by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
In December 2011, the Russian navy’s aging, poorly-maintained aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov departed from its northern base on the troubled vessel’s fourth deployment to the Mediterranean Sea.
True, the full-size carrier—which displaces 55,000 tons fully loaded—has a history of mechanical troubles since she entered service in 1991. But her operational tempo had increased, the result of a renewed push by Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin to get the fleet out into the oceans for training and patrols.
To that end, Admiral Kuznetsov has undergone some limited retrofits in recent years and participated in several missions to the Med, so the old vessel had done this kind of thing before.
But as the Kuznetsov rounded Europe and headed towards the Syrian coast, the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet kept close by in case the carrier … sank.
It might be hard to believe, but it’s just one bizarre detail noted by journalist Michael Weiss in a recent essay on Russia’s military expansion.
Admiral Kuznetsov has a problematic history. One seaman died when the carrier caught fire during a 2009 deployment to the Med. During the same cruise, the flattop spilled hundreds of tons of fuel into the sea while refueling. Her steam turbines are so bad the ship has to be escorted by tugs in case she breaks down.
Not to mention the carrier is barely capable of doing what carriers are supposed to do: launch fighters. When she does, she uses a bow ramp instead of steam catapults, which forces reductions in the planes’ takeoff weight and patrol time.
Anyways, in 2011 despite the Americans’ concerns, Admiral Kuznetsov made it home to her home port at Severomorsk near Murmansk. But she’s headed back to the Mediterranean by year’s end—without, apparently, a long-planned retrofit to her engines and flight deck. No word from the U.S. Navy as to whether it fears the decrepit flattop again might sink.
The Kremlin’s long-term plan, according to an essay by U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas Fedyszyn in Proceedings—the monthly journal of the U.S. Naval Institute—is to establish a permanent naval task force in the region drawn from vessels assigned to the Black Sea and Northern fleets. “Russia has made sizable improvements to its fleet’s size and readiness and stepped up patrols in the region, roughly coinciding with the escalation of tensions in Syria,” he writes.
Part of this expansion includes new and retrofitted warships and an increasing number of deployments to the Mediterranean far from home bases—and outside the Russian navy’s comfort zone.
This should, in theory, result in 10 ships operating on a permanent basis out at sea—potentially including Admiral Kuznetsov. But the Russian navy has limited means to resupply ships on the open ocean. This means it needs ports.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at Ukrainian ports along the Black Sea coast with the largest concentration of ships at Sevastopol. But this is a disadvantageous position, as the ports are vulnerable to political turmoil in Ukraine—the lease on Sevastopol expires in 2017, but it’s renewable.
Likewise, treaties dating to the 1930s regarding transit rights from the Black Sea through the Turkish-controlled Bosporus Straits are also a bit stifling. But the treaties limit tonnage, which is less of a concern for the kinds of modern, light and unarmored warships used today.
Otherwise, there’s the port of Tartus in Syria. But the Russian pier there has been variously described as little more than a minimally-manned and broken-down refueling spot incapable of supporting larger ships like Admiral Kuznetsov. But the port does have subjective and symbolic importance to the Kremlin.
“Unofficial rumors suggest Russia is considering ports in Cyprus, Montenegro, and Greece in addition to Syria,” Fedyszyn writes. “Of these, Cyprus has gotten the most attention, owing to the close economic relations between Moscow and Nicosia.”
In any case, Admiral Kuznetsov isn't likely to survive past the 2020s—when the Kremlin is expected to retire her. Until then, there’s little doubt the U.S. and its allies will keep a close eye, in case the aging flattop becomes a hazard to herself, her crew and anyone nearby.