The Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in the last phase of modernization

Just before the weekend, the Russian news agency TASS reported that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will be placed in dry dock between 15 and 17 May and enter the final phase of its repair and modernization plan. The docking will take place in a specially built dry dock at the 35th yard. The final phase should be completed by September, after which the ship can be taken out of dry dock. If the aircraft carrier cannot be detected in September, the date will be moved to 2023 due to the ice formation in this region during the autumn and winter months. The final repairs will include work on the bridge.

Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov in 2011 in the North Sea. (Photo: British Navy)

More incidents
At the beginning of 2017, the maintenance and modernization of the then 22-year-old transporter was started, so that the ship would last a long time, while in the meantime a replacement was being designed. However, the work of Admiral Kuznetsov was marked by several delays and serious accidents. At the end of October 2018, the floating dry dock PD-50, where Kuznetsov was anchored, lost electricity to the pumps in the ballast chambers. At the time of the accident, the pumps were on to lower Admiral Kuznetsov back into the water. As a result of the power outage, there was an influx of water that caused the PD-50 to lose buoyancy and sink. During the shipwreck, one of the dock cranes fell on the cockpit of Kuzentsov, causing further damage to the cockpit and the hull. This incident took place at the 82nd shipyard near Roslyakovo.

The PD-50 was the only dock in Russia large enough to house Admiral Kuznetsov. It was decided to demolish two existing dry docks at the 35th yard and assemble them into one large dock. This decision was announced in May 2019, but construction has been extremely slow. In July 2020, for example, almost nothing had been done to tear down the partition wall between the two docks, and the construction of the new lock gates had not yet started. This was partly due to suspicion of corruption, which caused the contract to change hands, and that another company was appointed to complete the work. Since then, work on the new dry dock has proceeded smoothly and relatively according to plan.

Kuznetsov himself was not immune to further damage. On December 12, 2019, a fire broke out on board the aircraft carrier. The fire broke out at the bow under the cockpit and raged for several hours before being brought under control. Two people died and fourteen others were injured. In April 2020, the damage from the fire was estimated at 500 million rubles, which amounted to about 12 million euros.

The exact damage caused by the fire, and to what extent it pushed Admiral Kuznetsov’s recovery program back, is unknown. However, due to the slow construction of the new dry dock, the fire’s impact on the possible commissioning will have no consequences, as the damage already appears to have been repaired before the new dry dock is ready.

The new dock was first filled with water for the first time in March 2022. At the beginning of May, a hydraulic locking gate had not yet been installed. The dock would be closed using a temporary bridge. Only after the evasion of Admiral Kuznetsov would the hydraulic doors be permanently installed. This installation should be completed by mid-2023.

The state news agency TASS had announced that the shipping company will go on the quay in the period 15 – 17 May. It is unknown when Kuznetsov will dock. On satellite images from May 15, the ship can still be seen at the quay at the shipyard in Murmansk. On the 16th, there was no passage of the Sentinel satellite over Murmansk.

Kuznetsov last Sunday, May 15, 2022 at the quay, where it has been since the end of 2018 / beginning of 2019. (Sentinel Hub / Copernicus)

On to the first sea trials
With the re-docking of Kuznetsov, it seems that the last straight line in her repair and modernization plan has started. The latest work is on the bridge, although some reports say there is also work on the propeller and rudder. In any case, there is a time pressure to be able to escape the ship before September before the drift ice in this region can give a further delay of six months. Further delays mean, among other things, a further delay in training the crew and carrying out the first sea trials.

Nevertheless, on paper, the Russian Navy is on track to return Admiral Kuznetsov to service during 2023. Operational deployment will depend on many factors, and it is currently unknown whether the aircraft carrier will make its first operational deployment in the winter of 2023. -2024. Usually Kuznetsov goes to sea in winter to more southern and warmer waters to prevent frost damage on board the ship. It is unknown to what extent the aircraft carrier is still susceptible to frost damage after maintenance.

However, the Kuznetsov will have to take a long trip quite quickly to test the operation of the new boilers that have been replaced during maintenance. Thanks to these new boilers, the propulsion should become much more reliable and with better combustion, the iconic black smoke flag can also disappear. Testing of the new sensors and weapon systems, such as the maritime version of the Pantsir-M air defense system, should also be performed during this voyage. The test period was estimated at seven months in 2018, when the repairs and modernization started.

There are doubts as to whether this will be possible due to the sanctions since the war in Ukraine. Although the biggest turnaround for the Russian navy occurred in 2014 with the introduction of sanctions, the navy used systems from the West before the war in Ukraine. An example is the order for wastewater treatment plants from an Italian company that allows the carrier to comply with international laws and regulations. The sanctions may make it harder for Kuznetsov to return to sea, although Russian companies taking over orders again depend on Western companies.

Future prospects for Kuznetsov
The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is unique in the Russian navy, a fleet that focuses on launching anti-ship missiles instead of sea-based aircraft like the US Navy. The operational deployment of Kuznetsov has been very limited since its commissioning with only a brief operation off the Syrian coast in support of Russian military personnel in 2016.

With a repair period of five years, there is in any case a serious decrease in knowledge and experience of manning and operating this aircraft carrier. An entire crew needs to be trained again from scratch. The experience of the pilots will also be severely affected despite the fact that the Russian navy has a training slope in the Crimea, where pilots can to some extent retain their experience. However, a runway built on land cannot simulate a flying cockpit at sea. During its maritime deployment off the Syrian coast in 2016, the ship lost two aircraft to accidents in just three weeks. It was a MiG-31K and a Su-33. Both accidents were due to problems with the brake cables.

The chance that Admiral Kuznetsov will have a full operational deployment is slim. The aircraft carrier serves more as a status symbol to demonstrate that the Russian navy has some capacity to contribute to the highest maritime spectrum of violence on the high seas. In fact, the ship has little added value due to the untrained crew and a small number of trained and experienced fleet pilots. The ship may well play a central role in large-scale maritime exercises.

The question is to what extent the Russian navy still wants to give money to Admiral Kuznetsov in the coming years, although the ship with modernized weapon systems and renewed propulsion ship can probably be used for another decade. The fact that Russia has little interest in building new aircraft carriers (which has been quiet for a long time around the replacement of Kuznetsov) and that it spends its maritime budget on other ships and submarines further shows that aircraft carriers will not play a prominent role in Russian maritime transport tactics. The emergence of long-range weapons such as the Kalibr cruise missiles allows Russian ships to project power from coastal waters.

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