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Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Made the Navy Sweat for 1 Reason: They Thought It Might Sink

Russia Admiral Kuznetsov. Image Credit: Image Creative Commons.
Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia is not an aircraft carrier superpower. But it does have one carrier that can cause a lot of trouble not because it can launch some sort of massive strike – but that the U.S. Navy thought she might sink while being deployed: 

So many jokes could be made about the Russian Navy’s flagship aircraft cruiser Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov – or Admiral Kuznetsov, for shortthat most comedians would run out of time before they ever ran out of material. The cursed carrier has been plagued with endless problems, and it is unclear when – or even if – the Cold War-era warship will ever return to service.

Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier

Image: Creative Commons.

What wasn’t a laughing matter is that in late 2011, some United States Navy officials feared the carrier would sink in the Mediterranean Sea as she struggled during her only fourth deployment from her northern base to reach the Russian naval facilities in Syria. The concern was reportedly so great that the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet was even tasked with maintaining contact in case the carrier floundered.

The fears were actually well-founded, as just two years earlier Admiral Kuznetsov suffered a fire at sea while deployed to the Mediterranean, resulting in the death of a sailor onboard. In addition, the flattop – which had notoriously and routinely belched black smoke – spilled hundreds of tons of fuel into the sea while refueling.

Unlike western vessels that use gas turbines or nuclear power, the Russian flattop uses mazut as fuel, which often results in a trail of heavy black smoke that can be seen from great distances. Such a smoke signal is hardly ideal as it practically announces the location of the carrier.

Moreover, at best, the flattop’s endurance is a mere 45 days, while Russia has few ports where the aircraft cruiser could operate year-round. During deployments, the carrier was often escorted with tugs in case she were to break down. Worst of all, the carrier relies on a bow ski ramp to launch fighters, and the Russian designs are ill-suited to the task.

Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

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

She Made It Home to Russia (Barely)

It is hard to say for sure if the U.S. Navy’s concerns were overstated – and perhaps they were meant to make the Russian warship look bad (not that much effort was required) – but in fairness, Admiral Kuznetsov did manage to make it to Syria and back to her home port at Severomorsk near Murmansk.

Yet, the problem hasn’t gotten better, and after breaking down in a storm in late 2015, the carrier had to be towed back to port.

While the original plan from the Kremlin had been to retire the warship by the end of this decade, it isn’t clear if she’d return to service in time to be retired. The vessel has been undergoing a refit since 2018, and just last month, it was reported that the warship had suffered another repair delay and won’t likely reenter service until 2024… at the very earliest. A source in the Russian defense sector told state media that there have been defects in the work, and as a result, Admiral Kuznetsov will remain in dry dock for refit longer than initially planned.

The time already spent in the repair facilities hasn’t really improved matters, and in some ways, those efforts have been to blame for the delays.

In November 2018, Admiral Kuznetsov was damaged when a 70-ton floating crane fell on the warship’s flight deck, which tragically killed one worker and injured four more. It was just over a year later that a fire broke out in the engine room during a welding accident; and it resulted in the death of two, while 14 more suffered injuries from fire and smoke inhalation. In addition, the actual drydock, which was vital to the repairs, was also damaged during a power outage, further delaying the refit.

Admiral Kuznetsov

Admiral Kuznetsov in the waters south of Italy with USS Deyo, foreground, steaming off her port side.

Corruption has also contributed to the lack of progress on the carrier’s refit. In March 2021, Yevgeny Zudin, general director of Shipyard No. 10 in Polyarny, was arrested under suspicion of the theft of 45 million rubles (approximately $600,000) that had been allocated to the repair of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet flagship.

Given these factors, the best option would be for the Kremlin to cut its losses and deep-six this sad excuse of a warship. For now, it is just a hole in the water that Russia keeps pouring money into with no end in sight – while the carrier is truly the biggest joke floating (or barely floating as the case may be).

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.