Russia’s lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, has sat languishing in the 35th Ship Repair Plant in Murmansk since October 2018, when the floating dry dock PD-50 sank from under her, delaying her overhaul and modernization. The “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” (in Russian parlance) has been beset by misfortune since she was commissioned in 1991; however, we should be careful not to focus so much on the unfortunate aircraft carrier as on the infrastructure deficiencies that have let her down—and continue to plague the Russian fleet.
The problems of Russia’s military maintenance and modernization system are not new and are evident now, as its military has underperformed in Ukraine. During the Soviet period, most funding was focused on ship development and production, with little left over for routine upkeep. The privatization of the Russian shipbuilding and maintenance industry in the 1990s brought corruption and inefficiency, and many ships were lost as they rusted away pierside or suffered accidents.
To combat these and other problems, President Vladimir Putin issued an executive order in March 2007 to create the United Shipbuilding Company (USC), a privately administered joint-stock company wholly owned by the Russian government. This new umbrella corporation would administer all military construction, maintenance, and repair contracts.1
The Russian Navy subsequently commenced a project of “new ships on old hulls,” trying to prolong the lifespan of Soviet-built, blue-water platforms by modernizing them with new weapons and electronic systems. Engineers developed a universal vertical launch system (UKSK-M) that could be installed on new platforms or retrofitted on older ships to house new-generation antiship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, and antisubmarine rockets. Design bureaus also developed antiair systems, such as the Pantsir-M, for new and old platforms alike. The program was seen as a way to save time and money.2 Unfortunately for Russia, it did not anticipate infrastructure expenses or the complexity of managing finite shipyard capacity when attempting to build new ships and submarines, maintain active vessels, and resurrect old platforms.
During the Kuznetsov’s 2016–17 deployment to Syria—her first and only combat deployment—the carrier belched black smoke. Although the smoke has been ascribed to different causes, such as the use of low-quality fuel or operator error, in retrospect it appears to have stemmed from the carrier’s powertrain being worn out. Reports emerged that four of her eight KVG-4 boilers were going to be replaced as part of a midlife overhaul.3 According to Russian military analyst Nikolai Starikov, “Having created these gigantic machines, the Soviet Union did not bother with their permanent bases. As a result, instead of getting shore-based electricity and hot water when they were docked, their diesel generators were thrashed, prematurely wearing out their power plants.”4
The Kuznetsov’s issues reflect the structural deficiencies in Moscow’s repair and modernization program. Moreover, her midlife overhaul speaks to the inadequate infrastructure the Russian Navy inherited to keep its ships in service, maintain them, and upgrade them. The 2018 loss of the PD-50 floating dry dock—the only one large enough to handle the biggest naval vessels—forced a reckoning: Moscow’s modernization plan is contingent on infrastructure.
A Step Forward
On 13 April 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Dmitry Bulgakov visited the 35th Ship Repair Plant in Murmansk, where a new, large dry dock is being constructed to finish repairs on the Kuznetsov. During summer 2019, workers began to combine two adjacent 200-meter graving docks into one by removing the wall between them and extending the structure. Shoigu ordered additional workers and equipment, because present efforts were “clearly not enough to ensure the proper pace of such large-scale work that needs to be carried out around the clock.” In addition, the defense minister rejected the explanation from USC president Alexei Rakhmanov that the work was behind schedule because of “unscrupulous activities” by a subcontractor. “We need a dock,” Shoigu implored. “We need to repair and modernize the aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov.”5
A maintenance and overhaul backlog existed before the carrier’s Syria deployment, and the PD-50 accident exacerbated problems. But even separate from the Kuznetsov’s modernization, the Russian Ministry of Defense has recognized the importance of the dry-dock project at the 35th Ship Repair Plant. By spring 2022, commercial satellite imagery from Maxar showed significant progress since Shoigu’s visit, with the graving dock fully enclosed and work begun on the caisson door. Although work on the dock remains, it is reasonable to expect that the Kuznetsov may be docked as soon as this summer, according to TASS, and the shipyard may begin to clear the significant backlog of required maintenance for North Fleet ships and submarines.6
With a length of more than 400 meters and a width of 70 to 120 meters, the footprint of the new dry dock is impressive—and more than adequate
to house the Kuznetsov or to work simultaneously on multiple smaller ships and submarines, as Russia did with PD-50.
The new facility is unlikely to be a panacea for Moscow’s maintenance, repair, and modernization woes, but it
is a start. Before the PD-50 accident, the Kuznetsov was supposed to be returned to service in 2019, but this has slipped to 2023 at the earliest.7 If the shipyards in the Murmansk area can clear the backlog, the navy may be
able to reduce the significant delays to its projects.
Refusing to Give Up on the Carrier
Moscow has written off several of its large, blue-water surface combatants, such as the nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruisers Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Ushakov, but it has decided to invest in infrastructure first and then upgrades to the Kuznetsov and the Kirov-class cruiser Admiral Nakhimov (and possibly eventually the Kirov-class cruiser Peter the Great). Retaining the large platforms reflects the prestige (and trappings) of Russia being a great power, but Moscow also does not want to lose the Kuznetsov’s naval aviation capability as it ponders new aircraft carriers and large amphibious/helicopter-landing ships over the next decade.8
Even with two steps forward and one step back, Russia is investing in its maintenance and modernization infrastructure. While the perennial challenges of corruption, accidents, and funding remain, the development of such infrastructure may pay dividends in the future. Perhaps, this is why Shoigu redoubled efforts at the 35th Ship Repair Plant and why Moscow has refused to write off the Kuznetsov. Of course, the cost of the war in Ukraine and the impact of economic sanctions will demand hard choices from the Kremlin, which could further delay the Kuznetsov and aggravate the Russian Navy’s perennial woes.
1. Irina R. Tulyakova, Elena Gregova, and Victor V. Dengov, “Assessment of Competitiveness of Shipbuilding Industry in Russia,” Naše More Znanstveni Casopis Za More i Pomorstvo 64, no. 3 (2017): 112–19.
2. N. Kovalenko, “Problems of Technical Support to the Navy and How to Solve Them,” Morskoi Sbornik, no. 7, (2019): 54–56.
3. TASS, “Russia to Start Upgrading Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier before July 2018—source,” 3 March 2017, tass.com/defense/933816; and Lenta.ru, “The Zvyozdochka Shipyard Will Purchase Boilers for the Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov,” 27 April 2020.
4. Nikolai Starikov, “Without Aircraft Carriers, But with Pilots. The Russian Navy Looks to the Future,” 12 March 2020, nstarikov.ru/bez-avianoscev-no-s-pilotami-rossijskij-flot-smotrit-v-budushhee-113735.
5. “Shoigu Demanded Acceleration of the Reconstruction of the Dock, Where the Admiral Kuznetsov Should Undergo Repairs,” tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/11136173, 13 April 2021.
6. Naval News Staff, “Russia’s Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to Resume Repairs In June 2022,” www.navalnews.com, 12 November 2021.
7. The Zvyozdochka Shipyard, a subsidiary of USC, posted a tender for paint work to be completed by September 2022, after which the ship would need to undergo factory and state trials before being returned to service. See www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2020/05/russias-aircraft-carrier-admiral-kuznetsov-to-be-ready-for-trials-by-fall-2022/. See also Sergey Shumilin, “The Misadventures of the ‘Kuzi’ Continue. The Aircraft-carrying Cruiser Is in No Hurry to Return to Service,” Naukatehnika.com, 14 April 2020, naukatehnika.com/zloklyucheniya-kuzi-prodolzhayutsya.html.
8. Aleksandr Shishkin, “Russia Will Build Large Landing Ships Better than the Mistral,” Vzglyad, vz.ru/society/2019/12/4/1011079.html.