The Russian navy has embarked on a three-year project to modernize its sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, or Project 1143.5, with a focus on achieving full operability with the Russian Aircraft MiG-29K/KUB fighter. Although navalized MiGs flew from the carrier during trials in 1989-1991 and during its seventh and most recent deployment to the Mediterranean Sea in late 2016/early 2017, they are yet to be completely integrated with the carrier’s systems.
According to the Nevskoye Design Bureau, the ship’s developer, some of the outdated onboard equipment will be replaced by newer systems. In a recent interview with the local media, the Bureau’s CEO, Sergei Orlov, said: “The ship shall be able to operate the MiG-29K/KUB and Su-33 fighters, as well as several types of helicopters. It is exactly the MiG-29K/KUB for which the modifications to her are necessary. The pilots want something newer, something more advanced and reliable. We shall modernize almost everything related to aircraft operations."
Commissioned in 1991, the ship has so far seen only minor repairs with few alternations to its core systems, which to this day remain “analog” in their nature. In its turn, the MiG-29K/KUB is a highly computerized aircraft featuring a glass flight deck, digital avionics, and microprocessor-controlled systems. The ongoing modernization of the old ship is intended to bring her to the same level of computerization so that the new aircraft types can reach their full potential when operating from the deck.
Kuznetsov has been under repairs in Murmansk since October 2017, but it was not until April 2018 that the defense ministry awarded the Zvezdochka Ship Repair Center a main contract for a 10-year extension to its service life and modifications. After two and a half years of work involving up to 2,000 specialists at peak times, the ship will then spend seven months in sea trials before rejoining the navy in the middle of 2021.
In addition to replacing outdated analog systems with digital ones, the ship will also receive new steam boilers. All of her eight original KVG-4s running on mazut (marine furnace oil fuel) will be replaced by either KVG-3Ds operating on diesel (as in the Indian vessel INS Vikramaditya of Project 1143.0) or more complex KVG-6Ms. This would eliminate the long-standing problem of the powerplant’s poor operational performance (the KVG-4 has proved to be faulty and susceptible to poor maintenance and salt water injections) and the characteristic heavy black smoke that emanates from the funnel as residual fuel burns out at high power settings.
According to specifications, Project 1143.5’s air wing consists of 28 jets and 24 helicopters, but Kuznetsov never carried that many—in most instances fewer than 25 aircraft. The navy took delivery of 26 Su-33 heavyweight interceptors in the 1990s (some remain operational with the 279th Fighter Regiment at Severomorsk-3) and 24 MiG-29K/KUBs in 2013-2015 (with the 100th Fighter Regiment at Saki and Yeisk). If both units deploy to the carrier, they may fill the hangar, which has an area of about 4,000 sq m. Since the MiG is notably smaller, measuring 17.4 meters in length as opposed to 21.2, and with a wingspan 12 meters instead of 14.7, it requires less space for storage.
The ongoing modernization effort does not apply to the carrier’s 14,800-sq-m flight deck, which features a 14-degree ski-jump at the bow. In future, Russia is planning to design and build a new carrier with a full displacement roughly double that of Kuznetsov’s 61,400 tonnes. According to Orlov, electromagnetic catapults are to be developed, as they promise to handle heavier aircraft with larger weapons and fuel loads, thus enlarging the air wing’s reach and lethality.