Assessing the Admiral Kuznetsov Deployment in the Syrian Conflict
On 15 November 2016, Russia joined the exclusive aircraft carrier combat club when its sole flat-top, RFNS Admiral Kuznetsov, took part in operations in the Syrian provinces of Homs and Idlib. Much has been made about the smoke-belching vessel during its voyage from Murmansk to the eastern Mediterranean; now that the Admiral Kuznetsov has had its baptism of fire, the key question is how operationally useful would the platform be for Russia’s Syria strategy in the days ahead? Not very, and this is mainly due to the modest – in terms of both capabilities and size – aircraft complement embarked on the Russian flat-top.
Small air wing size
The raison d’etre of the carrier is its air wing, and the latter’s size dictate the operations the vessel can execute. Force projection is one of the flat-top’s key doctrinal roles and being able to carry out offensive missions is thus the vessel’s sine quo non. However, carriers, even “small-deck” ones like the Kuznetsov, are large, multi-billion-dollar platforms, and their protection is of utmost importance to commanders. Indeed, each Kuznetsov-class vessel has a displacement of well over 60,000 tons and costs an estimated $2.4 billion.
In light of the carrier’s capital-ship status and hefty price tag, as well as its being a symbol of national power, protecting the ship from enemy threats would be critical, and a good portion of the its aircraft complement will invariably be dedicated to this. Nevertheless, setting aside too many aircraft for defense adds credence to the contention made by various carrier critics that the platform is a “self-licking ice cream cone.”
To be sure, the Islamic State and the assorted forces fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime do not pose an aerial threat to the Kuznetsov task force as these groups do not possess an air force. Nevertheless, it would still be prudent for the Russian force commander to devote a good portion of the Kuznetsov’s planes for fleet air defense to hedge against any contingency. However, things are not helped in this regard by the carrier’s tiny fixed-wing aircraft component of only 10 SU-33 Sea Flanker air-superiority fighters and three MIG-29KR Fulcrum multi-role jets. With only 13 fixed-wing assets deployed, RFNS Kuznetsov’s air wing is severely understrength given that the ship could handle over 40 tactical aircraft.
Moreover, one informed observer of naval affairs maintains that about only 80 per cent of a carrier’s air wing is operational at any one time. It is also worth noting that the Kuznetsov’s MIGs – which are more capable than their Sukhoi counterparts – are possibly being grounded given that one of them crashed due to mechanical problems a day before the vessel began combat operations over Syria. Even if all the Fulcrums are mission capable, their meager number make their contribution to the Russian war effort scant. All that things considered, the Kuznetsov probably has only seven or eight serviceable SU-33s at any one time (half or more of which will be devoted to the combat air patrol) for the time being, and this aircraft is not optimized for ground attack to begin with.
Limited strike capabilities
For one, the Flanker began life as an air-superiority fighter and was only recently outfitted with a basic air-to-surface capability. Tellingly, a report by the Russian government mouthpiece RT alludes to carrier-based Flankers executing “strikes against jihadists.” In the same vein, a video on the Kuznetsov’s flight operations against Syria that was released by Russian authorities on 15 November shows the carrier’s SU-33s taking off for “strikes against terrorists.”
To the uninitiated, the Sukhois in the video seem to pack a decent punch as they are armed with four missiles each. However, a closer examination reveals that the missiles in question are the R-27 and R-73, both of which are air-to-air weapons. How these aircraft could attack ground objectives equipped with only counter-air weapons is anybody’s guess. It is more likely that the Kuznetsov’s Flankers were deployed to provide cover for other strike aircraft from Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, and this is a task which land-based aircraft can execute as well, arguably even better so, as the Russian authorities themselves conceded.
Were the carrier-based Flankers to strike ground targets, however, accuracy would be at a premium. Firstly, according to the Sukhoi website, the SU-33 does not tote guided weapons, only “dumb” ones like the FAB-500 bombs seen on the Kuznetsov’s Flankers in a recent RT video. What is more, while the SVP-24 targeting system that was newly outfitted to the aircraft provides some degree of accuracy to unguided bombs, the results yielded are simply not comparable to those provided by precision munitions.
To compound matters, even if RFNS Kuznetsov’s planes could strike ground objectives with better precision, the short take-off but arrested recovery configuration of the flat-top means that the jets could only sortie with reduced payload and/or fuel in order to utilize the ship’s ski-jump. All in all, a typical strike package launched from the Russian flat-top is not only exceedingly small, but also has relatively short “legs” and packs only a modest combat punch.
Much has been said in the wake of the Kuznetsov’s first combat deployment. Comments that paint the platform in a positive light, such as one that speaks of the ship marking a “quantum leap in Russian military capabilities” are wildly off the mark considering the severe limitations of its air wing. On the other hand, the argument made by various commentators that the Kuznetsov deployment is one massive public relations initiative, as well as a “live” training exercise for the Russian navy, is spot on. The carrier was sent to the eastern Mediterranean undoubtedly for reasons other than operational ones given that RFNS Kuznetsov’s airpower does not offer any significant advantage over its land-based counterparts flying out of Khmeimim Air Base.
The only other Russian naval asset known to be in the region that possess land-attack capabilities is the guided-missile frigate Admiral Grigorovich, which is equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles. But it bears consideration that the ship’s vertical-launch system can only hold up to eight Kalibrs – a figure that could be depleted in a matter of minutes. In the final analysis, the esteemed international relations scholar John Mearsheimer once derided naval bombardment of enemy assets ashore as “pinprick warfare,” and this description could not be more apposite for any current and foreseeable Russian maritime force-projection efforts on Syrian targets.