Can Putin’s Aircraft Carrier Stay Afloat on Its Syria Mission?

The troubled Admiral Kuznetsov has had lots of problems but will soon head out on its first combat deployment.

Tbilisi aircraft carrier (later renamed Admiral Kuznetsov) undergoes testing in the Black Sea. Tbilisi aircraft carrier is pictured during a cruise. Photo TASS / A. Kremko   (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)
Tbilisi aircraft carrier (later renamed Admiral Kuznetsov) undergoes testing in the Black Sea. Tbilisi aircraft carrier is pictured during a cruise. Photo TASS / A. Kremko (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)

The last time Russia’s sole aircraft carrier sailed into the Mediterranean Sea, five years ago, the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet kept a close eye on its progress. The concern among American officers wasn’t the ship’s contingent of fighter planes; instead, it was the very real worry it would sink and necessitate a potentially risky rescue operation.

The 26-year-old Admiral Kuznetsov made it through that 2011 deployment without sinking and is now headed back to the eastern Mediterranean this fall as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to use Syria as a showcase for his new model military. But the earlier worries were plenty valid: On a 2009 Mediterranean transit, one sailor died when the vessel caught fire, and the ship accidentally dumped tons of fuel into the sea in a refueling mishap. And those accidents aren’t outliers. The problems with the ship are so widespread, and so expected, that the flattop has to be shadowed by tugs to tow it to port when it predictably breaks down.

But now the Kuznetsov has a slate of different objectives in mind. The ship will begin launching airstrikes on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. It will be the carrier’s first-ever combat deployment and the first combat test of its MiG-29K fighter jets. It will also offer the first and perhaps best chance to showcase the carrier-based fighters’ capabilities to potential clients such as India, which already operates a Russian-built carrier and which has purchased dozens of MiG-29s over the last decade.

The Kuznetov’s deployment comes just as Russia has carved out an increasingly prominent role in the Syria crisis. Last week, a year after Moscow started military operations there, the United States and Russia reached a deal on a cease-fire that, if it holds, could ground the Syrian air force and bring humanitarian relief to besieged cities. Russia’s whole Syrian adventure is, in many ways, a bid to re-create lost Soviet influence in the eastern Mediterranean, which reached its high-water mark in the early 1970s, in no small part due to the Soviet navy’s strength in the region.

Deploying an operational aircraft carrier, no matter how star-crossed, makes Russia a member of an exclusive club: The only other countries with big-deck naval aviation capability today are the United States, France, and, to a limited extent, China. (Plenty of countries have smaller ships that can launch some aircraft, but those aren’t full-sized aircraft carriers.)

“If you’d asked anybody following the Russian military just before they deployed to Syria, they would have said, ‘Russians can’t do expeditionary warfare because they can’t support it,’” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA. “But they’ve been very inventive. We’re not going to be as quick to dismiss them after this.”

The Kremlin, painfully aware of the carrier’s spotty history, seems to be playing things safe, with one military source telling TASS that the ship will stick close to Syria’s coastline “so that the deck aircraft have enough fuel to complete the military tasks and return back.”

There’s a good reason for that: The Kuznetsov lacks the catapults found on American and French carriers that shoot jets off the short decks at high speed. Instead, the Russian ship — like India’s and China’s first carriers — features a “ski jump” lift at the bow to help planes get airborne. That kind of deck means the planes, about 15 Su-33 and MiG-29s, have to fly light, with smaller loads of fuel and half-empty bomb racks. The 10 Nimitzclass carriers in the U.S. Navy, such as the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, currently in the Middle East launching strikes on the Islamic State, can carry at least 60 aircraft and launch them with full fuel and bomb loads.

The decision to dispatch a limping ship with a one-armed air wing shows that Moscow is just “flexing muscles,” one senior U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy. The Russians already have strike aircraft near Latakia, on the Syrian coast, from where they have been launching operations for the last year. Another dozen-odd planes launching unguided bombs on short flights from the deck of the Kuznetsov won’t add much punch to their efforts.

The U.S. official compared the carrier’s deployment to Russia’s use of cruise missiles last fall when the country began its air war in Syria. It’s “for effect, for show,” he said, mostly to prove that Russia is a global military power with the capacity to strike targets from offshore.

And with the 55,000-ton carrier scheduled to go into dry dock in early 2017 for a long-awaited two-year overhaul, this fall looks like Moscow’s one shot to demonstrate the operational capabilities of the carrier and its new strike fighter.

India, at least, will be paying attention. The Soviet-built Indian carrier INS Vikramaditya and the INS Vikrant (being built in an Indian shipyard) both use Russian MiG-29Ks, but the Indian government has a long list of complaints over the performance of the aircraft. New Delhi shelled out $2.2 billion for 45 fighters in 2004 and 2010, but the planes have suffered a litany of problems, from faulty engines to poor flight availability, and the government has pushed back hard against Moscow.

Part of the problem has been the manufacturing process. Ukraine has banned all defense-related exports to Russia, and American and European Union sanctions have also bitten into the Russian military manufacturing base, forcing India to buy some of the components itself and add them to the aircraft once they arrive at their base in Goa.

A successful combat deployment of the Russian MiG-29s might assuage some of India’s concerns, once it sees what the plane can do in action.

And there might be more Russia-India deals in the future. This year, the Krylov State Research Centre, a Russian shipbuilding institute, held talks with New Delhi about eventually buying a version of Moscow’s future nuclear-powered carrier, known as Project 23000E. The Russians are up against the French, who are also attempting to woo the Indians; French shipbuilders have recently landed huge contracts for new submarines with New Delhi and Canberra.

Russian visions of future sugar plum fairies will have to wait, though. Right now, the Kuznetsov sits champing at the bit in port at Murmansk, undergoing repairs and final preparations for deployment. Its air wing, meanwhile, sits on dry land in Crimea, practicing on a landing pad built to simulate the sloping deck of the ship they’ll soon join.

Photo credit: TASS via Getty Images

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