Russia’s quest for an aircraft carrier: decoding Naval Su-33 fate

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In terms of maritime warfare within the Ukraine conflict, observers from the West highlight a notable absence in the Russian military arsenal – a functional aircraft carrier. Addressing this gap could significantly aid Russia’s naval strength and tactics in the conflict. For the most part, Russia lays claim to a singular aircraft carrier, namely, the Admiral Kuznetsov. However, due to numerous operational issues since 2017, the vessel finds itself more frequently in repair bays than on the open sea. The reputation of Admiral Kuznetsov is far from impressive, with both Western and Russian analysts sharing a common viewpoint – the ship is far from being a successful operational asset. 

Photo credit: China Power

On the surface, Russia seems to downplay the necessity of an aircraft carrier in its military fleet. Yet, certain notions, primarily political in nature, suggest that Moscow should possess at least one. As a viable option, eyes in the Kremlin turn to Beijing. The destination of interest is a Soviet-era aircraft carrier, initially manufactured for Ukraine during the Union era. The dissolution of the Soviet Union saw the ship transition to Ukrainian possession, and it eventually ended up in China following a purchase deal. This relabeled Chinese vessel is now known as the Liaoning or Type 001. 

The rumors of these persuasive “policy proposals” reportedly originate predominantly from the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, a fiercely nationalistic faction that favors Russia’s ongoing incursion into Ukraine. These claims are based on information gleaned from local Russian channels. Conversely, Beijing remains silent on the topic, offering no hints that the Liaoning has a potential future back in Russian waters. Maya Carlin writes in her journalistic material that it is “needless to say, China has not responded positively to Russian lawmakers and their interesting ideas.”

But why right now?

The decision by Moscow to retrieve the Chinese aircraft carrier signifies a strategic political play. However, doesn’t this move also imply a certain “admission” that Russian aviation could struggle in the face of an incoming F-16 [or Gripen or Mirage 2000] over Ukraine? This suggestion gains more weight when you consider the stats from the recent twelve days. According to the Ministry of Ukraine, Russia has suffered the loss of ten Su-34 fighter-bombers, two Su-35 fighters, and the A-50 flying radar since February 17. 

If the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had been on standby, Russia could have launched an offensive against Ukraine with its naval battle aircraft from a safe distance. This move could have safeguarded a significant number of vessels that Ukraine managed to take down. Moscow has MiG-29Ks at its disposal that lie unused. Plus, MiG-29UTG and Su-27S are also available. 

Photo by Todd Summerlin

However, all three variants of the naval aircraft fall short in several aspects compared to another that wasn’t deployed in the war with Ukraine. This is the Su-33, and based on unofficial information, the Russian Navy possesses about 22 of these units. While some dismiss the Su-33 as “garbage”, there are those in the American analyst community who caution, “Hold on, don’t be so hasty to write it off.” So let’s explore why!

The Su-33 is a beast

The Russian military, despite its perceived weaknesses, boasts a few remarkable combat planes, one of which is the Su-33 Flanker. This single-seat, multi-role fighter is specially tailored to withstand the harsh demands of aircraft carrier operations. When you compare it to the Su-27 Flanker, the plane that the Su-33 is modeled after, it becomes clear that this naval interceptor possesses a more durable structure and landing gear, courtesy of its robust construction. 

The Su-33 is uniquely equipped with canards, larger wings for better lift, and foldable wings and stabilizers. It operates on the substantial power of two Saturn AL-31K engines, capable of generating a staggering combined thrust of 60,000 lbs. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

When it comes to weaponry, the Su-33 isn’t lacking either. It possesses 12 external hardpoints that can accommodate a diverse range of weapons, including heat-guided R-73 air-to-air missiles, radar-guided R-27 air-to-air missiles, along with cruise missiles, glide bombs, rockets, and conventional explosives. In summary, this fighter can carry over 14,000 pounds of ammunition and contains a 30mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 gun armed with 150 rounds, ready for combat. 

Implementing night vision and radar technology, the Su-33 has the versatility to operate in both daylight and nocturnal conditions at sea. Nevertheless, like most Russian fighting aircraft, its airborne radar platform remains questionable. It’s common for the Su-33 to resort to support from friendly airborne warning and control systems [AWACS] or rely on ground-based radar stations to identify and engage with enemy targets.

The Su-33 is highly maneuverable

Belonging to the illustrious Flanker family, the Su-33 boasts impressive maneuverability, capable of reaching staggering speeds nearing Mach 2, which is roughly 1,500mph. This naval interceptor is designed with an exceptional operational range extending about 1,900 miles, making it ideal for expansive over-water operations. Moreover, its ability for mid-air refueling significantly extends its operational range. This multifaceted fighter can also operate effectively at altitudes beyond 55,000 feet. 

The Su-33 Flanker’s primary role is to protect aircraft carriers from enemy naval interceptors and warships. However, since 2017, the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has been out of service. While optimism remains among the Russian military regarding the troubled aircraft carrier’s potential return to combat, it seems unlikely that Admiral Kuznetsov will embark on a voyage in the coming years, if at all. As a result, its fleet of aircraft is now directed towards conventional sorties against land targets in Ukraine.

The Liaoning idea is an afterthought

Photo credit: WarThunder

An unconventional proposal to repurchase the Liaoning carrier has surfaced in the wake of the country’s persistent intrusions into Ukraine. 

The strategic significance of deploying a functioning aircraft carrier in this region has been underscored by the pivotal role Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has played in leading sea-based offensives against Ukraine. With Kyiv intensifying its attacks on the Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the occupied Crimea and the port city of Sevastopol, the vulnerability of Moscow’s naval forces has risen dramatically. 

Before the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict, the Russian aerospace force had the distinction of being one of the global leaders. However, after two years of warfare in Ukraine, this perception has noticeably diminished. The Russian Air Force has suffered consecutive losses, sacrificing vital aircraft and experienced pilots. Consequently, Moscow is forced to delve deep into its defense arsenal to secure adequate aircraft resources. This has necessitated the use of aircraft like the Su-33 Flanker, which was initially designed for different missions, to assist in ongoing combats.

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