Original by Sergey Ishchenko published by Svobodnaya Pressa; translated from Russian by J.Hawk
One of the main mysteries of the war which continues in Syria is why aren’t the efforts of the Russian airgroup operating from Hmeimim airbase supported by Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov? Every similar conflict with US participation starts with carrier battle groups approaching the adversary’s coast and with carrier-based aircraft being launched with their maximum payloads. Why aren’t we doing the same? If we don’t need Admiral Kuznetsov in Syria, why do we need that ship at all?
Particularly since the ship itself, judging by Russian MOD statements, is being actively readied for a sortie into the Mediterranean. In late August when Moscow apparently already made its decision to enter the war against ISIS the carrier was rapidly completing its three-month docking at the Roslyakovo shipyard near Murmansk. By late October all of its systems achieved full readiness. Since that time the Admiral Kuznetsov has been training on the Northern Fleet naval ranges.
Since late October, the pilots of the 279th Separate Shipborne Fighter Regiment which uses the Su-33 heavy fighter have been practicing starts and landings. All of them had undergone training at the Nitka training facility in Crimea which is an exact replica of the Admiral Kuznetsov flight deck. And now they are flying from the carrier itself.
It’s not exactly the best time for it. Right now the polar night reigns, which makes it more difficult to acquire the carrier flying skills. It’s much better to fly in late fall. By winter, the carrier is usually deployed somewhere southward. That way the pilots have an easier task and the ship is in less harsh climate.
All of the previous seven missions of the Admiral Kuznetsov were arranged in such a way.
The ship went on a long-distance cruise to the Mediterranean on December 23, returning to Severomorsk in March 22, 1996.
The second and third sorties which were in the North Atlantic can be ignored because they were too short (September-October 2004 and August-Actober 2005), but they were both completed before the onset of the polar night.
Ever since then every cruise followed the same pattern. Admiral Kuznetsov went on its fourth battle cruise to the Mediterranean on December 5, 2007, returning on February 3, 2008. The fifth cruise started exactly a year later, on December 5, 2008 and lasted until February 27, 2009. The sixth started on December 6, 2011 and ended on February 17, 2012. The most recent Mediterranean sortie began on December 17, 2013 and ended on May 17, 2014.
This gives us a clear pattern of how the aircraft carrier and its air group were being used in the past years. Only extraordinary circumstances could have forced training flights from the carrier during the least suitable time of the year. It’s obvious that the war in Syria is that circumstance. So why isn’t Admiral Kuznetsov still not underway toward eastern Mediterranean?
The answer came from Naval Aviation commander, Major-General Igor Kozhin. He said that by December 2015, Yeysk saw the formation of the second separate shipborne fighter aviation regiment, the 100th. It is armed with 24 light carrier-based MiG-29KR light fighters and MiG-29KUBR combat-capable trainers. These are all modern machines, built in 2013-1015. The 100th Regiment will soon be transferred to the North Fleet, to the same airbase which the 279th uses. And then they will probably form a shipboard aviation division.
Nevertheless, according to Kozhin the 100th Regiment is still not a fully operational unit as it doesn’t have a sufficient number of pilots trained for carrier operations. Which is why many of the MiGs are not being used and are in storage.
Why? The 859th Center in Yeysk was formed to train carrier pilots. It was built after 2012 as an alternative to the Crimea-based Nitka which then belonged to Ukraine. Kiev, which has no use for Nitka since it has no carrier aviation, created all manner of obstacles to our use of the Nitka. In the end it forced us to build an alternative on the Azov Sea shore.
The new center in Yeysk became operational in the fall of 2014. But judging by the fact that the 100th Regiment has not undergone a full training regiment, it wouild seem that Yeysk is not meeting the expectations. In any event, in December Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu said that “it’s crucial that starting in 2016 naval pilots start training at the 859th Combat Application and Pilot Transition Training Center. We have no other facilities like that. It will allow us to save time with initial flight training and allow pilots to maintain and improve their qualifications.”
It’s not clear why, if Yeysk is not yet ready, the Crimea-based Nitka complex can’t be used to train MiG pilots. Why can Su-33s fly from there, and MiG-29KR cannot?
Only Kozhin and Shoygu know the answer. Which means we have to realize the following: the Sukhoi regiment in Severomorsk can operate from the carrier, while the MiG regiment in Yeysk still cannot. It will only begin training in the second quarter of 2016. Assuming the minister’s instructions will be carried out on time.
What is the conclusion? A simple one. The Admiral Kuznetsov will not go to Syria before the summer. The air component will not be ready before that.
It would seem that the Naval Aviation commander is even more pessimistic. His statements concerning the Admiral Kuznetsov cruise were very vague: “the 100th Regiment’s task this year is to go on a carrier cruise. That’s the main task of 2016. I think we’ll manage it.”
This means that the carrier could sortie in the summer or even in December of 2015, with both satisfying Kozhin’s criteria.
But why? Why can’t the Admiral Kuznetsov sortie as before, with only its Su-33 regiment, if the Mig-29KR regiment is still unready?
I believe it’s because this is the first time the carrier is going to war. Victory in that war demands actual, not potential, power. And the Admiral Kuznetsov still lacks its full combat power.
Available data indicates the 279th Regiment has only 14 combat-ready Su-33s. Eight of them are on the carrier and six still on shore. Either due to poor technical condition or a small number of pilots capable of operating the Su-33 under the conditions of polar night. Admiral Kuznetsov‘s complete air component consists of between 36 and 50 aircraft (depending on the type of aircraft), including anti-submarine, rescue, and early warning helicopters.
In all of its earlier cruises, the carrier had nothing approaching its full air strength. During the most recent two Mediterranean cruises, the carrier operated between 6 and 10 Su-33 fighters. That was probably enough for the purpose of crew training. And to remind the world that Russia still has a carrier. But it’s not enough for a real war. Even the one in Syria.
Therefore a decision was made to return to the assumption inherent in the carrier’s design, namely that it was to operate both heavy and light fighters which would complement one another.
The Su-33s which have a large operational radius, high maneuverability, and the ability to carry up to 12 air-to-air missiles, will operate at long distances from the carrier. MiG-29KR will deal with those enemies which penetrated the Su-33 screen.
The MiGs can also carry a wider range of munitions, including air-to-surface missiles which is what the Syria war demands. Therefore the MiGs could come very handy. But if the MiG pilots still aren’t properly trained for such operations, then what’s the point of sending the Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean?
Why the impatience to conduct Su-33 training flights during polar night? Because there’s a war on. And who knows how it will unfold.
Let’s be patient. We’ll wait until the fledgling 100th Regiment learns to fly.