Development of Aircraft Carrier May Cost Russian Navy $15 bln
The cost of developing an aircraft carrier for the Russian Navy may have a price tag of 1 trillion rubles ($15 billion). The construction of such a ship may cause financial problems for both the Russian Defense Ministry and the whole of the country, expert Sergei Ischenko writes in an article on the Svobodnaya Pressa news website.
The recent launching of the world’s most capable advanced Project 22220 icebreaker, the Arktika, by the Baltic Shipyard in St. Petersburg has inspired Russian shipbuilders considerably. The Arktika will become a test bed for the RITM-200 nuclear reactor. If the testing is a success, the reactor also will equip the future Project 23000 Shtorm aircraft carrier, which construction, Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov says, is going to be ordered by year-end 2025.
The Arktika’s recent launching is a cause for optimism. It has shown that Russia’s shipbuilding is gradually recovering from its long-time crisis and is capable of building large up-to-date vessels and ships again. The icebreaker with a displacement of 33,500 tons (50% more than that of the Project 1144 Pyotr Veliky (NATO-reporting name: Kirov-class) nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser) was laid down relatively recently, in November 2013, i.e. less than three years ago, and will enter service as soon as 18 months, if all goes to plan.
Compare her development schedule with the 12 years spent on developing the Pyotr Veliky or with the development of the lead the Project 22350 (Admiral Gorshkov-class) long-range frigate. The Admiral Gorshkov was laid down in 2006 and has not been commissioned by the Navy yet. It goes without saying that warships are a far cry from even nuclear icebreakers as far as design sophistication is concerned: the up-to-date cruisers, destroyers and frigates are far more advanced in terms of weaponry, electronics and machinery and are much more difficult to build. However, the previous icebreaker, the 50th Anniversary of the Victory, was laid down on 1993 and commissioned 14 years later.
Experts wonder if the good news from the Baltic Shipyard mean that Russia has the grounds to think about an advanced nuclear-powered aircraft carrier displacing up to 100,000 tons. For this is such colossal and ambitious an endeavor that many doubt if the country is able to execute it even in the medium term.
The first, and, probably, primary, issue is the price. According to open sources, the price tag is unlikely to be less than $15-20 billion (around a trillion rubles at the current exchange rate). However, even this huge sum of money is likely to grow as the ship leaves her slipways, because Russia is going to build an analog of the USS CVN-78 Gerald R. Ford that cost the Pentagon almost $40 billion.
Mind you, a trillion rubles is just an estimated cost of the ship proper. The cost of the Shtorm’s air wing of about 90 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft is a different issue altogether.
The carrier air wing is supposed to include a carrierborne version of the T-50 fifth-generation fighter among other things, with the type not in the inventory yet. Since the navalized variant does not exist yet, its future price is a moot question. Some time ago, India was willing to buy the land-based T-50 for $100 million apiece. The future aircraft carrier needs dozens of T-50s.
The full-fledged aircraft carrier cannot do without an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft keeping an eye on the air and surface situation on the remote approaches to the ship. Russian aviation has never had an aircraft like this. We tried to build an AEW&C plane for the Ulyanovsk nuclear aircraft carrier laid down in Nikolayev in the twilight of the Soviet era. The first Soviet AEW&C plane was about to be developed, even a full-scale mockup was made. The aircraft with a crew of six and a takeoff weight of 40 tons was expected to loiter for six hours at a stretch at 700 km/h and guide up to 40 fighters to their targets. The aircraft was designated Yak-44. The program was terminated in 1992.
Judging at least by the above considerations, the overall cost of the Shtorm’s air wing is bound to surpass that of the carrier herself, a trillion rubles.
An AEW&C plane cannot take off from the ski-jump ramp, hence the need for a steam or electromagnetic catapult. Russia has never made either of them. In addition, no shipyard in the country can handle the construction of a 100,000-ton carrier for want of a dry dock large enough for that. There also will be problems with basing the ship.
It took the Chinese four years to build the berthing and other shore infrastructure for the Liaoning carrier (former Varyag) - their only one so far. Presumably, the very duration of her construction gives a general idea of the scale of the financing required. Mind you, the Chinese parked the Liaoning in Qingdao that is hardly the Arctic, for one. Secondly, both the Liaoning and the Admiral Kuznetsov are twice as little as the future Shtorm.
Hence, why does Russia need the carrier that will cause financial problems? Vice-Premier Dmitry Rogozin said previously: "The construction of ships like this is a geopolitical issue, rather than a military-technical one." In this case, geopolitics stands for the misconceived national prestige, rather than strategic expediency. Even US experts have been increasingly insistent in saying that aircraft carriers are outdated. At least two solid analytical reports on the subject have been published overseas this year.
The Washington Post has published one titled US Carriers' Unchallenged Primacy May be Coming to a Close and authored by ranking Pentagon official Michele Flournoy and former US Navy intelligence officer and current State Department official Kurt Campbell in the Center for a New American Security. According to Flournoy and Campbell, the era of the effectiveness of aircraft carriers in modern-times wars is quickly drawing to an end. The potential enemies, Russia and China, can sink the huge ships with their long-range coastal defense missiles quicker than the carriers can scramble their air wings for an attack.
The experts call for the money that can be saved by abandoning the current shipbuilding program to be spent on other types of cutting-edge weaponry for naval warfare, say, on developing railguns or building cruise missile-carrying nuclear-powered multirole submarines capable of getting covertly in range for a salvo against a hostile shore.
Ben Ho Wan Beng, a senior analyst with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says about the same in the other report. His views must be shared by the US Naval Institute that published his report.
According to expert opinion, Russia’s leadership should think hard how to spend trillions of rubles in the most effective manner, especially the trillions it lacks, expert Sergei Ischenko writes in his article with the Svobodnaya Pressa online news agency.