There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet about the allegedly “obsolescent” Russian “aircraft carrier” Admiral Kuznetsov being deployed off Syria, and what it might mean.
The first thing wrong with the talk over this is the fact that the Admiral Kuznetsov isn’t an aircraft carrier at all, and isn’t classified as one; the Russians always insist on calling it an “aircraft carrying heavy cruiser”.
The difference isn’t just semantic; it indicates a deep, fundamental doctrinal difference between Russian and Western roles of specialist aircraft carrying ships.
For the Western navies, aircraft carriers have – ever since the Second World War – served the purpose of power projection, that is, supporting naval fleets in campaigns against land targets by bombing and provision of air cover. Fighting against other naval forces has been a secondary role and hasn’t been resorted to after the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 (in which the main carrier effort was still directed towards bombing Japanese land forces). Basically, aircraft carriers have been the equivalent of the big guns of battleships, supporting (imperialist) invasions of sovereign nations which are unable to fight back on equal terms, and the ships have been constructed to serve that purpose. Western aircraft carriers are the 21st Century equivalents of British gunboats of the colonial era, meant to bludgeon uppity natives into submission.
Therefore, modern Western carriers have been basically upgraded WWII carriers; big ships with an enormous aircraft group, capable of launching huge numbers of heavily armed aircraft on strike missions against enemy forces, but unable to adequately defend themselves and thus relying on a very large escort force of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.
To most efficiently use these aircraft, they need to carry a heavy war load aloft, enough to make worthwhile the effort of sending them against land targets. To do this, they can’t take off under their own power, because even the largest aircraft carrier flight deck is a very small runway for modern jet aircraft. One solution which was tried and found severely wanting was the vertical take-off and landing concept, using aeroplanes like the Sea Harrier. VTOL planes are fine in theory, and in the early 1980s were assumed to be the up and coming thing of the future, rather like “stealth” planes are these days. But it was all too soon discovered that VTOL ability also made planes slow and drastically limited their weapon loads (again, exactly like “stealth”) and the concept has now been given a decent burial, with even the Indian Navy having abandoned it.
This is also the fate I guarantee for “stealth” in the not too distant future.
The VTOL concept having proved unworkable, the Western navies concentrated on further developing the CATOBAR carrier. These are fitted with one or more catapults, another WWII origin technology, where the aeroplanes are launched with the help of a steam-powered shuttle attached to a rail sunk inside the deck. This is capable of accelerating an aeroplane in a fraction of a second from standstill to a speed where it can get airborne.
Here is a clear explanation of how a catapult works.
The catapult has many advantages:
First, it allows aircraft to take off with much greater loads of fuel and ordnance than they otherwise could.
Secondly, it allows multiple planes to be launched simultaneously, because a large carrier can have as many as four catapults on its flight deck, all in use at the same time.
Third, the planes’ engines do not have to operate at maximum capacity to generate thrust at take-off, something which reduces their service life.
Fourth, it allows carriers to launch heavy, slow, fixed wing anti-submarine and AWACS aircraft, which are far more capable than helicopters attempting to fill the same role.
However, catapults tend to be very expensive, very high-maintenance, and technologically very complex, which is why very few carriers from any navy these days have them. Not even the Indian, Chinese and British carriers now being constructed have catapults, while the US Navy’s new electromagnetic catapult system (EMALS), supposed to replace the old steam powered catapult, has been by all accounts far less than satisfactory. In the not too distant past – the 1970s-1980s – aircraft carriers like the Indian Navy’s Vikrant and Viraat have actually had their catapults removed as part of their service upgrades and refits.
As such, calling the Admiral Kuznetsov “obsolescent” just because it doesn’t carry catapults is ridiculous.
The Soviet, and Russian, idea of the role of carriers has – to date, but not necessarily in future – been completely different. From the beginning, there was a lot of debate in the USSR on the role of the carrier, with naval opinion divided between a US Navy style power projection carrier and a different type meant for a different purpose. Ultimately, the Soviet Navy chose the second option: a ship whose primary purpose was not to attack land targets, but to protect other sections of the fleet from air attack. At the time this was logical. After all, the USSR wasn’t in the business of Vietnam-style imperial adventures against target nations on the other side of the planet.
For this, obviously, you need a different style of ship from the Western CATOBAR carrier. You need a ship which is able to defend itself, because otherwise the fleet it’s supposed to protect will have to expend all its energies in defending it. This is why Russian “carriers” have always had a very heavy defensive suite of missiles. Secondly, the aeroplanes it carries don’t necessarily have to take off with maximum weapons load, just weapons enough to deter attacking aircraft. Catapults, with their demands on space and maintenance, are not what such ships need; there’s little point in having a ship which is laid up in port having its catapults serviced when you need it on the high seas to save your other ships from attack.
At first the USSR tried to outfit its “carriers” with VTOL aircraft; the ships were large cruisers, with the front deck occupied by missile launchers, and a small flat flight deck on the port side, which had neither catapults nor any other take-off aid of any kind. The VTOL aeroplane carried, the YAK 38, proved even less capable than the Sea Harrier, and its planned replacement was scuppered when the USSR collapsed. The ships, too, had many problems in their planned roles, being able to accommodate only a few aircraft, which were unlikely to survive long in combat. So by the early 1980s the USSR finally, and belatedly, abandoned the VTOL carrier for a design equipped with a ski jump, which allows conventional aeroplanes to take off on their own power, albeit with a drastically reduced weapons load.
Ski jumps, which are almost universal now on non-American carriers, work by functionally lengthening the flight deck within the available area by raising the bow of the ship upwards, so that planes can have a longer take off run to generate lift without lengthening the deck space. Their advantage is that they are cheap and require zero maintenance. However, they are unusable by slow, heavily laden aircraft like fixed wing reconnaissance and anti-submarine planes, which is a serious handicap. Also, though jet fighters can use them, they limit the aircrafts’ take-off weight, put great strain on their engines, and slow the launching rate since only one plane can be launched at a time.
The Admiral Kuznetsov was the first and only surviving member of this new ski-jump equipped Russian aircraft carrying cruiser class. (The second is the former Varyag, which became the Chinese Liaoning. The former Admiral Gorshkov, which is much smaller, was built as a typical aircraft carrying Kiev-class VTOL cruiser, but was converted to a mini-Kuznetsov class ship, the Indian Vikramaditya, a few years ago. Both these ships are, though, classed as aircraft carriers and do not serve the same role as the Kuznetsov.) However, the Kuznetsov was never intended to be the apex of Soviet carrier design. That role was to be served by the planned Ulyanovsk, a giant carrier that was to be equipped with both catapults and a ski jump. Unfortunately, the partially built Ulyanovsk was scrapped in 1992 after the USSR collapsed.
This article, while dated – it is from the mid-1990s – gives a fairly good account of the USSR’s carrier design history, and is still fairly relevant because from the time it was written till today the Russians have not acquired a single new aircraft carrier, aircraft carrying cruiser, or any variant thereof.
Another problem the Russian Navy faced after the crash of the USSR was that the aircraft carrying cruiser manufacturing shipyards were all in Ukraine, and were lost. For decades the Russian Navy didn’t just lack new carriers – it didn’t even have the facilities to construct one even if it wanted to. Only now, after the very long conversion of the Admiral Gorshkov into the Vikramaditya, a process that took the better part of a decade, does it begin to approximate those capabilities. In the meantime the Admiral Kuznetsov became little better than a prestige item, a showpiece that flew the flag and kept Russian naval fixed wing shipborne aviation (barely) in existence.
This may as well be the right place in this article to point out that if you intend to have any carriers in future at all, keeping shipborne aviation in existence is important. The British, pioneers of the aircraft carrier concept, have at this point zero carriers left, though they are building a couple. In the meantime, they are using American carriers to keep their pilots used to landing and taking off from a flight deck, which is a rather more complex affair than landing and taking off from a land airport.
With the Russian intervention in Syria, however, the Russian Navy began an evident rethink of the role of a carrier. After the American destruction of Libya and now the terrorist campaign against Syria, it seems Russia has finally started evaluating aircraft carriers in the Western sense – as power projection platforms intended to intervene in land conflicts, not just protection of the fleet in naval battles. Why?
The answer lies in the kind of warfare America is waging against Russia. Ever since the Afghan jihad Jimmy Carter launched in 1979, America uses jihadi headhunters as proxies against Russian-friendly nations across the planet, as it did in Libya, as it is doing in Syria, as it actually did against Russia itself in Chechnya. In order not to be strangled strategically and economically, Russia may increasingly have to intervene to turn the tide against the cannibals, as it is doing in Syria; and air strikes against them will be an essential component of such interventions. Not everywhere, as in Syria, can Russia be sure of having access to land bases. Besides, as the Arctic ice cap melts, Russian carriers may increasingly be necessary to defend economic resources like oil and minerals which become available. For both these roles, fleet protection is irrelevant, but power projection is vital. And for that Russia needs aircraft carriers, not defensive heavy cruisers.
And that is why the Kuznetsov has been deployed off Syria and conducting air strikes there. The carrier isn’t either necessary to the war effort there, or going to be (with its limited air group, which can only take off with a fraction of the weapons the planes can carry) particularly effective, but it gives the Russian Navy, for the first time ever, experience in a field of activity (power projection) its Western rivals have been carrying out for over seventy years. It should be understood as combat training more than anything else.
Meanwhile, after all these years, the Russians seem to have decided to construct a new class of aircraft carriers. When, or even whether, these ships – the Project 23000E Storm as it is called – will be built is far from certain, but the design is of a genuine aircraft carrier, not a compromise like the Kuznetsov, and will definitely include catapults, with or without supplementary ski jumps. While Western articles about this project have been sneering and condescending, the Russian use of the Kuznetsov off Syria seems to indicate that the Russian Navy, at least, has decided where its main priorities lie in this regard. And Western sneering has proved unfounded with such regularity that it can be disregarded without any further consideration whatsoever.
In a full scale war between well armed adversaries, though, aircraft carriers are, and will remain, basically sitting ducks. It makes no difference whether they are CATOBAR supercarriers or aircraft carrying heavy cruisers with planes taking off with half full fuel tanks, two missiles, and no ammunition.
It’s just that a full scale war of that nature will go nuclear anyway, and the Russians are gearing up to fight a conflict that stops well short of that.