Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier Is About to Strike Syria

Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier Is About to Strike Syria

Why is Moscow doing this? The answer is simple: to show that it can. 

A Russian naval group led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the battlecruiser Peter the Great are imminently set to launch strikes on rebel position in war-torn Syria. The Russian operation will take aim at the beleaguered city of Aleppo, which the Syrian regime is trying to retake from rebel forces.

“The attacks are to hit the long-range approaches to the city,” a Russian defense ministry spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

The Russian Navy is expected to strike Aleppo with a combination of 3M-14 Kaliber-NK cruise missiles and carrier-based Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D and MiG-29KR Fulcrum-D fighters. Though Kuznetsov carries only 10 Su-33 and four multirole MiG-19KR fighters, the deployment will afford Russia operational experience in launching combat sorties from a carrier at sea. The Su-33s—which were originally designed as air superiority fighters—have been retrofitted with the Gefest bombsights to better enable them to hit ground targets. The newer Fulcrums were designed to carry precision-guided munitions from the outset.

The elderly carrier—the only flattop remaining in the Russian service—also carries 10 helicopters including Ka-52K Katran gunships, Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters and Ka-31 airborne early warning platforms. However, it is not clear if the Ka-52K attack helicopters will be participating in the initial wave of Russian naval strikes, though it is likely those aircraft will participate in the campaign at some point.

Russian media including Interfax  and are reporting that the naval taskforce will use Kaliber-NK cruise missiles during the strikes. However, as report points out, it is not clear which Russian vessels would launch those attacks. Neither the Kirov-class Peter the Great nor the two Udaloy-class “large anti-submarine ships” Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov that are part of the Russian flotilla are equipped to launch 3M-14 Kaliber-NK missiles.

The Russian Navy will most likely launch the Kaliber missile strikes from its forces in the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea. Indeed, the brand-new Admiral Grigorovich frigate—which recently transferred from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet—is armed with Kaliber-NK cruise missiles. It is also possible one of Russia’s Northern Fleet nuclear-powered submarines has joined the Mediterranean task force, as Center for Naval Analysis research scientist Mike Kofman pointed out. “The Russian Navy's comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair,” Kofman wrote.

Ultimately, the Russian naval strikes will probably not change the overall situation in Syria. Moscow didn’t need to deploy its fleet to shore up the Syrian regime; the Russian forces in theatre were already sufficient for the Kremlin’s purposes. The real reason for the Kremlin’s naval deployment is to show the world—and particularly the United States—that Russia remains a formidable force that can project power from its shores.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.

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