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Wanna-be Superpower

Russia's carrier fantasy.

12:00 AM, Aug 14, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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COMPLETELY MAD MILITARY DIRECTIVES that have no chance of being fulfilled are usually the sign of a delusional commander in a desperate and hopeless armed conflict. Hitler issuing orders for non-existent, long-ago destroyed armies to attack during his last days in the bunker or Stalin demanding that overrun and demolished armies counterattack against the Wehrmacht invasion in June 1941 are classic examples.

What should one make of the announcement from one of her chief admirals, Vladimir Vystosky, on the July 27 Navy Day holiday, that the Russian navy would add six carriers to its fleet--along with all of the necessary support ships that form a carrier battle group?

Vysotsky did not appear to have started early on the vodka toasts, so instead of the chest-thumping that comes after several rounds he was probably instead following up on a visit made at the beginning of the year by Dimitri Medvedev (then first deputy prime minister) to the Russian naval base at Murmansk. The man who is now president announced then that the Russian Navy's (VMF) powerful status should be revived, "so that Russia would be a maritime and naval power. This work is underway, maybe it is slower than we would like to do it, but we got down to it for the first time in the last 20 years."

Construction of these carriers would begin sometime after 2012, according to Vysotsky. Three of them would be assigned to the Northern Fleet and the other three to the Pacific Fleet. This plan for where the ships would be based is about the only part of the announcement that is rational.

"This facilitates a normal type of rotational deployment," said a U.S. Government Russian naval analyst, "that allows for one of the carriers to be at sea in each theater at all times. With three carrier groups in each fleet main staging base you are able to--at the same time--have one on station, one returning to port for rest and refitting, and a third in port undergoing re-fitting to be ready to replace the group currently on station."

Unfortunately for the admiral, there are several problems with these grandiose--and prohibitively expensive--plans. Leaving aside that the navy is always the first of Russia's services to suffer budget cuts, the cost for these six carriers would be more than the total of all Russia's military spending for the last decade or more. Furthermore, the only shipyard that built carriers in the Soviet period is in located in Nikolayev, Ukraine. Moscow is unlikely to contract with Kiev and pour billions into the Ukrainian economy, which it has thus far been doing its best to keep in a shambles.

Russia does have its own shipyards, but their record on carrier building has been disastrous. In 2004 Russia signed a contract to modernize, refit, and extend the flight deck on one of its Soviet-era carriers, the Admiral Gorshkov, for the Indian Navy. The carrier was to have been delivered this year, but the Indians are now being told that it will not arrive before 2012 and that the program is more than 100 per cent over budget.

The Indian defense ministry was so alarmed by this long delay that they offered to send several hundred Indian shipyard workers to Russia to help speed the work along. Sources in New Delhi now state that they do not expect this carrier ever to be delivered, so how Russian can expect to build new carriers from the keel up is unknown.

The mainstay aircraft aboard the one VMF carrier in service, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is the Sukhoi Su-33 CV-capable fighter, but it has been out of production at the Komsomolsk-na-Amure (KNAAPO) plant for almost 20 years. A re-start of its production might prove difficult and too costly unless there is an order from the Chinese Navy. Previously KNAAPO officials had revealed an interest by the Chinese Navy in acquiring up to 50 Su-33s, but no orders have actually been placed yet by Beijing. Given the current tensions with Beijing over its Shenyang J-11B fighter, which KNAAPO has called an illegal copy of the standard land-based Su-27s, this type of an order seems unlikely.

Even if Russian industry could--in addition to the untold billions that these six carrier battle groups will cost--bear the costs of re-starting the Su-33 production, the avionics and other on-board systems of this aircraft would be ancient by the time they entered service. An entirely new configuration of on-board equipment would have to be developed and integrated onto the air frame--another expensive operation.