Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Russia's future aircraft carrier is taking shape

The Naval Report already mentioned the state of the Russian Navy in two older posts. In the first one we talked about how Russia is looking for the 2050 timeframe to rebuild its blue water navy capabilities and to become a navy with global reach. In a more recent post we talked about how Russia is struggling to build large surface combatants and that in the next decade we can expect the Russian Navy to become a navy without aircraft carriers and cruisers as a result of the loss of both economic means and technical know-how.
This does not mean however that Russia is not planning to build new large surface combatants. When we take in account that Russia is looking for the 2050 timeframe it means that it is giving itself another 35 years to find the means to build a new blue water navy. Russia keeps developing new warship designs even though these designs will not translate themselves in new warships any time soon.
Mock up model of a potential future Russian aircraft carrier
The very latest of these warship designs is the design of what could be Russia’s future aircraft carrier. At the moment Russia has only one aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. This vessel dates back from 1985 and is in poor shape. The current maintenance and modernisation period of the Admiral Kuznetsov might well be the last one before the ship is no longer capable to carry out its functions. Aircraft carriers are seen as the capital ships in any blue water navy and only a handful of nations have them in their naval forces. If Russia wants to become a true blue water navy capable of challenging the US Navy then it will have a need to operate aircraft carriers.
Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is showing some interesting capabilities. The first feature to notice is the presence of a ski-jump instead of catapults. This tells us a lot about the type of planes Russia will be using for its future carrier air wings. Russian jets are built with manoeuvrability in mind and most Russian jets are lightweight interceptors. Because they are lightweight they cannot handle the stresses of a catapult launch as this would risk having the aircraft being snapped in half. Russia’s carrier aircraft are capable of launching without the need of a catapult but need the assistance of a ski-jump ramp on the bow of the carrier to take off. In order to take off these aircraft need to be light and as such they cannot carry a large amount of fuel or weapons with them, compared to catapult launched aircraft. Russia’s carrier aircraft will therefore serve mainly to provide air superiority above a Russian naval task force. Compared to their US counterparts, these aircraft are not suitable for carrying out long range strike missions. There are ways to compensate for this deficiency. China’s J-15 carrier aircrafts are able to refuel each other in mid-air. The two aircraft take of each, one filled with fuel, the other armed with the maximum weight of weapons. Once in the air the first aircraft transfers its fuel to the second one. The second aircraft then has a maximum weapons load and the necessary fuel to perform a long range strike mission. It is unknown if Russia will follow this Chinese example but it is a possible way to operate its carrier aircraft.
Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is slightly larger than a US Nimitz class carrier. A Nimitz class carrier has the capability to carry 90 aircraft while this Russian design can carry up to 100 aircraft. Exact dimensions of this new carrier are unknown but it would be similar to a Nimitz class carrier, meaning a displacement of about 100.000 tons. This tells us a lot about how this new carrier will be powered. Conventional power systems such as on board of the Admiral Kuznetsov are capable of moving an aircraft carrier of about 75.000 tons against a speed sufficient to launch aircraft. Once above 75.000 tons the ship is just too big to be propelled against a sufficient speed. Only a nuclear reactor can deliver the amount of power needed to move an aircraft carrier bigger than 75.000 tons. If this new design is similar to a Nimitz class carrier it will have nuclear propulsion. Depending on the size of the reactors installed and the amount of nuclear fuel it can be predicted that these aircraft carriers will operate between 40 to 50 years with one mid-term refuelling period that will last somewhere between one to two years, depending on other modernisations that will be done during this maintenance.
Another view of the mock up model
Although Russia has unveiled a new aircraft carrier design it is still a long way from building one. At the moment Russia lacks the capability to build large surface combatants and it will take several years before it reacquires these skills. The current design is still just a design and further study and testing will be needed. If this phase is completed successfully than a 1:1 scale model on land will be built for further development of the design. This is similar to how China is building its ships. Large models on land have appeared of China’s carrier and the Type 055 cruiser.
We at the Naval Report would like to add some closing remarks. It is mentioned that Russia’s new carrier design is to be translated into a real warship in the 2030 timeframe. This seems to be possible depending on how fast Russia can acquire the skills to build large surface combatants either on its own or with the help of other nations. A lot will also depend on the financial situation. Aircraft carriers are very expensive weapon platforms and only nations with a stable and sufficient large enough economy can afford them. Of all the nuclear carriers in existence today only one does not belong to the US Navy and that is the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. It is believed that China is developing a nuclear powered aircraft carrier as well and that this aircraft carrier will be joining the PLAN in the next five to ten years.
It is unknown how many of these aircraft carriers Russia will be operating. Several plans regarding Russia’s intentions to build aircraft carriers have been made public in the past. The returning numbers in those days were that Russia would build somewhere between three to six nuclear aircraft carriers to challenge the US Navy. Once again, a lot will depend on the financial capabilities of the Russia economy and one also has to take in account that Russia also needs a large army and air force to defend its territory.
It is also unknown where these aircraft carriers will be stationed and where they will operate. The 2030 and 2050 timeframe are too far ahead in the future to make a reliable assessment of Russia’s geopolitical aims and strategic aims for these periods. But it is safe to say some of these aircraft carriers will operate in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans where they can contest the superiority of the US Navy.
A last remark is that the news of Russia’s new aircraft carrier design is the last one in a long set of similar press articles that stretch back from 2000. What is different is that this is the first time a model exists of a future Russian aircraft carrier. This indicates Russia has been developing its future aircraft carrier design all along. Russia still has a long way to go to build and operate this new carrier and a lot of things can change in the meantime. The economic downfall that Russia is facing right now might even prevent this carrier from ever being build. The incorporation of new technology might happen at any point and as such it might even see its ski-jump replaced with catapult but then Russia would need to develop new carrier aircraft.  What is important to remember is that Russia will always try to build a blue water ocean in order to project power on a global scale.

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