Meet Russia's Only (and Old) Aircraft Carrier. It Has Some Pretty Major Problems.

December 5, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaMilitaryTechnologyWorldAircraft CarrierNavy

Meet Russia's Only (and Old) Aircraft Carrier. It Has Some Pretty Major Problems.

A reflection of Moscow's larger naval issues? 

While Moscow has wavered between its ambitions for a prestigious, blue-water fleet and a defensive force of smaller ships, the circumstances of the PD-50 accident may force it to accept that the prospects for Kuznetsov and, by extension, the blue-water fleet are not good.

PD-50, a huge floating dry dock at the 82nd Repair Shipyard in Roslyakovo, Russia, accidentally sank on Oct. 29, 2018 while  Admiral Kuznetsov , Russia’s only aircraft carrier, was inside for repairs.  Kuznetsov is still afloat but the dry dock could be a total loss.

(This first appeared last month.)

While injuries and possible deaths in addition to damage to the flight deck — caused by a collapsing 70-ton crane — are noteworthy, the loss of the PD-50 could potentially ripple through the Russian navy and exacerbate its persistent problems with maintenance and modernization.

Because of chronic problems with the production of new naval vessels larger than a frigate, Russia relies on large Soviet-era surface combatants to field a credible blue-water navy capable of projecting power and influence. Russian president Vladimir Putin recognizes the role a strong military can play in consolidating domestic support and strategic messaging abroad, and the Russian navy’s older capital ships remain one of Putin’s favorite instruments.

By overhauling and extending the service life of existing, older ships, the Russian navy may be able to realize short-term cost savings compared to building new replacements. However, this approach only works as far as Russia can continue to modernize, renovate and rehabilitate these platforms.

Even during the buildup of the “Gorshkov navy” during the 1970s, the Soviet predecessor to modern Russia proved capable of building impressive ships but did not invest in maintenance and repair. The under-investment in repair infrastructure is coming home to roost, and the potential loss of PD-50—bought from Sweden in 1980 and probably well past its service life—reflects this systemic problem.

Russia has four possible options going forward, none of which are good. Cutting its losses on PD-50 and  Kuznetsov. Raising and repairing PD-50. Using limited options in Russia to upgrade  Kuznetsov. Or going outside Russia to third parties such as China. If Russia proceeds with its carrier modernization, all the available options entail delays and increased costs.

Cut losses

There has been conflicting information about the extent, cost and progress of the  Kuznetsov overhaul since it returned to Severomorsk in 2017 after its only combat deployment to Syria. Estimates about the cost of the  Kuznetsovoverhaul have varied from 20 billion rubles, or $326 million, to 65 billion rubles or $1.14 billion.

While there is dissonance about the details of possible upgrades to the ship’s anti-air and anti-ship missile systems, most sources agree  Kuznetsov is getting a new powerplant, four new boilers, four retrofit boilers, repairs to the shafts and upgraded pumps, plumbing and arresting gear.

Replacing or repairing  Kuznetsov’s boilers, pipes, and turbines is not likely to be quick, easy, or inexpensive. The ship’s propulsion system was built in Ukraine three decades ago, and Kiev’s arms embargo on Russia after Moscow illegally seized Crimea in 2014 means replacing the carrier’s boilers and power generators requires Moscow to build replacement parts and machinery from scratch.

Even before the PD-50 accident, a number of observers questioned the utility and expense of refurbishing the  Kuznetsov. “In general, we need to critically review the domestic concept of the employment of carrier strike groups since Russia has undertaken to use the  Admiral Kuznetsov  to accomplish such missions,” Oleg Vladykin suggested in  Nezavisimaya Gazeta .

Editor of the  Moscow Defense Brief  journal Mikhail Barabanov was dismissive of  Kuznetsov’s upgrades. “Since  Kuznetsov is not so much a combat platform as a training platform, deep modernization for her is an obvious excess.”

A dry dock would almost assuredly be required to complete work on  Kuznetsov and Russia may wish to cut its losses. Redirecting the resources to building new infrastructure and ships would be a more responsible use of finite resources than either repairing or replacing PD-50, as well as continuing  Kuznetsov’s modernization.

Moscow will have to examine the political and financial ramifications of indefinitely postponing  Kuznetsov’s overhaul to determine if the modernization of a questionably useful platform is really worth the cost.

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Raise and repair PD-50

There are significant challenges to raising and repairing the PD-50. Early reports indicate that PD-50 may be lying on its side in 160 feet of water, which would make the recovery technically difficult. If the PD-50 dock can be raised from its watery grave, a course of action that the director of the 82nd Repair Shipyard, Aleksey Rakhmanov, has addressed with skepticism, repairing it could take years at great expense.

Winter is coming and it is unlikely that salvage crews will be able to make significant headway before the weather precludes salvage operations this season. Even if the Russian navy is able raise the PD-50 at some point in the future, it still faces significant technical difficulties in repairing the electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems, in addition to any physical damage to the structure from this mishap.

Sweden’s subscription to the European Union’s post-Crimea sanctions regime, means Stockholm likely will not be amenable to assisting with the rehabilitation of the dock. This would leave Russian shipyard workers on their own to fabricate replacement parts and repair damaged, corroded and waterlogged systems that had been neglected for decades.

There could be legal and jurisdictional challenges to raising and repairing PD-50, as well. Partly state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft acquired the Roslyakovo facility in 2015 with the intention of turning the yard into a base for its offshore Arctic oil operations.

Loss of the dry dock could affect icebreaker and oil infrastructure repair in the future as Rosneft and the Russian navy wrangle over responsibility for the accident, repair costs and priorities.

Limited options

Russia may have one other floating dry dock that is large enough to accommodate  Kuznetsov, the PD-41 in Fokino, a small port near Vladivostok. The dock was  built by Japan  during the 1980s and may still be a viable option,  reportedly accommodating work on the decommissioned  Kirov-class Admiral Lazarev  in 2014.

However, either moving the PD-41 to Severomorsk, or towing the Kuznetsov to Fokino along with the necessary heavy equipment, workers and materiel would be geographically challenging and time-consuming.

In addition to PD-41, Russia is in the process of building a massive dry dock at Zvezda Shipyard in Bolshoi Kamen. In September 2018, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin claimed the facility is set to open as early as 2020, three years ahead of schedule.

Delaying the repairs on  Kuznetsov until the new facility opens in a couple of years is an option, but would require the carrier to be towed at least 6,000 nautical miles through challenging waters in the Russian northern passage, assuming it is navigable long enough to make the months’ long transit.

Alternative routes could be more logistically challenging.

Another option that has been proposed in the press is the PD-190 floating dock in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, but it is questionable whether  Kuznetsov would fit. The aircraft carrier might be able to fit in the dock, and with a 60,000-ton capacity PD-190 could lift the ship out of the water.