What if you had a ship but not enough trained sailors to run it? That is the dilemma facing the troubled Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Russia’s only aircraft carrier reportedly doesn’t have a crew and it will need a full contingent of personnel if it is to take any voyage in 2024.
Where Are the New Sailors Coming From?
Now the Russian navy is contemplating the best way to recruit and train a full force of sailors to guide the Kuznetsov on the high seas. Russia news outlet Izvestia reported on April 10 that the crew for the carrier is being “reformed.” The process for picking sailors for the carrier is a long one, and it is not clear when the effort started, according to Russian naval sources quoted in Izvestia. There is a war on, of course, and Russia is sending any available recruits to the front in Ukraine, robbing the navy of potential manpower.
Specialized Crew Is Needed
Russia could draft new citizens to become sailors, but a carrier requires personnel that can deftly maneuver around a flight deck as well as launch and secure numerous aircraft takeoffs and landings. Plus, the carrier would need more engineers familiar with the ship’s propulsion system that relies on a thick, tarry substance called mazut. These sailors would need an unknown amount of preparation before they would be ready to staff and operate a carrier.
Training naval sources, said in Izvestia, could take months even if old and new sailors could be recruited tomorrow. They would need to get used to the new systems and focus on the intricate choreography of flight deck operations.
The Kuznetsov requires a 1,500-person crew. Supposedly, the refurbished ship will have some automated systems so fewer sailors would be needed. The previous crew size before the refit period was as high as 1,900 people. New electronic gear and better armaments will require specialized training for the new sailors.
The Drive.com’s War Zone said that the ship would need “officers, midshipmen sailors, motorists, navigators and signalmen – specialists in the operation and maintenance of aviation equipment will also need to be recruited.” This personnel may not be ready for immediate deployment.
Past Difficulties Suggest the Carrier Is Cursed with Bad Luck
The Russian navy wanted the Kuznetsov to be ready by 2021, but numerous accidents afflicted the carrier. In 2019, there was a fire in the engine room from a welding mishap and two workers died. Fourteen more suffered from smoke inhalation and burns. In 2018, a floating crane crashed into the Kuznetsov’s deck in an accident that killed one worker and injured four others. There was even a crime of embezzlement relating to the shipyard in 2021. In December 2022, there was another fire onboard.
There are many experts who believe this aircraft carrier may never sail again.
Not Combat Effective
The Russian navy could try and transfer skilled officers and noncommissioned officers from other ships, but these sailors would need to quickly become experts in working on a carrier. This inexperience could lead to yet another accident.
Delays in executing these staffing maneuvers would also affect the combat readiness of the ship. Russia could try and locate older personnel that served on the Kuznetsov previously, but these sailors may be retired from the navy and too advanced in age to serve again.
That leaves out pilots and support technicians for the various airplanes that would be deployed on the carrier. These aircrews are employed in the Ukrainian theater and likely not sitting around waiting for a call from the Kuznetsov. The ship can only carry 24 aircraft, but it may be difficult to track down enough pilots and maintenance specialists to staff the airplanes.
This is another embarrassing development for Vladimir Putin’s navy. The maritime branch was supposed to be fully modernized by now, but there are not enough carrier-qualified sailors for the Kuznetsov. This will likely cause more extended delays. It also shows that the Russian navy is overrated and has not made a difference in Ukraine. Creating a blue water navy that can project power outside of Russia’s immediate region has proved difficult if not impossible for Moscow. The lack of crew for the carrier is another mazut-blackened eye, and it remains to be seen whether Russia can transform its navy to past glory.
Author Expertise and Experience
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood 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. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.