After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian fleet started a drastic decline into decay and despair. In recent years, the cruisers of the Russian Navy have seen an increased deployment and activity not seen since the fall of the USSR. The same ships that lead the Soviet Fleets are still in service today and face many legacy problems inherited from the past. With the current rift growing between the West and the Russian Federation, the status of Russia’s cruisers becomes a topic of interest to not only NATO, but all navies as they are currently the greatest surface threat on the high seas. This article objectively analyzes Russian sources over the recent condition, activities, and capabilities of the cruisers. Furthermore, it seeks to find the real truth through the smoke and mirrors presented by Russian propaganda.
As the only operational heavy aviation cruiser in the Russian Navy, the Admiral Kuznetsov takes a leading role in the fleet. It was launched in 1989 with the first deck launch taking place in 1995. Since then, it has spent most of its life under repair. When it was intended to be used in sea trials in 2003, the ship began to sink. In 2004 and twice in 2005, landing accidents put it out of action for periods of time. The ship has been plagued through all this with fire and propulsion problems.2 In October of 2004, the ship began its first sea deployment in seven years putting pilots to the test in North Atlantic exercises. The only practice until that point, had been conducting landings at the fixed landing strip at the Nikita base in the Crimea. The crew make up of the ship included fresh conscripts to man it and old pilots to fly the missions. One of the casualties of the operation was a Su-25UTG that crashed because the pilot’s approach was too fast. The right landing gear broke and the plane skid for ninety metres before the arresting wire caught it. This caused the expensive carbide-silicon deck coating to become heavily damaged and in need of a repair that was just completed before leaving port.3 It was reported the ship had a thick oil slick trailing behind it off the coast of Norway during the same maneuvers.4 On 5 September 2005, a Su-33 Flanker was lost when Lieutenant Colonel Korneyev ejected after snapping a brake cable. The pilot was saved but the $30 million fighter was sunk and depth charged to prevent its secrets from falling into NATO hands. In October of 2006, it was reported that orders for new landing cables were taken.5 The status of the boiler plants are in poor condition. As of February 2007, the power plant does not allow the ship to maintain long distance cruising speeds greater than 16-18 knots. 6 The coastal infrastructure to service these boilers at its base in Shipyard SRZ-35 do not have enough qualified personnel to run maintenance on them.
There are only ten trained pilots for a ship that must run six or seven different types of aircraft.7 In 2008 it was speculated to have twenty experienced pilots.8 The pilot status of the carrier’s air group is in dismal condition. By 2002, the average annual flight time for naval pilots was 21.7 hours.9 While the numbers for the carrier aviation wing may vary, this is far from sufficient to conduct operations. This is why veteran pilots are given most of the sorties. One of the main reasons they have so few trained pilots is the lack of even a simulator on the territory of the Russian Federation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the only simulator for carrier aviation was located in Ukraine. This outdated facility is located nowhere near the Northern Fleet and is outmoded to provide support to trainee pilots. Admiral of the Fleet Masorin announced on 2 August 2007 that the city of Eyska, on the Azov Sea, will house the future built simulator for naval aviation pilots. He also said of the existing facilities that “Today, this simulator is largely obsolete.”10 Vice-Admiral Alexander Kletskova made mentions considering redeployment of the carrier; “We believe that the Black Sea Fleet has a special place in the establishment and operation of the vessel. We can say that this is even the key – that nowhere in Russia there are such favorable conditions for training deck aircraft pilots as there are on the Black Sea.”11 These statements are in conjunction with Masorin’s desire to protect the Sochi Olympic Games scheduled for 2014. This may lead to a temporary redeployment of the Kuznetsov to the Black Sea during the games and the construction of facilities located in the region may indicate it as a possible base with the new facilities located there.
The soundness of the circuitry aboard the vessel was in question when a fire broke out on 28 August 2006. The ship was docked in Murmansk when a fire broke out in a janitor’s closet hospitalizing two sailors and was due to a “short circuit.” 12 In December of 2007, the Kuznetsov set sail for a three month tour that included a cruise to the Mediterranean after a refit and modernization. There were no reported problems and much press about successful tests. The fact that the ship was able to conduct a 15,000 nautical mile mission is a testament unto itself considering past performance. In November of 2008, the ship made its way for a three month tour that included participation in Stability 2008 and a cruise to the Mediterranean. On 7 January 2009, another electrical fire broke out off the coast of Turkey killing a sailor due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. Again, the cause was characterized as a “short circuit.”13 It is preparing to conduct operations with the Black Sea Fleet, but the fire may change plans. The ship is scheduled to remain in service until 2025. To any thoughts that Russia may dispose of the ship, former Chief of the Navy Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov said the only Russian aviation cruiser will remain in operation; “Selling or scrapping it no one will do. We do not even think about it.”14
There has been much debate to the value of keeping a plagued ship like the Kuznetsov in service among Russian circles. With the fall of the USSR, the Russians have lost the ability to build and sufficiently maintain the class of warship. All of their aviation cruisers from the Soviet Era have been scrapped or sold. The majority of them reside in China as research platforms for the PRC’s future carrier aspirations. The Admiral Gorshkov is under refit to be sold to India which is proving to be a daunting task to make ready for sale. As the soul carrier left in Russian service, it has an important role to serve despite the problems associated with the ship. The ability of the air wing to carry out operations is quite limited. The lack of steam catapults and the installation of a ski-ramp limit the payload and launching conditions of operational aircraft. Planes cannot carry a full load of weapons or fuel which hurts effectiveness of sorties and lacks anti-shipping missiles. There are no AWACs on the ship so detection range is limited. These are pitfalls of the Soviet strategy of keeping aviation cruisers close to shore so they could be supported by land based assets. Little seems to have changed in the strategy over its use as it has not traveled out of the range of strategic bombers. The boiler problem that plagues the ship keeps the Kuzntesov close to shore and in constant attention of auxiliary vessels. The continuous electrical fires are now proving deadly to the crew. Despite these limitations, the ship does retain value.
With the overhaul it received an impressive anti-missile defence suite. It carries 192 VLS launched Klinok missiles with four channels of fire; this is the naval variant of the venerable land-based TOR-M1 system. The CIWS aboard the aviation cruiser is the most comprehensive of any ship afloat. With eight modules of Kashtan and six AK-630 modules, the ship carries twenty 30mm gatling guns in total.15 The Kashtan system also carries 256 missiles which are automatically reloadable in seconds and 48,000 rounds of ammunition for the guns. With this anti-shipping missile defence, the carrier can hold its own against all but the most determined Western missile strike. The ship carries twelve long range Granit anti-shipping missiles which give it an offensive punch.16 It also carries 24 Ka-27 helicopters which provide a strong contingent of ASW capability. The air group of Su-33 fighters and Su-25 bombers gives a limited intercept and bombing ability.
The importance of maintaining a carrier for showing the flag and international prestige is always present. For a nation that wants to be viewed as a rising power a carrier is a must. Plans have been called for the building from five to six nuclear powered carriers starting in 2012. The retention of the Kuznetsov and the aviation arm will leave the Russian Navy with an infrastructure and legacy of carrier aviation that would be hard to rebuild from scratch. In recent years, the number of experienced pilots has already doubled from ten to twenty as the ship takes to naval exercises preparing more pilots. The issue with the boilers needs to be resolved as the ship is incapable of fast transit to an emergency. The current base construction ongoing at Novorossiysk would make it possible for the carrier to operate in the Black Sea and the repeated exercises with that fleet indicate it as a possibility. The training facilities move to Eyska on the Sea of Azov would make that move even more sensible.
The refit of the Admiral Nakhimov is at least three or more years from completion. The combat capability of the ship once it comes out of refit is to a large degree still unknown. We know that the Granit missiles will be upgraded to modern standards but nothing has been said about the S-300F/M, Kashtan, or Klinoch upgrades. Without upgrading to these missiles the air-defence capabilities of this ship will be obsolete. The commissioning manager Boris Gulin said that a new schedule for refit is being formulated and Captain Golovchenko said the ship will be in service in 2012. This could leave the requisite time required to refit the ship and install the missile modules but the question of money is always a concern. The recent drop in energy prices is going to leave the naval budget hurting for funds and the strategic nuclear deterrent is taking top priority. The delays with refitting the Admiral Gorshkov for India may indicate further problems trying to get this ship fit for service. Sevmash is so backed up trying to get the ship ready, they will have few resources available to refit the Nakhimov. If they rush the refit without bringing the ship up to the same armaments as Pyotr Veliky; this ship will be little more than a floating target. Given the recent track record of Sevmash, we should not expect this ship in the fleet according to the scheduled timeframe.
The Moskva (Moscow) is a Project 1164 Slava class cruiser and is the lead ship in her class having formerly carried the name Slava. It is the current flagship of the Black Sea Fleet and is stationed in Sevastapol Ukraine. In September of 2004, the ship took to leading a task force to conduct joint exercises with Italy and then moved to Spain to conduct further exercises. The three week stint into the Mediterranean had been called by officials a “Return to the Seas.”33 The exercise was conducted to check transport vessels that could be carrying terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, or portable surface-to-air missile systems to Europe. IONIEX-2004 was held in September of that year where the Moskva conducted exercises with the Italian Navy carrying out operations aimed at preventing “ illegal actions at sea, and include the inspection and seizure of a craft, as well as actions to protect shipping."34 In July of 2005, the ship participated in training for Operation Active Endeavor with Italian ships and brought home the ashes of Admiral Grigorovich whose remains were held in France. During February and March of 2006, the cruiser took part in Active Endeavor combating arms smuggling, drugs, and escorting vessels through the Straits of Gibraltar. In July of 2006, the cruiser took part in joint exercises with Turkey called Black Sea Harmony with similar objectives to Active Endeavor.35 The ship was overhauled in the last months of 2007. On 01 January 2008, the Moskva conducted live fire exercises in the North Atlantic successfully engaging designated airborne and seaborne targets. The launch of the P-500 Bazalt was the first launch of the missile since 2003 and the first time in 15 years since the Moskva had launched missiles.36
On 10 August 2008, the flagship was sent off the coast of Georgia to lead the blockade. Russian officials deny that it was a blockade but to provide aid to refugees. According to them, a blockade would mean they were in a state of war when none existed. This was occurring while Russian warplanes were bombing well into Georgian territory. Regnum reported that on the same day the Moskva came under attack from Georgian missile boats. A sailor aboard one of the Black Sea Fleet’s returning vessels reported on the attack:
"We took up position guarding the landing on the Abkhaz shore when all of a sudden four small targets were detected. We sent out the IFF signal and the targets did not turn. Receiving a command from the flagship (Moskva), we entered formation and at that specific moment the unidentified targets opened fire on the formation and flagship. The cruiser (Moskva) was damaged and a small fire broke out onboard. Then, fearing for sea-keeping, the flagship withdrew from the engagement… Immediately then, the small missile boats clearly fired…Taking up position, our MRK launched a “Malakhit” anti-ship missile which cut the lead ship "Tbilisi" literally to ribbons. After this, firing was shifted to the rest of the Georgian ships. Another ship was damaged which we could not finish off which allowed them to leave the scene on their own power.”37
The problem with the story is that the Tbilisi was sunk in the port of Poti by Russian Marines. Its sunken hulk can be clearly seen in several of the videos released. No mention of this battle occurred in official sources and no damage was reported to the cruiser. Photos taken of the ship shortly after the return to Sevastopol show no noticeable damage. The Georgian ships had retreated to Batumi when the marines were attacking Poti so it is unlikely they attacked the Black Sea Fleet.
The Russian Daily Kommersant reported that “Moscow wants to form a squadron of ships led by the missile cruiser Moskva that will be a permanent presence in the Mediterranean Sea and take part in naval antiterrorist exercises with NATO members” and that “the facilities in (Tartus) Syria would allow Russia to expand its influence in the Middle East and to guarantee Syria's security,” a Defence Ministry source said.38 Current dredging and restoration of the facilities has been reported in many sources. Redeployment to the Mediterranean would effectively place the Black Sea Fleet out of their historical sphere of influence and pose a threat to both NATO and Israel. To think they actually want to make the move to join NATO exercises is a bit suspicious. A better explanation would be bypassing the Montreux Convention to the Dardanelles so they do not have to worry about fleet deployment in the event of conflict. With the Moskva loitering in the Mediterranean, both NATO and Israel would have a serious issue with Russian forces so close.
The Moskva has been regarded by some in the West to look like a museum relic. The men who serve aboard it have high opinions of the ship and their fleet. Officers of the Moskva say “its electronics, sensors and weapons have been constantly upgraded” despite the old age of the ship.39 Former Black Sea Fleet Commander Admiral Eduard Baltin said in response to ten NATO vessels patrolling the Black Sea that, “If necessary, a single missile salvo from the Moskva… would be enough to annihilate the entire group.”40 While this may be true, it is not out of reason to say that this ship is obsolete even to Russian cruiser standards. At the very least, they could replace the outdated CIWS with Kashtan which also would be more effective than the included Osa-M missiles. There is not enough room to install the Klinok defence system, but installing Kashtan would go a long way to keep the cruiser safe from a missile attack. The age of the ship precludes this from being an economical option as the service life is measured in years, not decades. The reports coming out of actions off the Georgian coast appear to be nothing but fantasy as well as Russian propaganda about the purpose of the ship being in the area. The ship may have a future in Syria which would cause a new issue for NATO forces. The recent live fire exercise is a first for the ship since shortly after the fall of the USSR. The engagement of targets tells us that this dog still has a bite.
The Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) is the current flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet. It is a Project 1144.2 Kirov class battle cruiser displacing 26,000 tonnes using nuclear propulsion. The vessel is regarded as the most powerful surface combatant ever set to sea and is the most updated ship in the class. It was launched in 1989 and completed sea trials in 1995. It has been the lead ship in numerous exercises in 2000 during the Kursk disaster, 2003, and 2004. On 17 February 2004, RIA Novosti reported that the ship had successfully repelled a ballistic missile attack. It was the first time missiles were shot at ballistic targets from aboard a Russian warship and the "event was a success" said Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin.17 On 23 March 2004, a serious problem arose from the Chief of the Navy about the ship which was reported in Gazeta.ru. Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov was quoted as saying, "The ship is in such a condition that it may blow up any minute… In areas where admirals walk around it looks all right, but in places they do not visit, the situation is such that it may explode… I mean among other things maintaining the nuclear reactor." 18In 2003, the ship was declared the fleet’s model ship by top officials.19 Kuroyedov made his remarks after Kommersant published an article saying the reason for bringing the ship into dock was the result of a power struggle among top Russian admirals.20 The admiral later retracted his statements.
State news source RIA Novosti reported that the ship was tied up for a month to bring it back up to code but the “reactor compartment is the only space to be maintained up to standard” and “in the course of the preventive maintenance the ship's commanders will have time to establish elementary order in the questions of the duty-watch service and of compliance with the Navy rules.”21 It was shortly after this incident that Kuroyedov was sacked by Putin for this and many other failures. The following year on 18 August 2005, Vladimir Putin had enough confidence to sit in Pyotr Veliky’s conning tower during exercises in the Barents Sea. During his trip he witnessed the ship’s missiles rip-off into the distance in a war game. He was impressed and recalled his first encounter during the construction, “These ships are usually built for four or five years, but this one was built in ten years. At that time, they could not only fail to build the cruiser, but the shipyard could have broken up altogether.”22 In 2006, the ship underwent an overhaul to prepare for cruising and for a US delegation lead by Admiral Henry G. Ulrich, commander of US Naval Forces Europe. He was given an inspection of the ship on 29 July 2007 and was the first high level US delegation to visit to the Northern Fleet in eleven years.23 On 23 April 2008, the ship again headed to the Barents Sea for live fire exercises and successfully engaged target drones launched by the Rassvet missile-ship. On 25 November 2008, the Pyotr Veliky arrived in Venezuela for VENRUS-2008 after an uneventful Atlantic crossing. Prior to the trip, the ship had made port calls around the Mediterranean showing the flag. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack quipped that it was "very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela."24 American analysts made light of the trip to Venezuela asking if Russia had made sure to bring their tugboats.25 There was no evidence to suggest such action was needed and Pyotr Veliky is currently making its way to South Africa to join up with the fleet for exercises in the Indian Ocean.
The Pyotr Veliky has received much criticism from Western military analysts but begs the question whether such criticism is valid. The flagship of the Northern Fleet has been the most active of all Russian cruisers and has not had a single reported accident in recent times. Vladimir Kuroyedov brought attention to problems that shocked the very foundation of a ship that was supposed to be the model for the Russian Navy. Officials inside the service were saying nothing was wrong while Kuroydov made statements to the contrary; these were made during a power struggle in the Russian Admiralty that he later retracted. According to state information sources, the only thing that was wrong was disciplinary related. There is some merit to Kuroydov’s comments as the sailors pay for the ship was reduced while it was docked and state information services noted personnel deficiencies. The punishment of reduced pay would not affect a conscript to a large degree as their pay is minimal, but it would punish officers. As we will find, discipline is a major concern in the Russian fleet.
The missile armament of Pyotr Veliky is impressive even compared to American Ticonderoga class cruisers. The 20 P-700 Granit missiles might not match up in offensive punch compared to a load-out of Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the defence suite is unmatched in the world. The battle cruiser carries over 500 SAMs of varying ranges and has more CIWS capability than any ship afloat besides the Kuznetsov. With almost one-hundred S-300F/M SAMs gives the ability to take out long distant aircraft and even ballistic missiles. The Klinok defence suite carriers 128 missiles with four channels of fire giving the ship capabilities of the TOR-M1.26 The flagship of the Northern Fleet has six Kasthan modules making a missile strike on the ship all but futile without a hard jamming effort.27 The long range of the S-300F/M makes jamming the ship a difficult task. It has yet to be seen if Western aircraft have the ability to successfully counter the missile system. NATO nations of the Slovak Republic and Greece both have older land versions of the system to exercise with, but it is likely that this ship with TOMB STONE radar has better ECM capabilities than those old systems. The capability to intercept short-ranged ballistic missiles leaves a future position for the S-300F/M system as a possible sea-based ABM defence shield. At the very least, it could operate as a last-ditch defence for strategic coastal targets as it has been proven capable of at least one intercept.
The current cruise undertaken by the Pyotr Veliky is a landmark event for the Russian Federation. Not since the fall of the Soviet Union has a ship gone on a cruise that covers much of the globe. In the last two months it has traveled from the Kola Peninsula to Turkey, from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and to the Cape of Good Hope. It still has a long journey ahead for exercises in the Indian Ocean and the cruise home. There were some issues with a crew that spent most of its time on land and only went out if a flag officer or official was going to witness exercises in the past. This was brought to light by Admiral Vladimir Kuroydov and measures were taken to resolve the issues. The ship has since been able to make way with no incident and is completing the longest voyage to date. Results from the live fire exercises appear to have the ship’s weapon systems working as designed. Unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov, this ship has no list of major incidents and has the confidence of the Russian Admiralty to undertake the longest cruise of any ship to date and host US delegations. With recent joint exercises in VENRUS-2008 and the upcoming INDRA-2009, the ship will be one of the most active in the fleet. The commanders are gaining experience as how to operate and maintain this ship under long durations. As to the Western critics who want to deride this ship, their formulations are lacking in merit.
Last edited by Vladimir79 on Thu Jan 20, 2011 10:40 am; edited 2 times in total