Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kunzetsov is back home in the Murmansk region after taking part in the Syrian military campaign. According to Nikolai Evmenov, commander of the Russian Northern Fleet, in-all, 420 sorties were conducted, 117 of them at night.
Genetically, Soviet designed Proekt 1143.5 was not intended for power projection ashore. Ability of embarked aircraft to conduct aerial precision bombing runs, akin to U.S. Navy carrier strike groups(CSG), was limited at best. Even more so during the night time. Conforming to Soviet Cold War strategy, Admiral Kuznetsov’s main mission was to secure patrol areas for high-value Soviet naval assets. Ability of its fighter dominated air fleet to hit ground targets was narrowed to unguided munitions. And restricted further by take-off weight ceiling, since Kuznetsov lacks an aircraft catapulting system.
Troubled ship was commissioned into service on 20 January, 1991, as Soviet Union was falling apart. Such specialised vessel warranted a considerable investment in training, infrastructure and efficacious blue seas navy. During the 90s, Russia’s military capabilities and defence budgets were rapidly shrinking year on year. To make matters worse, both Proekt 1143.5’s refit dock and dedicated training complex known as Nitka were apportioned to the newly independent Ukraine – at Mykolaiv and near Saki, Crimea respectively.
Furthermore, Kuznetsov was experiencing endemic problems with its conventional powerplant. Much of its interior was in a sub-standard condition and a number of its systems were of suboptimal performance. Some sources claim that even today the vessel is incomplete. But despite all of the aforementioned challenges, resurgent Russian Navy of today still harbours carrier ambitions.
Military intervention in Syria, is Russia’s first ever over-seas “shock and awe” campaign with minimal ground troops involvement. Recent estimates put this at about 3000 men. In many ways the campaign was and still is one massive testing and training ground for the Russian army and armaments. Moreover, operational tempo at the peak of campaign was unprecedented by Russian standards. Novice pilots from all over the country served short rotation stints, from several months down to, sometimes, just a week long. According to Ruslan Pukhov, a Russian military expert, more than half of all of Russia’s fighter, bomber and attack aircraft crews saw action in Syria so far.
Loss of two Kuznetsov aircraft – SVP ground targeting system upgraded Su-33 and newfangled multirole Mig-29KR – due to certain issues with arrested recovery, perfectly illustrate inexperience of the crews and embryonic tactics. Many of its embarked aircraft were relocated to Russia’s Syria Hmeimim Air Base. Back in November 2016, a senior UK military officer told IHS Jane’s “We don’t think the Russians are flying as many sorties off their carrier as they would want the world to think. We have seen a load of Su-33s and MiG-29s flying out of Humaymim Air Base, doing strikes all over northwest Syria.” Nonetheless, early assessments indicate that Kuznetov’s deployment was a positive experience overall and that valuable new lessons have been learned. Its four months long Mediterranean mission offered an unique opportunity to test weapons, systems and tactics – both new and old, under real combat conditions.
Furthermore, Ka-52K Katran’s inaugural deployment will undoubtedly boost its export potential and work in Russia’s favour regarding ongoing negotiations with Egypt. Egypt’s two French-built Mistral amphibious assault ships were originally intended for the Russian Navy, with design amends made to accommodate the Ka-52K that was being especially developed for the vessel. In 2014 France had to cancel the contract due to EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine crisis. In September last year Russia and Egypt apparently reached an agreement under which Egyptian pilots are to be trained to fly Katrans.
On a strategic level, Kuzentsov’s Mediterranean deployment will undoubtedly spur and benefit the decision making process for Russia’s next generation aircraft carrier. Couple of years back, a completely new aircraft carrier design was unveiled by Krylov State Research Centre and Nevskoye Design Bureau. Proekt 23000 Shtorm is to be nuclear powered and fitted with electro-magnetic catapulting systems. It is to carry airborne early warning and multirole aircraft and is to be fully capable of projecting power ashore. That is, if it ever fully materialises.
Main image: RIA Novosti © 2016