A critical look at the results of the Syrian operation of the Russian naval grouping.
Written by Alexei Mikhailov; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Alice Decker exclusively for SouthFront
Pilot training for carrier-based aircraft remains a problem.
The Russian Navy’s heavy aircraft carrier, the “Admiral Kuznetsov,” has completed its first-ever combat campaign off the shores of Syria, using carrier-based aircraft against terrorist targets. There are at least two reasons to sum up the results.
On January 6, the Chief of Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, announced that Russia is starting to reduce its groups in Syria. The first to leave the conflict zone is the “Admiral Kuznetsov” with the battle ships and support vessels of the Northern Fleet. January 15, when the carrier was still in the Eastern Mediterranean, marked three months from the beginning of the campaign.
Nothing has been officially reported on the composition of cruiser’s air wing. However, the aircraft and helicopters on board could be counted in the videos taken by Russian journalists and Western (for the most part military) operators.
Light Air Wing
As predicted by “VPK” (in an article titled “MiG-plus”), the “Kuznetsov” came into the campaign with a very lightweight wing structure. It carried on board ten Su-33s from the “old” 279th Independent Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment (OKIAP) of the Northern Fleet (eight of them have been upgraded and are capable of striking targets on land and at sea) and only four aircraft from the newly created 100th OKIAP — three MiG-29KRs and one MiG-29KUBR fighter jet, as well as 18 different types of helicopters. According to unconfirmed official data, there were only three combat MiGs as the fourth one belonged to the “MiG” corporation and was undergoing tests. Thus, it was confirmed that the 100th OKIAP “sitting” in Yeisk actually turned out to be unprepared for the campaign.
This brings to mind the officials who promised the Minister of Defense that the aircraft testing and training complex being built in Yeisk would be ready by the end of 2016. It isn’t done even now. At the same time the similar complex in Saki, Crimea suffers a lack of attention. Did anyone bother to prepare the pilots of the 100th OKIAP, even while the carrier was on its way to Syria? After all, they could fly aboard later, via the tried and true route over the Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq.
The 279th OKIAP jets arrived on the aircraft carrier in July, after training at the complex in Saki. There, according to official data, only seven pilots practiced the essential skills in the MiGs, including three from the 100th OKIAP. Evil tongues say that these were the regiment commander and two squadron leaders, and the rest were civilian test pilots from the “MiG” Corporation and naval aviation military personnel. The question is, why was the 100th OKIAP in Yeisk at this time?
On October 15, the ship strike group (IBM) comprised of the Northern Fleet’s aircraft carrier “Peter the Great,” the heavy aircraft carrier “Admiral Kuznetsov,” two large anti-submarine ships, and supply vessels went to sea. Logically, they should have been accompanied by one or two multi-purpose nuclear submarines, but those are never mentioned – a common practice.
According to the Norwegian Navy, Su-33 training flights from onboard the aircraft carrier already began on October 18 over the northeastern part of the Atlantic. The Russian side, in full compliance with international regulations, announced that flight exercises would be held over international waters of the Atlantic, near the southwest tip of Norway, on October 19–21. On October 21, the naval strike group entered the English Channel, during which time one of the two fighters was always on duty, on the deck of the aircraft carrier. By October 27, the Northern Fleet ships passed Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea. From October 27 to 29, the strike group replenished all their supplies from the support vessels.
On November 1, the Su-33 and MiG-29KR aircraft aboard the carrier resumed flights, this time over the Mediterranean Sea. All the Russian actions were carried out under the watchful eyes of maritime patrol aircraft from NATO bases and NATO ships.
The countries concerned were informed in advance that training flights were planned for November 9, southeast of the island of Rhodes. The notice stated that the flights of the Russian Naval aircraft would take place within the stated coordinates in the Greek air traffic control zone (ATC), over international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in connection with this, six civil aviation routes would be changed. The combat aircraft were to be in constant contact with the Greek ATC centers and were to fly with their transponders enabled, the document specifies. Similar warnings were issued for the periods from 10 to 15 and from 17 to 22 November.
On November 9, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that a Dutch diesel-electric submarine, presumably “Walrus” class, had tried to follow the strike group. On November 10, according to the Pentagon, the Russian carrier-based aircraft began to make familiarization flights over Syrian territory, which meant that in the future they would be used in combat against terrorist organization targets. By this time the battle for East Aleppo was in full swing.
Losses Fom Ineptitude
On November 14, the Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged the loss of the MiG-29KR. According to official data, it crashed into the sea a few miles from the aircraft carrier while preparing to land. The pilot ejected and was picked up by a helicopter search and rescue service. According to one unofficial version, the fighter simply ran out of fuel while they were deciding where it should land; at the time, it could have been sent to the “Hmeymim” air base. In the end, a fully functional plane was sunk.
On November 15, the Minister of Defense announced that the carrier-based Su-33 had begun flying combat missions. True, he did not specify on which day it began. Then the War Department distributed a video with shots of planes taking off from the deck of the aircraft carrier with combat loads and returning minus the ammunition. At the same time, the frigate “Admiral Grigorovich” from the Black Sea Fleet launched “Caliber-NK” cruise missiles to strike terrorist targets. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the Su-33s destroyed large groups of “Dzhebhat Fatah al-Sham” fighters (formerly “Dzhebhat en-Nusra,” banned in Russia) in the province of Idlib.
On November 26, Western media reported that eight Su-33s and two MiG-29KR were located at the “Hmeymim” air base. The fact that only two of the MiGs were there makes one think that something must have been wrong with the plane that was still onboard the ship. According to VPK’s source, it may have been disabled while landing on the deck — before the incident on 14 November.
On December 4, the latest reconnaissance and attack helicopters, the Ka-52K “Katran” (previously destined for the “Mistral”) were shown working from the aircraft carrier. According to media estimates, there were four of them on board.
The next day, the Ministry of Defense reported that one of the Su-33s had crashed in the sea while landing on the aircraft carrier. The reason, according to the agency, was a broken cable. It is known, however, that for some time now the ship has had a sort of “black box” that controls the brake mechanisms — the “Topaz-M” system. The state commission will have to examine its recordings. In addition, there are video recordings of each takeoff and landing. Because there is another version: the pilot simply did not get on the right course. The “Topaz-M” and the objective video recording will decide who is right.
In any case, the loss of two types of aircraft during practice meant no more flights until they can determine the causes of what happened.
All these points will be examined by the relevant Commission of the Defense Ministry.
Tripped Up During Training
The “Admiral Kuznetsov” has not quite lived up to its mission. Despite official reports, the 100th OKIAP was not ready to accomplish its assigned task, and that’s not the fault of the regimental command. It’s legitimate to ask, will anyone be held responsible?
According to official information from the Ministry of Defense, in two months of fighting in this campaign, the Admiral Kuznetsov’s naval aviation pilots carried out 420 sorties, 117 of them at night. This means (based on the approximate composition of the air wing), that each MiG and Sukhoi (if we’re opnly talking about those) made 30 to 40 sorties. It has not been specified how many times they took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier and how many times from the “Hmeymim” airbase where they also worked.
It is unclear whether the helicopters are included in these slippery statistics or only the planes. Most likely the latter, since 1252 terrorist targets were destroyed, which roughly corresponds to the amount of ammunition these types of aircraft carry that can work on ground targets. Were the Americans right when they reported (only) 152 sorties operated from the deck?
In any case, the campaign from the aircraft carrier has had a positive effect. The carrier-based pilots received a baptism by fire. For the first time, they performed the operation of loading ammunition at sea.
It is expected that on its return to Severomorsk, the aircraft carrier will be sent in for repairs and upgrades. But when and where? The first bidder to carry out the works was the United Shipbuilding Corporation. The “Admiral Kuznetsov” was preparing for a long stay at her 35th Shipyard (an affiliate of the “Zvezdochka” Shipyard). By May, Murmansk promises to fit out a dock capable of taking the aircraft carrier. But a “market” competitor to USC suddenly appeared — the 82nd Shipyard. Their distinct advantage is the presence of a PD-50 floating dock (one of the largest floating docks in the world), designed just for the “Admiral Kuznetsov” class ships. So the competition for the contract is serious.
Let’s hope that the terms of the Defense Ministry’s tender call for competitive bids. In any case, the bureaucratic procedures take time, and anyway the work itself is expected to take two years. This means that the carrier will not be sailing again soon and the pilots of the 100th OKIAP will not “take wing”. Although they should still have been, and could have been, in the skies over Syria.
There are several issues. Was the promise fulfilled, to put into operation a land-based training program in Yeisk? If not — where are the carrier-based pilots to train? And how long will the training ground in Saki be on hold, which the Russian Navy Aviation command plans to modernize in 2017–2018? 2017 has already begun, and no committee has shown up at the site to define the scope of work, and no executors have been appointed to spell out where the funding is going to come from.
But the United Shipbuilding Corporation could be a responsible contractor; it is quite capable of this task. And what can be said, if Russia has had the training complex in Crimea for nearly three years and has not invested a dime 9according to Alexander Sannikov, a veteran of the complex)? As long as the training area was in Ukrainian hands, this situation was understandable. But now? Is this what we were waiting for?
Published in issue number 3 (667) of 25 January 2017