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Admiral Kuznetsov: Is Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Doomed?

Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Published on 2/10/2023 – Russia’s sole aircraft carrier has been plagued with a litany of fires, accidents, and corruption throughout its lifespan. The Navy Flagship’s ongoing overhaul initially began in 2017, only to be stagnated by a series of unfortunate events that have delayed the vessel’s return to service. Just a few weeks following a “minor” fire that broke out onboard the ship in December, Ukraine’s defense ministry revealed that the Admiral Kuznetsov was incapable of moving under its own power.

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Amidst these setbacks, the Russian-state media outlet TASS recently reported that the cruiser is scheduled to move from the dry dock by mid-February. However, it would not be an anomaly for Moscow to claim that the production of military equipment is proceeding “on schedule” when this is not the reality. 

While Moscow’s sole carrier does pack a lot of missile punch …

Named after a revered USSR Admiral Nikolay Gerasimovich Kuznetsov, Russia’s oldest and singular aircraft carrier was originally commissioned in the Soviet Navy in 1985. The vessel’s design and purpose were to support and defend missile-carrying submarines and other missile-carrying aircraft in the Navy as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser.” 

The carrier features at least 24 rotary-style vertical launch systems, with eight missile cells each. These systems can potentially fire a staggering 192 SA-N-9 “Gauntlet” point air defense missiles, which could help the ship defend against anti-ship missiles, surface ships, and even aircraft. The Drive details that the Kuznetsov is equipped with several “anti-submarine defenses with a pair of UDAV-1 anti-submarine/anti-torpedo rocket systems.” Additionally, the vessel sports six AK-630 cannons as well as eight Kashtan missile/cannon CIWS systems

… It also sports some significant design flaws

The black smoke that engulfs the Kuznetsov when it actually runs perhaps symbolizes the carrier’s decrepit nature. Mazut – the extremely thick, tarry substance that powers Russia’s sole aircraft carrier produces a black smoke that, when burned, makes the ship visible from miles away. Other flaws related to the vessel’s construction have amplified the smoke problem

Since Mazut is a particularly challenging fuel source, proper boiler and piping installations are necessary to ensure it can be adequately preheated and pressurized. However, insufficient piping installed during the carrier’s initial construction has made it difficult for its boilers to operate at full capacity simultaneously.

This dilemma undoubtedly added fuel to the fire – or black smoke. 

A brief and bleak history of The Admiral Kuznetsov

In addition to its shoddy construction, Moscow’s aircraft carrier has suffered from a myriad of unfortunate events. Back in 2018, a floating crane fell onto the carrier’s deck, killing one worker and injuring several more.

One year later, a fire caused by a welding mishap in the vessel’s engine room sent 14 employees to the hospital and killed two others. Perhaps most depressing is the carrier’s operational history.

In the thirty-eight years since being launched, the Admiral Kuznetsov has only been deployed to combat one time – to Syria in 2016-2017. During this deployment, two airframes were lost when faulty arresting wires failed to secure their landing.

This event actually forced the rest of the airframes positioned on the carrier to be moved to an airbase in Syria, rendering the presence of the carrier useless. 

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s recent accusation regarding the Kuznetsov’s lack of power is only the latest apparent mishap to have impacted the carrier. This claim – coupled with the “minor” fire that erupted onboard the ship in December, does not suggest the Kuznetsov is ready for a re-launch anytime soon.

In fact, prospects for the aircraft carrier’s quick recommission is murky at best.  

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Author Expertise and Experience 

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.