Eight months after the PD-50 floating dry dock sank in an accident at the No. 82 ship repair yard near Roslyakovo, Russian media reported that the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) has developed a plan to complete the renovation and modernization of its lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
On 7 May 2019, Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) told the state-owned news agency TASS that the ship would be dry docked at the 35th Ship Repair Plant in 2020, “provided the facilities required are in place and the dock’s capacity is increased.” Further qualifying that the overhaul was “a complex package of measures,” USC admitted it could “foresee a certain postponement.” Nevertheless, the company asserted that the deadline for the ship to return to service would remain 2021. This begs the question: Should Russia overhaul the Kuznetsov?
USC president Alexei Rakhmanov had previously announced that USC would be carrying out planned modernization of the No. 35 Ship Repair Plant at Murmansk ahead of schedule to provide a dry dock large enough to complete repairs on the carrier, something the Northern Fleet has lacked since the loss of the PD-50. An industry source told Kommersant in March that the No. 35 Ship Repair Plant had two adjacent 200-meter long dry docks and “the modernization project involves combining them: they simply break the wall between them to squeeze Kuznetsov into it.” However, the modifications may not be as easy as the source would have us believe; even after the two dry docks are combined, they will have to be lengthened to accommodate the 305-meter (270m at the waterline) aircraft carrier, and a new gate structure of the combined dock will have to be custom fabricated.
According to state-owned RIA Novosti, USC secured financing for the work from a Russian bank on 25 June 2019, and work on the dry dock project is set to begin on 1 July 2019.
If past performance is any indicator of future results, there are good reasons to doubt the timetable for the Kuznetsov modernization. Reports vary on the extent of the dry-dock work that remains, but almost certainly includes replacing boilers and power generators, refitting the ship’s screws, and performing other hull work. These tasks remain separate from repairing or replacing the arresting gear, communications, and navigation systems. There has also been talk of removing the existing 1980s-era air-defense missiles and replacing them with the highly touted Pantsir-M defense system. Considering the necessary dry dock modifications, the current fiscal realities the Russian government is facing under sanctions and lower oil prices, and endemic corruption, the Kuznetsov may be undergoing modernization for the foreseeable future.
Following an opinion piece in state-owned Izvestiya by noted military expert Ilya Kramnik in April, a spate of Western articles claimed Moscow was going to scrap the notorious carrier. The claim derived from a source who said it made sense for Russia to divert the resources needed to repair and modernize the Kuznetsov to instead build a pair of modern frigates or a modern nuclear submarine. Unfortunately, these articles virtually ignored some of the options Kramnik laid out for returning the Kuznetsov to service. They also missed Kramnik’s larger point:
The Northern Fleet, fulfilling the most important tasks of ensuring the country’s security in the Arctic, has chronic infrastructure problems that seriously affect its combat capability . . . Repair of Navy ships should be provided with its own capacities, the use of which will not affect the plans for the construction of new combat units.
Victor Sokirko took a similarly sober view of Kuznetsov’s “stalling” in its repair and modernization in an article in Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press) in mid-June 2019. Sokirko compared the “Kuzya” (the diminutive form of the ship’s name) to a junker car, in which everything only worked as if by God’s will. “It is large, roomy, and, sure, the neighbors don’t have one like it, but it’s a gas guzzler, it can’t accelerate like it used to, and, yes, one gets fed up with the breakdowns,” Sokirko exclaimed with a touch of sarcasm.
A self-described proponent of carriers, Sokirko explained that the main use for carriers and, more accurately, surface combatants and submarines was to act as a spoiler for the U.S. Navy. Sokirko argued that a modest force can tie up and redirect resources of a potential adversary. “During the Syrian conflict, Russia demonstrated that these operational and tactical developments are not lost,” Sokirko proclaimed, “Therefore, the question of the value and necessity of aircraft carriers for Russia today, I believe, will continue to remain a matter of discussion.”
In many respects, the current plight of the Admiral Kuznetsov is reminiscent of the modernization efforts on the Admiral Nakhimov, a nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruiser. The Nakhimov has been undergoing a complete overhaul and modernization at Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk since 2006, and has taken up a semi-permanent residence in the large dry dock there since 2015. Russian media routinely announce that work is proceeding and Nakhimov will be rejoining the fleet, yet it languishes in the shipyard with work performed in seeming stops and starts.
Rather than decommission it, the Kuznetsov may face a similar future of perpetual ongoing modernization. Such a course of action could save the Russian government the embarrassment of having to scrap the carrier without having to spend large sums of money it does not have to renovate a platform of questionable utility. Nevertheless, the Northern Fleet needs infrastructure to make up for the loss of the PD-50 to maintain and overhaul surface combatants. Ship Repair Yard No. 35’s dry dock project is by no means a silver bullet to address the problems—and may exacerbate ship maintenance issues in the short term while the dry docks are offline—but it is probably the only realistic option to bring Kuznetsov back to service, whenever that may occur.
As Russia’s only aircraft carrier and its flagship, the Kuznetsov’s main mission is projecting national prestige. From that perspective, Russia must overhaul her and get her back into service as quickly as possible. But from the perspective of utility to current Russian Navy strategy, “Kuzya” is a huge resource sump that will never offer as much value as several Yasen-class fast attack submarines or a squadron of small, lethal missile patrol boats. She has never performed her original mission of extending Russia’s defensive perimeter, nor has she been a reliable power projection platform. The ship has suffered her share of power plant, hull, aircraft launch and recovery, electrical and mechanical problems, and is expensive to man and maintain.
Russia will be doing NATO and the U.S. Navy a huge favor if it decides to spend the money, repair-yard time, and human capital needed to overhaul the ski-jump-ramp carrier that is clearly an albatross of the Cold War era.