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Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Is a Black Smoke Mess (And On The Brink of Failure)

Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
A starboard quarter view of the Russian Navy Northern Fleet aircraft carrier ADMIRAL FLOTA SOVETSKOGO SOYUZA KUSNETSOV exercising at sea.

Russia has just one aircraft carrier and it is not exactly ready for action in Ukraine now or in the future. Among the carrier’s countless problems, it won’t stop pumping out wretched black smoke. A top expert explains this challenge and much more: As if the deadly mishaps and accidents were not bad enough, this ship belches out an embarrassing amount of thick, black smoke that reminds everyone how clunky the vessel is. I’m talking about Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, that is now in dry dock for many months. It may not even go out to sea again due to all its maladies. It seems like the Russians are not making carrier operations a priority, which is good for the United States and NATO as the Russian Black Sea fleet currently idles off the coast of Ukraine in danger from further hits from Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.

The Russian Aircraft Carrier Scores High on the Yuck Factor

One aspect of Russia’s struggling aircraft carrier program is the Kuznetsov’s propensity to throw out a plume of dark smoke when sailing. The smoke is a telltale sign the ship is steaming when it’s not in hung up in maintenance. This is a curiosity that prompts further investigation.

It’s Called Mazut

The Kuznetsov runs on a thick, smelly, and toxic substance called Mazut. The only other Russian naval ships that are fueled by Mazut are the Sovremenny-class destroyers. Mazut is a heavy oil product that has varying amounts of sulfur which is harmful to the environment. After the fuel refining process, it has a sludge-like residue. Mazut is also classified in the West as “Bunker-B or Bunker-C” very heavy fuel oils.

Hearkens Back to the Old Days of Shipping

Mazut requires a complicated system of boilers and pipes to process. It is long out-of-date as Western ships began to move away from heavy fuel oils to adopt gas turbine engines for propulsion in the 1960s and 1970s. More advanced navies converted to nuclear power as well.

Pipes and Boilers Are Not Up-to-date 

When the Kuznetsov underwent sea trials in the 1990s there were problems with propulsion. Pipes were defective and this contributed to more issues with the boilers. At one point, the Kuznetsov had only one functioning boiler that resulted in a languishing speed of 4-knots. The boilers are still a problem, and the carrier has resorted to being pulled by tugboats in embarrassing spectacles that happened as recently as 2016.

Can the Russians At Least Try to Fix It?

The boiler difficulties have led to Mazut not being fully combusted and this has been the culprit of all the black smoke. Excess engine lubricant contributes to the problem as well. The Russians hoped to replace the boilers and the primary diesel generator to help the combustion in 2020, but it remains to be seen if this work has been accomplished.

Black Smoke Is Not the Only Problem for this Aircraft Carrier 

What’s more humiliating is that the Kuznetsov has been in re-fit mode since 2018. Little has gone right.

A crane fell on the flight deck in an accident that killed one laborer that year. There was a fire in the engine room in 2019 and two people perished while 14 others were injured. To add to the difficulty, a shipyard director was charged in 2021 for embezzling around $600,000 from the repair budget at the Polyarny Yard.

The dry dock itself is also damaged which means those repairs will elongate the time horizon for ship-work. The carrier may not return to service until sometime in 2024, if ever.

As for the black smoke, it will likely not be addressed by workers before the dry dock is fixed. It seems that Mazut is the least of the ship’s worries. The Admiral Kuznetsov is under plenty of duress that will make its return unlikely any time soon. The black smoke is just a reminder that the carrier has led a cursed life.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.