The Kremlin’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is set to make its combat debut in the eastern Mediterranean in November according to Russian media.
The 55,000-ton vessel was originally scheduled to depart for the Syrian coast in October, but the deployment has been pushed back. While the Russian government has not stated exactly why the Kuznetsov’s deployment is being delayed, one the of reasons is likely due to the lack of pilots qualified to takeoff and land from an aircraft carrier.
Analysts specializing in Russian military affairs are united in their opinion that pilot training is the weak link for Russia’s naval aviation capabilities—more so than any technical issues with the ship or aircraft. Unlike the Indian version of the Mikoyan MiG-29K, which has had technical issues due to Ukrainian-built parts—particularly with its radar, the Russian Navy’s MiG-29KR does not seem to been impacted as severely.
“The main problem for the MiG-29KR is now a lack of trained pilots for this type and not any technical problems,” said researcher Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, which is published by the Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Russia.
But the lack of trained pilots might extend beyond just the MiG-29KR to the rest of Kuznetsov’s air wing. Kuznetsov’s air wing is expected to comprise of 10 Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker-D air superiority fighters and four MiG-29KR multirole fighters when it deploys in November, however is not clear that there are enough qualified aviators to operate those aircraft from a carrier flight deck. “How come nobody ever asks how many carrier-qualified pilots Russia actually has?” asked Mike Kofman, a research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at the federally funded Center for Naval Analyses. “Planes need pilots and other support equipment. Are there 14 pilots aboard Kuznetsov certified for carrier takeoffs and landings?”
The Su-33 Flanker-D:
Assuming that Kuznetsov does arrive in theatre off the coast of Syria with a full complement of pilots and aircraft, the ship will be able to provide some strike capability. The ten Su-33s onboard—which in previous years were optimized strictly for air superiority and fleet defense—have been fitted with the Gefest SVP-24 bombing sights, which the Russians claim increases the accuracy of gravity bombs to the level of precision-guided munitions (PGM). “This Gefest system worked very well on the Su-24Ms in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria in 2015-2016, why should it not work now?” Barabanov said.
Western sources are skeptical about how well the SVP-24 actually works. The U.S. Air Force’s experience during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 showed that even with continuously computed impact point (CCIP) and continuously computed release point (CCPR) bombing modes, accuracy suffered above 10,000ft. The Pentagon’s Gulf War Airpower Survey notes that manual bombing without precision-guided weapons works best at altitudes below 10,000ft above ground level. But while accuracy is increased when flying below 10,000ft, aircraft operating at those altitudes are vulnerable to ground fire from guns—even small arms—and man-portable surface-to-air missiles. Above that—even at altitudes between 10,000ft and 15,000ft—accuracy suffers greatly even as survivability is greatly increased, as the Pentagon discovered. “Gefest has upgraded a good number of Russian aircraft,” Kofman said. “It makes unguided bombs more accurate, but it in no way approaches PGM quality.”
Kuznetsov will also carry a quartet of MiG-29KR fighters (with a total fleet of roughly 14 operational aircraft in the Russian arsenal) that are capable of carrying PGMs and air-to-surface guided missiles. According to state-run media outlet Izvestia, the jets will be able to drop KAB-500 precision-guided bombs and carry the X-35 anti-ship missile—though the aircraft is also capable of carrying Kh-31P anti-radiation missiles, according to its manufacturer. “But there is no assurance that pilot training with these weapons are completed,” Barabanov said.
While the Russians might hope to use PGMs such as the KAB-500 and X-35 over Syria, more realistically, Kuznetsov’s MiG-29KRs will likely use a mix of guided and unguided weapons. “I would venture that the actual armament will include a mix of guided and unguided munitions,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist specializing in Russian military affairs at Center for Naval Analyses.
Nonetheless, the new Fulcrum variant was supposed to be replacing the Flanker-D onboard Kuznetsov due to its multirole capabilities. “The main driver of the switch is that the MiG is better for airstrikes than the Su-33, which is primarily suited for aerial combat—a largely unnecessary mission since the end of the Cold War,” Gorenburg said.
The MiG-29KR has some other advantages over the Su-33. The MiG-29KR is smaller and easier to handle on Kuznetsov’s flight deck than the Flanker, but one of the primary reasons for the transition to the Fulcrum is the need to sustain the Russian industrial base. “It’s also good business for MiG,” Kofman said. “They need to build something and continue to try to push the carrier aviation market. Sukhoi has plenty of orders already.”
However, while the Russians seemed to be planning for a transition from the Su-33 to the MiG-29KR, Moscow seems to have decided to keep both jets in service. “Apparently, both types will exist in parallel,” Barabanov said. “The MiG-29KRs are not re-equipping the 279th Regiment, instead the new 100th Regiment was formed for them.”
What can Kuznetsov Accomplish?:
Even when the Kuznetsov eventually arrives off the Syrian coast, there are questions about just how effective the aging Soviet-built carrier will be. While the ship carries fixed-wing fighters, the carrier is hampered because it uses a ski-jump to launch aircraft rather than catapults. Jets such as the Flanker and the Fulcrum can’t take off with a full-load as a result. “There’s a very significant drop off in combat load. But it’s hard to compare it to something else.” Kofman said.
However, one U.S. Navy source suggested that while combat loads drop off steeply, the drop is less severe on the Flanker and the Fulcrum than it would be on the Boeing F/A-18 series because of the Russian jets’ thrust-to-weight ratio and aerodynamic performance. Nonetheless, the drop in combat load out is likely to be severe. Nor is Moscow keen on sharing that secret. “In theory, there are no formal restrictions on the load of the Su-33 at start of the ramp,” Barabanov said. “As a matter of fact—I think that a big secret, and probably depends on the experience of the pilot.”
Moreover, there are questions about just how much combat experience the Russians will gain from Kuznetsov's deployment. “I wouldn't call it combat. It will be experience in carrying out airstrikes in uncontested skies,” Gorenburg said. “Potentially, very different from combat with a peer that will have its own aircraft and air defenses. But yes, it will be like what U.S. carrier aviation has been mostly used for in the last 25 years.”
Future of Russian Naval Aviation:
After its Syria deployment, Kuznetsov will enter into dry-dock for refurbishing—but exactly how extensive the refit will be is debatable. Barabanov said that the ship will not likely be extensively upgraded. But Kofman and Gorenburg suggest the modifications will be more extensive.
“It's going in early 2017 and will be out until 2020,” Kofman said. “In terms of modernization, I suspect engines and propulsion systems, flight deck, everything involved in aircraft operations on the deck. It needs a lot of work, people were hoping the last overhaul would include modernization packages, but it did not—just an engine tune up.”
Gorenburg said that the ship will likely be overhauled, but it's not clear if Kuznetsov’s troublesome engines will be fixed. “It will be sent for a pretty thorough modernization after this deployment,” Gorenburg said. “Probably mid-2017. Facilities are available at Sevmash, where they did the Vikramaditya modernization. I'm unclear whether this will include the ship's notoriously unreliable propulsion systems. The flight deck will definitely be modernized.”
As for a future carrier to replace Kuznetsov—given Russia’s economic condition, the prospects for a new replacement flattop is remote. Kuznetsov will likely soldier on for years to come.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.