Russia's unlucky – and only – aircraft carrier is preparing for its return to action
- Russia's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has been plagued by breakdowns and mishaps.
- Despite those problems and broader changes to its navy, Russia is committed to the Admiral Kuznetsov's future.
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Perhaps no aircraft carrier has been as mocked or as troubled as the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only carrier and the sole ship of it class.
Meant to usher in a new era for Soviet naval aviation, it was armed to the teeth and featured new fixed-wing aircraft. But it became clear almost immediately that the Admiral Kuznetsov would not live up to expectations.
Constant mechanical issues and breakdowns, combined with a lack of resources and poor facilities, have seriously affected its ability to rival its NATO counterparts, and its only combat deployment was far from perfect.
All of these issues mean the Admiral Kuznetsov is seen more as a spectacle than a genuine threat, but it remains the Russian Navy's flagship, and Moscow is determined to hold on to it.
An interesting history
The Admiral Kuznetsov has an interesting history to say the least.
Originally named "Riga," it was launched in 1985 as "Leonid Brezhnev," started sea trials as "Tbilisi," and commissioned officially as "Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov" in 1990.
In many ways, it was supposed to be the Soviet Union's first real carrier. Previous classes could only carry Ka-27 or Ka-31 helicopters or the Yak-38 vertical take-off and landing fighter. The Kuznetsov, on the other hand, had an air wing of new Sukhoi Su-33 fighters and Su-25UTGs, in addition to helicopters.
The jets would have taken off from a ski-jump ramp, another first for the Soviet Navy. One thing it did have in common with other Soviet carriers was a massive missile armament: 12 radar-guided P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles and 190 anti-aircraft missiles.
Because of the collapse of the USSR, Admiral Kuznetsov was not fully operational until 1995.
Its sister ship, Varyag, was sold to a Chinese businessman in 1998 ostensibly to be turned into a casino. That vessel became the Liaoning, China's first aircraft carrier, and the blueprint for its second, the Shandong.
Since joining the Northern Fleet in 1991, Admiral Kuznetsov has become known for breakdowns and malfunctions.
While off the coast of Turkey in January 2009, it suffered a fire that killed a crew member. A month later it was involved in an oil spill off the coast of Ireland that leaked an estimated 300 metric tons of oil into the ocean.
The carrier has undergone extended repair periods in port multiple times. Breakdowns and accidents happened so often that the carrier had to be followed by a tanker loaded with extra pipes for repairs. It was also known to have an ocean-going tug trailing it whenever it set out.
Two jets, an Su-33 and a MiG-29K, crashed into the water because the carrier's arresting cable kept snapping during landings. The problem forced the rest of the carrier's air wing to be transferred to the Hmeymim airbase.
British Defense Secretary Sir Michael Fallon called the Admiral Kuznetsov "a ship of shame" as it returned to Russia following the deployment.
'The unluckiest ship'
After returning from Syria, the Admiral Kuznetsov began an overhaul and modernisation to extend its service life. Unable to use the Ukrainian shipyards where it was built, it is being refit in Murmansk.
Even in port, the Admiral Kuznetsov's troubles have continued. In 2018, the floating dry-dock holding the carrier sank, sending a 70-ton crane smashing through the flight deck.
The incident killed one worker, injured four more, and left a large hole on the deck. The loss of the floating dry-dock forced the Russians to combine two smaller dry docks into a larger one in order to continue the work.
A year later, a fire broke out while workers were welding in the engine room. Two people were killed and 11 more were injured.
More recently, the director of the shipyard overseeing the refit was arrested and accused of stealing some 45 million rubles allocated to the carrier's repair.
Photos of a snow-covered ship that emerged in January led a Russian think-tank to estimate that no progress had been made on the repairs over the past year.
"It's the unluckiest ship on the face of the planet," Jeffrey Edmonds, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis, told Insider.
Russia's future carrier
Russia has invested a lot into modernising Admiral Kuznetsov and maintaining some form of carrier capability.
The refit has increased the carrier's aircraft capacity to 24 to 26 fighter jets and as many as 12 helicopters. The current modifications will also upgrade the electronics and propulsion system and likely remove the P-700 missiles.
Russia has also put effort into replacing or modernising the ageing Su-33, as it is really only capable of aerial warfare with limited ground-attack options. The MiG-29K, a naval version of the MiG-29, is expected to have larger role in Russia's future carrier air wings. The carrier could also carry the Ka-52K Katran attack helicopter.
The time, effort, and expense show that the Russian Navy is not ready to give up on carriers.
"The Russians will continue to talk about carriers," Edmonds said, noting that at the very least the current efforts preserve some skills and know-how, "so that in such time when they actually have carriers, they can expand that out rather than reinventing the wheel."
But there is also debate in Russia over whether it's even worth it, central to which is the fact that Russia just has a poor track record of building carriers.
In addition to the Kuznetsov debacles, Russia's only other recent work on a carrier, converting the Kiev-class Admiral Gorshkov into the INS Vikramaditya for the Indian Navy, was marred by cost overruns and missed deadlines.
While Russia is building two amphibious assault ships to replace the two French-built Mistral-class ships it never received, these are smaller than a carrier and will only carry helicopters and drones.
"The Russians will always have this aspirational talk about having a blue-water navy with carriers and stuff like that," Edmonds said. "But as far as having the capability, the infrastructure, the expertise to build one, that's a ways out."
Despite the problems, Russian officials have insisted that Admiral Kuznetsov will begin sea trials in 2022.
When fully operational, the carrier, like the Russian Navy's other legacy platforms, will likely be used to show the flag and demonstrate Russia's great naval power status - even as the fleet continues to shift its focus to small, missile-laden vessels and submarines.