Russia only has one aircraft carrier (and it’s on the brink)

The Russian Navy is clearly not in the best of times thanks to the war in Ukraine. And to make matters worse for Putin and company, Moscow’s only aircraft carrier appears to be in serious trouble and may never sail again. Many would view the carrier as the ultimate asset for projecting naval power and a necessary part of a modern navy. Yet the only Russian carrier, Admiral Kuznetsovis a decades-old relic renowned for its repeated failures.

The Kuznetsov had been lying idle for three years awaiting major overhauls since a crane crashed into it and helped sink its initial drydock. Speculation has swirled over the ship’s future, with many wondering whether or not it made sense for the Russian government to continue investing in the aging carrier. Indeed, this ship, originally produced in Soviet-era Ukraine, has a poor track record.

Admiral Kuznetsov, History

Although launched in 1985, the ship has only been deployed in combat once – to Syria in 2016-2017 to provide air support to Bashar al-Assad.

While operating off the coast, two fighters were lost when they were unable to stop their planes on landing due to faulty arrestor wires.

This eventually led to the rest of the planes parked on the Kuznetsov being moved to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, raising the question of why an aircraft carrier was needed in the eastern Mediterranean in the first place.

In addition to these problems, the Kuznetsov has over the years had several fires killing many sailors and an oil spill releasing 300 metric tons of oil off the coast of Ireland. For its technical problems, the carrier is embarrassed by a repair ship and tugs at sea in the event of a breakdown.

But with the creation of a massive and recently expanded drydock at Russia’s Seymorput shipyard in the Murmansk region, it appears Putin’s regime has doubled down on its commitment to repairing and modernizing the Kuznetsovkeeping it in service longer than expected.

Kuznetsov needs a lot of work

The current expectation is an upgrade of the propulsion systems, sensors, electronics and part of the ship’s fighter jets. Some have also suggested that the KuznetsovP-700 cruise missiles could be replaced by Zircon hypersonic missiles.

However, partly due to the failure of the original drydock, these changes continue to be pushed back. The most recent estimate provided by Russia is that the Kuznetsov will be operational by summer 2023. If not, it will have to wait until the following season to start testing – if repairs continue after September, seasonal ice will form around Murmansk, making these testing impossible until temperatures warm up again. With the new drydock needing at least two to three months to just pump water to start on the ship, it is unclear whether the carrier will be ready by September next year.

The ever-present pain of international sanctions imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only making matters worse for the Russian Navy. Tight budgets and ongoing supply chain issues will continue to plague the Russian defense industry.

It is therefore difficult to say with great precision whether Admiral Kuznetsov will actually be able to sail in the summer of 2023. A history of failures and delays coupled with Russia’s growing economic isolation makes one skeptical.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was a Civil Resistance Researcher in International Security Studies and Editor of the Fletcher Security Review.

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