Russia’s Sole Carrier Catches Fire Amid Replacement Talks

 - December 19, 2019, 12:09 PM
Krylov's Center head Pavel Filippov and admiral Igor Mukhametshin, deputy Russian navy commander for armament, discuss the “half-catamaran” carrier design. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

Damaged by fire on December 12, the Russian navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will be repaired and put back into service, the head of Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation told media on December 17. The ship “did not suffer any critical damage…remains afloat and stable on water…she will live on,” Alexei Rakhmanov said.

An assessment by the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet estimates the damage at 95 billion roubles (over $1.5 billion). This is considerable given the nature of the damage and suggests that equipment that had been delivered for the rework but yet to be installed was also damaged. It is common practice to store equipment in crates aboard the ship before their being fitted.

Estimates also indicate an additional one-year shift to the already delayed repair and refit project under which the ship is intended to acquire full operability with the MiG-29K/KUB fighter. Under refit since October 2017, the ship is now certain to miss the initial target to rejoin the Northern Fleet next year and will do so likely in 2022-2023.

The fire broke out inside the carrier during welding works at the Shipbuilding Repair Plant no. 35 near Murmansk, after sparks ignited remains of heavy furnace fuel in the ship’s first propulsion section. The flames expanded over an area of 600 sq m and took about 20 hours to bring under control. Two servicemen died in the incident when trying to rescue workers, including survivability officer captain third rank Victor Izmailov. This incident follows another a year ago, when the PD-50 floating dock suddenly sank with the carrier inside, causing a 70-tonne crane to fall off on to the flight deck and leave a five-meter crack and four workers dead.

Meanwhile, the Russian navy continues to assess four industry proposals on a Kuznetsov replacement, including the Lamantin from the Nevskoye design bureau and the other three drafted by Krylov’s state scientific center.

Whereas the Lamantin is a low-risk project, those from Krylov’s center are focused on technology innovations. The earlier Project 23000 “Storm”—with a length of 330 meters and displacement of 100,000 tonnes—met skepticism in naval circles. A more recent design, dubbed the Storm-KM, also features a nuclear reactor, an auxiliary gas turbine unit, and an aviation group of 100 aircraft, while displacing only 76,000 tonnes. Krylov’s acting general director, Pavel Filippov, described it as “a mid-size carrier design” featuring an electromechanical catapult able to accelerate a fighter with a 2-g load factor.

The smallest design features gas-turbine propulsion of 80 MW, sufficient to propel a 40,000- to 44,000-tonne ship at 27 knots. It has a hangar measuring 218 cu m to store 24 MiG-29K fighters and 26 helicopters.

The last two employ Krylov’s proprietary “half-catamaran” design that provides for an enlarged flight deck and an increase in the number of aircraft aboard by 25 to 30 percent. It features a V-like hull, starting with a single (unitary) bow which then splits into two rear sections. Although no vessels have been built to test it, the center completed extensive tests on scale models and is considering construction of an experimental yacht to prove the merits of the design.

According to industry insiders, the navy is leaning towards a design that would displace between 65,000 and 70,000 tonnes. The development and construction effort is expected to take ten years and 300-400 billion roubles. The current Armament Program 2018-2037 does not allocate funds but provides some cash for conceptual studies. The Russian navy commander, admiral Nikolai Evmenov, ensured media that “the nuclear carrier will come,” but not in the immediate future. “We shall construct such ships in good time. Right now, we have to restore the assets we have already got back in order and lay down foundations for the future.”

For his part, deputy prime minister responsible for the military-industrial complex Yuri Borisov believes carriers are easy to hit with modern air-launched weapons so that there is a need for strong air defenses including by numerous escort warships. The navy planners have to justify their request for a new carrier, he added.