By Taylor Marvin
Today rumors surfaced that the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, would be sent to Syria to support the Russian forces assisting Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime (via Mark Mackinnon). A spokesperson for Russia’s Northern Fleet appeared to quickly deny the rumor, according to a report in the admittedly unreliable Russian Sputnik propaganda outlet. Though the Kuznetsov is probably not heading to Syria, it is possible that one day it will. Vladimir Putin seems to see Russia’s intervention in Syria as not only an operation prevent the fall of the Assad regime but also as an opportunity to flaunt Russia’s ability to conduct military operations beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Deploying the Kuznetsov to Syria could be a highly visible status symbol, and potentially a tempting one. Imagine the howls from American journalists and politicians!
Even if the Kuznetsov is ever deployed to Syria, the ship is unlikely to significantly impact the war. First, the Admiral Kuznetsov faces significant reliability concerns that would complicate a combat mission off Syria. As David Axe reported in 2013, throughout its life the Kuznetsov has suffered from a string of accidents and mishaps. As of 2013, the Kuznetsov’s reliability was so poor that ocean-going tugboats accompanied the carrier on each of its short, sporadic deployments. An intended major refit scheduled from 2012 to 2017 never happened. If a mission to Syria is partially motivated by a desire to showcase Russian military capabilities, the Kuznetsov’s well-known reliability problems would be a particularly convincing reason to keep the ship home – especially after Western commentators gleefully mocked the recent failure of Russian Syria-bound cruise missiles.
Secondly, the Admiral Kuznetsov has never conducted combat operations. Carrier operations, particularly high-tempo strike missions, are an extremely complex logistical and operational dance, with lethal consequences for mistakes. Since the USSR and Russia has had little opportunity to build these skills, and none to test them in combat, any strike missions from the Kuznetsov would be limited and mostly for show.
Finally, the Kuznetsov itself was not designed for Syria-style power projection. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union did not enthusiastically embrace aircraft carriers and their mission of projecting airpower from the sea. Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended “bastions” shielding their ballistic missile submarines* and not seaborne power projection. Accordingly, the Soviet Navy prioritized fielding formidable submarines, not multi-role surface ships and aircraft carriers. While the USSR became more interested in the ability to project naval power in the 1970s, Soviet surface ships remained optimized for destroying their NATO counterparts rather sea control.
Unsurprisingly, despite this logic Soviet admirals dreamed of fielding their own aircraft carriers to rival America’s, but the funding was never quite there. As Robin J. Lee documents, the USSR’s path towards fixed-wing carrier-borne naval aviation was a halting one with many half steps. Over decades the Soviet Union built a series of aircraft-carrying ships more and more dedicated to the naval aviation mission, culminating with the Admiral Kuznetsov and its uncompleted sister ship (which became China’s first aircraft carrier). More ambitious supercarriers to rival the US fleet were never built.
The Kuznetsov was deemed an “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” rather than an aircraft carrier, both to sidestep a treaty that forbids carriers from transiting from the Black Sea to Mediterranean and because its intended mission differed from that of American carriers. “According to Soviet doctrine,” Lee writes, “aviation cruisers were intended not to serve as the centerpiece of naval strike capability (as the USN regards its own carriers), but as a supporting element for other naval operations.” (Notably and unlike US carriers, the earlier Kiev and Admiral Kuznetsov classes sported a number of large anti-ship missiles, offensive armament that rivaled their air wings.) Also unlike American carriers, the Kuznetsov was not equipped with a powerful steam catapult; instead, aircraft take off with the aid of an inclined “ski-jump” ramp, which severely limits their takeoff weight. As Axe notes, the ship’s Sukhoi Su-33 fighters can only takeoff with a minimal weapons (mostly light air-to-air missiles) and fuel loads.
These constraints make the Kuznetsov much less versatile than an American supercarrier. It is difficult to see any prospective deployment to Syria as anything more than a risky stunt, as Dan Trombly noted on Twitter:
As with use of Caspian-based LACM this move should probably be evaluated in terms of propaganda/testing not practical military value.
— Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia) October 14, 2015
All this doesn’t mean that Putin won’t order the Kuznetsov to Syria; after all, there appears to have been no pressing need for Russia’s recent cruise missile strikes launched from the Caspian. It is possible that the Russian leadership will judge the prestige and experience upside from a successful deployment to be worth the cost and risk of embarrassing failure. But given the ship’s limitations, if the Kuznetsov goes to war it is unlikely to make a major difference in the course of the Syrian conflict.
*Update (11/18/2015): I altered this sentence to more accurately show that later Soviet naval strategy focused on defending ballistic missile submarine bastions rather than interdicting convoys and the US Navy in the Atlantic, which Robert Farley recently highlighted.