MOSCOW, May 12 (RIA Novosti) - A new Russian carrier-deck pilot training site will be ready for operation by next year, Navy Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov said on Sunday, replacing a Soviet-era base in Ukraine which Kiev has said it may lease to other countries.
The work on the training facility in the city of Yeisk, on Russia's Black Sea coast, “is proceeding according to plan,” he said in an interview with RIA Novosti.
Grigory Naginsky, head of the Federal Agency for Special Construction Work (Spetsstroi), said last month the construction work at the site was effectively complete and that aircraft should start flying there in August or September.
Former Russian Navy chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky had previously said the training facility should be complete by 2020.
In March, Ukrainian First Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Oleinik said Ukraine, which does not operate fixed-wing shipborne naval aircraft, was considering leasing out its Nitka training site in Crimea to other countries.
Under a 1997 bilateral agreement, Russia occasionally uses Ukraine's Nitka Naval Pilot Training Center, the only land-based training facility for its carrier-based fixed-wing pilots. At present, the site is only used by Russia on a short-term basis to train Northern Fleet carrier pilots, who fly Su-33 naval fighter jets and Su-25UTG conversion trainers for Russia's sole carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
The Nitka Center was built in the Soviet era for pilots to practice taking-off and landing from aircraft carrier decks. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the facility remained under Ukraine’s control.
The center provides facilities such as a launch pad, a catapult launch device and arrester wires, a glide-path localizer, a marker beacon, and an optical landing system.
The Russian Defense Ministry has previously asked the Ukrainian Defense Ministry to lease the site to Russia. Ukraine’s then-Defense Minister Mykhailo Yezhel supported Russia’s request. However, a firm deal for the Russia lease option was not clinched, Oleinik said earlier, so the Ukrainian Defense Ministry was looking at other options for using it.
"India and China are the obvious potential candidates for this," Douglas Barrie, air warfare analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said last month.
India is awaiting delivery of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier which will operate Russian MiG-29K fighter jets. China only has one carrier, from which naval aircraft were seen operating for the first time last year, and has little experience of fixed-wing naval operations. Most other aircraft carrier operators either use short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft whose crews would not need a facility like Nitka, or have their own such facilities, or use only ships for training.
Under the original agreement, Russia traded use of the Nitka facilities for spare parts for Sukhoi-family naval fighter jets, which were the only type allowed to operate at the center. Russia and Ukraine were Nitka's only users.
In August, Russia’s then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia and Ukraine had signed a protocol on amendments to that agreement, setting out payment for using the site, unrestricted use of a range of naval aircraft for training and testing, and the possibility of sharing the center with third parties.
The Russian Defense Ministry said last year it was paying about $700,000 annually to rent Nitka and was willing to upgrade the facility. Russia, which has only one aircraft carrier - the Admiral Kuznetsov - is drawing up plans for a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for its Navy by 2018.