Russian TV report from Kuznetsov showed a MiG-29K loaded with KAB-500KR electro-optically guided bombs being prepared for takeoff.