Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov, could be headed to the scrap heap if a new drydock isn’t found.
The old drydock, the only one in western Russia capable of supporting major repairs to an aircraft carrier, sank in October 2018, leaving Moscow without a place to park the massive ship while it undergoes a refit. With a replacement, the old carrier’s future is in jeopardy.
A Carrier Creeps Forward
Kuznetsov’s story goes back to 1981. That's when construction of the ship began in the USSR, in what is now Ukraine. The ship was finally commissioned in 1990, a year before the breakup of the USSR, and Russia inherited the ship. Russian defense spending, minimal well into the late 1990s, saw the ship receive only one refit and complete just six patrols between 1991 and 2015. The carrier spent much of 2016 supporting Russian and regime forces in Syria, losing two aircraft to accidents.
Kuznetsov badly needs to complete an ongoing refit to remain viable. The ship’s boiler system is unreliable and the sad, smoky ship is prone to breakdowns. The upgrade, originally scheduled for completion in 2021, involves replacing four of the ships eight turbo-pressurized boilers, refurbishing the other four, and making improvements to the flight deck, hangar, and electronic warfare, communication, intelligence, navigation, and command and control capabilities. The ship also needs repairs to the flight deck, which was damaged after a crane that was part of PD-50 smashed into it during the sinking.
Another, more immediate reason Kuznetsov needs a drydock: its propellers were removed, and without them the ship cannot sail on her own. , the ship needs to be lifted up and out of water in order to reinstall them.
A Future Beyond the Admiral
Russia has one other floating drydock, PD-41. Like PD-51, it can service ships up to 80,000 tons. The problem is that PD-41 is thousands of miles away in the Russian Far East, supporting ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Towing Kuznetsov out of Kola Bay, across the Norwegian Sea, down through the North and South Atlantic Oceans, past the Cape of Good Hope, and then across the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, and the North Pacific would be very challenging. It also would be a humiliating spectacle for a great power that views itself as an alternative to the global leadership of the United States.
The current refit is supposed to keep Russia’s only carrier around for another 25 years. According to Izvestia, if Russia can’t find a new drydock, then it may be worthwhile to scrap the ship and invest the money in new ships, particularly frigates and submarines.
Russia has grand plans to update its carrier force, with the under design by the Krylov State Research Center. The Storm class carriers, displacing 75,000 tons and carrying up to 80-90 aircraft would approach the American Ford-class carriers in capability. That having been said, the carrier--and the aircraft to equip it and the destroyers and frigates to protect it--are currently unaffordable to a Russian government whose priority is the development of new nuclear cruise missiles, submarines, and torpedoes. Russia has offered the Storm design to India in order to help offset development costs.
Perhaps in an effort to push back against calls to scrap Kuznetsov, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on April 9th that 25% of the carrier’s refit was complete and the whole job will be done in 2020. That’s even earlier than previous forecasts, which suggests that a.) work is being done in record time, or b.) the upgrade itself has been downgraded. The report does not mention how, if at all, Shoigu plans to complete it without proper drydock facilities.
Aircraft carriers are powerful symbols--probably the ultimate symbols--of a country’s conventional military power. Russia’s defense ministry may be trying to hang on to the decrepit carrier as long as possible, knowing that it may take a quarter century for the country to finally afford a new ship. At a certain point however, badly maintained carriers are more of a liability than asset. The Kuznetsov has arguably reached that point.