Saturday, October 22, 2016

Russian naval aviation goes to war

The only Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kusnetzov, is heading toward the Mediterranean to take part in actions in Syria.
If the 15 warplanes on board the Admiral Kuznetsov join the bombardment of Syria, the carrier will have its first active combat role since it was launched more than three decades ago as part of a last gasp by the fading Soviet Union to challenge American naval power.

That is seemingly the intent of the carrier’s current mission — the latest move by President Vladimir V. Putin to flex Russian military muscle abroad and project power anywhere in the world by dispatching a floating air base.

“It is part of Russia signaling that it is back on the world stage, that it is once again a maritime power,” said Magnus Nordenman, the director of the trans-Atlantic security initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington.

In addition, the battle group adds to Russia’s military leverage in diplomatic negotiations with the United States and other Western powers over the future of Syria. Russia has also repeatedly used the Syrian war as a kind of infomercial for its weapons sales.

For the moment, Russia has suspended combat operations in Aleppo, Syria, to give rebel fighters and civilians a chance to escape the siege. Driving the opposition from Aleppo would pave the way for Mr. Assad to rule over some manner of rump state; there is little optimism for a permanent truce.

“The deployment is mainly intended to park an 800-pound gorilla off Syria’s coast to intimidate all comers,” said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.

Many military analysts see the Admiral Kuznetsov as merely a 200-pound gorilla, and consider it a gamble to play gunboat diplomacy with a lumbering tub fit for the scrap heap. The latest excursion is only the eighth long-distance mission for the aircraft carrier, which has been something of a lemon from the start.

“I would sum up its history as ‘tortured,’” Mr. Nordenman said.

The carrier underwent repairs from 1996 to 1998, from 2001 to 2004, and in 2008, and its deck and electronic plant were replaced in the past two years, according to Russian news reports.

It is expected back in dry dock after the Syria deployment because its propulsion system needs to be replaced.

Whenever it went to sea over the years, the Admiral Kuznetsov was prone to accidents.

The United States Navy came to its aid during one Mediterranean training exercise in 1996, when the machinery used to distill fresh water from seawater malfunctioned, leaving its crew of nearly 2,000 sailors with a severe shortage of fresh water. The carrier polluted the Irish Sea at one point with a gigantic oil spill, and a fire on board killed a crew member in 2009.

The technology used to launch airplanes is considered obsolete. Most modern carriers fling their fighter jets skyward with a kind of catapult, allowing them to carry a full contingent of fuel and weapons. Planes launched from the Admiral Kuznetsov wobble aloft from a sort of ski jump, forcing them to take off without a full load.

The warship will hug the Syrian coastline, allowing planes to perform bombing runs and return to the ship’s deck before running out of fuel, according to an unidentified source cited by the Tass news agency.

The deployment will include the first of the new MiG-29K/KUB fighters, a modernized version of that MiG jet, and the Su-33a, as well as 15 helicopters, according to Tass. “This is a potent force,” said Prokhor Tebin, a Russian who writes a blog about the country’s navy.
So after this trip "Smoky Nick" will have to have its propulsion systems replaced, assuming it doesn't damage itself enough to justify scrapping it. In the Soviet Navy, the only thing more dangerous to its crew than the Kuznetsov is a nuclear sub.


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