Will Russia create the world's second largest surface navy?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - The year 2007 can safely be described as Russia's year of combat aviation.

Both in July at Le Bourget in France and in August at Zhukovsky outside Moscow, thousands of spectators held their breath as they watched stunts performed by MiG and Su planes equipped with vectored-thrust engines.

It was a sight to be proud of. The planes featured were all land-based, although it is aircraft carrier aviation that makes up the effective core of the present-day air forces around the world.

Russia has planes that can be used on carriers. For example, the MiG, or rather the MiG-29 KUB (the acronym stands for aircraft carrier combat training). But they are exported to India under a contract to equip their future aircraft carriers.

Russia cannot be said to be blind to the role of aircraft carriers or the navy in modern warfare. In today's unpredictable world, even the mere appearance of a formidable ship featuring three service components sailing off a trouble spot is capable of producing a sobering effect on a potential aggressor.

It was therefore not surprising that in the middle of the year Admiral Vladimir Masorin, commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, announced plans to reform the country's naval forces and build a blue-water navy with the world's second largest fleet of aircraft carriers.

Or rather, in the next 20 years, Russia aims to create six aircraft carrier strike groups, giving it the world's second largest surface navy after the United States.

An aircraft carrier looks impressive, but needs a strong escort. Current world practice, where the U.S. is the trend-setter, dictates their operation within strike groups.

Such a group, aside from the multi-role giant, also contains up to six combat escort vessels, including one or two GM cruisers, one GM destroyer, and two or three anti-submarine destroyers or frigates.

The American standards are, of course, not necessarily a guide for Russia, but so far there has been no evidence that the make-up of their strike groups needs to be changed.

Thus, six aircraft carrier strike groups are to be built in 20 years' time, including all the components and sparing no expense.

One thing, however, immediately comes to the mind, which concerns the organizational philosophy. Not long ago, in early 2004, Russia's Defense Ministry prepared a blueprint for building up the Navy until 2040-2050. The main planks of the blueprint were giving up the "ocean" aspect of protecting the country's interests and instead focusing on small-class vessels operating within a 500-km zone of territorial waters.

"We are now abandoning the large-class ships we have or inherited from the Soviet era, and are moving to multi-purpose vessels," said Admiral of the Fleet Vladimir Kuroyedov, the then commander-in-chief of the Navy.

According to him, "Russia will have its own frigates and corvettes unmatched by anything else in the world."

He said, "aircraft carriers belong to the next decade, and to speak of them now is a bit too soon." But, he said, Russia's only aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov" would remain. No one, he said, was going to write it off or sell it. "We have not even given that any thought," Kuroyedov said.

The story of the ill-fated "Kuznetsov" will be taken up later, but now it is worth examining the two programs defining the future of the Russian navy that only took two years to draw up.

Conceptually, they are worlds apart. What makes them related is pointless bravado statements like "unmatched by anything else" or the "second largest."

Does Russia have grounds for planning the construction of so many carriers in the next twenty years? Let's calculate the prospects.

Russian shipyards will have to launch one aircraft carrier every three years and four months if the plan is to be fully completed.

Compare this with what the Americans did in 22 years from 1981 to 2003: they built six aircraft carriers during that time. The last one, "The Ronald Reagan", although completed with a fantastic speed in about 30 months and hitting the water in mid-2003, did not join the active fleet until January of last year. Its running and other trials took almost three years.

In other words, it took the Pentagon a quarter of a century to achieve what we are trying to do in only 20 years. But the Americans, even with taking into account their unprecedentedly high naval ship-building potential, had many other resources: money, armaments, sailing personnel, and flying crews. Logistics also met expectations.

What does Russia need? The first thing is money. Experience shows that it costs about $4 billion to build a modern aircraft carrier with a nuclear-powered propulsion plant (any other is unsuitable for this global system of weapons). Monthly maintenance costs (excluding personnel pay) are over $10 million.

When untangling the mind-boggling information about Russia's present defense budget, we find that with a current bill of $35 billion a year and a defense order of just over $12 billion, the country will have to spend more than a billion dollars a year on the construction alone. The military, left "high and dry," will tangibly feel the pinch of the missing billion.

But this would be possible only under the unrealistically ideal conditions where the pace of work is timed down to a minute and there is no inflation. Yet the military budget is not stretchable and cannot rev up like a speedboat.

Then will come the second ship, the third and the next, and this at a time when the completed ones will have to be run and maintained. Or will the project call for building more than one at a time? If so, the costs will become much more impressive.

After the ship is built it needs to be fitted with aircraft. Russia is going to compete with ships that carry a complement of 90 units each.

Our carrier-based Su-33 fighter has evolved from the modified Su-27 Flanker jet initially developed for air defenses in the late 1960s. By the beginning of 2002, the country had produced just 24 of them. Nothing is known about plans to increase their production or develop new models. The first maiden flight from the deck of the "Admiral Kuznetsov" took place in 1995.

Now a word about the "Admiral Kuznetsov" carrier. Launched in 1989, it has spent most of its life under repair. When an attempt was made to use it in sea trials in 2003, it started to sink. Once in 2004 and twice in 2005 landing accidents incapacitated it for long spells. And all that was accompanied by fires and multiple failures of the propulsion machinery.

The ship is a classic mess with every part of it rotten or diseased.

Just to complete the picture, here is a telling report from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies: As of 2004, Russia had only 12 pilots capable of flying deck-based aircraft. Consult this memo: an aircraft group of Russia's "rival" has 3,000 elite-trained pilots, all put through grueling tests.

Yet even if one air-capable group is built, armed and manned, there will be nowhere to base it, to say nothing about supply or repair. Out of Russia's four fleets, only the Northern and the Pacific ones can handle aircraft carriers.

Meanwhile, the Northern Fleet has built no new storage facility, floating base or fixed mooring pier since 1993, because of the lack of financing.

Compared with giant shipbuilding yards, ship repair facilities are fairly modest. However, the Northern Fleet considers ship repairs a high priority to keep it in good fighting condition and order. Their priority is not unique, but rather typical of the Navy as a whole.

Ship repairs are currently financed at 6% of their requirements. In the Northern Fleet more than 200 combat ships, submarines and auxiliary vessels are in need of repair and only 10% of them have been repaired in recent years.

Now take a look at India. Without any pomp it is going to launch its first 40,000-ton aircraft carrier in 2012. Aircraft have also been taken care of - they will come from Russia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti

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