The Royal Navy Just Tailed Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier On Its Way to Syria
Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only carrier, is halfway on its journey to Syria along with her escort ships and the formidable missile cruiser Pyotr Velikiy. In mid-October, the flotilla made its way around Britain and headed straight through the English Channel.
The Royal Navy, keenly aware of the geopolitical message implicit in the Russian show of force, sent its own warships to shadow the the fleet.
First, the frigate HMS Richmond sailed from the Shetland Islands and followed the carrier in the North Sea, trading places with the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan as Admiral Kuznetsov proceeded south into the channel, sticking within international waters.
The British vessels tracked the carrier group “every inch of the way,” U.K. defense secretary Michael Fallon said.
To be sure, the Kremlin’s decision to send Admiral Kuznetsov and her battle group to Syria is as much — if not more — about flag-waving and signaling as it is about having an effect on the battlefield.
After all, Russian aircraft have for months flown regular combat missions from their permanent air base in Khmeimim, Syria. By contrast, Kuznetsov’s deployment will be temporary and her aircraft, because they must fly off the carrier’s ski-ramp without the aid of a catapult, carry less fuel or weapons than if they were to take off from land.
Still, carriers are intimidating and highly visible, and the Kremlin keeps its carrier to demonstrate strength to the rest of the world. The flotilla’s voyage through the English Channel clearly fits that geopolitical purpose, as well. However, the heavily-armed Pyotr Velikiy is a more threatening warship in strictly military terms than the creaky Kuznetsov.
Nevertheless, there are practical elements to the journey. Admiral Kuznetsov typically sails from her frigid base in Severomorsk to the warmer Mediterranean during the colder months. She does not have combat experience, and the Russian navy surely wants to take advantage of the opportunity in Syria while it can.
However, carrier operations are risky, foreign policy writer Taylor Marvin pointed out. “Since the USSR and Russia has had little opportunity to build these skills, and none to test them in combat, any strike missions from the Kuznetsov would be limited and mostly for show.”
The carrier is also sailing with a handful of new MiG-29K Fulcrum fighter-bombers in addition to her standard complement of Su-33s. The Russian navy has scrambled to get the MiG-29Ks — which pack an advanced avionics suite — ready for the voyage. The fact that Admiral Kuznetsov is sailing with Fulcrums is a sign this is no ordinary Mediterranean cruise.
But as it turns out, the Indian Navy also possesses an ex-Soviet carrier, the Vikramaditya, and operates MiG-29Ks from the flattop. So Admiral Kuznetsov’s mission could be an attempt to promote the fighters’ combat abilities — like a military form of embedded marketing — in the hope New Delhi buys more.
You can even watch the Russian flotilla by tracking the transponder signal from the Nikolay Chiker, a helpful little tug which travels with the malfunction-prone Admiral Kuznetsov in case she breaks down. On the morning of Oct. 22, the tug was steaming southwestward out of the English Channel.
In addition to Pyotr Velikiy, the group includes two Udaloy-class destroyers. There’s very likely at least one Russian submarine traveling with them, but the Kremlin has not disclosed this information — and would likely not if it were the case.
But note — the British warships which shadowed the carrier group also served in a signaling role … and at a very sensitive time. Budget cuts have steadily reduced the Royal Navy to a shocking low of 24 combat-capable ships in 2016. And not all of these ships are ready at any given time.
Britain’s lone operational carrier, the HMS Ocean, only carries helicopters, and the Royal Navy plans to sell or scrap her in 2018 to make way for the incoming, twin Queen Elizabeth carriers. The problem is that Britain doesn’t have enough proper warships — the escorts and support vessels — to adequately protect both.
The poor state of the Royal Navy has set off alarm bells in Washington and London. “Europe is a maritime continent. It’s a huge peninsula, but unless it gets its act together the continent will become a backwater in a constantly globalising world,” Royal Navy Rear. Adm. Chris Parry said during a July summit in London.
The British government does not want to repeat the mistake of 2014, when a Russian cruiser sailed near Scotland for 24 hours without a British warship in sight. Embarrassingly, the Daring-class destroyer HMS Defender had to scramble from Portsmouth, all the way down on the southern coast.