Naval aviation is perhaps the component of the Russian Navy most frequently ignored and difficult to analyze. The air group aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which recently conducted combat sorties over Syria, is only a small part of the country’s overall naval aviation force. While the carrier’s deployment to the eastern Mediterranean in late 2016 made world-wide headlines, the rest of Russian naval aviation is undergoing a revival.
Russian carrier aviation currently is based on a single ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov.* When she sailed from the Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean last fall with several major surface combatants in company, the carrier’s air group consisted of: ten Su-33 Flanker-D’s, five newer MiG-29 Fulcrums, and an assortment of Ka-27 Helix antisubmarine helicopters and Ka-31 Helix airborne early warning helicopters. Several of the new naval variants of the Ka-52K Katran attack helicopters also were on board the carrier during operations off Syria. The Su-33 Flanker-D is primarily an air superiority, all-weather fighter, capable of carrying a variety of unguided bombs. The MiG-29K multirole fighter, meant to be the Su-33’s replacement, carries laser- and electro-optical-guided precision munitions.
The Admiral Kuznetsov’s combat debut off Syria in November went relatively poorly. The ship has a notoriously faulty pressure-fired boiler system and is underpowered, belching black smoke as she sails. As a consequence of her limited top speed and ski-jump design, aircraft takeoff weights were constrained. The carrier air group’s greatest limitation, however, is not technical but human. Russia reportedly has more planes than carrier-qualified pilots.
Early in operations off Syria, a MiG-29K reportedly suffered an engine problem, lost power, and crashed into the sea. The pilot survived. Three weeks later a Su-33 broke an arresting cable on landing and rolled off the deck for a second aircraft loss. The air group subsequently transferred to the Russian air base in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that more than 400 sorties were flown from the carrier while off Syria, more realistic estimates place the number closer to 150.
The Admiral Kuznetsov’s main role has always been “status projection” or political presence rather than power projection. Russia retained the ship and sustained a nascent carrier aviation component for the appearance of being a major naval power. The aircraft carrier, with embarked fixed-wing fighter/attack aircraft, is a type of capital ship that few countries possess, conferring a degree of prestige on any nation able to send one to sea.
After her Mediterranean deployment, the Admiral Kuznetsov entered a multiyear overhaul and modernization at the massive Sevmash shipyard at Severodvinsk in northern Russia. While in the yard, the carrier will receive a modernization package, focusing on the flight deck, arresting gear and air craft handling components of the ship. Speculation remains on whether or not more serious problems will be addressed such as the ship’s notoriously troublesome propulsion.
The Russian government periodically announces plans for new carrier construction. Beginning in 1967, when the missile cruiser-helicopter carrier Moskva joined the fleet, the Nikolayev shipyard on the Black Sea produced a second ship of that type, followed by four vertical/short take-off and landing carriers of the Kiev class, and then two “conventional” aircraft carriers of the Riga class, one of which is the Admiral Kuznetsov. Although only one of those eight ships today remains under the Russian flag, a Kiev-class carrier now serves as India’s Vikramaditya, and the Admiral Kuznetsov’s sister ship serves as the Chinese Liaoning. Any future Russian carrier construction is expected to take place at the Sevmash yard in northern Russia, as Nikolayev is now in Ukraine.
The real “teeth” of Russian naval aviation are land-based aircraft, and this is where interesting changes are in progress. Each of the four Russian fleets has a dozen or more Su-24 Fencers—variable-swept-wing attack aircraft intended for the maritime strike role and capable of carrying Kh-31 and Kh-35 air-to-surface missiles. These workhorses are being replaced by a new generation of strike aircraft: the Su-30SM, a heavy, multirole fighter-attack aircraft, reportedly with a six-ton payload. Already in service with the Black Sea Fleet, the aircraft began to be delivered to the Baltic and Northern Fleets in late 2016. These planes will likely be configured to carry the air-launched versions of the advanced SS-N-26 antiship missile as well as older antiship missiles now in service, offering substantial advancement over previous strike aircraft.
The Su-34 Fullback will also take part in the naval strike role. Derived from the Su-27 Flanker airframe, it is a capable, long-range aircraft, perhaps better classified as a medium bomber.
Russia’s principal aircraft in the strike role are the 60 or more Soviet-era Tu-22 Backfire medium bombers. During tumultuous military reforms in 2009, the Russian General Staff transferred the Tu-22 Backfires from the Navy—where they probably were not being well maintained—to the Long-Range Aviation (LRA) component of the Air Force. They remain under LRA control although still are assigned the antiship maritime strike role. They carry the infamous truck-size Kh-22 (NATO AS-4 Kitchen) missile and its upgraded variant, the Kh-32. Backfire bombers carried out combat missions over Syria in 2015 and 2016, dropping unguided bombs, a secondary role for which they were not well suited, but one that nonetheless shows there is still a functioning LRA component in the Russian air arsenal.
In addition to strike aircraft, Russia retains several large Tu-142 Bear-F long-range, antisubmarine aircraft, derived from the venerable Tu-95 Bear platform. The Tu-142s are undergoing modernization, as only a few remain operational in the fleets. They occasionally have been spotted over Syrian coastal waters. Similarly, Il-38 May maritime patrol and submarine-hunting aircraft are being upgraded to the Il-38N configuration with the Novella system, a high-resolution radar, and other new equipment. The Mays are being prioritized for the Pacific Fleet along with the updated Tu-142s. From ships, the antisubmarine role is conducted by Ka-27 Helix helicopters carried on Russian cruisers and destroyers that remain operational, along with newer frigates designed to replace them.
It is difficult to discuss Russian naval aviation without mentioning the saga of Russia’s 2010 deal with France to buy two large, Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. These would have been highly capable, multirole ships for the Russian Navy, modified for larger Ka-27 and Ka-52K helicopters. The deal was scuttled in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea, which resulted in Western sanctions and a political climate that made going forward with the deal impossible for France. After more than a year of discussions, Russia and France amicably parted ways, with the ships being sold to a mutually acceptable third party—Egypt—with funds provided by Saudi Arabia. Moscow made out like a proverbial bandit, recouping its initial deposit of 800 million Euros and doubling its money in rubles when converting at the 2015 exchange rates. Meanwhile Russian funds invested in developing the Ka-52K also were recovered because Egypt bought the Russian helicopters separately for its new ships.
One element of Russian naval aviation often overlooked by Western analysts is its non-strategic nuclear arsenal. Post-Soviet Russia inherited some 20,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons. While that number has been reduced by more than 75 percent, according to Russian statements, it still leaves a notable number of tactical nuclear weapons in the hands of the Russian Navy and Air Force.
Overall, Russian naval aviation might be a small force, but it too is benefiting from a bow wave of modernization across the Russian military. Though mainly shore based, it retains viable capabilities for conventional and nuclear combat.
*The ship originally was classified as a “heavy aircraft carrying cruiser,” reflecting both the air group and an original battery of 12 P-700 Granit long-range cruise missiles (NATO SS-N-19 Shipwreck). During construction, the ship had many names, tracking along with the steady collapse of the Soviet Union and its political changes: the Riga, Leonid Brezhnev, Tbilisi, and, finally, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov. Admiral N.G. Kuznetsov was head of the Soviet Navy in World War II and architect of Josef Stalin’s postwar naval buildup.
Norman Polmar, a Proceedings columnist for 38 years, is coauthor of Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies (1990) and Cold War Submarines (2004). He currently is updating and merging those two books for publication by the Naval Institute Press. Mr. Polmar was the author of four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy.