Su-33 To Begin 2nd Phase of Upgrade While Russia Mulls Carrier Options

 - April 10, 2019, 4:07 AM
The Su-33 fleet entered service in the 1990s and was the Russian navy's only carrier-borne fighter until the MiG-29K/KUB joined it on the deck of Kuznetsov in late 2016. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

Having made a decision to proceed with a second phase of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier fighter’s modernization, the Russian navy is yet to determine whether to proceed with the repair and modernization of its only carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, or order her replacement.

“With the first phase of the modernization now complete, we are preparing for the second phase, centering on higher engine thrust, improved detection system, and the like so as to make the Su-33 a truly multi-role aircraft,” Major General Igor Kozhin, chief for aviation with the Russian navy, told journalists. This effort may not apply to all surviving aircraft and rather involve only those airframes that have sufficient lifetime remaining, so as to keep them operational until 2025, he clarified.

Reportedly, the modernization plan also calls for secure data exchange in real time between the Su-33 and MiG-29K/KUB fighters. For cost-efficiency, the aged aircraft is likely to retain its original N-001 Mech radar, but its functionality will be extended through technology insertions already tested on similar equipment in Russian Air and Space Force Su-27SM3 and Su-30M2 aircraft. That includes the ability to engage two aerial targets simultaneously with radar-guided missiles, as well as ground-mapping.

The Russian navy received about 30 Su-33s before production terminated in 1999. Up to 20 of them have undergone the “first phase” of the modernization at the Sukhoi manufacturing plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur, and Aircraft Repair Plant no. 20 in Pushkino. They feature satellite-aided navigation, a new radar warning receiver, and the SVP-24-33 computing system for accurate strikes with free-fall bombs. The second phase of the upgrade extends the Su-33’s arsenal through the addition of precision-guided munitions.

The original Su-33 is powered by two AL-31F Series 03 turbofans each developing 28,220 pounds (125.6 kN) of thrust in full afterburner. New engines will provide 29,760 pounds of thrust, as well as burn less fuel with an extended time between overhaul and lifetime through the replacement of the analog control system by a digital one. Higher thrust will enable the Su-33 to perform ski-ramp takeoffs from Kuznetsov at a higher gross weight.

A year ago the defense ministry awarded United Shipbuilding Corporation (OSK) a contract worth 60 billion roubles ($925 million) for the repair, lifetime extension, and upgrade of Kuznetsov with new systems to assist landing operations. In September 2018, the ship had her steam boilers replaced with new ones made to the KVG-4 design derived from that of the KVG-3 in India’s carrier Vikramaditya. In the next month, however, Kuznetsov sustained major damage when the Swedish-made PD-50 floating dock suddenly lost buoyancy. A 70-tonne crane fell from the sinking PD-50 onto the carrier, producing a hole in her flight deck measuring 20 square meters.

In December, Kuznetsov was towed to Ship Repair Plant no. 35 in Murmansk, where she awaits her destiny with around a quarter of the repairs complete. Last month, OSK began implementing a contingency plan that, in the absence of a suitable floating dock in the area, calls for making a single dry dock at the plant by uniting two separated ones now in existence. It should be large enough to house the carrier. “The [contingency] plan has been worked out. We have submitted it to the defense ministry and the government. All work on repair and modernization [of the carrier] shall be complete in 2021,” OSK president Alexei Rakhmanov told journalists on March 19. He admitted that “a three- to four-month delay is possible” to the original schedule.

In April, however, anonymous sources in the defense ministry threw doubt on the value of the OSK plan as it requires considerable extra investment into the costs of maintaining the 28-year-old ship. Instead, the Russian navy may decide to scrap Kuznetsov to save funds for construction of an all-new replacement ship. The industry has developed concepts for a 100,000-tonne Shtorm and 44,000-tonne Shtorm-KM. They are nuclear- and turbine-powered, respectively, with an aviation group of 90 and 46 aircraft. The navy, however, is more inclined to a future carrier with a displacement of about 70,000 tonnes, of which development may take another three to five years.