Military

Russia postpones future aircraft carrier program

Feature 14 May 2018
Russia postpones future aircraft carrier program

This past April, Russian media announced that the Admiral Kuznetsov, the country's only aircraft carrier, will be out of service, undergoing repairs and modernization, until 2021. The Ministry of Defense signed a contract worth about $1 billion with the state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation for rather limited upgrades to the carrier, which will be performed at the 35th Ship Repair Plant, in Murmansk, a subsidiary facility of the Severodvinsk-based Zvezdochka Ship Repair Center (Kommersant, April 23).

According to the Kommersant's sources, the budget of the Admiral Kuznetsov, which joined the Russian Northern Fleet in 1991, is "particularly modest." The Kuznetsov's most serious and best-known problem is its faulty power plant. In 2010, the Russian Navy requested the replacement of the vessel's eight troublesome turbo-turbocharged, or even nuclear propulsion (Sputnik News, April 6, 2010). But instead of undergoing deep-rooted modernization, the ship has been part of Russia's campaign (see EDM, October 27, 2016).

Problems with the Kuznetsov's power plant are even more important now than back in 2010. However, the current repair contract makes no sense to replace the boilers with a modern propulsion system. The problem for Russia is that it cannot be built inside the needed gas turbines, which would have been either from Ukraine or the United States. And neither Kyiv nor Washington is willing to authorize such a sale amidst upward Western-Russian tensions and Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Furthermore, despite long discussions, since 2010, more advanced assault missiles on-board the Kuznetsov, it looks like the old P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck) anti-ship cruise missiles will not be replaced with new 3M-54 Calibers (SS-N-27 Sizzler). Nor will the granit launchers be dismantled in order to expand the carrier's hangar area for the storage of additional fixed-wing aircraft, as originally conceived eight years ago. These project changes could be prolonged by the repair period and cost costs (Sputnik News, April 6, 2010).

The Kuznetsov may, however, undergo deep modernization on its on-board electronic systems. These have not been upgraded since the ship was commissioned to the Navy in 1991, so they are completely outdated today. New air-defense systems can be replaced by 3K95 Kinzhal (SA-N-9 Gauntlet) missiles as well (Sputnik News, April 6, 2010).

In essence, the current repairs almost certainly do not change the Admiral Kuznetsov's total combat capabilities, but they can prolong his life for another five to ten years (so until 2025-2030). This reality so raises a couple of important questions: Do the Russian Navy and the defense industry have a carrier? And if they do, is it possible for Russia to build a new carrier under pressure from western sanctions, and with a limited budget for shipbuilding projects? Analysis of the state program for the Navy until 2020 showed that only 47 percent of the plan was invested into new ship construction (Cast.ru, January 2018). As a result, most of the Navy vessels failed to be reached. And the state program 2020 has been shifted back to 2027-but with the same money and same problems unaddressed (see EDM, April 18).

As the head of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Masorin, told the media that the country's next aircraft carrier will have nuclear propulsion, a displacement of about 50,000 tons, and carrying some 30 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft (Graniru.org, June 23, 2007).

In 2013, Russia introduced experts to an even more ambitious concept, the Shtorm "supercarrier," with a displacement of about 100,000 tons and 90 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft designed for the Russian Navy by the Krylov State Research Center (Todaysmilitary.ru , July 4, 2015). In 2015, the Shtorm was unveiled to the public (TASS, June 1, 2015). Nevskoye Design Bureau chief, Sergei Vlasov, told the TASS news agency that the prospective aircraft carrier could cost up to $ 5.63 billion, and development would take about ten years.

However, the Shtorm project was canceled pretty much before it started; and in 2017, the Russian media announced a new "light carrier" project by the Krylov State Research Center (Tvzvezda.ru, July 14, 2017). Although no details have been officially released, the Russian media has already published some data. Reportedly, the new Russian carrier will be powered by gas turbines, about 70 tonnes, and carry onboard new fifth-generation Su-57 fighters (Vzglyad, February 25). According to media coverage, the construction of these new ships will not begin before 2025 (RIA Novosti, August 24, 2017).

Several important conclusions can be drawn up on the Navy:

First, there is apparently no final or even preliminary concept at this time. It seems the Russian Navy and the defense industry are trying to design a Kremlin ultimately makes in 2025.

Second, the Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in service until at least 2030 or longer because even the most optimistic scenario, the construction of a new carrier will not begin until 2025, and the building will take a decade or longer.

Third, a key challenge for any of the new warrants, and the Russian defense industry's ability to find homegrown solutions.

Finally, financial issues could be crucial for any new carrier project. Vladimir Putin's "oligarchic state" economic model (see EDM, October 10, 2017; Jamestown.org, September 13, 2016). The Kremlin's geopolitical aggression, which characterizes Russia's foreign policy strategy, is now available in Jamestown.org, June 27, 2016 -will just multiply Russia's economic problems, including hampering ambitious projects such as next-generation aircraft carriers.

This report was initially published on jamestown.org.

 

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