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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

Whether Russia needs aircraft carriers is a critical question, an answer to which must be given by the military and political leadership of the country. This decision will determine in large part Russia’s national security and the effective spending of taxpayers’ monies, which is allocated for Navy’s development. Also, the reply to this answer lies rather not that much in the military technical area, but the military political domain.

Whether Russia needs aircraft carriers is a critical question, an answer to which must be given by the military and political leadership of the country. This decision will determine in large part Russia’s national security and the effective spending of taxpayers’ monies, which is allocated for Navy’s development. Also, the reply to this answer lies rather not that much in the military technical area, but the military political domain.

Russian Navy Priorities

Determining a future of the aircraft carrier (AC) component of the Russian Navy encounters the lack of Russian Navy’s matching strategy, i.e. a fundamental document defining the role and place of the Navy’s power in defending national interests and ensuring national security. The existing documents, i.e. The Russian Federation’s Marine Doctrine, The Basics of the Russian Federation’s Naval Policy, and The Concept of Navy’s Application, are outdated and do not meet the current international context. A key factor of naval power development is the finite nature of resources, which calls for setting the development priorities. The documents are generic and do not give a clear-cut definition of Russian Navy’s priorities in a long-term perspective.

The longtime primary purpose of Russia’s Navy has been to support the nuclear force strategic component, i.e. nuclear submarine patrolling (FBMS) in the World Ocean. This particular objective used to eat up the bulk of the resources the country could allocate to Navy development. Yet the cold war was over more than 20 years ago. Currently, Russia’s key priorities are economic development and improving the living standard. In this respect, the following Navy’s development goals may be prioritized:

  • Develop and protect mineral, hydrocarbon and bio-resources, which are concentrated in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and offshore, as well as use unrestrictedly and protect the sea communications;
  • Preclude other countries’ influence on Russia’s foreign policy in the regions of its vital interests;
  • Ensure international security and interdict armed conflicts near the Russian

    Federation’s borders, as well as raise Russia’s visibility in the global arena.

The key state policy goals in the World Ocean prioritize the following Russian Navy’s objectives:

  • Ensure maritime domination in Russia’s EEZ and offshore, with the free use of maritime communications in these regions and their non-use by other countries to Russia’s detriment to become the unconditional priorities of the naval operations;
  • Retain an adequate capacity of the Marine Nuclear Deterrence Forces (MNDF) being capable to deal a guaranteed response strike. In the context of strategic nuclear force (SNF) reduction and antimissile defense development, ensuring the ongoing Russian FBMS patrolling in the World Ocean is a critical precondition for strategic stability;
  • Build up a limited projected power capacity to prevent, restrict and stop promptly potential armed conflicts near the Russian Federation’s border, as well as deter other countries’ acts of aggression against Russia’s friendly countries;
  • Ensure maritime security, i.e. maintain a free and open maritime trade, counter the non-military threats, i.e. acts of terror, drug trafficking, illegal immigration, international crime, environmental and other disasters, and piracy; as well as economic, political and legal stability in both the EEZ and offshore Russia and the remote regions of the World Ocean.

The above goals and objectives imply the following Russian Navy’s structure: major coastal fleet of corvettes, frigates and non-nuclear submarines, an adequate number of FBMS and multi-purpose nuclear submarines, as well as two relatively small modern oceanic nuclei, i.e. a hard-power tool (projected power) and a soft one (maritime security).

Role and Place of Aircraft Carriers in Russia’s Navy

Photo: korabley.net
Nuclear submarine "Shark"

Aircraft carriers’ presence or absence in Russia’s Navy is determined by the national maritime policy priorities and the related key naval objectives.

Ensuring the “near” supremacy on the sea within the EEZ and offshore is dictated primarily by Russia’s longtime problem of a geographic “curse”, i.e. the Russian Navy is scattered over five strategic regions, namely: the Ice and Pacific oceans, and the Baltic, Black and Caspian seas, and even, in effect, six regions, given the disintegration of the Pacific and Kamchatka groupings.

The huge difference in climate conditions increases the maintenance costs and compels to make the vessels customized to a specific region. The geographic remoteness and disintegration hamper significantly the reallocation of forces between the regions.

Over the last two decades, Russia’s Navy has received only some vessels, while the combat-ready ships inherited from the Soviet Union are getting outdated both morally and technically. In this respect, a priority in securing supremacy on the sea is build with no delay industrial-version corvettes/frigates and non-nuclear submarines. Separate attention should be given to land-based naval aircraft, especially patrol and anti-submarine airplanes.

The same set of naval forces is required to cover the FBMS on patrol. Building the new-generation of 955 and 885 multi-purpose nuclear submarines, which are capable to provide direct support for FBMS, is a priority in retaining and developing the MNDF.

The huge difference in climate conditions increases the maintenance costs and compels to make the vessels customized to a specific region.

On the other hand, there’s a lack of fighter, bomber and strike aircraft, mostly transferred to the air force, to secure “near-side” naval superiority and MNDF operations in the North and Pacific fleets’ zone of responsibility. The obstacle is not that much in the shortage of airplanes and their outdating, but rather the impossible efficient protection of 40000 km of sea border in the Ice and Pacific oceans solely using the land-based naval aircraft. In this context, a modern AC with a balanced air wing, which is, effectively, a mobile air base, may become a pragmatic alternative to new land-based air bases.

An AC can be worth its value primarily in naval operations outside the EEZ and also offshore. Russia’s involvement in a major marine war in a foreseeable future is extremely low probable. Yet less relevant is the threat of a direct military conflict in the World Ocean between US and Russian Navy. Given this, creating the Russian AC grouping as comparable in its power with the US Navy is both economically unrealistic and politically inappropriate.

The AC striking force (ASF) operational deployment capability is a political influence tool of Russia in time of peace. Modern AC’s presence in friendly country’s territorial waters can preclude the use of military force by other countries against the respective country in time of crisis. Russian ASF’s presence in a zone of potential conflict, to secure control over the ocean and air space is by itself an adequate factor of deterrence. Even the USA, notwithstanding its absolute superiority in marine weapons, will not take the risk of entering into an armed conflict with the Russian Federation.

AC construction by Russia will require in the coming 15 years a sizable number of main-type combat ships as a foundation for normal carrier-borne aviation and MNDF operation.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia boasts vast political capabilities of an impact on global policy. Yet the lack of state power projection tools, both military and economic, brings to naught Russia’s capability to influence on such global policy aspects as the situations in the Persian Gulf, South America, the South- and East China Seas, and the Middle East. An ASF can become an important element of strengthening Russia’s relations with its international partners, ensure Russian flag flying way far offshore Russia, assert country’s involvement in global policy, as well as give weight to its opinion on key global security issues.

Using for these purposes such vessels as nuclear submarines and nuclear powered missile cruisers may not be a sound substitute for ASF, because, first of all, there’s a need for gaining control over the air space, and for air defense. Also, submarines, as a most effective naval combat means, come short of surface vessels, which can efficiently make a show of power to prevent an armed conflict.

The AC will play the least role in assuring marine security. Frigates and all purpose assault landing ships, like Mistrale, are more than adequate against piracy, humanitarian aid and other similar operations.

Thus, a prospective AC in the Navy’s structure can become a basis of the first “oceanic nucleus” as a “hard force” tool in global policy. Also, an AC is capable to facilitate significantly the coastal fleet and MNDF operations.

The AC of the Future

Photo: Airliners.net
Carrier-based fighter MiG-29K, air show
MAKS-2007

When it comes to a prospective Russian AC, focus is given oftentimes to its exterior, whereas its role and place in the national security policy are drawn to the background. However, any ship’s appearance is determines solely by its combat mission, importance for national naval strategy implementation, and the limited resources available.

Given the above Russian AC applications, it looks most preferred to build a nuclear AC of a draught of 70000 t, provided with catapults and arresting gear to allow heavy aircraft landing. A prospective AC should be a specialized ship with a maximum aviation potential. In this respect, it’s worth rejecting definitively the Soviet concept of equipping AC with strike weapons. It is the escort vessels, which must protect and support an AC in combat.

Prior to new major shipyard construction completion, the unique industrial plants capable of building an AC are Sevmash and the Baltiyskiy Plant. Special tribute should be given to Sevmash, which is about to complete the historic project of Vikramaditya AC upgrade for the Indian Navy. Russia’s cooperation with India, which is building its first AC and planning to build another one, looks to be most relevant for building a Russian AC.

During this decade, Sevmash and the Baltiyskiy Plant will be loaded with nuclear submarine, ice-breaker and Mistrale construction programs, including nuclear cruiser 1144 restoration. This may hinder the start of the Russian AC project. Mistrale construction and nuclear cruiser restoration calls for coastal infrastructure development. It stands to reason to create the latter while aiming at a new Russian AC construction.

Creating a Navy capable to operate at least 1 to 2 AC is an imperative.

Apart from the lack of the relevant infrastructure, it is worth looking at such a serious issue as AC and its air-wing crew provision. Training a ship-based aircraft pilot requires about $2,000,000 a year. Currently, Russia enjoys a single carrier-borne aviation regiment (279) and less than 20 trained pilots, i.e. less than astronauts! While the AC personnel totals over 1000 (over 2500 on Admiral Kuznetsov AC). It’s becoming ever harder to recruit and train such personnel in the context of service length reduction.

Significant obstacles may appear when building an AC with catapults, not a spring board as available on Admiral Kuznetsov. Russia does not enjoy a record of catapult-carrying AC construction and operation. On the other hand, building an AC itself is the easiest phase in AC force development.

The hardest issue is carrier-borne aviation development. In a foreseeable future, especially with a high-rate upgrade of Mig 29K, the latter will become the main ship-based aircraft of Russia to replace Su 33. Yet a sound deck-based air wing may not be created without an airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) and a radioelectronic warfare (REW) aircraft based probably on Mig 29K. Not so urgent, yet fairly helpful would be the development of a tanker and a transport aircraft for ship-based aviation.

From Desire to Reality

Photo: Serial corvette project 20380 - "Resistant"

Another important objective is to determine how many AC are required for Russia’s national security. The AC proponents mention six allocated evenly between the Pacific and North Fleets. This will allow each of those to keep one AC on duty in the World Ocean. The rest will undergo maintenance and repair as well as train their crews.

However, an obvious problem crops up in here, i.e. a catastrophic reduction of vessels in the Russian Navy. As noted earlier, the Navy has not received new ships over the last two decades. The Soviet legacy still retains its combat capability, but even presently there’s often a lack of ships just to escort nuclear submarine sorties for alert duty. The coming 15 years will see a large-scale write off of outdated and worn-out vessels. In the event new 100 to 150 combat ships are not built, Russia will effectively forfeit its Navy. The country has neither escort, nor crews for the six AC.

Thus, AC construction by Russia will require in the coming 15 years a sizable number of main-type combat ships as a foundation for normal carrier-borne aviation and MNDF operation. In parallel, an appropriate environment has to be prepared for AC construction, i.e. infrastructure, training for the naval and shipyards personnel, as well as AWACS and REW aircraft development.

Once these objectives are fulfilled, new Russian AC construction may become worthwhile, to first complete and then replace Admiral Kuznetsov. Creating a Navy capable to operate at least 1 to 2 AC is an imperative, which, if not lived up to, will deny Russia the protection of its 4000km of sea border and its national interests in the World Ocean.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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