January 31, 2014: Strategy Page
In early January Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov passed through the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean. The carrier had five escort vessels and military pilots flying close by could not help but notice that there was a lot of rust on the deck of the carrier. This was not a good sign.
The Kuznetzov left its base in northern Russia on December 17th and heading for the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has been building basing facilities for over a year. Western navy officers who have seen the Kuznetzov up close (it was in the Mediterranean two years ago) have noted that the ship is long overdue for a major overhaul. The second ship of the Kuznetzov class was purchased by the Chinese a decade ago and completely refurbished. It is now in service as the Shi Lang and looks a lot better.
The Kuznetzov has had some updates since the 1990s but a lot of this work is suspect. Back in 2012 a military procurement official was prosecuted for substituting cheaper, substandard parts for new ones meant for the Kuznetzov. The corrupt official used forged documents to get away with this but members of the crew noticed the substandard parts and reported it. The Kuznetsov has been sent back to the shipyard several times during the last decade to fix problems and update equipment. Much was wrong with the ship, due to poor design, sloppy workmanship, or corruption. It’s gotten so bad that lackadaisical sailors are threatened with being sent to serve on the Kuznetsov as a way of motivating them.
The Kuznetsov continues to have problems with missing or malfunctioning equipment. This not only degrades the combat capabilities of the ship but also its habitability. At times there was no heat in the living quarters and many of the toilets didn't work. There is no money for a major overhaul, which would cost over half a billion dollars, at least for the Kuznetsov. So essential repairs are made and the ship continues to rust away, often quite visibly.
Kuznetsov class carriers began building in the 1980s and the lead ship was finally launched in 1995 and entered service in 1995. Originally the Kuznetsovs were to be 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the high cost and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their plans and ended up with 65,000 ton (full load) ships that lacked steam catapults and used a ski jump type (STOBAR) flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The 323 meter (thousand foot) long ship normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters, and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship was meant to regularly carry 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters, and a lack of money and facilities on the ship limits the number of aircraft that can be brought along. Other weapons include a dozen SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles and 18 vertical launch tubes for 192 anti-aircraft missiles. There are also 16 auto-cannon for anti-missile work plus some depth charges.
Officially called an "aircraft carrying cruiser", the ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel, allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load). Only two ships of this class exist, the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag, which China bought unfinished from Ukraine and has rebuilt as the Shi Lang.