Future Is Cloudy for Russian Carrier Aviation

 - October 18, 2013, 11:25 AM
The Admiral Kuznetsov, photographed in August at Severomorsk fleet station near Murmansk. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

The future of the Russian navy aircraft carrier component is in doubt after the Russian defense ministry decided to have its nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, the Admiral Nakhimov, rather than its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, repaired and refitted at Sevmash, the nation’s largest dockyard.

Sevmash had considered taking either the Nakhimov or the Kuznetsov for extended work after its facilities in the port city of Severodvinsk, including a large dry dock, became available following the conversion of the Kiev-class carrier Admiral Gorshkov into the INS Vikramaditya for the Indian navy. Top Russian and Indian officials are expected to participate in a departure ceremony for the Vikramaditya in mid-November.

After some studies, Sevmash expressed a preference for repairing the Nakhimov, a decision supported by the defense ministry, which is expected to issue an order for the work after the Vikramaditya is formally handed over to the Indian navy. By volume and complexity, the work to be done on the modernization and refit of the Nakhimov will be close to that done on the Gorshkov/Vikramaditya.

Meanwhile, the condition of the Admiral Kuznetsov has been gradually deteriorating following a major, four-year-long repair completed in 2004, due to a lack of high-quality repair facilities at Severomorsk, near Murmansk, where the ship is based. With Sevmash working at capacity on submarines and eventually the Nakhimov, only the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg is capable of building or refitting the largest capital ships. But the Baltic Sea region’s status as a nuclear weapon-free zone has complicated prospects for repairing the Kuznetsov.

The Kuznetsov carries Sukhoi Su-33 single-seat interceptors and Su-25UTG two-seat subsonic trainers with limited land-strike capability, as well as Kamov Ka-27/29 helicopters. The ship’s advertised capacity is 50 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, but the Russian navy does not make public the exact numbers of aircraft on board the ship. The number of Su-33s is estimated to fall between 15 and 20. Last year, the defense ministry placed an order for 24 MiG-29K/KUBs to supplement and eventually replace in-service Su-33s.

As it stands, the long-needed modernization and refit of the Kuznetsov will either be postponed again or may never happen. A next-generation carrier of similar displacement (55,000 to 60,000 tons) under development by the Nevskoye Design Bureau could take the ship’s place. However, the Kremlin has not decided whether such a ship will be constructed.