Monday, 10 February 2014

Update on Russia's carrier program

In a recent news article on the news website “Ria Novosti”, the head of the Nevskoye ship design bureau, Mister Vlasov, Sergei; stated that his company could build a new aircraft carrier for the Russian Navy in 10 years time.

The interesting fact about this article is that it is the first time that a Russian design bureau raised the prospect of building new carriers for the Russian navy. In the past the request for building new aircraft carriers has been initiated by either the Russian ministry of defense or the headquarters of the Russian Navy.

Plans for building new carriers are not old. Several years ago the Russian navy demanded a future fleet with up to 5 or 6 aircraft carriers, compared to the one carrier the Russian navy is operating today. Limits in the Russian defense budget however, as well as a priority on land and air forces, have always been responsible for these plans to be kept on hold. Since the Russian economy is mainly depended on the export of energy reserves, being oil and gas, the amount of money available for the government to spend on building new ships can change dramatically depending on international oil and gas prices. Since aircraft carriers are among the most expensive weapon systems available, building a fleet of aircraft carriers is very risky for a country with an unstable economy.

Nevertheless, the past years have seen an increase in shipbuilding activity for the Russian Navy with new submarines, corvettes and frigates entering service. These new ships however are being built not for expanding the Russian navy but for modernizing it since most of its ships date back from the last years of the Soviet Union. Still, there are signs that the Russian navy seeks to expand its fleet. Apart from modernizing mothballed cruisers from the Kirov class, like the Petr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and putting these back into service, the most prominent project of expanding the Russian navy comes with the building of French Mistral class amphibious landing ships. For the moment 2 of these Mistral class ships have been built, with an option for 2 more. These ships would expand the capabilities of the Russian navy in the field of amphibious landing, power projection and humanitarian assistance.

Furthermore there is the political will by the Russian leaders to project power on the worlds oceans, a case made clear by the presence of a large Russian naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria. At the same time Russia faces the prospect of losing power and influence in the Pacific as both China, Japan, South Korea and the United States are raising their naval power. Unless Russia can match this increase in naval power it faces the prospect of becoming a minor player in this geographic area as it lacks the military power to back up its foreign policy. It is for this reason that the 2 Mistral class ships are going to be deployed mainly in the Pacific.

The construction of several aircraft carriers would insure Russia’s presence and capabilities for power projection on the worlds oceans. These versatile weapon systems are capable for executing a wide range of tasks and send important signals, both military as diplomatic, whenever they are deployed. Russia already operates one aircraft carrier, the aging Admiral Kuznetsov dating back from the days of the Soviet Union. This ship is in such a bad shape that in recent years it was always accompanied by a salvage tug in case of a breakdown. The Russian navy is planning to modernize the Admiral Kuznetsov by 2017 but it is clear that in the period 2020-2030 a replacement has to be build if Russia wants to maintain a carrier force.

The important question is what kind of an aircraft carrier the Russians are going to build. The Admiral Kuznetsov uses a normal propulsion system and carries a small number of fighter planes compared to the American Nimitz and Ford classes of aircraft carriers. This situation dates back from the days of the Soviet Union when Russia’s only shipyard capable of building carriers was located in the Ukrain. Since the 1936 Montreux convention denies the passage of carriers through the Bosporus Strait. The Soviets in term designed large cruisers capable of carrying aircraft to circumvent this treaty. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent deployment of carriers at Murmansk with a shipyard at Severodvinsk that the Russians redesigned their carriers into their present shape i.e. being complete flat top carriers.

Conventional powered carriers allow for a displacement up to 65.000 tons and a carrier wing between 50 to 60 planes. A nuclear powered carrier could go up to 85.000 tons, even up to 100.000 ton for the US Nimitz class carriers. These carriers could deploy a larger carrier wing with up to 70 planes. Also important would be the system used to launch these planes. American and French carriers use a catapult (CATOBAR system) to launch their planes, allowing large fighters with a heavy payload to be sent into the skies. The Russians however use the STOBAR system with a ski-jump to assist the planes while taking of. The STOBAR system has the disadvantage of only allowing light weight planes to take off. These light weight planes are unable to take off with a catapult since the forces of the catapult can snap the plane in half. Since the Russians don’t have a heavy naval fighter plane, a CATOBAR system on the new carriers would be useless and it seems unlikely that Russia would start developing a heavy naval fighter from scratch.

Also a question would be how many carriers Russia would build in the future. Numbers once ranged from 5 to 6 but were scaled back towards just 3. Sergei Vlasov opts for building 4 carriers, 2 for the Russian Northern Fleet and 2 for the Pacific Fleet. This seems as a reasonable number since Russia’s future areas of operations would be the Artic and the Pacific. 2 carriers in each fleet would allow the constant deployment of 1 carrier at all times as the other one would be undergoing repairs, modernization and training.

As for the end conclusion we can say that Russia has indeed plans for a while to expand its ocean going fleet with several carriers. Although budget problems as well as other priorities kept these plans from being carried out it is unlikely that Russia want to lose its carrier presence in the future. The aging carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is in need of replacement somewhere in the next ten to fifteen years. Once the Russian navy starts building its carriers it will be important to look what kind of propulsion system they will choose since this would determine their displacement and in terms the maximum amount of airplanes carriers. While the Russians don’t poses a heavy naval fighter one could be developed if Russia chooses to use the CATOBAR system rather than the current STOBAR system. Also the amount of aircraft carriers would be important as Russia intents to be the leading power in the Arctic region as well as securing its position in the Pacific. One can argue that the Northern fleet will continue to operate an aircraft carrier since this is the only fleet that has access to both the Arctic region as the Atlantic Ocean.

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