The Russian navy’s only carrier, the 59,000-metric ton Admiral Kuznetsov, is being modified to enable operations of MiG-29K/KUB strike fighters against targets in Syria. The work is due to be completed within the next few months. During its first combat deployment, the carrier is likely to carry 15 fighters and a dozen Kamov helicopters. The latter may include a few Ka-52K Katran attack prototypes as well as Ka-31 airborne early warning & control rotorcraft. The deployment will last for up to three months, after which the ship will return to Russia for a major overhaul.
Kuznetsov has made previous deployments to the eastern Mediterranean, including visits to the Syrian port of Tartus, the last of these ending in May 2014. But it is yet to take part in the bombing campaign. The carrier’s air group is dominated by the Sukhoi Su-33 (navalized Su-27K), a dedicated air interceptor/air superiority fighter with very limited land-strike capability. The second fixed-wing type that the Kuznetsov has carried is the Su-25UTG, which is largely a training tool for naval pilots in mastering deck landings and refreshing other skills.
Unlike the Su-33 and Su-25UTG, the MiG-29K/KUB is a truly multirole aircraft able to carry out accurate strikes using both unguided bombs and rockets, and smart munitions. It can carry laser and TV-guided Kh-29 missiles; Kh-31A and Kh-35 antiship missiles; and Kh-31P anti-radiation weapons. In addition, the MiG can carry KAB-500 series guided bombs. The VKS grouping at Khmeimim frequently uses the Kh-29 and KAB-500 weapons.
The work being carried out on the carrier is mostly to accommodate weapons and onboard systems that feed precision navigation and weapons release information to the MiG-29K/KUBs. Similar work was previously done on the INS Vikramaditya carrier (ex-Russian navy Admiral Gorshkov) which underwent refit and modernization in Russia before being handed over to the Indian navy in November 2013.
RAC MiG has already fulfilled the Russian order for 24 MiG-29K/KUBs, placed in 2012. The type is service with the naval air regiment No. 100 at Saki and Yeisk aerodromes on the Russian Black Sea coast. Russian naval pilots are yet to master carrier operations with these MiGs. However, test pilots made several flights from the ship as part of the INS Vikramaditya project.
The Kremlin decided to use the Kuznetsov in its bombing campaign shortly after President Putin ordered a reduction in the Air and Space Force (VKS) air group at Khmeimim air base in the Syrian province of Latakia. However, although that decision last May resulted in the withdrawal of Su-25SM attack aircraft, the VKS still keeps Su-35/Su-30SM multirole fighters; Su-24/34 interdiction aircraft; and Mi-8AMTSh, Mi-28, Mi-35, and Ka-52 helicopters there. These flew in excess of 10,000 combat sorties in the period of October 2015- May 2016 time frame, according to the Russian defense ministry. A Mi-35 was shot down by Islamic State rebels on July 8 and a Mi-8 on August 1, killing their crews of two and five, respectively.