The aging, unreliable and now fire-ravaged Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov appears decreasingly likely ever to re-enter front-line service with the Russian fleet. Russia’s leaders are eyeing two potential replacements for the damaged flattop.
But the cost could scuttle the replacement plan before it really gets underway.
The 60,000-tons-displacement Kuznetsov commissioned in 1990. Problems plagued the ship from the beginning. One of the carrier’s major weaknesses is her lack of catapults for launching her fighters. Another is her powerplant. The vessel is powered by steam turbines and turbo-pressurized boilers that Defense Industry Daily generously described as “defective.”
Her pipes are bad. “When it’s this cold, water freezes everywhere including pipes which may cause a rupture,” English Russia reported. “To prevent this, they just don’t supply almost 60 percent of the cabins with water (neither in winter nor in summer). The situation with latrines is just as bad. The ship has over 50 latrines [for 1,900 crew] but half of them are closed.”
Kuznetsov rarely goes to sea and conducted just six patrols between 1991 and 2015. During a 2016 mission off of Syria, the ship’s air wing lost two jets in just three weeks.
Before late 2018, Moscow planned on extending the service lives of Kuznetsov and other warships from the 1980s in order to complement the newer, smaller vessels.
But Kuznetsov in October 2018 suffered serious damage at the 82nd Repair Shipyard in Roslyakovo, a northern port city, when the PD-50 dry-dock sank while the carrier was aboard for repairs.
Swedish-built PD-50 was the only large dry-dock capable of supporting the Russian northern fleet’s largest warships. Russia's other large dry-docks are thousands of miles from the fleet's main northern bases.
Moving the docks, or the ships needing repair, could be prohibitively difficult, expensive and time-consuming. Beside the cost, foreign sanctions complicate the acquisition of a dock similar to PD-50.
According to the newspaper Izvestia, the Kremlin considered just decommissioning Kuznetsov rather than spending the money to acquire a new dry-dock, move an existing dock or the carrier or find some other way of repairing the aging, unreliable and accident-prone flattop.
“Not everyone considers the continuation of repair to be appropriate,” a navy source reportedly told Izvestia. “There are different opinions, including those that boil down to the fact that with this money it is better to build a pair of frigates or a nuclear submarine.”
By spring 2019 a plan reportedly was in place to assemble a new dry-dock that in theory could accommodate the carrier. The No. 35 Ship Repair Plant in Murmansk in northern Russia has two, adjacent 600-feet-long drydocks that yard workers could combine in order to fit Kuznetsov.
Then on Dec. 12, 2019, disaster struck when diesel fuel ignited on one of Kuznetsov’s lower decks, Russian media reported. The carrier at the time was pierside in Murmansk for pre-planned repairs following the disastrous 2016 deployment to the Syrian coast.
The blaze spread to cover 6,500 square feet as firefighters struggled to contain it. One person died and 10 were injured in the fire, TASS reported. Six landed in intensive care.
Damage from the fire complicates the repair plan. Now Kremling planners must weigh Kuznetsov’s value as a symbol of national prestige against her poor condition and the safety risk she poses to workers and crew.
Russian shipbuilders have proposed two designs that in theory could replace Kuznetsov, according to The Barents Observer. The Nevskoye Design Bureau in St. Petersberg pitched Lamantin, a 90,000-tons-displacement carrier that would be able to embark as many as 60 aircraft, roughly double what Kuznetsov can handle
A scale model of Lamantin was on display at a St. Petersburg military exhibition in 2019.
The alternative is Shtorm, a larger design from the Krylov State Center that can embark up to 90 aircraft, making it roughly as capacious as a U.S. Navy supercarrier.
Russian president Vladimir Putin reportedly studied the new carrier designs in early January 2020. But while a new flattop is on the Russian navy’s wish list, the multi-billion-dollar cost of building a carrier -- to say nothing of the additional cost of the air wing and operations -- could give Putin and Kremlin officials pause.
“Needed development and construction costs might exceed the capabilities of the country’s military budget,” The Barents Observer explained.